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La tarantola dal ventre nero AKA The Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971)
Directed by: Paolo Cavara
Starring: Giancarlo Giannini, Stefania Sandrelli, Claudine Auger, Barbara Bouchet, Rossella Falk, Silvano Tranquilli, Annabella Incontrera, Ezio Marano, Barbara Bach, Giancarlo Prete, Eugene Walter, Ettore Mattia
(out of 4)
The year 1971 saw a string of giallo films including Argento’s 4 Flies on Grey Velvet, The Cat O’Nine Tails, Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, The Fifth Cord, and the Paolo Cavara directed Black Belly of the Tarantula (actually making it to the states in 1972). Cavara is probably best known for 1962′s Mondo Cane (the original “shockumentary), so the giallo was not something he had experience doing, unlike Argento who had his “Animal Trilogy” in the can by the time 1971 came to a close. But I think Black Belly of the Tarantula is pretty good for a giallo – even though, like Argento’s last movie that I viewed 4 Flies on Grey Velvet, it suffers from certain handicaps that are probably ingrained within the genre itself. For the most part, Cavara manages to overcome these flaws by giving us sympathetic central characters to root for; his protagonist, Inspector Tellini, is well played by Giancarlo Giannini, a versatile actor you may have seen recently in the new James Bond movies. He makes the policeman character more personable by making him unsure and less confident, establishing him as an outsider exposed to the dangers of a world populated with all sorts of seedy characters. In this world (of the upperclass) Cavara manages to faithfully reproduce everything you would expect from a “yellow” novel – lots of beautiful women, stylish camerawork, eroticism, and plenty of bloodletting.
The opening credits of Black Belly… appear over a naked Barbara Bouchet getting a rubdown from a blind masseuse at the local spa, and her enjoying it perhaps a bit more than she should. The sensuality of the scene is underscored by a lavish soundtrack courtesy of Ennio Morricone. A scene later, she’s smacked and verbally berated by estranged hubby (Silvano Tranquilli) for her extramarital affairs. During the night, she is attacked by a man in a trenchcoat and rubber gloves who first paralyzes her by inserting a long acupunture needle into the back of her neck, then plunges a knife into her belly. Her husband later runs off, considered a prime suspect by police but protesting to Inspector Tellini that he’s simply going to find the culprit on his own and the police should stay out of his way. In the meantime, another poor victim (Annabella Incontrera) is killed with the same MO – in a fashion boutique where at one point even the mannequins seem to be blocking her escape. The only thing the two victims share in common are that they had sinful vices – victim #2 happened to be a drug smuggler. This sends Tellini on a side mission to hunt down a narcotics trafficker who hides cocaine in containers holding tarantulas from the Orient – his clever smuggling trick relies on the fact that nobody in customs is going to open a container with a live and deadly spider in it (he’s probably right). It’s here that we discover the symbolism of the killer’s methods – an entomologist gives our detective a nature show explantation involving the enemy of the tarantula – the tarantula hawk wasp – which stings the insect’s soft underbelly to paralyze it while it lays its eggs inside. Nice. Soon enough, Tellini falls into another subplot involving a blackmailing scheme, which brings us to a highlight chase inside a futuristic looking building inside some industrial park somewhere in Rome. After the death of one of the women being blackmailed (Rossella Falk), Tellini is lead back to the salon from the film’s begininning, where it’s obvious something weird is going on and it involves owner Laura (Claudine Auger). By this time, the killer has set his sights on the detective and his pretty wife Anna (Stefania Sandrelli).
Unlike 4 Flies on Grey Velvet, which suffered from too little plot, Black Belly… suffers from too much. (I had to watch the film twice to get the story straight). It could possibly be too complex for its own good, but it makes up for it through some iconic imagery (the arrangement of the victims’ bodies, the shot of the killer in trenchcoat and hat, hands outstretched holding an instrument of death over a helpless and semi-nude female victim). The rape metaphors are apparent, I think, and they make more sense in this film than in some throw-away slasher. Black Belly… is gory but not terribly obsessed with it (some might find it too tame), although I found it surprisingly nasty for its time, and there’s an undercurrent of misogyny that cannot be denied. For example, if I was to make the connection between the female victims and the tarantula of the title, I would assume the movie sees females as dangerous, devious, threatening; the Psycho-like explanation for the killer’s pathology at the end of the film seems to confirm this. Most of the female characters are either nymphos, drug dealers, or blackmailers, with the exception of Tellini’s wife Anna, who is simple, patient, and loving.
Unlike many other detective thrillers, our “hero policeman” isn’t that much of a hero, and isn’t particularly competent. I counted at least two murders that are indirectly his fault – when somebody says to him “I’ll tell you everything I know in the morning” you can guess they are signing their death warrant. The difference here is that our inspector is well aware of his inadequacies and freely admits as such, saying to his wife that he’s not cut out for the job. He seems resigned to things playing out as the universe dictates without doing much beyond the call of duty, until he witnesses his own wife in mortal peril; then a rage overcomes him and he takes on the killer with his bare hands. Not a reasonable thing to do, but at this point, it’s understandable. I think that if I didn’t like the performances of Giannini and Sandrelli so much, I might not have been as forgiving of Black Belly… for its flaws, which mostly involve the identity of the killer. As with some other giallos I have seen, clues are slim to none, although perhaps people smarter than I could make a reasonable guess. The film has some interesting actors and actresses in it – Eugene Walter plays a homosexual employee at the woman’s spa, a role somewhat different than his shady priest character from The House with Laughing Windows, but both characters do possess certain feminine qualities (I wonder if the Mobile, Alabama native was typecast). The many beautiful actresses, some in various states of undress, include three(!) Bond girls – Barbara Bouchet, Claudine Auger, and Barbara Bach. Finally, the Morricone soundtrack rivals his work in 4 Flies on Grey Velvet; I liked how the score became more chaotic as the killer moved closer to his victim. Black Belly… has been highly praised in some circles as one of the best gialli ever made. It’s too flawed to make that kind of assesment, but I still wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to giallo fans.
- Bill Gordon
Blue Underground releases The Black Belly of the Tarantula in anamorphic widescreen, with English soundtrack or Italian (with English subs). Special features include: an interview with Lorenzo Danon (producer Marcello Danon’s son), theatrical trailers, and a TV spot.
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