“Isn’t there something fishy in all our lives?”
I’m a Dario Argento fan, but I prefer his films that contain a touch (or great gobs) of the supernatural. Suspiria, Phenomena, Inferno – these are my go-to Argento films, and I’ve seen all of them multiple times. I just don’t re-watch his other films as much – even classics like Deep Red or Opera. In the case of today’s film, The Cat o’ Nine Tails, this is probably only my second or third viewing.
Though Cat, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and Four Flies on Grey Velvet are often referred to as Argento’s ‘Animal’ trilogy, the films have no connection or continuity beyond animal (or insect) themed titles. While unique at the time, other giallo directors and producers quickly jumped on the bandwagon, leading to titles like The Black Belly of the Tarantula, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and The Iguana With the Tongue of Fire. Argento quickly dropped the animal theme and started using simpler, punchy titles, while the genre as a whole descended into word salad madness with films like The Red Queen Kills Seven Times and (my favorite) Your Vice is an Empty Room and Only I Have the Key.
The success of The Bird With the Crystal Plumage meant Argento had a bigger budget and (slightly) more time to develop his next film. How he managed to secure the talents of an Oscar winner like Karl Malden is a bit of an open question – though perhaps the idea of a paid holiday in Italy played a part. James Franciscus – already a genre veteran with Beneath the Planet of the Apes and The Valley of Gwangi under his belt – makes more sense to me.
Though Cat was a success in Europe, it garnered less attention and acclaim in the US than Bird, and is generally considered one of his lesser early films. I have only vague memories of my previous viewings – mostly a sense of “what the hell is Karl Malden doing in this?” than anything else.
I have a Blue Underground 3 disc set of some of Argento’s films. In addition to Cat, there’s also Deep Red and Inferno. I think Inferno is the only one that hasn’t had a more recent Blu-ray. The picture quality is great and the lighting, camerawork, editing and sound are all much improved over Argento’s first film.
The Cat o’ Nine Tails is available for streaming on Amazon Prime, Vudu (with ads) and Epix – as well as for rent and purchase through the usual places. I neglected to mention the streaming options for Bird last week, so you can see that on Tubi (with ads) Fandor and Flix or rent/buy from YouTube/Itunes/Flix.
Cat O’ Nine Tails follows the efforts of blind puzzle-maker Franco “Cookie” Arno (Malden) and newspaper reporter Carlo Giordani (Franciscus) as they investigate an escalating series of violent crimes that are tied to a nearby medical institute. Their leads – the nine ‘tails’ of the cat – keep turning into dead ends or dead bodies. Soon they gain the attention of the killer, and Cookie’s young niece Lori (Cinzia De Carolis) may end up paying the price.
Cat is a good looking film, with more “Hollywood” lighting and framing. It indulges in far less of the excesses – in both on-screen violence and convoluted plot – than Argento’s films would eventually become known for. It’s also considerably less stylish and interesting than most of those films. It’s not that the film is boring, but it’s straightforward (for a murder mystery, especially an Argento murder mystery) and has an extremely sedate pace. There are too many scenes of a strangely smug Malden talking things over with a bemused Franciscus, or police talking to a bemused Franciscus, or suspects talking with a bemused Franciscus. (To be fair, he does bemused pretty well.)
The initial break-in at the medical institute doesn’t even have a murder. That’s quickly remedied when one of the scientists, Calebrisi, goes to meet with the person he knows committed the break in. His plan to blackmail the individual is cut short when he’s pushed in front of a train while a gaggle of paparazzi look on. This is a good scene and contains some of that Argento flair – POV of the killer and a closeup of the poor man getting struck by the train. One of the cameramen, Righetto, manages to catch the moment of the fall which the police declare an accident. At Carlo and Franco’s urging, however, he looks closer at his picture and finds that he’s caught someone’s arm in the act of pushing Calebrisi.
Unfortunately for him, the killer is also aware of the photograph – and Righetto is strangled and slashed, his film and negatives stolen.
Franco and Carlo have fallen in together as a result of the blind puzzle-maker’s interest in the events. A former newspaper report himself, it’s obvious Franco has missed some of the thrill of the chase, of running down a story and seeing where it leads. Unfortunately, he hasn’t really thought through the danger, and while he manages to get Righetto’s widow to call him when she finds a clue to the killer’s identity it really only results in her murder – and the killer finding out about his involvement.
Carlo, meanwhile, interviews the other members of the institute – finding out that part of their research involves the XYY chromosomal anomaly. At the time of the film’s release there was much discussion as to whether this condition could lead to increased criminal tendencies. Research since then has revealed no such correlation, but it’s the crux on which the film turns, so you have to sort of buy in to the junk science. (Still better than the twist in Four Flies, though.) Much of his info is gleaned from the director’s daughter, Anna, who Carlo ends up having sex with after a few meetings in his car and at a rooftop cafe.
One of the ‘tails’ leads both Carlo and Franco to a night-time cemetery visit, which is one of the highlights of the film. With so many suspects and few actual answers, Carlo finds himself wondering if the killer is even closer than he initially thought, especially after he’s locked in a tomb by Franco. It’s all a result of an attack by the killer, however, and in the aftermath Franco reveals that the killer has kidnapped his niece and is threatening to kill her.
The various threads all lead to a final confrontation on the roof of the institute, with Carlo and the killer, the police, Franco and Lori all struggling to survive the violence. Not everyone will make it out alive, of course. Here again we see flashes of what Argento would accomplish with his later films – stylish violence, plot twists, and odd architecture that enhances and frames the scene. The ending, after all the slow pacing that comes before it, goes by so quickly you almost have to rewind to figure out what happened.
The Bottom Line
For his second feature film, Dario Argento does not stray too far from the formula that made his first film a success. A complicated plot, a series of murders, an array of suspects and some stylish violence. The Cat O’ Nine Tails runs a little too long and at too sedate a pace to really enthrall, and Karl Malden mugging for the camera as a blind man is a lot of WTF, but it’s a decent little giallo mystery, just one that doesn’t really show off the talents of its director.