Between The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and Four Flies On Grey Velvet, The Cat O’ Nine Tails is the second entry in the so-called “Animal Trilogy” by Dario Argento, the man responsible for putting giallo on the map and making it popular, not only in his native Italy, but also worldwide.
Following the standard “giallo 101” guidebook – something Argento could recite backwards – but daring to substitute certain clichés seen in other films by more uncommon elements, The Cat O’ Nine Tails brings us Franco Arnò (Karl Malden), an old and blind former journalist with a penchant for crossword puzzles, and his niece Lori (Cinzia de Carolis), who witness a blackmail attempt. Of course, by witness I don’t mean he actually sees the event – he obviously didn’t – but he overhears something and his journalist spidey senses told him something dodgy was going on… Alas, he wasn’t wrong. Returning to the scene the following day, Arnò realises a crime did indeed happen – a murdered night guard, a break-in at a secretive genetics Terzi institute… The police are dumbfounded, as apparently nothing has been stolen from the site…or has it?
“Say, child, you wouldn’t have heard of Operation Yewtree, would you?”
Arnò teams up with intrepid reporter Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus), but soon enough the bodies start to pile up; sometimes helped by Police Supt. Spimi (Pier Paolo Capponi), sometimes by crooks such as the amusing Gigi the Loser (Ugo Fangareggi), who helps Giordani break into Dr. Terzi’s (Tino Carraro) office. Oh, and Dr. Terzi even has a beautiful daughter, Anna (Catherine Spaak), romantic pair for our younger lead and provider of boobie-scenes for the lads.
The most interesting aspect of The Cat O’ Nine Tails, even in relation to its predecessor, is the break with some of giallo’s paradigms, which Argento himself had helped consolidate in The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, and which would reach their climax in his genre masterpiece, Deep Red. Here, the director leaves aside the pre-cast figures of the cape and black leather glove-wearing maniacs, and tones down the ultraviolence inevitably present in the extremely graphic death scenes characteristic of the genre. There are still shocking deaths, such as one of the scientists being pushed in front of a moving train, plus some strangulation and asphyxiation for good measure – but mostly, we see solely the killer’s eyes, staring at his victims through a super-close-up of his eyeballs (you can see the veins and everything!), and the deaths tend to occur in POV mode, placing us – literally – in the killer’s shoes.
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You can also really see Argento’s technical progress, when compared to his directorial debut, which is more of an essay on the excellent potential he’d be capable of achieving when trying to follow Mario Bava’s footsteps when he brought giallo to life with Blood And Black Lace in 1964. Highly influenced by the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, The Cat O’ Nine Tails has well-constructed characters, many reasons to commit murder, role reversals and a free-flowing plot which unravels as the investigation digs deeper. Of course, there are insufferable dialogues, a little shameless romance, some shoddy explanations, narrative casualties (like when Giordani is trapped inside a mausoleum), and a hasty and even half-foolish ending, if compared with the rest of the film, but the overall picture remains mostly untainted.
It’s also worth mentioning the beautiful art direction, photography and scenography (again reminiscent of Bava’s work), impressive angles and cutscenes. It’d certainly be impossible to not remark on the soundtrack, by the master himself, Ennio Morricone, which is obviously not one of his finest works – such as the tracks made for Sergio Leone’s or Giuseppe Tornatore’s films, for example – nor is it as sharp as Argento’s partnership with Italian prog rock band Goblin, but it serves its purpose well in adding contours of mystery to the claustrophic plot.
“And the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night…”
The Cat O’ Nine Tails is Argento’s first great work and, although in comparison to Deep Red or Suspiria it doesn’t have the visual and narrative display we’ve become accustomed to receiving from Argento, it’s worth watching as an important piece in his filmography.
Dir: Dario Argento
Scr: Dario Argento
Cast: Karl Malden, James Franciscus, Cinzia De Carolis, Catherine Spaak, Rada Rassimov
Prd: Salvatore Argento
DOP: Enrico Menczer
Music: Ennio Morricone
Runtime: 112 minutes
The Cat O’ Nine Tails is now available as a limited-edition DVD/Blu-ray with 4K restoration, new audio commentary, new cover artwork, poster, lobby cards and a lavishly illustrated collector’s booklet featuring essential writing on the film