The Cat o' Nine Tails (1971) Blu Ray & DVD (Arrow)
A blind man who isn’t blind to clues
Karl Malden plays Franco Arnò, a blind Italian man who lives with an orphaned child named Lori (Cinzia De Carolis) and spends his time at home solving puzzles. A particularly intriguing puzzle comes his way when he walks home one night with Lori and hears a car parked outside his house. He asks the child to take a good look at the driver's face before moving on.
Meanwhile, across the road from where he lives, a mysterious burglar breaks into a genetics research lab. The next morning, when the police arrive on the scene, they are quickly followed by news reporter Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus), who bumps into Franco on the way into the building. The pair briefly introduce themselves to each other before Carlo heads in. When he investigates the scene he hears that, despite the break-in, it appears that nothing has actually been stolen.
However, another of the doctors at the lab named Calabresi (Carlo Alighiero) does, in fact, know full well what has been taken and who did it. Instead of doing the sensible thing and telling the police he decides to use the information to blackmail the person in question. When he arranges to meet them at the station, however, this mystery person pushes him in front of a train, resulting in his death. The following day, when Lori brings the morning paper to Franco, she reads the story about Calabresi’s death and notices that he’s the same person whom she previously saw in the car on the night of the break-in.
When she reveals this to Franco, the latter remembers Carlo from the break-in investigation and decides to get in touch. They end up working together in an attempt to solve both crimes. However, things become increasingly perilous as the mystery culprit decides that it’s time to do away with anyone else who might be instrumental in solving the case.
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The second animal
The Cat o' Nine Tails is the second of Dario Argento’s so-called “Animal Trilogy” of early giallo movies, following The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and preceding Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971). It’s a film which Argento himself has described as being his least favourite. Nowadays, however, most “worst to best” lists rank it somewhere around the middle; well below classics like Deep Red (1975), Suspiria (1977) or Tenebrae (1982) but better than his increasingly weak output from the 1990s onward. That sounds about right; while it doesn’t reach the heights of his best work it’s still a decent effort.
It follows a standard giallo blueprint: graphic murder sequences, bystanders becoming impromptu detectives who always end up being one step ahead of the police (but one step behind the murderer) and plenty of red herrings.
In terms of overall construction, however, it finds wanting. While the plot features some interesting elements (the idea of using a genetics lab as a major setting is ripe with potential) the inevitable final reveal of the culprit and their motivations is rather underwhelming. It’s a typical Argento trait that the murderer is the most unexpected character. However, this one fails at such a device since the character in question is only unexpected because they are arguably the dullest and most forgettable one in the film. When they were revealed I had real trouble remembering who they were and when exactly I had previously seen them.
Solid second-tier Argento
Thankfully, Dario Argento’s direction offsets the weak story. There are plenty of great POV shots, some moments of genuine suspense and an exciting rooftop finale. There are a couple of particularly effective moments involving poisoned milk and a shaving razor. While some of the murders are fairly vanilla strangulations and stabbings, there are a couple of memorably brutal deaths involving one character being hit by a train (their head is smacked in close-up by its bumper - ouch!) and another falling down an elevator shaft and trying in vain to break their fall by grabbing the lift’s metal cables. While not particularly gory in comparison with the death scenes in Argento’s later films they do derive a lot of impact from Franco Fraticelli’s effective editing. The film also features a fun but entirely gratuitous car chase, presumably at the insistence of the producers in order to cash in on the post-Bullitt craze.
It was undoubtedly another commercial decision that two American actors were brought in to play characters who are clearly Italian. However, Karl Malden turns in a fine performance as the blind but incredibly resourceful elderly man who helps Carlo to solve the case. James Franciscus isn’t quite in the same league as the latter character but he’s still perfectly serviceable. The third-billed player here is Catherine Spaak, a French pop singer and starlet who frequently worked in Italy and even popped up in two Hollywood productions - one of which was Hotel (1967), also featuring Malden. She’s enjoyable to watch in the aforementioned car chase. Other than that, however, she isn’t given much to do other than look great with an afro-like hairstyle and in (and out of) a series of sexy dresses.
The Cat o' Nine Tails is solid, second-tier Argento. It’s not a bonafide classic but it’s certainly nothing the director should be ashamed of either (which is more than can be said for his most recent film Dracula 3D). Worth a look for giallo fans.
Runtime: 115 mins
Dir: Dario Argento
Script: Dario Argento, Dardano Sacchetti, Luigi Collo
Starring: James Franciscus, Karl Malden, Catherine Spaak, Pier Paolo Capponi, Horst Frank, Rada Rassimov, Aldo Reggiani, Carlo Alighiero, Cinzia De Carolis
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The image is very sharp and clean, the colours bright and appealing. As ever with these old Italian productions the artificial feeling imbued by post-production dubbing is even more noticeable on the lossless Blu Ray soundtrack. By contrast, however, Ennio Morricone’s score sounds terrific.
Alan Jones and Kim Newman, who also commented on CultFilms’ recent release of Argento’s Suspiria, are equally enjoyable and good-humoured here. As well as the usual endless trivia about the film’s actors they also talk about its production circumstances. Apparently, an American company called National General provided the funding as they saw that The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was successful at the US box office and had hoped that this follow-up would pull them out of their financial hole (unfortunately it flopped there despite being a success in Italy). Contemporary reviews were unkind to both the film and, in particular, Catherine Spaak, with one critic opining that “even her breasts were boring”.
Another particularly interesting moment in the commentary comes when they mention that co-writers Dario Argento and Dardano Sacchetti had initially come up with a script for an Italian Easy Rider clone called Montesa (a name derived from a make of Italian bike) but couldn’t get funding for it - so they decided to write a giallo as a plan B.
An Arrow-exclusive interview with Dario Argento who, true to form, isn’t averse to expressing his honest opinions about the film as well as cast and crew members. While here he doesn’t state that this was his worst film (as he has done previously) he does mention that he was disappointed with the end result as he felt it was “too American”. He also talks about filming around Turin (during the cemetery scene the crew members played pranks in the darkness), his experiences working with the cast and the techniques used for the effects in the train and elevator death scenes.
The Writer O’ Many Tales
Another Arrow-exclusive interview, this time with co-writer Dardano Sacchetti. While it’s a rather long interview at almost 35 minutes it is intermittently entertaining, particularly when he talks about his working relationship with Argento. In one particularly revealing moment, he talks about how he threatened the latter after he took all of the credit for writing The Cat o' Nine Tails in a newspaper interview. He also talks about the unfilmed scripts that he wrote with Argento and Luigi Collo, one being the Italian Easy Rider mentioned during the audio commentary and another being a thriller inspired by Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape, featuring a killer primate.
The third Arrow-exclusive features an interview with actress Cinzia De Carolis, who as a child when she acted in The Cat o' Nine Tails. She talks about her memories of the production plus her later horror films Night of the Devils and the notorious Cannibal Holocaust. However, she admits that she’s not really a big horror fan!
Giallo in Turin
The last of the Arrow-exclusive interviews is with production manager Angelo Iacono who worked with Argento on The Cat o' Nine Tails and six further films. While he largely talks about the cast and crew he also mentions that the car chase was shot in Turin during a public holiday when they more or less had the streets to themselves.
While the released cut of the film ends on the killer’s demise, Argento had originally shot an extra scene affirming the subsequent fates of the film’s main protagonists. However, his friend Luigi Cozzi (who subsequently became famous for directing Starcrash) advised him to cut it for being “too American”. Unfortunately, the scene itself has been lost. However, the original piece of script for the ending is presented here, as is a German lobby card showing a still from it.
A trailer rounds out the extras.
It’s another fine release courtesy of Arrow and will hopefully earn this unfairly overlooked film a number of extra fans.