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Cat o' Nine Tails Review

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by Chris McEneany May 31, 2011 at 4:14 PM

    Cat o' Nine Tails Review

    The Cat O' Nine Tails was the second entry in Dario Argento's celebrated “Animal Trilogy” of hard giallo trendsetters that put his name on the map as a genre hotspot during the seventies. It is a terrific story of shady scientific experiments, abnormal chromosomes, blind puzzle-buffs, impromptu car-chases, steaming hands and implausibly chic and super-fit red-herrings. It is also a film that its creator claims not to like.

    Well, I have to disagree with him there, because I think it's great.

    1971's twisty-turny whodunnit, starring James Franciscus and Karl Malden as the reporter and the blind puzzle-unraveller, respectively, who set out to track down the mysterious killer who seems fixated upon the Terzi Institute for Genetic Research and the people who work there, is a great little thriller that is, by far, the most accessible and mainstream movie that Argento has made. This, presumably, is why it fails to rate very highly with the cult filmmaker and with many of his fans. Although it features all the trademarks of an Argento film – the lavish photography that makes Rome and Turin look so atmospheric and exciting even during the daylight, the convoluted mystery and hypnotic killer's point-of-view shots, the brutal set-piece murders and the technical verisimilitude – it is paced far more conventionally and its stylish trimmings are much less overtly expressed. It does seem to have the air of a pot-boiler that Argento felt contractually obliged to deliver … and yet this is not the case. He came up with the idea – genetics were big at the time, and the theory of the XYY chromosome killers was all the rage – and he followed the exact same path as he had previously with inspired direction, hard-hitting violence, an avant-garde score from Ennio Morricone (his second of four for Argento – the first being for The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and then, after Cat, he supplied the best things about The Stendahl Syndrome and The Phantom Of The Opera) and the use of well-known American actors – both Malden and Franciscus in the lead roles were undoubted coups. Cat O' Nine Tails was also very well received by the critics and by audiences at home and internationally. By now, Argento was a known and bankable commodity, with his unique brand of gialli travelling extremely well around the world and garnering quite a following.

    And yet the film does feel slightly removed from his usual oeuvre. Is it the science fictional element of all this chromosomal malarkey, perhaps? Or is it the fact that we don't doubt, even for one second, that the two leads are wholly innocent, and clearly the heroes of the piece? In most Argento psycho-thrillers, there is an element of suspicion falling upon the central character or their best friend, or a close associate in the mystery. Here, we have two central characters who are acting together as a team and it would, perhaps, have been more typical to have dropped one or the other in the potential-killer-pot to add spice to the depraved stew. With this not being the case, Cat feels a lot more relaxed and, as such, we are not quite as on the edge as we are with some of his other offerings in which all bets seem to be off, and no-one is above suspicion or, for that matter, safe.

    With Dario Argento coming up with the idea and prolific screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti polishing it up, the story follows a break-in at the research institute that then leads to a series of murders. Blind ex-reporter Arno (Malden), or Cookie as he is known, overhears a strange and sinister conversation between two men in a parked car on the same night as the break-in, and when one of the doctors from the institute, Dr. Calabresi (Carlo Alighiero) is killed the next day in what appears to have been a tragic accident at the train station, he immediately smells a rat. Contacting investigative journalist Carlo Giordani (Franciscus), Cookie uncovers the fact that the horrible death wasn't an accident, and that there is something seriously amiss at the Terzi Institute. When this discovery leads to another killing, it appears that the murderer, or murderers, could even be onto the two intrepid sleuths, and pretty soon it becomes a race against time to unmask the killer and expose the deadly secret at the heart of the mystery. Establishing that they have nine leads to follow, the nine tails of the film's title, Carlo becomes the leg-man whilst Cookie puts all the pieces together. This crusade becomes doubly imperative when Cookie's young granddaughter, Lori (Cinzia De Carolis, who would go on to appear in the gut-blasting classic Cannibal Apocalypse), is abducted by the killer and the thumbscrews then turned on the two detectives.

    This was the first time that Sacchetti had written anything for the screen, and it was little more than an 11-page story that he passed to Argento, whom the writer had only met as he was completing 1969's The Bird With The Crystal Plumage. The director would refine and expand this treatment, adding characters and dialogue, before handing it back to Sacchetti to fine-tune. Like the director, Sacchetti is not fond of the final film, citing it as being “too cold, too clinical” and with “something missing”. Once again, I have to disagree. The story feels modern, dynamic and ruthless. It catches the shirt-tails of an apparent medical breakthrough that is still up for debate and pokes some sly comment at the media and the role of investigative journalism, as well as supplying a tense, character-based drama. A lot of what Sacchetti produced after this would be of a considerably lesser calibre. Immediately afterwards, he would work with Mario Bava on Twitch Of The Death Nerve (aka Bay Of Blood – see separate BD review), and although he would never collaborate with Argento again, he would become one of the primary purveyors of genre product for the Italian exploitation market, working regularly with the likes of Lucio Fulci, Ruggero Deodato, Umberto Lenzi and Antonio Margheriti with horrors, thrillers, Westerns and post-apocalyptic actioners all receiving his often outrageous and even sleazy touch. Argento, having scored big with Crystal Plumage, would complete the animal cycle with the interesting Four Flies On Grey Velvet, with Michael Brandon, which true fans regard as a shift into the territory that he would become more synonymous with. But this is doing Cat O' Nine Tails a disservice. The film may be a touch over-long – one or two scenes are certainly in need of trimming – but it is packed with nervous energy, dastardly goings-on and urged on to an exciting climax that certainly leaves you more than satisfied. Plus, it contains two of the best characters that Argento has ever put through the wringer.

    Fresh from taking the baton from Charlton Heston in Beneath The Planet Of The Apes, James Franciscus is the epitome of the American cinematic hero. Blonde, blue-eyed, tall and athletic, Franciscus may be … but he is also a very fine actor, given the right material. He has plenty of charisma despite often portraying quite single-minded and brusque characters (very similar to Chuck Heston), as his newspaper gumshoe is here. It is no surprise that he became the surrogate Taylor in the second Apes movie – he looks an awful lot like Heston, even down to that cynical glint in his eye. This works well for the role of a journalist in the thrall of an ever-deepening murder-mystery. He is pushy and arrogant when it comes to questioning potential suspects and he strides through the cosmopolitan city like he owns the place, a man on a mission. Compare him to Daria Nicolodi's flighty pain-in-the-ass reporter in Deep Red. Franciscus takes the lion's share of the film, but this is only by necessity and does not detract from the presence of Malden. Argento foolishly gives him some love-play which may allow us some titillation, but does not ring true. And he also delivers a lengthy scene in a gay club – Argento would feature homosexuality a fair bit throughout his first bravura decade as a cult filmmaker – that is surely designed to test the tenacity of Franciscus' character and tease the sun-kissed American heartthrob at the same time. Franciscus does well with the more action-oriented material too. He's not a bruiser, and he does take a beating at one point, but the actor handles the physicality of the role very well without being brash, cocky or typically heroic.

    Karl Malden's piggy-pug-nose had been poking out of screens for decades by now, with some sterling performances in On The Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire (for which he was bestowed an Academy Award), The Cincinnati Kid, Patton, and, of course, the show that would cement his unusual yet iconic face as a firm favourite, The Streets Of San Francisco. As Cookie, he excels once more. Playing a blind man is hardly an easy or usually even a convincing thing for an actor to do, but Malden is absolutely spot-on with his characterisation of man who has lost his sight only fairly recently during an accident, but has adapted uniquely well to his situation and kept on the move, and his mind active with solving puzzles. Despite his handicap, he is a take charge sort of guy, wilful and confident. Many filmmakers would have exploited his blindness as a vulnerability, a target for some sort of terrorised set-up, but Argento, ever intrigued by people who are different, outcast and yet gifted in some way, doesn't play by such clichés. Thus, Cookie is the main player, a fully functioning hero in the investigation, and one who isn't scared or put off by the events that ensue and the drastic and painful turn they take in his, Carlo's and even Lori's direction. In many ways, Cookie is one of my favourite Argento characters. Oh, David Hemmings is a delight in Deep Red, Jessica Harper steals my heart in Suspiria and Anthony Franciosa is a dark and determined force in Tenebrae, but they are all reactionary characters thrust into a set of circumstances that they have no real control over. Or seemingly no control over, as in Franciosa's case. But, here, Cookie makes it is his crusade to bludgeon his way into the mystery, dragging Carlo and even his little granddaughter along with him. Under Malden's command of character, this doesn't seem contrived or hackneyed or preposterous in the least. Quite simply, we believe in Cookie … and this is down to Malden's performance. When the unthinkable happens in the latter stages of the investigation, watch as his carefully mannered and confident awareness comes unglued. Although he is struggling to retain his composure he is visibly shaking, and when he tries to move around his own apartment – a place he knows like the back of his hand – he blunders into things. But he's a fighter and he will not give up. Even when we see him and Carlo questioning a taxi driver who may have some crucial evidence – and Argento films this from high up on a rooftop to add isolation to their anxieties – Cookie instinctively grabs for the man to haul the clues out of him. And the anger and frustration that he shows during a crucial final scene is also very credible and affecting.

    Without a doubt, Argento scored big when he landed Karl Malden and James Franciscus for his film.

    Strangely enough, this is not one of Argento's typically misogynistic films. We do see one woman murdered and there is a little girl in jeopardy, but the director is letting the fairer sex off the hook this time out. He employs the absolutely ravishing Catherine Spaak as Anna, the daughter of the man running the Terzi Institute. Actually quite a good actress, she is nevertheless used by Argento as a piece of very attractive set-dressing (or undressing, as we see in one actually quite awkwardly handled love scene), but her inclusion does add a cool little subplot and some fascinating diversionary tactics. Even when compelled to utter some patently ludicrous scientific mumbo-jumbo she has a luminous intensity that, coupled with a deeply penetrating and, for the most part, unblinking stare ensures that she maintains a presence that is quite powerful and concentrated.

    On the downside, the story can be a meandering one. A couple of scenes just don't add up and there are one or two highly implausible developments and lightning-bolt connections made. Argento also cuts quite awkwardly from one scene to another on a few occasions with an abruptness that makes you think Carlo has perfected the art of teleportation. But, this said, I enjoy the perseverance that the dogged Carlo exhibits once he is unleashed upon another lead. He thinks nothing of enlisting the aid of a very dubious safecracker, played by Ugo Fangareggi, a man with a bigger chin than Jimmy Hill, Bruce Forsythe and Bruce Campbell all put together and dubbed-over by someone who sounds like Donald Sutherland, and running with spurious red herrings that he rather glibly splashes all over the front page.

    Argento garners tension from two terrific sequences beyond the kills, themselves. An assassination attempt via poisoned milk is very well wrought – just look at the macabre way in which he composes a shot framed by two very innocuous glasses of cow-juice. This gets a great little reply in a later scene when Carlo thinks twice about sampling another glass of milk elsewhere. And there is the terrific episode in which Carlo and Cookie go prowling around a cemetery at night looking for evidence (check out the tombstone with Dario's name on it!), and Carlo subsequently finds himself locked inside a crypt after a spot of robbing from the dead. This is a bravura sequence that plays against the clichés, revealing our hero to be surprisingly, and also quite realistically, useless as opposed to Cookie, who is far more resilient and adaptable to each new situation.

    It is also important to state that Cat features one of Argento's most exciting and sustained climaxes, one that is full of action and suspense. In a lot of his later films, the director would have a tendency to fluff his finales simply by not being able to live up to the expectations he'd set with earlier set-pieces. This is not the case here. After a steady build-up, he delivers twists, shocks and retribution with a startling degree of assuredness and aggression.

    You get violence with an Argento picture … but, with the exceptions of Deep Red, Suspira, Tenebrae and Opera (yep, the big ones), that little deviant gorehound that resides within me has more often that not been disappointed with the slayings to be found in many of his murder-marathons. Inventive, yes. Actually explicitly nasty? Well, no, not really. Now the argument could be that whilst he pushed boundaries in the early days and then piqued with the splashy brutality in those mentioned above, his films are not really about the savagery of murder, but on the mis-en-scene that leads up to and surrounds such events. Certainly his contemporaries and those he influenced have been far, far grimmer and more gruesome with their depictions of interpersonal mayhem. But for them the explosion of offal and the stretching of latex flesh is the be all and end all – and there's nothing wrong with that, I should like to point out – and Argento, somewhat going against his own reputation, can seem a touch tepid by comparison. And you certainly shouldn't come to Cat O' Nine Tails expecting to witness a bloodbath.

    This said, the gags here are good. Dr. Calabresi getting his face smashed against the bumpers of an oncoming train in slow-motion and teeth-gnashing close-up, no less, his body then spun chaotically between the platform and the carriage is a clear stand-out. When this was broadcast on UK television back in about 1980 I remember the hue and cry that went up, with this scene and a couple of rather grim strangulations featuring another Argento staple of a wide-open mouth flecked with bloody spittle (Deep Red would take this sort of thing a lot further) being held up for moralistic accusation. There is also a fabulous and quite notorious sequence in which someone is forced to use an elevator-cable to slow their swift descent down the lift-shaft which results in sparks and steam billowing from their charred hands. The violence is nothing if not elaborate. But Cat O' Nine Tails also boasts some fight scenes towards the end, and these are quite punishing. Knees are rammed into the face, heads are bashed into walls – and all accompanied by some tremendously solid, bone-breaking sound effects in the true, over-egged Italian style! It is a bruising rooftop crescendo to a quite a seat-edge manhunt.

    Argento even pulls off a sequence that would have been contrite and daft if anybody else had handled it. As the reporter sits in a barber's chair receiving a very close shave, the barber comments quite glibly about the press reports that the killer could be of the same trade as himself. As Carlo sweats and gulps and shuffles uneasily in the chair, the cut-throat razor glides over his defenceless flesh, loitering over his neck as the barber asserts how easy it would be to just cut the throat of a victim. Of course this is gallows humour of the most obvious sort – I mean as if a barber would really speak of such things whilst serving a customer in precisely the same fashion – but Argento orchestrates the scene so well and with such grisly panache that we are squirming just as much as poor Franciscus. And there is always the neat idea that Argento and the barber are having a sly dig at such speculative and sensationalist reporting both aimed at Carlo, as a character, and as a crafty pot-shot at the media outside the film.

    And an Argento film needs its music to play a major part, too. So, once again, he turned to the best ... in Ennio Morricone, who had composed the score for his first movie, as well as the film that had initiated Argento into the world of movie-making in the first place, Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West, which Argento had a hand in writing.

    Morricone's score is quite audacious although I don't find it particularly memorable – well not by his standards, anyway. The discordant and offbeat themes are done with canny incision, with some great pauses thrown in that really catch you off guard and make you pay attention. Morricone was brilliant at cueing-in to the mind of a psycho, as he had revealed already by this time with his scores for Leone's For A Few Dollars More (with Indio's theme) and for Argento's The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (both BD and CD scored separately), and he fashions weird jangles and faltering progressive-jazz to great effect. I'm not so enamoured with his soppy, sentimental theme for Lori, which is a cloyingly saccharine piece of pure schmaltz that evolves into the semi-love-theme for Carlo and Anna. But the sixties-vibe is done well, with wordless female vocals echoing and rippling in the background to gently unhinge and unnerve rather than to soothe and placate. It is interesting to note that Lalo Schifrin would create something very similar for his Dirty Harry scores which were composed right around the same time. In fact, this score for Cat could very easily play as a more subdued temp-track for the first and best Dirty Harry outing.

    When you sit back and select an Argento film to watch, you can't just pick out Suspiria, Inferno, Deep Red, Opera or Tenebrae on a whim. You've got to be in the right frame of mind for one of those nerve-shredding classics. They challenge you in both sensory and intellectual ways. For me, Cat O' Nine Tails is almost a cosy treat … well, as cosy a treat as anything from Dario Argento could be, at any rate. It has thrills and chills. There is a great little mystery at its heart. There's a few murders and a healthy dose of suspense. But the film still feels light and escapist, possibly the closest that Argento ever came to emulating the urban whodunnits of American afternoon TV. In other words, this is possibly the “safest” of his films. For this reason, it is an easy watch, which doesn't sound like too much of a recommendation, I'll admit, but it is a film that is also immensely enjoyable, wittily and provocatively told, and dominated by two very likeable stars in a winning double-act. Nothing he has made since the razor-taut Tenebrae comes close to it for repeat-value either.

    Cat O' Nine Tails is a well-constructed thriller that has that ultra-cool vibe that you only find with Italian or French Cinema of this period. It looks classy and offers plenty of intrigue and incident, with a slight taint of SF. It's still vintage Argento though, and even if the once-great man, himself, is not overly enamoured with it, it remains a potent reminder of a time when he did this stuff properly.

    Blue Underground's BD release comes highly recommended for fans of gialli, but really no collector of Argento can afford to pass this up.