After the unexpected success of Dario Argento’s first film, “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”/L’Uccello dale piume di cristallo, in the States and its subsequent popularity at home, the director’s follow-up feature, “The Cat O’ Nine Tails”/”Il gatto a nove code” (a title which paraphrases an Ellery Queen mystery story called A Cat of Many Tails), and the sophomore entry in Argento’s informal ‘Animal’ Trilogy, feels like a concerted attempt by the young director to build on his then-growing reputation as the Italian thriller’s home grown equivalent to Alfred Hitchcock. Less obviously stylised in the flamboyant fashion of either its immediate predecessor or its increasingly visually delirious successors, the film now seems to have been more focused on the intricacies of plot development and character than almost any other piee of work in the Argento filmography, and despite initiating many of what later would come to be regarded as key signature traits of the director’s cinema in its prime, the overall impression left by “The Cat O’ Nine Tails” is one of a master filmmaker in perfect control of his material, deftly weaving together the strands of an efficient yet somehow uninspiring and workmanlike giallo that looks and feels like a classy but rather standard piece of work in the genre, aimed more at the international audiences who had raved over his debut.
The pairing of American stars James Franciscus and Karl Malden, at the insistence of American backers National General Pictures, certainly seems to suggest this view: unlike many non-Italian leads cast in Argento’s movies over the years, neither Franciscus nor Malden are playing non-Italians stranded abroad, here: instead Franciscus plays a young impulsive Italian reporter called Carlo Giordani, who writes for Roman Daily Paese Sera (the same paper Argento was a film reviewer for) while Malden is a widowed, blind, ex reporter called Franco “Cookie” Arno, who now makes crossword puzzles for a hobby and has a close bond with his little niece, an orphan called Lori ( Cinzia de Carolis). The film foregoes the stylish fusion of modernist architecture and art deco surroundings made prominent in Argento’s first feature and foregrounded with a vengeance in later films, as well as the imagery of overt fetishism often associated with recurrent shots of gleaming knives nestled in velvet and a killer swathed in the giallo murderer’s uniform of shiny black leather mac and black gloves. Here, the Italy we see on screen looks like a passably realist interpretation couched in the fashions, décor and style of a modern city circa 1970, mutely rendered in various inert shadings of beige and brown by art director Carlo Leva. Although we occasionally return to the same kind of gloriously baroque-looking Italian tenement flats seen in many 1970s Argento films (with their evocative winding staircases and ornamental iron railings) for several showcase set-piece sequences, in general the action mostly centres around a clinical-looking, architecturally bland research centre called the Terzi Institute, and the plot plays out like one of the Agatha Christie whodunits Argeno has at one time or another intended to adapt for the screen -- with its anonymous selection of suspects and a convoluted set of red herrings to complicate proceedings . A scene such as the one when Giordani pours himself and troubled love interest Anna Terzi (Catherine Spaak) a glass of milk after the viewer has previously been made aware that the cartons have been injected with poison by the killer, is constructed in classic Hitchcockian suspense style, even referencing a specific moment in the film “Suspicion” when the drinking of a glass of supposedly poisoned milk is made the focus of an unbearably suspenseful sequence between co-stars Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine.
Yet, for all its clearly apparent Hitchcockian craft and a prosaic, real-world mise-en-scène, the film failed to repeat the success of “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” in the States, although ironically it did great business in Italy, becoming even more of a success than the director’s first film and eventually breaking even abroad, consolidating Argento’s place in the marketplace very nicely. But it seems foreign audiences really wanted the visceral, stylized visual extravagance of the Argento who would emerge with 1975’s “Deep Red”/“Profondo Rosso” rather than the sophisticated, controlled technician the director was trying to prove himself to be with “The Cat O’ Nine Tails”.
Yet, this second film in the Argento oeuvre is the one that tends to improve the most on subsequent viewings after quite often making very little impression on a first encounter, since it comes over as nothing so much as an extremely Americanised police procedural, despite actually being far more explicit in its use of violence than the more fetishistic but bloodless approach taken by “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”. There are experimental features in technique here, which are at one with the quietly perverse themes underpinning Argento’s self-penned screenplay, struck from a completely original story (unlike his debut) whipped up by Argento himself, Luigi Collo and Dardano Sacchetti -- the latter giallo legend here getting his first big break in the screenwriting stakes.
The plot is kick-started after a break in at a Genetics Research Institute founded by Professor Fulvio Terzi (Tino Carraro) during which a security guard is brutally coshed. Ambitious reporter Carlo Giordani (Franciscus) arrives on the scene to find that the police can find no real evidence that anything has been stolen. Yet the next day one of the research analysts at the Institute, Dr Calabresi (Carlo Alighiero), dies in an apparent accident at the train station after slipping from the platform into the path of an on-coming train. Giordani’s photographer friend Righetto (Vittorio Congia), who is also at the station to cover the arrival of a big Italian film starlet (‘Smile bitch, your train just crushed a guy!’) manages to capture the gruesome event on film, a detail of which is plastered all over the next day’s paper above Giordani’s article on the break in. Meanwhile, blind puzzle-maker Franco Arno becomes interested in the case because he and his little niece Lori were near the scene of the previous night’s events and overheard part of a conversation between someone Lori recognises to be the now-dead Calebresi from his picture in the paper, and one other mysterious person, who was swathed in darkness in the passenger seat at the time and so could not be identified.
Arno contacts Girodani and informs him of his theory that Calebresi was involved in a blackmail plot and may have been murdered because of his plan to reveal some incriminating information. He wonders if the un-cropped version of Righetto’s photograph might not include some evidence to back this up. Sure enough, a blown up section of the full photo reveals a hand in the corner of the frame which has clearly just been responsible for pushing the unfortunate researcher to his doom. Girodani and Arno (with the help of his devoted surrogate daughter Lori) now set out to solve a murder and are soon entangled in a web of intrigues centred around the Tersi institute, which involve Calebresi’s fiancé Bianca (Rada Rassimov), a homosexual colleague of Calebresi’s, Dr Braun (Horst Frank), the mysterious Professor Terzi himself and his alluring femme fatale daughter (with her own strange secret) Anna Terzi (Spaak). As Giordani and Arno search for clues, more and more murders start to occur as a result of their investigations, and soon the killer is targeting his pursuers as well, until a grim, ambiguous showdown on the rooftop of the Terzi Institute ends with the revelation of the killer’s true identity.
A conventional agglomeration of stylistic tics and plotting templates taken from contemporary American cinema and transported to Rome it may well ostensibly be (there’s even a completely unnecessary car chase at one point), but that doesn’t change the fact that Argento very effectively appropriated that style for himself, and pushed it beyond the normal rational bounds with this film -- creating what is actually a far more challenging and subversive story, steeped in notions of cultural transgression, identification with ‘outsider’ social politics, and the eternal tensions between the notion of a timeless inescapable biological fate (represented by the discoveries of the science of genetics) and the equally binding, but societally conditioned vagaries of random chance. The Killer’s POV camerawork in the film harks back to the frequent use of the device in American TV and cinema of the period, but the sheer preponderance of these shots and the exuberance in the peripatetic wanderings of Argento’s camera which are seen so often here, clearly foreshadow his even more daring use of mobile, tracking camera moves in later films such as “Deep Red,” where we’re never even sure if there actually is a POV being represented other than that of the director himself.
Here, Argento is fixated on creating audience identification with the killer’s increasing enjoyment of his crimes. ‘I used the camera as a murderer,’ quotes Alan Jones of the director in his book Profondo Argento; ‘I wanted to go inside the violence, and this was the only way I could do it.’ Unusually for the giallo, the killer becomes more and more violent throughout the picture, starting off with a simple assault, then committing a functional murder to cover his tracks, and then, as the list of potential victims necessarily extends itself because of Girodani and Arno’s investigations, displaying increasing levels of sadism and brutality in his crimes – even pausing to waste valuable escaping time to disfigure one of his victims with a series of frantic razor blade slashes to their face, despite the victim being by that stage already dead. Argento’s killer’s-eye-view staging of these murder vignettes gets increasingly more elaborate and kinetic in nature because of this method, with the camera prowling and peering into the victims agonies as they’re entering their final death throes, the director often lingering on unsavoury details such as, for instance, the pink mix of saliva and blood seen exuding from the lips of a recently garrotted murder victim.
We aren’t to know it at the time, but this pattern of escalating violence is symptomatic of the killer’s underlying pathology and is inextricably connected to a debate which the police authorities investigating the crimes are seen to be having, namely: are the murders the work of a maniac or is there a unifying motive behind them? Ultimately this theme leads back to two pieces of research which are both being conducted at the Terzi Institute: one is looking into the chromosomal XYY pattern and the claim that it is linked to a tendency towards criminal behaviour and ‘abnormal aggression’ in those who share the genetic trait (a real but now discredited link which was in the news at the time Argento and his collaborators were trying to come up with the story); the second concerning the institute’s attempts to patent a new ‘wonder drug’ which will, in the words of the Institute’s Dr. Casoni (Aldo Reggiani), eradicate hereditary diseases and deformities. The interweaving of themes of predestination and the need people have to shape their lives according to their natures, and how that is in turn affected and corrupted by the ideology of the surrounding society are ideas which express themselves at a very fundamental formal level even in the use of quite an avant-garde editing structure, which, although Franco Fraticelli, Argento’s usual long time editing collaborator, is rightly given the credit for it, must surely have come about as a deliberate strategy on the part of the director himself as it dovetails so elegantly with the plot of the film.
At several key points in the narrative, shots that are almost subliminal flicker across the screen and interrupt the flow of a particular sequence with flashes of imagery that are either occurring contemporaneous with it, or else are from the scene that comes after it in narrative chronology, thus creating a jarring, disorientating effect. But these flash-frame cuts also work to bolster a sense of the present being set on an immutable tram line into a future which cannot be circumvented; we are being reminded that whatever the protagonists, the suspects, or even the killer himself do now in the present scene, it is inevitably leading them headlong towards the moment we are being given premonitory flashes of. Sometimes, the flashes also suggest the thought processes or memories of the character on screen at that moment, such as the sequence in which Arno discusses with Lori whether to go and see Giordani to tell him about their theory concerning Calebresi’s murder, in which shots of increasing length punctuate the conversation picturing Giordani crossing his office, until eventually we stay with the images and we see that they were in fact shots which were flashing forward to the moment when Arno and Lori have in fact just made contact with the reporter, suggesting their decision was always inevitable.
There’s a kind of matrix of inevitability being programmed into the film by such outré techniques, which connect back to the evident ironies that are inherent in the plot’s main threads. Ultimately, what motivates the killer to go on his rampage in the first place is the threat of being exposed as a carrier of the XYY mutation, a fact which, if made public, would ruin his career. Yet it remains hard to avoid the conclusion that if it were not for the knowledge of his predisposition towards criminal violence being uncovered, the circumstances which lead the killer to carry out his crimes would not have occurred, and he may well have continued to live perfectly happily without ever killing anyone. There is a sort of cruel, circular trap of fate being suggested all the way through the story; as the reporter and the puzzle maker (the film’s mosaic-like editing of course, itself mimics the mixed up opaqueness of a puzzle) discover more about the web of intrigues connecting the people involved with the institute, so the killer is obliged to kill again … and again, and again – getting more and more of a taste for cruelty and sadism in the process of covering his tracks, all thanks to the protagonist’s drive to solve this beguiling puzzle.
“The Cat O’ Nine Tails” is particularly strong on characterisation which is, for once, perfectly matched to performance – a huge rarity in Argento’s cinema, and a fact which only serves to emphasis this film’s more conventional commercial placing in the director’s filmography. There is excellent chemistry between Franciscus and Malden as the unlikely team behind the investigation; they’re playing psychologically believable characters of the sort of realist type which Argento wouldn’t return to exploring again until Max von Sydow played the elderly detective Moretti and was paired with the younger Giacomo (Stefano Dionisi) in “Sleepless”/”Nonhosonno”; but even Giordani and Arno, these two likable characters, have their ambiguities of character which threaten to extend into darker territory as the film progresses, although only in a subtext that remains very much open to interpretation.
During the course of the movie, Argento exhibits a fascination, which would crop up repeatedly elsewhere in his work -- notably during “Four Flies on Grey Velvet”/”4 mosche di velluto grigio” and “Deep Red” -- with the culture and status of homosexuality and its relationship with wider ‘straight’ Italian society in the 1970s, at a time when it was often codified as transgressive. There is a scene that plays on Giordani’s own possible ambiguous sexual orientation when he visits the secretive gay establishment, the St. Peter’s Club, in order to interview Dr Braun about his work, and finds his self being rather flattered by Braun’s chatting up technique, despite his attempts to be a hard hitting investigative reporter. Giordani also has a flirtation with Professor Terzi’s daughter Anna when he visits Terzi’s plush townhouse while looking for clues, but their sexual liaison later on in the reporter’s chic bachelor pad is a curiously stilted, mechanical affair that comes across in a way that is anything but sexy, and even in fact could be seen as rather icky, with Argento’s deliberate focus throughout the sequence on the milk that is slowly leaking from the two doctored milk cartons on Giordani’s coffee table inevitably conjuring up associations with bodily fluids that play against the apparent romantic nature of the scene. French-born actress Catherine Spaak plays the pale, mannequin-like Anna, dressed throughout in a sequence of ‘out there’ couture gowns by costume designer Luca Sabatelli. Spaak, who had one time been a model and an Italian pop sensation in the sixties, is a brittle presence in the film, not at all ‘sexy’ in a conventional fashion, her boyish frame and obvious artificial wig giving her almost the curious aspect of a boy in bad drag.
Once again, like almost all the interactions between characters here, Anna’s relationship with her ‘father’ turns out to be not what it at first seems and Giordani discovers that Anna is in fact adopted and that Professor Terzi is secretly tormented with the kinds of feelings for his charge which someone who aspires to the role of fatherhood should never admit to. There is an obvious parallel here with Arno and his niece Lori, and although nothing specifically untoward is ever explicitly flagged up in their relationship, the fact that Argento makes both alliances mirror images of each other cannot go unnoticed by the viewer, especially when Arno is given ambiguous lines such as ‘aren’t all our pasts dubious?’ when he and Giordani are assessing their suspects, all of whom seem to have several sacksful of skeletons in their closets. Although many of these hidden drives and foibles play the role of red herring in the movie’s narrative, they’re all related to the idea that anyone could find themselves transgressing outside the norms designated so by society thanks to a combination of bad luck, chance and genetic inheritance; even Giordani’s housebreaking friend Gigi, besides providing the film’s compliment of comedy moments (which work surprisingly well alongside the more expected orchestrated suspense set pieces), illustrates the central theme through his constitutional inability to avoid getting caught no matter what. ‘They don’t call me Gigi the loser for nothing, you know!’ he confides in Giordani, juts before they set out to break into Professor Terzi’s home in search of some piece of evidence or other.
“The Cat O’ Nine Tails” is very much an anomaly in the career of Dario Argento precisely because it is so comparatively straight forward in narrative terms (which is not to say it is easy to follow) while still managing to essay some nascent sketches of the kinds of experimental techniques and stylistic flourishes which would become indicative of a Dario Argento film in future years. The often underrated Ennio Morricone score successfully combines the sweet and the tender in its lilting melodic lullaby title theme (which in all honesty sounds like it was probably written with a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western in mind) with the off-balance and the out-of-kilter embodied in clattering jazz cues delivered in awkward stuttering time signatures and with a cacophony of shrieking horns and unearthly male screams. The film is also notable for a sequence in a crypt which is constructed like a scene from a Hitchcock film but which also introduces the themes which often obsessed Argento’s literary hero Edgar Allan Poe, namely the threat of premature burial and the transgressive act of opening a coffin to remove a piece of evidence from a corpse which the killer might have overlooked.
The film is the latest Argento picture to find a release as part of the Arrow Video range, which means it’s replete with the usual four choices of alternative artwork cover panels and a fold-out two-sided poster, as well as a collector’s booklet featuring a brand new article by who else but Argentophile extraordinaire Alan Jones. Extras wise, the purchaser doesn’t do too badly either. “Dario's Murderous Moggy: Dario Argento Remembers The Cat O' Nine Tails” is a fairly brief interview padded out with clips from trailers and some extended opening and closing animated titles, in which Argento confirms this is his least favourite film in his catalogue (What? more so than “The Card Player”?) and talks fondly about working with Karl Malden -- his first experience of working with someone who was part of the Actor’s Studio. “Luigi Cozzi: The Cat O' Nine Tails in Reflection” is a slightly more substantial piece despite Cozzi, Argento’s long-time friend and collaborator, not actually being involved in the making of this film at all. He has some interesting anecdotes about the production nonetheless, and talks a lot about a dispute between Argento and the Italian distributor Goffredo Lombard, who hated the film and wanted extensive recuts before its release. Argento held out and was vindicated by the film becoming an instant success in Italy. “Sergio Martino: The Art and Arteries of the Giallo” is a 25 minute feature in which the director of “Torso” and “All the Colours of the Dark” among others, attempts to analyse the debt which the giallo genre owes to the work of Dario Argento, and goes into some detail explaining how he himself was influenced as a director by the stylish approach he discerned in Argeno’s body of work. Martino also analyses how he went about creating suspense during a famous sequence from his own film “Torso”. Finally a theatrical trailer rounds off the fairly interesting bunch of bonus features.
The main event has to be of course the HD treatment of the film on Blu-ray and it has to be admitted here that Arrow’s transfer isn’t up to the standard one would hope and expect to see from the format. It may be marginally better than previous DVD releases but this AVC 1080p HD transfer is still prone to far too much excessive grain, variable black levels that often play host to a distracting amount of noise in darker scenes and a sometimes rather soft looking image that would appear to indicate the horrors of DNR have been at work again. It’s not bad, and in places is frequently up to scratch as you’d expect, but there is far too much variability overall to recommend this transfer as unreservedly as I’d like to. The audio choices provide you with a LPCM 2.0 Mono English track (which has optional subtitles that specifically relate to the English audio track) and a LPCM 2.0 Italian Mono track with a different set of removable subtitles which offer a much closer translation of the Italian dialogue. These are both okay but, obviously don’t offer anything hugely dynamic in range, just the sturdy basics.