Cat o' Nine Tails, The (1971)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2012-10-22 01:58

Written by: Dario Argento, Luigi Collo, Dadano Sacchetti, and Bryan Edgar Wallace
Directed by: Dario Argento
Starring: James Franciscus, Karl Malden, and Cinzia De Carolis

Reviewed by: Brett G.

ďDo you know how many people are together right now making love this very second?Ē
"780 on the average--really. I don't know if you're aware of it or not, but that was an invitation."

Itís always kind of fun to go back and watch film-makers work out the kinks, as it were. With his 1970 directorial debut, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Dario Argento crafted a bloodier, sexier incarnation of the giallo films that Mario Bava pioneered. Plumage was visually stylish and violent tour de force that essentially refined the formula a bit and laid the groundwork for what was to come for Argento. His follow up came a year later in the form of The Cat oí Nine Tails, the middle entry of the ďanimal trilogyĒ (which was completed with Four Flies on Grey Velvet). Itís an interesting effort that, for better or worse, reveals an attempt to craft a different type of giallo that's more in the vein of the old murdery mystery novels that inspired the genre.

A blind man, Franco, and his niece, Lori, are out walking one night when Franco overhears a conversation between two men in a parked car. He pretends to tie his shoes and asks young Lori to describe the men to him; however, she can only see one of the men, as the other is shrouded in darkness. That same evening, someone breaks into the Terzi Institute, a local research laboratory that specializes in genetics; one of the men who works there was also one of the suspicious men in the car. He reveals to his lover that he knows who broke into the building, but he canít reveal who it is. Later that day, heís shoved into the path of a train, which kills him instantly. Franco, with the help of Lori, pieces together the connection between all the suspicious events and teams with a reporter, Carlo, to unravel the mystery.

Plot-wise, Nine Tails does adhere to most of the gialli tropes--thereís plenty of twists and turns, red herrings, and questionable leaps in logic. Itís stuff youíve come to expect from these bizarre little murder mysteries, and this one is no different. It sort of unravels at a meandering pace, particularly during the middle section that features everything from poison attempts to high speed car chases. Iím not so sure itís as exciting as it sounds, though, because thereís a distinct lack of focus here due to the filmís titular gimmick (Franco and Carlo must follow nine leads--a ďcat with nine tailsĒ). Itís a bit all over the place, and a few of the leads introduce some sub-plots that go nowhere (for example, the incestuous relationship between two of the characters). I suppose most good murder mysteries will utilize red herrings, but thereís too many here. Furthermore, the eventual reveal of the killer falls rather flat; sure, it comes out of left field, but itís not exactly a shocker.

Though the plot is standard Argento fare, one can see the director attempting to do a few different things stylistically. Cat oí Nine Tails isnít as visually elaborate or stylish as most Argento gialli in that it lacks the bursting, vivid colors and bizarre imagery of those films. There is some interesting camera work that feels more out of a Hitchcock mode--the roving, voyeuristic camera often delivers the action from the killerís perspective, which heightens the suspense. Itís interesting the way Argento toys with his audience because thereís certainly a motif dealing with vision. Besides the point-of-view perspective, a close up of the killerís eyes also indicate his presence; the killer is of course also being tailed by a blind man. In a way, it cuts to the heart of what murder mysteries are all about--everyone (audience and characters alike) simply wants to ďseeĒ who the killer is. Musically speaking, Morriconeís score retains the trademark, jazzy quality of giallo films, but thereís also plenty of foreboding and haunting cues when appropriate.

The film also separates itself by not being as explicitly violent as Argentoís other films. Thereís a decent amount of murders parceled throughout the movie, but theyíre not as elaborate as most gialli films. Theyíre pretty dry little sequences that involve strangulations and maybe a stabbing or two. Itís a technique that seems to be an attempt to put the focus back on the story, as problematic as it is. The act of murder and the murderer itself feel pretty far removed from the proceedings at times, as we spend far more time sifting through an abundance of plot threads. The great giallo films usually manage to give the killer some sort of personality even without revealing him--maybe they make disturbing phone calls or murder people in certain ways--but this film lacks that quality.

As such, itís sort of a strange giallo experience if you're used to the more bloody, stylish thrillers. This one is essentially an Edgar Wallace-style murder mystery (his son is actually one of the writers here) masquerading as a giallo. Itís a very competent, good effort, but itís not a great one. The acting is solid, with the relationship between Carlo and Franco working especially well. James Franciscus and Karl Malden are good in their respective roles, as they manage to craft a sort of likeable quality about each man. Argento uses this to great effect in the last act especially, as the stakes become personal for each in a highly suspenseful climax. There are some other nice, suspenseful moments too, like a moody, moon-lit sequence that sees our two protagonists being stalked by the killer in a cemetery. Scenes like that show the type of potential the film had, if only it hadnít been crushed under the weight of its own plot.

Even Argento himself has expressed disappointment in the film, citing it as among his worst. I wouldnít quite go that far, but itís certainly one of his lesser giallo films, as it lacks the intensity and style of his masterworks, Deep Red and Tenebrae. It would seem that Argento learned from his mistakes on this one, which ultimately feels like a sort of bizarre experiment to pick and choose certain elements of the sub-genre, while ignoring others. Or maybe, Argento just half-assed it. Either way, itís a film that any giallo or Argento fan will want to check out. The movie is actually available on a handful of public domain sets, but thereís no need to bother with these cropped and possibly edited versions. Instead, check out either Anchor Bay or Blue Undergroundís identical releases. The transfer here keeps the original scope aspect ratio intact, and itís a solid presentation that reproduces the film faithfully. The 2.0 soundtrack is also solid, and Morriconeís score is especially clear. Special features include interviews with Argento, co-writer Sacchetti, and Morricone, plus theatrical trailers, TV spots, radio spots, poster and still galleries, and radio interviews with Malden and Franciscus. Itís a more than adequate release for Argentoís second feature film, which will certainly be a curious experience for many. Curiosity wonít kill you if you chase this cat, but itíll be more than satisfied with one look. Rent it!

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