Writer: Dario Argento (screenplay), Dardano Sacchetti, Luigi Colli, Dario Argento (story)
Cast: Karl Malden, James Franciscus, Catherine Spaak, Cinzia De Carolis, Tino Carraro
Running time: 115mins
What’s the story: When blind crossword puzzle designer Arno (Malden) overhears a blackmail plot, it pulls him, adopted daughter Lori (De Carolis) and reporter Giordani (Franciscus) into a world of intrigue and mass murder. Do the head of a local scientific institute (Carraro) and his daughter Anna (Spaak) have anything to do with the mayhem?
What’s the verdict: Traditionally regarded as Argento’s disappointing sophomore effort after The Bird with the Crystal Plumage wowed audiences, time has been kind to The Cat o’ Nine Tails.
Trademark Argento motifs are present and correct. A hero is sucked into a world of madness and murder after witnessing (or overhearing here) nefarious activity. Bizarre characters people a plot built around spectacularly staged murders. Compositions and décor are as threatening as the maniac killer. More red herrings than a fishmonger’s window adorn the story. The mystery is tied up in past trauma and pseudo-science. The homosexual community is depicted with all the sensitivity of an episode of Are You Being Served?.
What makes The Cat o’ Nine Tails interesting (and is the reason Argento himself has only recently warmed to it) is the influence of American crime cinema on the movie.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage had hit big at the US box office, reaching the no.1 spot. With his second movie, Argento himself may have been tailoring the story to fit a transatlantic audience and casting Karl Malden and James Franciscus for broad appeal.
National General Pictures, who were distributing the film in the States and in financial crisis (they finally folded in 1973), certainly wanted something in the vein of Argento’s sensational debut. They pushed for the title so their marketing campaign could say, “Nine times more suspenseful than The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” …
Consequently, The Cat o’ Nine Tails features a car chase that seems to be the director saying he can handle Bullitt-style action sequences. A rare sympathetic Argento child character demonstrated he could work with kids. Plus, the potentially queasy relationship between Arno and Lori is handled with charm and deft restraint. Traditional suspense set-pieces sit alongside flamboyantly gruesome slayings (including a train platform homicide that remains one of the director’s finest moments). The Hitchcock-alike Wait Until Dark, which too featured a blind protagonist, was still fresh in the mind.
Despite the violence there is also a lighter tone than the more feverish mania of Argento’s other gialli. Although he elected to shear the film of a happy ending epilogue in favour of something more ambiguous.
Yet, despite possible sops to audiences across the Atlantic, The Cat o’ Nine Tails remains defiantly Dario. The whodunnit plot is even more throwaway than normal; on the commentary Kim Newman points out any suspect could be revealed as the killer and it would make as much sense as who the film plumps for.
But, Arno and Giordani’s investigation is told with the off-kilter style and verve with which the director infused all his thrillers.
A scene in a photographer’s dark room echoes Blow-Up, that formative movie for Argento’s entire output, and is filtered a gangrenous green to foreshadow an upcoming death. Another character’s very wallpaper seems to weep for her imminent demise.
Catherine Spaak’s wardrobe itself resembles a puzzle-box mystery defying anyone to actually climb in and out of the costumes.
Argento’s next film would be the better received, though long-unseen due to legal wranglings, Four Flies on Grey Velvet. This completed what came to be known as his “Animal Trilogy” (although we’re undecided if an insect is an animal) and was wilder than this movie. But, The Cat o’ Nine Tails can now be seen not as a minor movie in the director’s canon, but as a thrilling example of how he was shaping his style to dominate horror cinema for the remainder of the 1970s.
DISC AND EXTRAS
Another superlative package from those reliable folk at Arrow Video. Struck from a 4K remaster, composition and colours are superbly served in this Blu-ray.
Extras on the company’s previous release of the film are not ported over for this edition, but a roster of newly prepared support material is included.
There are few extras finer than a Kim Newman and Alan Jones audio commentary. The pair now regularly crop up on Arrow talk tracks and never fail to illuminate whichever film they are discussing.
The Cat o’ Nine Tails offers plenty to talk about. Their analysis ranges from the influence of crime literature, including the 1960s Edgar Wallace inspired German krimi movies, to battles with producers that delayed a planned Christmas release until February.
Jones notes moments of Argento humour that fail to translate outside Italy (or possibly the director’s own head) and has fun dressing down the costume choices for leading lady Catherine Spaak.
Nine Lives is a 16-minute interview with Dario Argento, who recounts his long-standing disappointment with the film due to the American cinema clichés he sees in it. He fondly describes working with Malden, found Franciscus colder and more distant and reveals he wanted Tina Omosi to do the film, but was overruled in favour of Spaak. Argento also discusses with affection shooting at the offices of Paese Sera, the newspaper where he began as a film critic.
The Writer o’ Many Tales is a 30-minute interview with prolific screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti. Hugely entertaining, the spirited Sacchetti recounts his career as a writer with partner Luigi Colli, getting his big break on The Cat o’ Nine Tails and much more. He claims Argento in the earlier stages of his career was warmer and more humourous than he would become after meeting Daria Nicolodi. He also recounts how Argento attempted to airbrush Sacchetti and Colli out of history regarding the writing of the film, leading to a violent confrontation between the two (they patched it up).
Sacchetti also recounts how he and Colli were originally brought on to pen an aborted Easy Rider type movie Argento wanted to direct, and briefly discusses working with Bava on Bay of Blood (the writer’s second film) and being signed to a long-term contract with Dino de Laurentiis.
With such movies as The Beyond, Schock and Demons peppering his CV, you’re left wanting a feature length documentary dedicated to this raconteur of the macabre.
Giallo in Turin is a 15-minute interview with production manager Angelo Iacono who discusses locations in the movie. A discussion with Cinzia De Carolis was not available on the press disc, but will be present on the commercial release.
A reconstruction of the original ending uses pages of the script with production photographs to show how the film was first intended to close (the actual footage is now lost). If it would have made the film any more American feeling is up to you.
As always with Arrow, there is also a booklet actually worth the reading. Three original trailers, all based on sonorized imagery, tie the film heavily into the success of The Bird… and one of the American trailers does indeed claim The Cat o’ Nine Tails to be nine times more suspenseful.
It isn’t. But, it is another must-buy release from Arrow.