Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Cat O' Nine Tails (1971)

Few who read this site need an introduction to maestro Dario Argento, the Italian writer/director who is famous for his distinctive style and crafting some of the finest giallo films ever committed to celluloid, such as Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, Suspira and so on. Some people love his films while others hate them, but neither can deny the impact Argento has made on the film scene. Though The Cat O’ Nine Tails (Il Gatto a Nove Code) may be considered by some as one of Argento’s “lesser” works, I believe that it is one of Argento’s most straightforward and easily accessible films…but still boasts Argento’s signature style.

The film tells the tale of blind Franco Arno (Karl Malden), who one night walking with his young niece Lori (Cinzia De Carolis) hears two men arguing. Arno asks Lori to describe the men as one of them is speaking about blackmail. The next morning, it is discovered that someone has broken into the Terzi Institute, which is researching criminal behavior as it correlates to genetics, and espionage is suspected, though it appears nothing was taken. However, the man that Arno overheard talking soon turns up dead and Arno seeks the help of journalist Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) to solve the case. Meanwhile, more people connected to the Terzi Institute start turning up dead. Can Arno and Giordani find out who the killer is…before they are next?

Many people don’t appreciate The Cat O’ Nine Tails, and while it doesn’t have the same flashy style of other Argento movies, I still believe it is a fine film. Its storyline is much more linear than most of Argento’s films and even people that gripe that his films are “style over substance” can enjoy the straightforward whodunit story of The Cat O’ Nine Tails.

Despite the more subtle nature of this film, it certainly isn’t without the usual Argento pizzazz. There are lots of intriguing camera angles and lots of fluid camera movement. It even features the killer POV and extreme close ups of the killer’s eye that are used in other Argento films. Though it lacks the vivid colors of some of Argento’s other films, there are plenty of weird camera angles, constant movement and beautiful shots to keep the viewer engaged…and there is never any doubt that you are watching an Argento film.

The acting in the film is excellent, from Karl Malden as the blind Arno to James Franciscus as the journalist Giordani and even Cinzia De Carolis as the young Lori. Even the dubbing didn’t ruin the fine performances! The actors all made us believe in them, even when it was revealed that one of the leads may be the killer in a chilling and tense cemetery sequence.

There isn’t much blood in the film, as the killer prefers strangulation, but this didn’t dampen the experience at all for me. There is one jarring sequence in which a victim is pushed in front of a train and his body tumbles as the train’s brakes screech, but this is the most disturbing the film gets. Despite the lack of gore, the scenes in which the killer is stalking his or her intended victim are tense and the attacks are sudden. It is also interesting to note that most of the victims are male, quite a rarity in most giallo films, which was refreshing to see.

Speaking of rarities, there is also a subtext of homosexuality running throughout the narrative…not something you see everyday in a ‘70s giallo. Yet, it also speaks to Argento’s style and his boldness to cover “taboo” (at least back then) subjects.

Also of note is Ennio Morricone’s jazzy score, evocative of the times and Rome locale. It added enough punch to the proceedings and was quite effective during exciting sequences, particularly a high speed car chase and the thrilling scenes leading up to the finale.

My only complaint was the “reveal” of the bland killer. There are plenty of red herrings throughout the film and you probably can’t guess who it is just because of the numerous suspects, but even so the surprise is a bit disappointing and the ending a bit lackluster compared to other Argento films.

All in all, though, The Cat O’ Nine Tails is another excellent Argento films that shouldn’t be ignored or even considered as being inferior to his other works. It might be without his typical over the top flair and a bit more “mainstream”, but it still delivers a taut storyline that will keep you guessing to the end. Check out this underrated and under-watched Argento movie!

Order it on Amazon!

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