Movies: The Cat O’Nine Tails (1971)

Dario Argento is of course no stranger to horror fans, being the mastermind behind such seminal giallo films as Deep Red and Tenebrae, as well as more lurid supernatural fantasias like Suspiria and Inferno. 1971’s The Cat O’Nine Tails (aka Il Gatto a Nove Code), only Argento’s second film, shows many trademarks of the director’s work, but is also fairly restrained in comparison to his rather operatic later films; he has actually admitted on multiple occasions that it’s his least favorite of all his movies, though that assessment might have changed in more recent times, since his output since the 1990s has been hit or miss, to put it kindly.

The screenplay of Cat was penned by Argento himself, though it was adapted from a story by Dardano Sacchetti (who worked primarily with Lamberto Bava and Lucio Fulci) and Bryan Edgar Wallace (son of famed British crime writer Edgar Wallace, and a crime writer in his own right). There was a dispute over the writing, though, with Argento insisting that he be given sole credit, since the bulk of the production was based around the first forty pages of the script, which he had written. This ultimately led to a very public feud between Argento and Sacchetti, though I’m not sure if it was ever mended; Sacchetti would go on to work on Demons and Demons 2 in the 1980s, both of which were produced by Argento, so maybe they buried the hatchet after a time.

Although The Cat O’Nine Tails is the middle film in Argento’s unconnected “Animal Trilogy” (the first of which was 1970’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and the third of which was 1971’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet), the movie doesn’t feature an actual cat, or even the type of whip of the same name, for that matter; the phrase actually refers to the nine leads or investigative threads that our intrepid amateur detectives have to follow over the course of the story.

The plot revolves around a blind man named Franco, played by Karl Malden, whose super-sensitive hearing picks up a shady-sounding conversation about blackmail while he’s out walking with his niece Lori one evening. The following day, Franco learns that the building he was walking by when he heard the conversation has been broken into, though it seems at first that nothing was stolen.

The building turns out to be a genetic research facility known as the Terzi Institute, and one doctor who works there, Dr. Calabresi, secretly tells his fiancée Bianca that there was actually something taken from the place, but only he knows what it is and who stole it. Not too long after that, Calabresi is going to the train station to meet the person who took the mysterious item, presumably for blackmail purposes, when he “accidentally” falls in front of a train and gets squished.

At this point, a journalist by the name of Carlo Giordani (played by James Franciscus) gets involved, and Franco, who believes Calabresi was murdered, contacts Giordani with his suspicions. A photographer was at the train station and caught an image of Calabresi falling in front of the train, you see, and Franco is convinced that the published photo was cropped. After consulting the photographer, he verifies that the picture was indeed cut down for publication, and when he looks at the unedited photo, there’s very clearly a blurry hand pushing Calabresi in front of the train. Only moments after this revelation, though, the photographer is also strangled to death in his darkroom, and the original negative is swiped.

So Giordani and Franco are on the case; Franco, before he was blinded in an accident, was also a reporter, and is fascinated with solving puzzles. The duo discover that the Terzi Institute has been working extensively on XYY syndrome, which is an actual thing, but in the 1970s, it was theorized that people born with the condition were overwhelmingly genetically predisposed to criminal behavior (this was later found not to be the case at all), so that’s the tack the movie takes. In all, there are five remaining doctors working on the project (which accounts for five of the nine leads), plus a couple of other suspect individuals (Calabresi’s fiancée Bianca, as well as Terzi’s daughter Anna), and all of the clues surrounding the missing photos and the break-in that started it all.

Franco and Giordani start investigating each lead one by one, but they either result in dead ends or in more dead people, with both of the sleuths’ lives also being threatened at various points. There’s poisoned milk, a midnight creep through a cemetery vault, a bizarre gay love triangle, creepy father-daughter innuendos, Giordani falling into bed with Anna, a weird scene with a hostile barber who never appears again, a sketchy safecracker who makes extra money by engaging in swearing contests (don’t ask), and lots of other strange little touches as the mystery gets resolved, but as I mentioned, this is a pretty subdued giallo for Argento. The cinematography is rather unobtrusive, and the kills aren’t particularly gruesome (though the guy getting hit by the train is pretty fun, and there’s also a great sequence with a guy falling down an elevator shaft). The mystery at the heart of the movie is properly convoluted, but the resolution of it fell a little flat for me; in other words, I found it difficult to believe that the killer would go to all the trouble he went to for what seemed like a pretty trivial reason. I really enjoyed watching Karl Malden and James Franciscus teaming up to do their detective work, however, and it’s kind of amusing to see them dubbed into Italian.

Though the plot is a bit slow-moving and doesn’t hang together as well as some of Argento’s later films, I did like the repeated thematic resonance of nature vs. nurture, which was reflected in many relationships and scenarios throughout the movie. I feel as though this is one of the maestro’s lesser-discussed works, and I can see why, though it’s still absolutely worth watching if you’re a fan, if only to see the development of his work in his very early days. I will also add that I actually like his first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, much better than Cat, and contemporary audiences did as well, but this one has quite a bit to recommend it too, though I would only suggest it if you’ve already seen all his other iconic films and want to delve deeper into his filmography.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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