The frustrating thing about Dario Argento is not the bad parts of his movies: it’s the good ones. When he’s directing on all cylinders, he can combine lively camera movements and a sense of potent imagery to create tense suspense sequences that are rarely paralleled on screen. But he so often pairs this talent with his sub-talent of dull mysteries and irrelevant plot twists that the sum is much less than the parts.
The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971), his second film and his second giallo, tells the story of… well, it’s so convoluted that it’s difficult to really call it a story. Here’s what happens: a blind man (Karl Malden, whom I always find awesome) overhears a man talking about blackmail with someone else in the car. The next day, a guard at a nearby genetics laboratory is found beaten. Later that day a scientist from the lab dies in a freak accident at the train yard. Only the blind man, “Cookie”, doesn’t believe it’s an accident, and goes to a reporter he’d met from the paper, Carlo. Cookie believes the scientist was murdered, and the paper’s photographer caught it on film.
Which seems to be true, but the photographer is murdered before he can be interviewed, and now Carlo and Cookie are on the case. They believe the murder has something to do with the work of the genetics’ institute. Or something personal with the five scientists that work at the institute. Or maybe it has to do with the institute’s head’s daughter, Anna, with whom Carlo almost immediately strikes up a relationship. This multitude of leads with nothing to really go on is the Cat O’ Nine Tails of the title.
There’s plenty for our investigators to do, but unfortunately none of it is interesting, and very little of it goes anywhere. They learn the institute is focused on XYY chromosomal defects – men with an extra Y chromosome. This can lead to violent tendencies (not in real life, though that was the conjecture at the time) but can hopefully be treated. As the intrepid investigators get closer the killer tries to get them out of the way, first with a threatening note… then with an assassination attempt.
This assassination leads to what might be to doofiest shot in Argento’s career. The vector of the murder is poisoned milk. Carlo gets daily milk deliveries, and the killer got to his just before him. After a lovemaking session with Anna, they both need some refreshing milk, of course. He prepares the drinks, and brings them to her, and the milk practically gets its own POV shot as it looms towards the girl.
It doesn’t work. It looks really dumb. Killer milk isn’t scary.
And much of the mystery of The Cat O’ Nine Tails doesn’t work because it doesn’t engage. There’s too many disparate elements, and when they come together… they don’t come together. While Argento’s previous giallo The Bird With the Crystal Plumage didn’t have a world class plot, it was much better paced. The suspense elements were placed regularly enough that it didn’t matter the plot was razor thin. The Cat O’ Nine Tails puts all of its interesting bits in the back end.
But that’s when it comes alive. The last half hour has a number of sequences that uphold Argento’s reputation as a world class image crafter, and master of suspense. Cookie and Carlo’s investigation takes them to a tomb in the cemetery, where while investigating a recently entombed body Carlo is locked inside. After waiting in the interminable dark, Cookie finally reopens the door… holding a bloody sword cane, and calling for Carlo. It’s a terrific moment of suspense, and the film carries forward with a bravura chase through the genetic institute, leading to a tremendous rooftop fight.
The film is beautifully photographed throughout. The institute, though it doesn’t look like any genetics lab I’ve ever heard of, is a wonder of spiraling staircases and white marble streaked with grey. At this time Argento hadn’t yet developed the almost surrealistic use of color that give so much character to his later ’70s films. Cat‘s palette is more naturalistic, though the colors do have a lush and saturated feel.
Argento himself complained after he saw the film that it felt too “American”, though that seems a strange complaint, since one of the hallmarks of American cinema is that they tend to make sense. This film, despite its scientific pretensions, doesn’t have much of a sensible plot. It has a few really cool set pieces, and a lot of dull detective work. In my opinion, Argento’s real strength as a filmmaker came out when he dispensed with logic almost entirely and just made his weird set-pieces.
The Cat O’ Nine Tails is at its best when it embraces this. It has numerous aesthetic qualities. Ennio Morricone’s wide ranging score is superb, and the cinematography is beautiful. However, at 112 minutes running time, far too much time is spent on a plot that is complicated without ever being particularly interesting. When the plot is a springboard for scenes of suspense (the aforementioned unfortunate episode of the murderous milk excluded) the film works. When it is subordinate to the plot, it sags.
The Cat O’ Nine Tails has been released on 4K Ultra HD by Arrow Video. One should note, this release only has the 4k disc, not a standard Blu-ray disc with the film. Extras on disc include a commentary track by critics Alan Jones and Kim Newman. Video extras include “Nine Lives” (16 min) an interview with Dario Argento, “The Writer O’ Many Tales” (35 mins) an interview with writer Dardano Sacchetti, “Child Star” (11 min) an interview with Cinzia De Carolis, who plays Lori in the film and “Giallo in Turin” (15 min), an interview with production manager Angelo Iacono. There’s also an original ending for the film (3 min) which consists of script pages and production stills, and finally, trailers and image galleries. An accompanying booklet also includes essays by Dario Argento, Barry Forshaw, Tray Howarth, and Howard Hughes.