While the name Dario Argento is synonymous with the giallo subgenre of horror, that definition is equally linked with thriller and mystery, and while his later films such as Suspiria, Inferno and Phenomena focused more on the supernatural and the unexplained his first decade as a writer included comedy (Scusi, lei è favorevole o contrario?), westerns (Oggi a me… domani a te) and gangster films (Comandamenti per un gangster) as well as murder mysteries such as The Cat o’Nine Tails.
Released in the summer of 1971 The Cat o’Nine Tails (Il gatto a nove code) is Argento’s second film as director and the middle of his “animal trilogy” following 1970’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo) and completed with Four Flies on Grey Velvet (4 mosche di velluto grigio) in December 1971.
Shot as a high class thriller by Enrico Menczer in the beautiful streets of Turin making full use of its renowned and varied architecture ranging from Renaissance to Rococo, now restored for Blu-ray by Arrow Films the film has lost none of its elegant twisted sophistication as the northern Italian city becomes host to blackmail, kidnap and multiple murders.
With an eye on the international market the two leads are American stars, Karl Malden as Franco Arnò, a former journalist who overhears a conversation while walking with his neice Lori, and James Franciscus as Carlo Giordani, the reporter who Arnò persuades that the apparently accidental death of scientist Doctor Calabresi at the train station following an unsuccessful break in at the Terzi Institute where he worked was in fact murder.
Opening like a reversal of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the blind man hearing something which leads to a crime rather than the immobile man who sees a murder at a distance, The Cat o’Nine Tails is stylish throughout as the investigation moves from the research facility to photography labs to gay bars to graveyards, and unlike his more abstract later work Argento never takes his eye off the plot despite the plethora of suspects and blind alleys.
The title referring to the nine leads Arnò and Giordani follow, though they spend as much time chasing their own tails, Giordani’s understandable focus is the glamoruous heiress Anna Terzi (Catherine Spaak), daughter of Professor Fulvio Terzi, mysteriously silent in her first three appearances then offering conversation as direct and confrontational as her driving skills.
Inevitably, there are contrivances; Calabresi’s widow wandering about her apartment after hearing a strange noise without calling for help or picking up a weapon, a diary which conveniently contains only entries relevant to the plot, and the attempts at humour – parking tickets and leaving the blind man as lookout – are as clumsy as Giordani’s attempt to seduce Anna.
Set against a delicate soundtrack by Ennio Morricone which alternates between romantic vocals and tense bass guitar reminding of Lalo Schifrin, many of the hallmarks of Argento’s work are already present: eccentric supporting characters, a fascination with vision accentuated by close-ups of eyes, the hidden killer who sees all a contrast to Arnò who sees nothing but senses when something is wrong.
In the accompanying interview with Argento, he describes Karl Malden as a “really fantastic actor,” their collaboration “one of the best experiences of my artistic life,” and it is Malden and Franciscus’ performances and friendship which keep the film moving, yet despite that, compromised by the desire to appeal to the overseas audience he still feels that in some ways The Cat o’Nine Tails is not an Argento film.
Regardless, co-writer Dardano Sacchetti feels the trade-off was worth the cost, saying in a separate interview “Dario’s films changed the shape of European cinema, but also American cinema which was the first to emulate him.” A long-time friend of Argento’s who also wrote A Bay of Blood (Bahia de Sangre) for Mario Bava which in turn strongly influenced Friday the 13th Part 2, he describes their relationship as “mutual respect interspersed with terrible rows.”
The plot inspired by an article from Scientific American about a study conducted on prison inmates, unfortunately that interest did not translate correctly to the script, Doctor Casoni’s explanation of his research into the genetic markers for criminal tendencies containing fundamental mistakes in his understanding of biology.
Also interviewed are Cinzia De Carolis who played Lori, speaking of the kindness of Argento and Malden who she never realised was a famous star until afterwards, and production manager Angelo Iacono, a veteran of seven collaborations with Argento, who also recalls a very happy set and a good friendship with Malden but also discusses the hugely successful opening of the film, the impromptu after midnight screenings arranged to meet demand sealing Argento’s position as a director of artistic and commercial significance.