between his debut feature (1970’s The
Bird with the Crystal Plumage, which had enjoyed unprecedented success with
American audiences) and the equally excellent Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Dario Argento’s The Cat O’Nine Tails (o.t. Il
Gatto a Nova Code) is disappointingly inferior to both in almost every
respect. Despite this, almost everything with the director’s name on it –
emphasis on almost (and up until the mid-90s
at least) – is streets ahead of anything in a similar vein, so I hesitate to be
too hard on it.
Arno (Karl Malden), a former newspaper journalist forced into retirement when
he lost his sight, now lives with his niece Lori (Cinzia De Carolis) and earns
a crust compiling crossword puzzles. Out walking one evening, they pass a car
parked up outside an institute involved in genetic experimentation and sharp-eared
Arno overhears a snippet of suspicious conversation between the occupants.
Later the same night the place is burgled. A chance encounter with reporter
Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus), who’s been sent to cover the story, results
in Arno assisting him to investigate the break-in. But when people associated
with the institute begin to die it seems that the burglar is prepared to kill
to obfuscate what he was up to…and Arno and Giordani realise they’ve stupidly
placed themselves in his crosshairs!
raise a hand here and confess that despite my admiration for Dario Argento’s
work and having seen most of his films on multiple occasions, of his pre-1990s
output The Cat O’Nine Tails is the
one I’ve watched least. Possibly only a couple of times in fact. As such it’s
one with which I’m not so familiar. With the arrival of a new Blu-Ray release
from Arrow Video I sat down to reacquaint myself with it for the first time in
several years and it all came back to me as to why I’ve not visited it often. On paper at least the script by
Argento and Dardano Sacchetti lays out all the key ingredients for a tasty
cocktail, so there’s little faulting it in that respect. But whereas the
director’s best gialli pivot on a burgeoning sense of urgency derived from the
misinterpretation of a witnessed moment, or perhaps a half-remembered clue,
this one’s a surprisingly sedate affair. Additionally, the film lacks the
outlandish plot, stylish camerawork and brutal murder sequences of its 70s
stablemates – never mind that it’s also missing a deliciously unhinged killer
lurking behind a veneer of respectability – and, let’s be honest, broadly
speaking it’s the canny employ of these elements in his pictures that helped
build Argento his fan base.
frivolous note too, anyone going in with title-engendered anticipation of a
kinky sequence involving a dominatrix wielding said implement will come away
disappointed; as an analogy, The Living
Daylights springs to mind insomuch as, just as that film’s nonsensical title
(from the perspective of audiences unfamiliar with Fleming) was dealt with in a
single throwaway line, so The Cat O’Nine
Tails is incorporated into a frankly silly remark by Giordani.
though, all these factors notwithstanding, perhaps most injurious of all is the
fact the movieis ponderously slow, more
methodical mystery-solver than knuckle-whitening chiller.
my remark about those mundane murder scenes, with the exception of a well-staged
sequence when the killer dispatches a witness to his crimes by shoving him off
a station platform and under the wheels of an incoming locomotive, they really
do lack creativity. The absence of unflinchingly gruesome set pieces akin to
those in the like of Deep Red and Tenebrae is keenly felt; I’m afraid a
few garrotTings and an attempted poisoning with a carton of milk (no, really!) fail dismally to cut the
mustard. That said, there are some memorably unnerving close-ups of the
killer’s twitching eyeball as he sights out each victim and at least he himself
gets a suitably wince-inducing comeuppance.
Franciscus, fresh off of Beneath the
Planet of the Apes, makes Giordani a decent enough heroic lead, although
for my money he’s overshadowed where characterisation is concerned by a top-form
Karl Malden as Arno, conveying the sightless gaze of a blind man impeccably. If
anything makes the film work it’s the
chemistry between these two actors. So good are they together in fact that I’d
rather like to have seen Giordani and Arno team up on another investigation. In
any event, notable among the rest of the cast are Catherine Spaak (loveliness
incarnate as Giordani’s love interest) and little Cinzia De Carolis as Arno’s
devoted “seeing eyes”.