Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The Cat O' Nine Tails (1971)


Il gatto a nove code

History hasn’t been kind to Dario Argento’s second feature film The Cat O’ Nine Tails. It hasn’t helped that Argento himself has been quick to dismiss the film as his least favourite, though Argento has also gone on record saying his favourite film is the 1985 debacle Phenomena. It’s abundantly clear from this that Argento isn’t the best judge of his own work. The real problem for The Cat O’ Nine Tails is that it has never been able to fully emerge from the looming shadow of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Argento’s debut feature. The third film in the so called ‘Animal Trilogy’ Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) has succeeded in standing on its own feet largely because of its utterly bizarre distribution history, and its standing as something of a ‘lost’ cult classic. But The Cat O’ Nine Tails has always been a very visible Argento title, one that has been easy too acquire, and one that was very successful during its release in 1971. There is no doubt that it is a pale shadow of the startlingly fresh and vital The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, a film which was both a document of Argento’s personal obsessions and a brilliant exercise in suspense driven plot mechanics. But the perceived Americanisation of The Cat O’ Nine Tails (Argento’s most common grumble is both the films American sensibility and its lack of a personal identity) is actually what makes it stand out in Argento’s filmography. It has a feel and style unlike any of his pictures, and instead of dismissing the film for this, perhaps we should celebrate it.

One area in which the film undeniably excels is in its casting. James Franciscus brings genuine warmth and charm to the role of journalist Carlo Giordani, and Karl Malden is excellent as the blind puzzle maker Franco Arno. His relationship with his young niece Lori (Cinzia De Carolis) gives the film a moral conscious, and cultivates a sense of child-like innocence which makes a wonderful contrast with the stylised murder sequences. This theme of game playing runs throughout the movie, and for Franco the solving of a series of murders associated with an institute devoted to genetic research is just a slightly more sophisticated crossword puzzle. However the stakes are considerably higher as Arno and ultimately his niece are dragged ever further into the web of intrigue. It has to be noted that the screenplay by Dario Argento (based on a story by Luigi Colli, Dardano Sachetti, and Argento himself) provides a slight innovation by offering two amateur detectives working together to solve the crime. Unfortunately though the result is a series of repetitious scenes as Arno and Giordani mull over the clues. In effect we have two characters doing what is traditionally the work of one. The knock on consequence of this is a certain stagnation in the pace of the film, and an overriding feeling that the film is a lot longer than it should be.

The remaining parts are less convincingly cast; the prescence of Catherine Spaak adds very little to the proceedings, and her somnambulistic performance seems oddly in keeping with the general lethargy of the film. However she does grace two of the more impressive scenes in the film; a superbly choreographed car chase through the labyrinthine streets of Rome, and a tense moment of sub-Hitchcockian suspense involving poisoned milk. It is a scene which aims to develop her character as a red herring, but this falls completely flat in the rushed climax. In fact the efforts of the writers to give her character depth through a complex relationship with her ‘father’ Professor Terzi (Tino Carraro) appears to be an utterly pointless subplot in light of the botched red herring it develops. One of the best characters in the film is Dr. Braun played with a wonderfully Teutonic arrogance by Horst Frank. In addition to being a gifted genetic scientist, he is also a homosexual. Argento has a thing for populating his films with token gay characters, and while he might be commended for including such representations, they seem to serve no purpose at all.

The business involving the XYY chromosomes and the homicidal tendencies it develops is much less intriguing than it sounds. Ultimately the killer is revealed to be a peripheral character who only has one notable scene prior to his discovery, the failure of the screenplay to invest any emotional stock in the supporting characters however means the audience doesn’t really care who the assailant is. The film is not without its stylistic flourishes, despite what others might say. The POV shot from the killer, indicated with the blinking of an eye is very effective. The fate of the blackmailing Dr. Calabresi (Carlo Alighiero) at a local railway station is also wonderfully choreographed, and the screenplay even finds time to make a joke out of it. In fact it is the gallows humour of The Cat O’ Nine Tails that is perhaps its defining characteristic. A scene involving Giordani having a shave at a local barbers is emblematic of the films general attitude to humour. Other notable scenes include an atmospheric spot of grave robbing which again is shot through with a black vein of humour, and the supremely composed roof top finale which climaxes with one of Argento’s signature moments. Unusually for a giallo there are just as many male victims as female ones, The Cat O’ Nine Tails offers the best evidence in Argento’s filmography for gender balance in murder. Of course it would be impossible of me not to mention Ennio Morricone’s excellent score, which adds icing to what I consider to be a perfectly decent and entertaining cake.

© Shaun Anderson 2012


  1. I agree, Shaun. By the standards of other workaday gialli of the period, 'Cat' is certainly an interesting, if somewhat underwhelming, genre outing. Perhaps its reputation would be somewhat better if the Argento name wasn't attached to it...

    I've always thought that Catherine Spaak's rather stiff performance in 'Cat' is intentional. (SPOILER AHEAD) I read the film as suggesting a possible incestuous relationship with her father, and their relationship is contrasted with the wholesome Arno and Lori. Indeed, one could make the case that a prominent theme throughout the film concerns child (sexual?) abuse: certainly the utterly cold Spaak/Franciscus 'love' scene makes some sense from that perspective.

    Yes, Horst Frank is a total badass! (And the thoroughly mesmerising hairstyle he sports in 'Cat 'O Nine Tails' is almost a separate natural law unto itself.) You might like to check Frank out in the giallo 'L'occhio nel labirinto' ('Eye In the Labyrinth') Shaun, from the following year. It's a great little giallo, albeit rare (bootleg only, I'm afraid).

    Have you read Maitland McDonagh's 'Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds', Shaun? If I recall, she examines the recurring gay characters in the Argento films (which she suggests are intended to foreground the cultural construction of gender, and thus the inherent fluidity and instability of identity - or somesuch thing).

  2. Apologies for the slight delay in replying Jonny - Spaak's stiffness could be intentional or it could be that she is just a terrible actress. Her less than glittering filmography seems to support the latter. The screenplay does indeed suggest an incestuous relationship, but then it reveals that Terzi isn't her father at all. I felt the whole subplot to make her a red herring was utterly superfluous. But you make a very good point about the theme of child abuse.

    I've seen EYE OF THE LABYRINTH, and I remember Adolfo Celli in it, but can't for the life of me recall Horst Frank. I'd better watch it again. The washed out colours of the bootleg copy I have are quite damaging to the film...the visual sensibility is a key component to many of these films.

    I've never actually read the book of BROKEN MIRRORS, BROKEN MINDS, but I did read the essay she wrote in about 1987/88 that formed the basis of the book - it was published in a film studies journal, the name of which I can't recall. Her thesis relied too much on psychoanalysis, which is one of my least favourite critical approaches. Her textual analsysis though was fine. Her suggestion about the use of gay characters you describe is typical academic nonsense, they'll write any old crap to get funding. But Argento is just the sort of conceited arse to nod along and say yes that was my intention.

  3. Yes, it's a real pity about the perpetual bootleg status of 'Eye' (a fate that has befallen so many great gialli). But Horst Frank plays a rather notable part, if I remember correctly!

    I too am rather disdainful of psychoanalytic film theory. Nevertheless, I do like the approach of writers in the tradition of Christian Metz, etc. who used (Lacanian) theory to examine what was termed the 'cinematic apparatus'. That approach felt like real engagement with the idiosyncratic phenomenon of cinema, and not simply a peg upon which to hang an extended investigation of one's preferred critical theory.

    I think McDonagh's book is a solid introduction to Argento, but her lack of knowledge as regards giallo cinema generally is a major shortcoming (I think at one point she deems the 'only interesting thing' about gialli to be their longwinded titles). Clearly, her work reflects a particularly American experience of Italian cult cinema in the 1980s - when few, if any, of the important giallo titles we take for granted today were available in English dubs/subs (if available at all). I was hoping for something of a reassessment of her position when a new edition of the book was published recently; sadly, nothing new has been added at all. Oh well.

  4. Wasn't Christian Metz the one that broke film down into component units and likened the shot to a sentence? I think much of the problem with early film theory is that it was far too concerned with bestowing on film the status of art. The result was a very dogmatic approach to the discussion of cinema. Though I have encountered the theories of Metz I found the great French critic Andre Bazin to be more illuminating. But even more crucial was my discovery of V. F. Perkin's 'Film as Film - Understanding and Judging Movies' this book is probably my film studies equivalent to the bible. I think you should give it a read, if you haven't already.

    Yes McDonagh's lack of knowledge of the wider gialli cycle was hugely damaging to her thesis. It almost placed Argento in a vacuum, and although she uses psychoanalytical theory, one of her prevailing goals is to make an auteur of Argento. Of course in order to achieve this, a total blindness to the cycle he was operating within was actually very helpful to her. But Argento is no more an auteur than Sergio Martino, or Umberto Lenzi, or Mario Bava. I've argued elsewhere that Ernesto Gastaldi's contribution to the cycle was the equal of Argento's...but the fact that he spent his career writing films rather than directing them has led to his marginalisation.

    I still think the best book on Argento's cinema is 'Art of Darkness' published some years ago by FAB Press. It is structured around a series of essays, and a multitude of approaches, which is the most helpful way to assess any filmmaker of note.

  5. Yes, Metz's first collection of essays was published as 'Film Language' (which applied - if I recall - Saussurean linguistics to the cinema), but his specifically psycholanalystic approach followed in 'The Imaginary Signifier' (which filtered his earlier linguistic concerns through Lacanian theory, given Lacan's heavy emphasis upon language). Obviously, Metz's work has long since been discarded, although most film theorists are certainly indebted to him (even if the likes of David Bordwell have been instrumental in shutting down that line of inquiry).

    Yes, I very much like V.F. Perkins - his 'Film as Film' is certainly a seminal text (and still very relevant). My own line of influence would probably start with Cahiers du Cinema and Robin Wood, then through the structuralist critics (particularly their notable contribution to the study of film genre), psychoanlytic and post-structuralist writers, etc. and then to people like Robert B. Ray (whom I would read more for pleasure). I'd have to acknowledge the insufferable David Bordwell (and Kristin Thompson), but often I feel his writing is tainted by the usual academic parlour games that unfortunately decide status and dominance within the field of film studies.

    I've never had a chance to read 'Art of Darkness' (or 'Profondo Argento' for that matter - which I hope will be republished at some point in the future). But the periodic 'Necronomicon' publications through Creation books (which focus upon Eurocult and genre cinema) provide some interesting Argento content (albeit often in psychoanalytic terms).

  6. Yes I certainly recall 'The Imaginary Signifier'...though like most academic theoretical approaches I'm damned if I can remember the substance of it. I have a lot of time for Robin Wood's writing, especially for his landmark approach to the horror genre. He relied a little too heavily on psychoanalysis, but his socio/political readings of certain films was extremely illuminating. Most importantly of all he wrote in a very clear and concise manner...I still think his book on Hitchcock is a key work.

    Naturally I've encountered the work of David Bordwell, but like you I found his writing dull and unappealing. He did however do one of the first western book length studies of Yasujiro Ozu, and his exploration of Ozu's formal strategies is amongst his finest efforts.

    I don't have much time for 'Profondo Argento'. It was written by Argento mega fan Alan Jones, who is also a buddy of Argento' about a lick spittle! He devotes an entire chapter to Asia Argento...WHY??! Because he's a mate of hers I guess? No in terms of adding to the critical discourse on Argento you can forget about 'Profondo Sycophant'.


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