‘The Cat o Nine Tails’ May Be Dario Argento’s Most Generically Competent Thriller (Italy)

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Last week’s installment of Foreign Objects took a look at the third film in Dario Argento’s so-called “animal trilogy,” Four Flies on Grey Velvet. Why start with the third film and not the first? No reason. But today we’re continuing with the theme and covering the second film, The Cat o’ Nine Tails. Don’t worry about continuity though as the three movies are in no way related.

A burglary at a local genetics institute catches the eye ear of a blind retiree, and when people associated with the incident start dropping dead he teams up with a reporter to try to crack the case. The duo discovers an elaborate chain of events surrounding the lab’s recent discovery of a genetic marker that may indicate criminal tendencies and a drug that may cure it. Is someone killing to protect the discovery… or are they killing to hide the fact that they’re a killer?

“Smile bitch, your train just crushed a guy.”

Franco “Cookie” Arno (Karl Malden) is an ex-reporter whose days are occupied looking after his young niece Lori and crafting crossword puzzles for other enthusiasts. He overhears one half of a peculiar conversation while out on a nightly stroll, and when the man behind the voice winds up murdered Cookie gets drawn into the mystery. He joins forces with a crime-beat reporter named Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus), and the two begin a dangerous investigation as the body count continues to rise around them.

Argento’s second feature film comes a few years before he would start introducing supernatural elements into his work, but while it’s a straightforward thriller it still contains other recognizable flourishes. The killer’s actions are often viewed through a POV perspective, we’re teased with androgynous closeups of their eye and snippets of their voice, and the bounty of potential suspects is limited by neither sex nor believability.

The actual murder set-pieces, something the director would become known for in later years, are fairly tame here as most of the killings are accomplished via a thick garrote that simply chokes the life from the victims. But that doesn’t mean some of the film’s other scenes and set-ups don’t shine. One suspenseful but otherwise harmless bit involving a razor-wielding barber works nicely as does a fist-clenching fall down an elevator shaft. The film looks good in general though, and Argento keeps the pacing running at a solid clip.

The most notable element here though is the presence and performances of the dual leads. Both Malden and Franciscus help ground the goings-on and convincingly portray their involvement in the events with energy and a strong, playful chemistry between them. The latter actor gets most of the fun, action-filled scenes though including a rooftop fight and a sex scene with a low-rent Italian blow-up doll played by Catherine Spaak. To be fair, the utter lack of sex appeal in the scene isn’t entirely her fault. What starts with a promising opening line quickly devolves into the least tantalizing breast reveal ever caught on film and a blurred image of immobile copulation.

The film’s biggest fault is its lack of anything all that special. It’s a capable thriller that still stands up today even with a plot that winds up far more complicated than it needs to be, but unlike some of Argento’s later films you won’t walk away from the experience with imagery or snippets of score stuck in your head.

Arrow Video’s Blu-ray does a fine enough job with both the video and audio presentation. There’s more visible grain (a good thing) than some of their Blu’s have afforded Argento’s films, and the colors are strong throughout. As with all of the label’s releases it comes with interchangeable cover-sleeves and a booklet insert as well. The disc’s special features include:

  • Dario’s Murderous Moggy: Dario Argento Remembers The Cat o’ Nine Tails
  • Luigi Cozzi: The Cat o’ Nine Tails in Reflection
  • Sergio Martino: The Art and Arteries of the Giallo
  • Original Theatrical Trailer

The Cat o’ Nine Tails is an okay little thriller, and while that sounds like faint praise the film is still far better than anything Argento’s directed in the past quarter century. The story gets a more than a little convoluted at times, but for the most part it’s a simple serial killer tale. Malden and Franciscus are both fine as the leads, Ennio Morricone’s unmemorable but competent score matches the film well, and even at nearly two hours the movie never grows boring or dull. It just isn’t very exciting for much of its length either.

Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week looking for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent!

Rob is the Chief Film Critic of Film School Rejects. He doesn't eat cheese on weekdays.

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