"The Cat O' Nine Tails" **** (out of ****)
Italian horror filmmaker Dario Argento was once referred to as "the Italian Hitchcock". The films of Alfred Hitchcock were a big influence on Mr. Argento but if I were to point you in the direction of some of his films, such as "Deep Red" (1975) or "Suspiria" (1977) you may not be able to see exactly how the two filmmakers are comparable. However "The Cat O' Nine Tails" (1971) does show glimpses of the Hitchcock influence.
The Hitchcock comparison came early in Mr. Argento's career and it was because of his first three pictures American critics made the reference. "The Cat O' Nine Tails" was Mr. Argento's second motion picture as a director, "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" (1970) was his debut but for me it all begins with "The Cat O' Nine Tails".
Following his third picture, "Four Flies on Grey Valvet" (1972), another exceptional film, Mr. Argento would take a distinctive turn in his career and gain a reputation as a filmmaker with an obsession for blood. His films would feature grisly, ultra-violent death scenes. His camera was like an animal going after its prey and would linger on the dead bodies and the images of blood. In the days of "The Cat O' Nine Tails" Mr. Argento keeps the violence either largely off-screen or non-gory. It is with this film however we see hints of what was to come.
Mr. Argento's influence in the history of Italian horror cannot be overstated. He may have had the greatest cross-over success, compared to his contemporaries, in reaching American movie fans. Some of his movies are considered prime examples of the horror sub-genre known as "giallo" (yellow in English) which combines supernatural plot elements with murder mystery. The genre received its name from the color of book covers that features such stories. For many American audiences giallo means Argento. The two go hand and hand. I would not be surprised to learn Mr. Argento's films are the only examples of giallo films some American audiences have seen. And if you like the watch a filmmaker's work at the beginning and see how they grow as an artist, "The Cat O' Nine Tails" is a good place to start.
Karl Malden stars as Franco Arno, a retired newspaper man, who due to an accident is now blind. One day, while walking home with his niece, Lori (Cinzia De Carolis), the two overhear a suspicious conversation only to discover the next morning a break in occurred in the same location at a pharmaceutical company, that is doing top secret genetic research. Later that same day, one of the doctors at the company, Dr. Calabresi (Carlo Alighiero), believes he has discovered the identity of the person responsible for the break in. He agrees to meet someone at a train station, only to be pushed onto the track as the train approaches and suffers a violent death (foreshadowing the Argento to come). These two incidents can't be a coincidence, can they? Franco doesn't believe so and decides to tell his story to a news reporter, Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus).
Naturally the suspense comes from the fact Franco is blind, and therefore may not be able to tell when danger is nearby or if the killer knows his identity. If we chose to continue the Hitchcock comparison, this would be one of those movies with ordinary people acting like would-be detectives a la "Rear Window" (1954). In that movie the lead character is confined to one area, due to a leg injury, but can see everything and may have witnessed a murder. In this movie the character has mobility but can't see.
"The Cat O' Nine Tails" also has moments of humor, often found in Mr. Hitchcock's movies. In this picture there is a police officer repeatedly talking about his wife's cooking recipes. Alfred Hitchcock may have seen this movie because the following year in his "Frenzy" (1972) there is a detective character who hates his wife's cooking. There is also a high speed chase scene which cuts to two elderly people wanting to cross the street. As they begin walking one car zooms by and the couple takes a step back. Quickly the second car passes and the couple gives up on the idea of crossing the street.
Another sequence involves Franco and Carlo going to a cemetery to steal some jewelry off a dead body which may have a hidden note with the killer's identity. The sequence walks a delicate line and balances suspense with humor. The two men are afraid to be in the cemetery at night and each is afraid to walk in a family crept where the body is. However the killer may be watching them and attacks Franco on the far right frame of the screen, which locks Carlo inside the crept.
The distinctive visual trait of the movie is it takes a first person approach to keeping the identity of the killer a secret whereby the camera becomes the killer as the audience sees everything from their point of view as the murders pile up of each character that may have been able to solve the case. The victims are usually strangled, again a deliberate attempt by Mr. Argento to keep away from excessive violence on-screen.
Also interesting about the violence is the gender of the victims. Horror movies have been considered by many as misogynist. The movies generally feature young pretty women being killed by a male, which for some is meant to be interrupted as sexual. But, the majority of victims in "The Cat O' Nine Tails" are men.
The strength of the movie lies in its story and the interaction between the characters. Visually this is not a striking movie. For those who come to this movie later in their Argento film going experience, may consider this a letdown because of that. But again, I must point out this was Mr. Argento's second directorial picture. He was still developing a style. As such we see the work of someone with talent. The acting is also a little stronger than usual for an Argento movie. Perhaps because of the genre Mr. Argento is working in, major stars never really appeared in his movies. There were some distinguished actors that did like Max Von Sydow, in one of Mr. Argento's later pictures and Anthony Franciosa. Having Mr. Malden in the movie definitely gives it some weight. Mr. Malden was an Academy Award winning actor, nominated twice in his career. "The Cat O' Nine Tails" was the first movie Mr. Malden appeared in after "Patton" (1970), the best picture Oscar winner.
The movie works best when Franco and Carlo are on-screen together and falters a bit when Franco disappears from the story for a while. At nearly two hours the movie also lags a bit and could have been edited down. The final revelation of the killer feels a bit anti-climax. A love scene between Carlo and a beautiful woman, who is the adopted daughter of the pharmaceutical company's owner comes out of left field and feels forced. It also brings up themes of incest which are completely unnecessary and aren't properly explored.
"The Cat O' Nine Tails" also touches on the theme of is violence genetic. It may be an interesting theme, which was better explored in "The Bad Seed" (1958) but here the movie seems to use this information as a MacGuffin (another Hitchcock reference).
Yet I fully recommend "The Cat O' Nine Tails". On the scale of Mr. Argento's films it is one of his most accomplished, despite his supposed negative feelings of the movie. The acting is among some of the most accomplished to be found in one of his movies with Mr. Malden coming out looking the best. Mr. Franciscus also does a good job in the leading man role.
You can't guarantee any movie will please everyone but "The Cat O' Nine Tails" certainly has qualities worth recommending and should please a majority of fans even with its flaws. Here we see the beginning of a breakthrough for Mr. Argento as he seems more confident in his material and developing a distinctive style.