The Cat O'Nine Tails (1971)

FEBRUARY 4, 2012


On an interview dated 2001 on this very DVD, Dario Argento says that The Cat O'Nine Tails is his least favorite of his films. I wonder if he first offered this sentiment before he more or less lost his mind and made 1998's Phantom Of The Opera, but I guess since said mind was lost it would kind of fit that he'd single out a movie that wasn't bad at all. A little slow, perhaps, but I'd rather sit through it on an endless loop for the rest of my life than endure Phantom again.

I'll give him this much: it's too conventional. While it dips into weird territory every now and then (like when hero Karl Malden inexplicably acts like the villain for 30 seconds), it's pretty easy to follow, and Argento never seems to let his stylistic flourishes get in the way of the story. If not for the closeups on eyeballs and a few memorable kill scenes (particularly the girl in her apartment, drooling as the murderer chokes her), one might not even realize it's one of his films. The other entries in the "Animal trilogy" had a lot of his themes and trademarks already on display, but this one is fairly bland in that regards. Hell, the hero isn't even considered a suspect at any point!

What makes it work is the fun chemistry between Malden (who plays a blind ex-reporter who now seemingly designs puzzles) and Chuck Heston look-alike James Franciscus as Giordano, the main reporter who would seemingly get nowhere in the case if not for Malden's hunches and ability to "see" stuff no one else can, such as the loud clicking noise he hears while talking to a suspect might be important in some way. At first he's just dropping by to give Franciscus a lead, but by the 3rd act they're enjoying home-cooked meals together. It's cute, but it's also the rare Argento film with two male leads who are both decent guys - usually one turns out to be the killer or is just a total asshole.

And again, it's pretty easy to follow, and the killer's motive doesn't really come out of nowhere. The character is a bit underutilized throughout the film (it took me a second to recognize him/her), but their explanation for each murder more or less makes sense. It's also funny how it's revealed - Malden just wants to know where his niece is, and doesn't really care about the motive, but the killer just keeps explaining himself anyway. Thanks, pal. Rather hear it from him than some cop a few seconds later.

It's also got some great comedic moments, some unintentional. I know we're supposed to be horrified by a guy getting nailed by a subway train early on, but the ridiculous over-the-top approach just makes it a riot, with a closeup of the dummy head being slammed by the front grill followed by a shot of the body flopping around on the curb. Then they top it, all the folks watching instantly forget about it when a movie star steps off the train - one guy even goes something like "Oh yeah, the starlet!", no longer concerned with the dead guy inches away. There's also a cop who seemingly serves no purpose except to offer culinary tips to his fellow officers; there's half of a pretty great sounding ravioli recipe in this movie.

As for the deaths, there aren't a lot of them, and it seems half of them are in the first act. The train murder is probably the most eye-catching, but there's a fun one inside a darkroom that's aided considerably by Ennio Morricone's score. It's not one of his most memorable scores really, but they do this great thing where the music cuts out at key moments, as if to suggest something's about to happen, only to then start over when nothing does. It's like an inverse fake scare! So fun.

Anchor Bay's disc has some nice extras, nothing substantial but worth a look. Argento and Morricone provide a new interview, the music section is obviously more in depth than the rest (and a bit over my head) but it's always fun to listen to the candid Argento, who explains a bit why he thinks so little of it (something about it being too similar to Crystal Plumage). Then there are radio interviews with Franciscus and Malden, which run about 8 minutes each. Malden talks about training to play blind and how many movies he's done; Franciscus talks working in Italy and with Malden. He doesn't have much to say about the beautiful Catherine Spaak, however, merely saying she's a "nice girl" or something like that*, which is a far cry from his amazing pickup line in the movie, in which he gets her in bed by more or less pointing out that there are a bunch of other people doing it at this moment so they might as well join them. Smooth. Some trailers (including one that spoils the ending), still galleries, and bios round things out. I should note this disc was re-released by Blue Underground a few years ago, but I couldn't detect any difference with regards to the bonus material or the transfer (uncut, anamorphic) - someone correct me if I'm wrong.

So it might lean closer to the "for completists" only side of things, but compared to anything in the past decade or so, it's a winner. If it's passed you by all this time, might as well give it a look to see how much better a "bad" Argento movie used to be.

What say you?

*I later looked at her IMDb and saw that she got divorced after this movie, so my guess is that they totally boned. No disrespect.


  1. I actually liked this one more than Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Four Flies on Grey Velvet. Yeah, it wasn't filled with gore or crazy artistic flourishes, and I was a little disappointed to see that it didn't actually ever feature a cat o'nine tails (nor did I ever see this shot featured on the dvd case of the killer coming toward a woman while holding a knife), but I dug the acting and story and just thought it was a pretty neat film.

  2. Yeah, this is probably the worst of Argento's early movies to me; I actually feel like he consciously did everything in his power to make it different from his other giallos because this one is just so dry. In my mind, there are really two brands of giallo movies: super sleazy/gory/stylish/fever-dreamy ones and then the dry ones like this that are barely different from most murder mysteries.

    I do recall there being a really spooky graveyard scene in this one, though.


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