Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Cat 'O Nine Tails (1971) Film Review
Dario Argento's sophomore effort has proven something of an elusive beast over the years, never gaining the positive recognition lavished on the likes of his massively influential debut The Bird With The Crystal Plumage or breakout hit Deep Red. As the middle part of his Animal Trilogy, it's neither as satisfying as its predecessor or as viciously outlandish as the recently-reissued Four Flies On Grey Velvet. It is, however, a distinctly Argento concoction, displaying his usual flair for unusual staging and knotty plotlines, where everyone is a suspect and nothing is what it seems.
Franco is a middle-aged puzzle enthusiast who takes care of - and is assisted by - his young niece Lori. The pair may prove to be the only witnesses to a break-in at a secretive research institute, the investigation of which leads canny journo Carlo into their orbit. Linking the occurrence with a spiralling series of murders, the trio find themselves engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with an unknown killer. The sultry Anna may somehow be connected to it all, but Carlo is unsure whether his involvement with her could make her a target, or expose her as the culprit.
The 'Italian Hitchcock' takes great delight once more in playing with perspective, regularly putting us into the place of his murderer and having us eavesdrop on events just out of sight. His lighting is a little more obvious than in his more evocatively garish works, while the violence appears dated by modern standards, but Cat O' Nine Tails still has plenty of artistry to savour. Ennio Morricone contributes another funky score, setting the mood for the detective work and homicidal hi-jinks. The script plays with interesting notions of the criminal mindset being a congenital condition, while the relationship between sight and perceived reality is as integral to the increasingly ridiculous plot as is often the case with Argento, but the film never quite stands out or comes together the way some of the director's best work does.
Argento's self-confessed disdain for actors can compromise any sympathy his characters might generate, but this film is imbued with considerable charm by the energy and rapport between a classic Hollywood odd couple, the traditionally handsome James Franciscus teaming up with the older Karl Malden. Having a reporter enlist a blind man gives the mystery a puzzle-box quality, the differing sensibilities and skill-sets of our protagonists generating some inventive situations. Cinzia De Carolis also adds to the film's piquant quality, her childish appeal offset by a disarming maturity. In the classically ambiguous femme fatale mould, Catherine Spaak is both delightfully stylish and seductively oblique, her impenetrable motives leading to some of the film's most tense set-pieces.
Cat O' Nine Tails will probably disappoint anyone expecting a straight-up horror film; despite some reliably aggressive murders, it's an archetypical whodunnit Giallo as opposed to the proto-slashers the director would progress to. It's actually one of Argento's most good-humoured works - consider the scene with the old couple crossing the road, or trying to - and it plays pretty well in its English dub, which is more than can be said for many Italian films of the period. Thematically intriguing but a little insubstantial in the thrill department, the film is undoubtedly entertaining, with a particularly memorable comeuppance for its villain, but it's definitely one for established fans of its director and genre as opposed to the uninformed.Reviewed on: 07 Feb 2012