Cat O'Nine Tails
Cat O'Nine Tails
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The success of The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (L’Uccello dalle Piume di Cristallo) in 1969 marked a transition for Dario Argento from acclaimed screenwriter (Cemeteries Without Crosses, Today It’s Me…Tomorrow You, and story co-writer for Once Upon A Time In The West with Bernardo Bertolucci and Sergio Leone) to one of Italy’s most influential horror filmmakers. Set firmly in the "giallo" genre (translated as "yellow," the term refers to the color of the covers of mystery/thriller novels published in Italy), The Bird With the Crystal Plumage reinvigorated the lethargic Italian horror filmmaking industry, inspiring scores of second, third, and even fourth-rate knockoffs for the next decade, while earning Argento such nicknames as "the Italian Hitchcock" and the "Viscount of violence." For his next film, Argento wanted to explore the genre further, adding elements of the action adventure and Western genres to the mix. What resulted was the 1970 release The Cat O'Nine Tails (Il Gatto a Nove Code), the second film in the so-called "animals trilogy." Out of all his films, Argento and most of his fans cite this one as their least favorite work. Ironically, in Italy it remains the most popular video rental of all of his movies.

Murder in The Cat O'Nine Tails hinges less on psychosis and rests more on the desperate need to conceal secrets. Franco Arno (Karl Malden), a former journalist left blinded by an accident, makes his living putting together crossword puzzles for the newspaper. While on a walk with his adopted niece, Lori (Cinzia de Carolis), outside the Terzi Institute for Genetic Research, he overhears a conversation between two people in a car. One of the people says he has information that he has to turn over, that he’s not out to blackmail the other person. Arno‘s niece looks back to see who’s in the car, but she can only identify one of the passengers. That night a break-in occurs inside the institute. Strangely enough, nothing appears to have been stolen. The next day, Dr. Calabresi (Carlo Alighiero), one of the two men in the car, is pushed in front of a train in a manner that makes it look like an accident. Lori recognizes his picture in a newspaper story on the incident. Putting two and two together, Arno suspects (and the viewers already recognize) foul play. He contacts a reporter at the newspaper, Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus), to find out if the photo of the accident was cropped. Giordani contacts the photographer who discovers that he had inadvertently edited out a hand, which appears to have just pushed Calabresi into the path of the oncoming train. Before Arno and Giordani can get a copy of the photo, the killer strikes again - murdering the photographer and stealing the reproduced photo, the contact sheets, and the negatives.

As the two men delve deeper into the mystery that lies at the heart of the Terzi Institute, they find possible motives for industrial espionage revolving around two projects: a new genetic drug developed at the Institute and a controversial research project involving the XYY chromosome, a genetic mutation which predisposes a person towards violent tendencies. Almost everyone involved with these projects become suspects at one point or another in the film. Each person conceals "something fishy" in his or her lives. Calabresi died while apparently blackmailing someone at the Institute. His fiancée, Bianca Merusi (Rada Rassimov), discovers the identity of the murderer, but can’t go to the police because she’s involved with espionage. Doctor Braun (Horst Frank), her partner in crime and a homosexual (which was generally viewed as a criminal activity in Italy in the 1970s), lives elegantly and suspiciously beyond his means. Casoni (Aldo Reggiani), a brilliant young doctor, was dismissed from his last job under mysterious circumstances. Terzi (Tino Carraro) and his adopted daughter, Anna (Catherine Spaak), turn out to be involved in a more sordid relationship. By the end of the film, the killer’s motives appear anticlimactic and trivial in light of all the dirty secrets uncovered by the investigation. Argento implies that we all have secrets we conceal at the heart of our lives, and that subjected to the same type of intense journalistic scrutiny, our motivations would appear dark and sinister.

DVD cover artwork for Cat O'Nine Tails.
[click photo for larger version]

It would not be the first time that Argento holds the mirror up to the audience, drawing us into the crimes onscreen. In The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, Argento first utilized the subjective camera technique, whereby the audience sees the murders through the killer’s eyes. Through the use of this technique, the director draws us in to the act, suggesting that everyone in the audience is capable of violence and, more uncomfortably, that we revel in the violence and are aroused by it. The Cat O'Nine Tails continues the use of the technique, but adds a further level of disorientation with an extreme and eerie close-up of the killer’s eye. The image of the eye filling the screen, washed of color, again implies an impersonal and universal point of view. More importantly, it acts as a sort of Pavlovian device for the audience, setting us up in anticipation of the coming carnage. When the eye appears, something bloody waits around the next corner. Our level of fear rises, but so does our eagerness to witness the demise Argento has so deviously devised for the next unlucky victim.

The resulting film is not as sordid as the preceding paragraphs would make it seem. The Cat O'Nine Tails is surprisingly fun and entertaining. Argento displays a lighter, almost-comic tone. Several examples demonstrate how unusual the movie is in Argento’s canon. The touching relationship between Arno and his adopted niece, Lori, provides near-sentimental moments of warmth, a tendency completely lacking in the rest of Argento’s gallery of twisted families. There is a running joke involving a police inspector who recounts the minute details of his wife’s cooking to unsympathetic listeners. When Giordani and Anna Terzi first meet, they exchange playful sexual banter, another unheard of element in Argento’s oeuvre. Another scene, involving Giordani interviewing Doctor Braun in a gay bar, presents a comic reversal of the initial Anna Terzi meeting. Franciscus hilariously portrays an alpha male’s unease as he realizes he has become the sexual prey for a host of men. As the men in the bar look him up and down, he grows increasingly flustered. When Braun playfully slaps his hand, warning him off the investigation, Giordani’s confusion and rage tangibly seethe beneath his attempt to appear cool. Without a doubt this comic tone provides one of the major factors for the snubbing of this film by hardcore Argentophiles.

Granted, the film seems an anomaly to Dario Argento’s work, with its comic tone, a pushy and antagonistic main character, and even a car chase. Key elements which fans of Argento have come to expect (the paranormal serving as a legitimate template for the film' background, nightmarish dream logic verging on psychosis, and brutal, explicit violence) are notably lacking in the film. Argento would not begin using these devices until Deep Red (Profundo Rosso) in 1975. However, repeated viewings reveal more of the master’s characteristic touches. Mysteriously open doorways and windows herald the arrival of the murderer. Argento's notorious black gloves remain missing, but the killer often strikes from behind, one of the preferred positions of attack for Argento’s death scenes. However, the most striking characteristic touch is the use of color throughout the movie -- especially the color red. One scene, involving a chart of the XYY chromosome and the color red, practically screams the identity of the killer. One of the research scientists at the Institute (I won’t say who, in case a reader hasn’t seen the movie yet) explains the theory behind the XYY chromosome. A careful comparison of the letters on the chart, which are colored with a distinctive red and white-checkered pattern, with the tie the scientist wears shows that the tie has the same pattern as the chart. Furthermore, the scientist’s desk is practically engulfed in a sea of red objects, implying his culpability in the murders and the deep-seated rage burning in his heart.

Poster artwork for Cat O'Nine Tails.
[click photo for larger version]

Perhaps the most significant stylistic break from the mystery/thriller tradition in The Cat O'Nine Tails, and a very crucial element in Argento’s own evolving style, is the refusal to reassure the audience that chaos can be mastered. Normally, the mystery thriller establishes a compact with its audience; Chaos breaks loose, but in the end it will be contained and everything will go back to normal. The mystery acts as a puzzle, and must be solvable in a logical manner. Reason triumphs. However, in The Cat O'Nine Tails, chaos erupts into the lives of the characters without reason or tidy resolution. The pieces of the mystery seem to lead to a grand conclusion, if only Arno and Giordani can latch on to the right lead, or tail. Each clue leads to a further puzzle, though. The case grows to an almost insoluble level of complexity. By the end of the film, the identity of the murderer is revealed, but the motive for murder, the resolution, remains unsatisfactory. It makes sense, but the clues for solving the mystery were misleading. The key to the murderer’s true function lies in the last minute taunting of Arno – the murderer is an agent of chaos. After telling the motive and realizing there is nowhere to go, the murderer tells Arno that Lori is dead, "I killed her." Devastated and enraged, Arno shoves the murderer, accidentally pushing him into an elevator shaft, where the murderer plunges to a grisly death. Offscreen, Lori’s voice, heavily reverbed, cries "Cookie!" The implication is that Lori survives and Arno unwittingly murders an individual in a fit of passion. Argento seems to support this interpretation of the ending (as indicated in the interview included with Anchor Bay Entertainment's DVD presentation of The Cat O'Nine Tails), but he’s been known to supply red herrings in interviews. However, as Maitland McDonaugh points out in her analysis of Argento’s films, Broken Mirros, Broken Minds, there is no visual evidence in the film that Lori, or Giordani for that matter, survives. The last time we see the two of them, the murderer hovers menacingly over both of them as the police arrive. The only resolution offered is the reverbed voice, which could be Lori calling from the distance. The voice could be the last thing the killer remembers as consciousness slips away, or it could be a past memory of Arno’s. The ambiguity of resolution leaves chaos unleashed, defying the expectations of the audience for a conclusive and tidy wrap up. Even if Lori and Giordani survive, their lives, along with Arno’s, have been left in shambles. Order cannot be restored. The puzzle pieces won’t fit neatly back into the box.

The DVD presentation of The Cat O'Nine Tails has some noteworthy extra features. The biographies, written by Mark Wickum, are informative and insightful. The notes give detailed highlights of the careers of Argento, story collaborator Dardano Sacchetti, James Franciscus, Karl Malden, and composer Ennio Morricone. Radio interviews with Franciscus and Malden provide more insight into their experiences working on the set. A documentary retrospective on The Cat O'Nine Tails, while brief, delivers more useful insight into the working methods of Argento, Sacchetti, and Morricone. The poster and stills gallery is worth mentioning for a German lobby card that shows Giordani recuperating after his rooftop stabbing – a still obviously taken from deleted footage, which further lends credence that Argento crafted the ending to be more ambiguous. The extras are rounded out by a collection of radio spots and television trailers.

Dario Argento would make one more film in the "animals trilogy," Four Flies on Grey Velvet (Quattro Mosche di Velluto Grigio), before moving on to Deep Red, which ushered in his supernatural/ultraviolent period. In light of its recent DVD release on Anchor Bay with restored footage, The Cat O'Nine Tails deserves to be reassessed and re-evaluated within Argento’s canon. It has long been maligned, or worse, ignored. From any Italian director of the time other than Argento (or Mario Bava or Lucio Fulci, for that matter), the film would have been hailed as a classic example of the "giallo" genre. Even though of a different order than Argento’s masterpieces, The Cat O'Nine Tails should be welcomed back to the fold.


The Cat O'Nine Tails is now available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment in a widescreen transfer (2.35:1) that has been enhanced for 16x9 televisions. The disc includes interviews with director Dario Argento, writer Dardano Sacchetti, and music composer Ennio Morricone; radio interviews with stars James Franciscus and Karl Malden; theatrical trailers; TV spots; radio spots; talent bios; and a poster and still gallery. Suggested retail price : $24.98. The Cat O'Nine Tails is also available in widescreen format on VHS. The video includes interviews with Argento, Sacchetti, and Morricone; theatrical trailers; and TV spots. Suggested retail price for VHS: $14.98. For more information, check out Anchor Bay Entertainment Web site.