Ed. Note: Quirky Queue writer Scott David continues his look at Dario Argento’s “Animal Trilogy” with the second segment of the series. The third, Four Flies On Grey Velvet, will appear here next week.
4 / 5 stars
Dario Argento’s follow-up to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is another suspense/mystery — but this time Argento was blessed with a well-known cast. Karl Malden and James Franciscus star in The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1970), in which Argento sharpens his tension-filled style with a bit more gore and nudity, creating a film that may be a bit contrived but is still a lot of fun.
As with Argento’s first film, The Cat O’Nine Tails hits the ground running as blind man Franco Arno (Malden) overhears a discussion of blackmail between two men in a parked car, as he and his young niece, Lori, walk home. Lori gets a look at one of the men but the other is covered in shadows. Later that night, Franco hears a ruckus outside his apartment window. We get to see what he can’t, as we follow the point of view of a killer who has just disposed of a security guard and broken into the genetics lab next door.
In the aftermath of the murder, we meet Carlo Giordani (Franciscus) a local newspaper reporter who becomes fascinated with the mystery and the lab’s secretive goings-on. He teams up with Arno, a former journalist himself, to find the truth. After collecting some clues, they realize they have nine different leads, hence the title of the film. Of course, in classic mystery style, the closer they get to the truth, the more danger they expose themselves to.
Although the Cat O’Nine Tails script is not as clever or convoluted as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, good performances, slick camerawork and editing, and Ennio Morricone’s always-interesting score keep the movie from becoming tiresome. Individual scenes are dripping with suspense, even if the story has a whole becomes somewhat predictable. When Giordani comes home after a long day and picks up a milk delivery at his doorstep he is unaware that the cartons have been poisoned. Thus begins a sequence where Argento deftly has us on the edge of our seats waiting for Giordani to either drink the milk or discover the poison.
Argento even injects a dose of paranoia with scenes where we, along with the characters, question the trustworthiness of Arno and Giordani. By smoothly
adding little actions and dialogue which make us second-guess the motives of our two heroes, Argento adds depth and tension. This is especially present in a creepy sequence where Franciscus is trapped in a crypt.
Although we don’t see the killer until the film’s end, he (or she) is still a main character, as we are treated to constant point-of-view shots, that are much more engaging than the POV techniques used in later slasher flicks. The only image we get of the murderer are quick shots of extreme close-ups of his (or her) eye.
However, Argento certainly adds more violence and blood in this second film, such as a graphic scene of a character being run over by a train. The Cat O’ Nine Tails does suffer from the cliche of its title, as the third act is propelled by the killer kidnapping Lori (surprise!) in an effort to gain the damning evidence Malden and Franciscus have acquired over the course of the film. At least Argento doesn’t drag this plot point out, as it leads directly to the film’s finale and the unmasking of the murderer.
Of course, I must say something about the great Karl Malden and his superior acting skills. His performance is a joy to watch as he plays Arno with natural ease and warmth, giving him much more depth than just your standard character with a disability. Many remember Malden solely from his stint of commercials for American Express, however it should be noted that he was a great film actor. Look to On the Waterfront — and The Cat O’ Nine Tails — as proof.