in Shocktober

Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971)

The more Dario Argento films I see, the more I believe Argento was the successor to Hitchcock. There were other worthy heirs to the throne of suspense. Brian DePalma’s string of ’70s thrillers is undoubtedly Hitchcockian. Though I find myself more attracted to Argento for his stylish cinematography and ability to weave a dense web of murder and lies. Like Hitchcock, most of Argento’s best films are tightly plotted with mystery, intrigue and enough red herrings to choke a river bank. Though Argento isn’t afraid to show extreme violence when necessary. He makes smart decisions, right down to his eclectic funk soundtracks from Goblin, or in this film’s case Ennio Morricone, the greatest Italian film composer of all time. The more I see, the more I’m drawn to his work, like a bug drawn to a zapper. So beautiful on the outside, but deadly as you get closer.

Cat o’ Nine Tails is the second film by Dario Argento and it’s about two men who come together to solve a mystery. One is Franco Arno (Karl Malden), a former newspaperman, now blind, who suspects something is amiss after hearing screaming from his apartment. The other is a reporter named Carlo Gioardani, played by Charlton Heston impersonator James Franciscus, investigating a break-in at a bio lab. The two find they have clues in common and decide to work together to solve the mystery. Naturally, their sleuthing leads them down some dark corners, people are murdered, others crisscrossed, and whatever was stolen from the lab remains to be seen for most of the film.

I’d be lying if I said I understood all the plot the first way through. The story takes a lot of twists and turns down pathways in attempts to misdirect you. Me trying to explain the story would more or less be me copying and pasting from Wikipedia, so I’ll skip to the aesthetics of the film. The use of swooping camera angles and POV shots truly puts you into the action. One sequence that stands out in particular is a man sneaking up on two lab assistants. We see the action from the killer’s point of view, only to cut away to extreme close ups of his blinking eye as Morricone’s score beats away. I’m sure it would have made ‘ol Hitch crack a smile in his 400 pound face.

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The murders are fun… poor choice of words, but they are, even if they’re not as inventive as Bird with the Crystal Plumage, or as violent as Suspiria. My favorite involves a man being pushed onto train tracks. Most would cut away after the fall, but Argento includes one brief shot of the man’s head smacking against the front of the train before going under. It’s gruesome, but still leaves some to the imagination. Yuck, but it’s a good yuck.

The performances are solid. It’s always a gamble when you get these movies where half the cast is speaking English and the other half Italian with English dubbing on top of it. Fortunately, Franciscus provides a macho performance worthy of ten out of ten Hestons. Malden is sympathetic and engaging as the brilliant blind man. Then again, when has he ever been bad? When have you ever watched a movie and said, “It was good, except for that f@#king Karl Malden screwing everything up.” He’s a seasoned professional and brings everything he has to this performance.

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My insight into Cat o’ Nine Tails is slim, honestly, it was tough for me at times. The film moves at a slow, deliberate pace that requires a great deal of attention. I’m not even sure what the title means. I know a Cat o’ Nine Tails is a medieval whip-like weapon, but there’s none in the film. I do recall a line about the mystery being as complicated as following the nine tails of a cat, but I must have heard that wrong. That sounds like something a drunk person would say… Or maybe a murderer? The plot thickens.