4.5 out of 5 stars

Though an important gialloThe Cat o’ Nine Tails seems to be the most underrated, and least mentioned, of Dario Argento’s formative films. Perhaps that’s because it’s relatively subdued. The murders here are blunt and brutal; expertly shot and edited, but not the extended, baroque set-pieces that Argento became known for. Also, the settings, though atmospheric and perfectly suited to the story, are a little pedestrian and realistically lit. You won’t see lingering shots of ostentatious architecture thrown into relief by red and green spotlighting here. Although the cinematography by Erico Menczer is solid throughout, it’s more restrained and there’s less of the purely visual pleasure that giallo fans have since come to expect from their maestro.

Argento’s first film and seminal giallo, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970), had become a huge hit in Italy. After an abortive initial release, it started to attract a cult following and soon a handful of cinemas were showing it, every night, to full-house audiences. It performed very well in the US and attracted a significant international audience. When given a second chance in Italy with a general release, box-office takings rapidly reached $1 million, earning back twice its production budget. This ensured that there would be a quick follow-up to keep Argento busy. The producers were keen to build on the international appeal and insisted on a sequel with a cast led by two big-name American actors.

The Cat o’ Nine Tails can be approached as sequel, of sorts—it has similar thriller elements and a puzzle-plot, though Argento quickly became disillusioned with the producers, resenting the pressure to Americanise the production. He firmly believed that the success of the first film was due to his unique stylistic approach and because it was typically Italian. He thought that trying to force American elements into the production would compromise that distinctiveness. He may have been right, to some extent, it does have a similar vibe to a classic Columbo or Ironside, which I enjoyed!

Argento thought that Karl Malden had the necessary gravitas and sensitivity to play the blind, amateur sleuth, Franco Arnò, and was pleasantly surprised when he accepted the role. The producers wanted James Franciscus as the newspaper reporter, Carlo Giordani, because his popularity seemed to be on the rise after starring in Marooned (1969) and Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). Although not his personal choice, Argento was happy with Franciscus who proved to be a very ‘professional’ actor on set.

In the opening scene, Arnò (Malden) overhears a sinister snatch of conversation alluding to blackmail as he walks by a parked car. With the pretence of tying his shoelace, he pauses so that Lori (Cinzia De Carolis), his six-year-old niece, can take a look at who’s in the car. He can do this in plain sight as the villains don’t perceive a blind man and child as any kind of threat. Lori can see two people, but only one clearly enough to describe.

Cinzia De Carolis is a natural, and totally believable as the young orphan—she achieves a balance of cute without saccharine, and savviness without precociousness. Apparently, Malden spent lots of time with her, building a relaxed bond that would be communicated on screen and Argento allowed her the freedom to interpret the part herself, explaining the scenes clearly, but providing a minimum of direction.

On returning to their top floor flat, Arnò sets to work devising a crossword, an unexpected hobby for a blind man. This scene provides a key to the whole film. It’s telling us that there will be many clues and many solutions, and they will all fit a contained yet complicated pattern, so pay attention! Indeed, the whole script is very tight, and nothing is superfluous.

The first murder occurs on a train station platform, or rather just off the platform. Dr Calabresi (Carlo Alighiero) is pushed in front of a speeding train and dies in a shocking, brilliantly edited scene. When Lori sees the death reported in the newspaper, she recognises Calabresi as the man from the car… Arnò, being a puzzle enthusiast is sucked into this mystery. Initially, it seems he’s oblivious to the possible repercussions and doesn’t ‘see’ that he is placing his young ward in jeopardy.

It turns out that Dr Calabresi was one of a team of scientist at the Terzi Institute researching cutting-edge biotech and genetics. For 1971, this aspect of the plot is pretty much science fiction, though now it seems like familiar territory. It transpires that Arnò has not always been blind and had worked for a newspaper in the past, so it isn’t long before he and Lori team-up with Giordani (James Franciscus)—who’s a reporter for Paese Sera (a real newspaper that Dario Argento wrote for as a film critic). They quickly unearth a plethora of clues and suspects—it seems everyone on the science team have something to hide and could be blackmailed. The question is, which one would be prepared to kill to keep their secrets?

In The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, the first of Argento’s ‘Animal Trilogy’, a witness clearly sees the murder, but doesn’t fully understand what he has seen. With a blind protagonist in the The Cat o’ Nine Tails, he continues to explore the difference between seeing and knowing— as Arnò does not see the killer, but has an understanding of the crimes. Many people do see the killer, including the audience, but we don’t know he is the ‘maniac’. What does a ‘maniac’ really look like, anyway?

Catherine Spaak had been a popular singer and fashion model in Italy, since her teens—she was born into an acting family, so it was natural for her pop success to lead her to the screen. She’d already starred alongside Karl Malden, in Hotel (1967), but was not Argento’s first choice for role of Anna Terzi, daughter of the Terzi Institute’s director. He’d intended using newcomer Tina Omosi, who remains obscure to this day.

It was Goffredo Lombardo, the powerful film producer, who suggested Spaak. Casting her in the role exploited the audience’s familiarity with her. Having watched her grow up in the media, they felt like they’d known her since she was a child and this adds extra depth and empathy when Anna recounts her backstory. Spaak does a good job of playing the bitchy brat with an appealing vulnerability. She certainly stands out from the rest of the cast in her super-glamorous costumes, designed by Luca Sabatelli. and is presented as a femme fatale and ‘prime suspect’.

Another suspect is Dr Braun (Horst Frank), one of the researchers at the institute who’s involved in a gay love triangle and may be a target for blackmail. Argento pioneered the queer subtext in Italian cinema and this is an important element of the film, not merely an aside. Horst Frank is a strikingly handsome Germanic actor, with just a touch of the young Rutger Hauer about his looks and was known to Argento from his role in another pivotal giallo for Umberto Lenzi, So Sweet… So Perverse (1969). Pino Patti, who plays a darkly comedic barber, he already knew from his role in The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and Pier Paolo Capponi, Police Supt. Spimi, had starred in the proto giallo Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970). So Cat o’ Nine Tails has an impeccable pedigree running through it.

Initially, Cat o’ Nine Tails did not live up to expectations, and even Argento was disappointed with the result! He felt that it was too ‘American’, perhaps because the two leads were played by American actors? Not surprisingly, it performed fairly well in the US, but was a ‘slow-burner’ back home in Italy. It is an accomplished thriller in its own right and in many ways harks back to the films that inspired and informed the giallo genre.

Argento and his co-writers, Luigi Collo and Dardano Sacchetti lifted the basic premise from the suspense classic, The Spiral Staircase (1946), directed by Robert Siodmak, which played on the ideas of visible and non-visible disabilities as a serial killer preys on ‘disabled’ women. There are several striking shots of spiral staircases throughout Cat o’ Nine Tails as a little nod to this. There’s also a strong Hitchcockian feel to the film, a blind man standing in the shadows just inside the open window of his apartment, listening, recalls the wheelchair-bound James Stwewart in Rear Window (1954). I can’t believe that Henry Hathaway’s 23 Paces to Baker Street (1956) wasn’t a direct influence—a plot pivoting on a blind playwright (Van Johnson) overhearing a snatch of sinister conversation involving plans to kidnap a child! Of course, Audrey Hepburn’s blind woman in jeopardy, in Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark (1967), also deserves a tip of the hat.

Surprisingly, it was a brief feud between the writing team that actually helped to market the film to its home audience. Dardano Sacchetti, then a newbie screenwriter, had been introduced to Argento and had shared a seven-page draft with a brave premise based on a new scientific theory that abnormal chromosomes—the rare XYY ‘syndrome’—could predispose such an individual to criminal tendencies. If this were true, he surmised, then private companies in the future may well start DNA profiling to identify XYY employees that may not be trustworthy. Something invisible that could influence behaviour: the difference between being fooled by appearance and knowing what is behind that facade.

He threw in elements from espionage thriller, murder mystery and traditional detective. Argento liked Sacchetti’s ideas and developed that initial draft into a 40-page treatment, bringing in another relative newbie, Luigi Collo, to lend a hand. However, Argento later claimed sole credit for the writing! He was quoted in an interview as saying that the whole story had come to him in a fever-dream.

When Sacchetti read the interview, he threatened Argento with violence. He wrote to the papers and generally kicked up a stink. He was then offered a pay-off for his writing credit, but understood that he wouldn’t be cited as a writer. Because he was new to the game and had only written the initial draft, he agreed to this. It was this controversy and legal wrangling that brought him to the attention of Mario Bava and landed him his second screen writing gig on Bay of Blood (1971), which in turn led to him coming to the attention of Dino De Laurentis and being offered a very lucrative contract with his studios. So, he did not remain bitter about it and when he attended the first screening of Cat o’ Nine Tails, he was ‘touched’ to see that he had been credited prominently in the titles after all, along with Collo. Saccheti and Argento remain firm friends to this day…

Saccheti tells this story as part of a generous interview included in the new Blu-ray release from Arrow Films, giving plenty of insight into his creative process. He reveals himself to be vivacious and likeable, though this is more of a lively monologue than and interview! Dario Argento also contributes a more sombre talk about the making of the movie, with a few little nuggets that are not common knowledge amongst his fans, so definitely worth a watch.

There is another exclusive video with the charming Cinzia De Carolis, now 56 and continuing a varied acting career. Angelo Iacano, the Production Manager, also reminisces and provides plenty of insight to the location filming in Turin.

The audio commentary by Alan Jones is fact-filled, though light on any discussion of symbols and subtext—after all, that is part of the fun that should be left to the viewer! He is joined by Kim Newman who adds plenty of interesting observations and prompts Jones to reveal a bit more than we already know from his excellent book, Dario Argento: The Man, the Myths & the Magic. For me though, the best thing about the new Blu-ray – apart from the beautiful 4K restoration from the original camera negatives and the clarity of the sound making the most of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack—is the chance to reassess one of Argento’s most important thrillers. Here, he is just on the cusp of stepping from narrative-dominant suspense to the overtly stylistic films of his mid- career.

We can certainly see the beginnings of his obsessions with violence and cruelty. Throughout the film, we’re shown the murders from the point of view of the killer, forced to identify with the ‘maniac’. In cinematic terms, Argento is beginning to explore the mechanics of visceral violence, the emotional impact of witnessing brutal death. Cat o’ Nine Tails is definitely veering towards the stylistic approach, yet it is tightly wrapped in a finely crafted narrative. Anyone who considers themselves a fan of Argento must watch this film to understand the director’s creative development. It is also a solid crime thriller in its own right… I re-watched it with my 83-year-old mother and she was thoroughly absorbed, didn’t fall asleep, and understood the rather convoluted, yet clearly exposed, plot.

the cat o' nine tails

Special Features:

  • Brand new 4K restoration of the film from the original camera negative.
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations.
  • Original mono Italian and English soundtracks (lossless on the Blu-ray Disc).
  • Newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack
    Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack.
  • New audio commentary by critics Alan Jones and Kim Newman.
  • New interviews with co-writer/director Dario Argento, co-writer Dardano Sacchetti, actress Cinzia De Carolis and production manager Angelo Iacono.
  • Script pages for the lost original ending, translated into English for the first time.
  • Original Italian and international theatrical trailers.
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Candice Tripp.
  • Double-sided fold-out poster.
  • 4 lobby card reproductions.
  • Limited edition booklet illustrated by Matt Griffin, featuring an essay on the film by Dario Argento, and new writing by Barry Forshaw, Troy Howarth and Howard Hughes.

Cast & Crew

director: Dario Argento.
writers: Dario Argento & Bryan Edgar Wallace.
starring: James Franciscus, Karl Malden & Catherine Spaak.