Director: Dario Argento
Screenplay by: Dario Argento
Starring: James Franciscus, Karl Malden. Catherine Spaak and Cinzia De Carolis
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Dario Argento’s second film as a director, The Cat O’Nine Tails. A spiritual sequel to his debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and another thriller instead of the horror films he would go on to become famous for. Argento would go on to tell interviewers and fans that he was disappointed with Cat O’Nine Tails, going as far as to say that he was depressed after he saw the final film for the first time.
Franco ‘Cookie’ Arnò (Karl Malden, A Streetcar Named Desire), a blind puzzle enthusiast, notices some strange events around his home. There’s a strange man in a car and he hears something happening the same night. The medical institute nearby is broken into, but nothing is reported as stolen. Arnò and a local reporter Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus, Mr Novak) work together to solve the mystery.
At the time this was released it was marketed as being nine times more suspenseful than The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. That’s a tall claim that would be impossible to live up to, but this isn’t even as suspenseful as Crystal Plumage. The suspense is still there and as the mystery unfolds it is compelling and you want to figure it out, but it’s not quite as brutal as Crystal Plumage, and the main characters never really feel like they’re in danger, even when they supposedly are.
The effects, with this being a low-budget film that’s half a century old, aren’t that great. It’s not too distracting, but they aren’t anything to write home about. The best effect is one of the doctors being pushed in front of a train, it looks a little tame by modern standards, but the body flopping about under the wheels is still shocking to watch.
The best thing about this film is Arnò. Karl Malden gives a strong performance and is an absolute joy to watch. There’s a sense of humour with most of his lines, especially in the first half, that heighten this film and make it more than worth watching. He’s brilliant and it’s when he’s on screen that the film really gets going. There is a long sequence in the middle where he is absent and is sorely missed.
When the killer is hunting people, we see this from a first-person perspective. It’s chilling to watch, with close shots of the killer’s eye. Argento knows how to direct suspenseful sequences and it’s on full display here. Combine that with a masterful score from Enrico Morricone, which echoes throughout perfectly, and you have some great tense moments.
At nearly two hours, Cat O’Nine Tails does feel like a long film. It’s not boring at any point, but you feel the length. The ending, which is heart-stoppingly tense is a great moment of chasing the killer across the roof. It’s the only real time you feel that the reporter Giordani is in real danger. The end does feel very sudden, which is intentional, but I personally don’t feel it works. There was an extra scene in the original script, which would have been nice to see, to wind down the film before the credit’s role. Instead the ending is harsh and sudden.
The new Arrow 4K edition is a gorgeous restoration of the film with a ton of extra features, including an interview with Argento and some of the other crew and cast, a selection of trailers, a poster, postcard sized art prints and a 60ish page booklet with essays written about the film, including one from Argento who goes into detail about why the film disappointed him when he first saw it. This is a must buy edition of the film for any Argento fan.
Cat O’Nine Tails isn’t Argneto’s best film, it’s not as good as Crystal Plumage but it’s definitely an interesting film and has one of the best characters of the mystery/thriller genre. There should be a whole series of films about the witty blind puzzle enthusiast Arnò. The story will keep you guessing until the final reveal