Dario Argento, 1971
Starring: James Franciscus, Karl Malden, Catherine Spaak, Horst Frank
A blind man, Franco, and his young charge Lori, accidentally stumble into a blackmail plot one night walking home past the Terzi Institute, a renowned science center responsible for some groundbreaking research. A break in and murder soon follows at the Institute, and journalist Carlo begins following the story. Despite his impairment, Franco has a brilliant mind and sets about unraveling the mystery. He and Carlo team up and discover that a doctor who claimed to know the identity of the thief was murdered, though the police have ruled his death accidental. The bodies begin to pile up as Franco and Carlo close in on the killer, who seems to be connected to the Institute’s research on the YY chromosome, indicating latent violent tendencies.
Argento has referred to this Italian-French-West German coproduction as his least favorite film and I’m inclined to agree. Among his classic works (1970’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage to 1987’s Opera), the second and third entries — The Cat O’Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet — are by far his weakest. The Cat O’Nine Tails was certainly something I neglected over the years, despite seeing many of his other films repeatedly. But unlike Four Flies on Grey Velvet it has a certain charm and warmth, thanks largely to star Karl Malden’s appearance as the improbable blind detective.
I think The Cat O’Nine Tails biggest issue is that it takes a notable step backwards into safer and more conventional territory after Argento’s debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. While that first film was certainly influenced by traditional mystery literature and the German krimi films, Argento added his own innovative blend of style, art, and violence to the mix. The Cat O’Nine Tails, however, takes an uneasy foray into science and focuses on a more traditional relationship between a crime journalist and a brilliant amateur detective.
And that relationship — between Karl Malden and James Franciscus — is the best part of the film. It’s a rare healthy example of male bonding and machismo (as portrayed by the macho Franciscus and the fatherly Malden) in an Argento film. Though the two begin by exchanging information, but become quite close by the film’s end, with nice moments of Carlo joining Franco and his niece for dinner. The domestic elements of this film and its examination of complicated family relationships that would emerge throughout Argento’s body of work. In addition to the unusual threesome — Franco’s niece is adopted and is not a blood relative — one of the chief scientists has a strange, almost incestuous relationship with his adult daughter (Catherine Spaak), who is also adopted. Her subsequent affair with Carlo is one of the film’s most awkward relationships.
The easy partnership between Carlo and Franco gives this a sort of Dragnet air, where the buddy investigators use crime fighting and mystery solving to give their lives purpose and definition. But there is also something of Agatha Christie here with the Miss Marple-like plot device of Franco and his niece overhearing the genesis of the crime on a street corner — whispers about blackmail from a nearby car. Throughout the film, Franco makes some ridiculous leaps of faith that nearly always turn out to be true, and the blind detective — a crossword puzzle writer by trade — would be completely ludicrous if it weren’t for the blithe Malden.
The film has a few main flaws that make it understandable why Argento ranks this as his least favorite. Unlike The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, it struggles to find its own identity and rests somewhere between giallo and standard mystery film. The lack of style is disappointing, particularly after the bravado of Bird, and Argento wouldn’t really set this right until his fourth horror film, Deep Red (1975). There are also several moments of unintentional humor, which are often found in giallo films thanks to bad dubbing, but here results from some awkward and/or improbably situations.
Speaking of the latter, I think Argento’s biggest mistake is his ill advised foray into science. While most of his other films concern artistic protagonists (most often musicians and writers) and plots hinging on the psychosexual, Cat O’Nine Tails dabbles in corporate espionage and scientific research with mixed results. While some directors can effortlessly blend themes of horror and science fiction, this lacks the emotional depth of the explanation for the killer’s actions in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, Tenebre, and others.
Available on Blu-ray, Cat O’Nine Tails only comes recommended to Argento fans or anyone who enjoys more traditional murder mysteries. There are some solid kills — a man is pushed in front of a train, a woman is strangled because of evidence she has hidden, and a photographer is killed in a dark room in one of the most Argento-like scenes — and it is one of his warmest, if least imaginative works. And I don’t know about you, but I love Karl Malden. You could have quite an afternoon with a triple feature of this film, Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain and Baby Doll.