Cat O’ Nine Tails, The | Varied Celluloid

Cat O’ Nine Tails, The

Posted by Josh Samford On October - 15 - 2010




The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971)
Director: Dario Argento
Writers: Dario Argento, Luigi Collo, Dardano Sacchetti and Bryan Edgar Wallace
Starring: James Franciscus, Karl Malden and Catherine Spaak


The Plot: Franco Arno (Karl Malden) is a blind man who lives with a little orphan girl in Rome. Arno has been blind for many years now following an accident, but being an ex-newspaper reporter he is a man of curiosity. When walking home one night, he curiously asks his daughter-like helper who the person parked in front of their building is. She tells him what the driver looks like but says another man is in the car, but his face is hidden in shadows. When they get upstairs, Arno goes to his puzzles while the little girl sleeps. He overhears some loud noises only to find the neighboring building has been burglarized. Apparently this building is a research center for human genetics, for people who are trying to fight against birth defects and other such abnormalities. Arno as well as reporter Carlo Giordani both find the burglary a bit odd, as it appears nothing was stolen. However, there is one man who realizes why the building was broken into – and after confessing his knowledge to a coworker, he agrees to meet the culprit at a train station. Once there, the villain throws the man in front of a moving train and ends his life. The next day Arno’s helper sees the man in the newspaper – it’s the same man in the car in front of their building the night of the burglary! Arno then joins up with Carlo, and the two decide to figure just what is going on and just who is responsible for this murder… and the others that are soon to come.



The Review
It seems that this Halloween Horrors is going to be a month of re-visitations, no matter what I try! I originally watched The Cat O’ Nine Tails with the intention of reviewing it for Varied Celluloid. Unfortunately Netflix did not send me the Anchor Bay DVD so the copy I received was washed out and dirty looking – but even with that my intentions were to write the review. Then I found out that the DVD was actually a cut version. Apparently a brutal cut at that. After that, what else could I do? I postponed the review. With Halloween Horrors here upon us it seemed like the correct time to hunt down a uncut copy of the film to better judge it by. Unfortunately it has been so long since first seeing the edited version, I can’t quite say what was different about each individual cut but I will say that the longer version certainly seemed less disjointed and had a better flow to it. With that said, I’ll jump right into the review!

The Cat O’ Nine Tails is a somewhat forgotten entry into the Giallo genre and is probably most well known because of its association with Argento’s other earlier works that are simply known as the “Animal Trilogy” because of their titles (The Cat O’ Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage). From a time where Argento was more concerned with painting a visionary picture on celluloid rather than living up to his own “legacy” and image, these are some of Argento’s most simple titles but at the same time they remain some of his most successful work. I don’t think it’s any kind of secret that Argento has been making a different kind of movie as of late. The Cat O’ Nine Tails harkens back to what I suppose us horror fans will consider the “good old days”. What makes an Argento film so special isn’t necessarily the subtext or the plot, but the visual concepts that he is able to come up with. Although I must admit that the scripts in Argento’s giallo work are usually fairly entertaining, especially this early on in his career.

The Cat O’ Nine Tails is another one of Argento’s earlier Giallo’s that allowed him to really focus on his style as a director. For me, these films were him cutting his teeth in filmmaking and offered him time to perfect all of the things that would soon make him a star. Although certainly not his most stylish, Cat O’ Nine Tails does entertain the visual medium. It does ultimately seem kind of muted or toned down in comparison to so much of his other work. The film he made previous to this, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage which was also his directorial debut, also makes The Cat O’ Nine Tails seem rather weak in comparison. Although not what I consider the weakest of Argento’s Animal Trilogy (that would be Four Flies on Grey Velvet), there is no doubt that this is a slightly weaker film from a prime Dario Argento. The Animal Trilogy concept is pretty interesting when compared to one another. The films are tied together looseley, simply by their titles, but when you look at the three of them they are vaguely similar in style and content. All are very standard giallo pictures and all three provide a rather stripped down version of what Argento normally does. The colors are still there, the excellent camera work is still there and the suspense is certainly present, but all of these things are provided in much smaller doses.

I had originally worried, upon first viewing the title, that my opinion might have been hampered due to the poor quality of the DVD I had. It had the video and sound quality of a cheap pan and scan VHS bootleg and really drained the movie of what little style that Argento was able to fill it with. Although the visual quality of the film was definitely helped when watching the Anchor Bay version of the movie, I still generally walked away with the same opinion of the movie despite the additional twenty minutes of added footage. Those visuals were certainly more vibrant this second time through, as the colors red and white stood out to me even more. Argento has always had a knack for handling colors and Cat O’ Nine Tails is just one more in a long line of great examples.

The Conclusion
So you have the great use of color, some ballet-like camera movement including some terrific crane work as well as an awesome POV shot from our main character as he delivers two glasses of milk – with our camera sitting on the tray with the two milk glasses in front of it. Really great stuff. So, why am I giving it a three out of five? Well, considering I use a 0-5 rating scale, that puts the film just above average but not quite great. There are things in Cat O’ Nine Tails that simply don’t do much of anything for me. The story, for one, just seems so drawn out and tedious. This same criticism could be used for a lot of Argento’s work, but Cat seems to take forever to actually set itself on a course that leads anywhere and by the time anything starts to pick up the film is in its conclusion. There’s also the twist at the end of course where no one on earth could really guess who the killer is because of the lack of any clues to point you in any direction. Argento was never that great with McGuffin, instead of distracting the audience away from the real truth – he simply never lets on until the last five minutes. Throw in a rather plodding pace and the lack of use from the brilliant Karl Malden and you have lesser Argento work. Absolutely worth seeing for Argento fans and those interested in the Giallo genre, but go in with reserved expectations and you’ll find a Giallo worth watching.



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  • Totally agree with you. It’s good but not great, and worth watching for genre fans. The story is pretty convoluted and I lost track of it, but there are some genuinely tense moments. All the kills are really well shot. Good review!
  • Thanks Will! Having seen the film a couple of times now… I still get lost in the plot! The content is there, but it definitely lacks some characterization. Still it is good early-Argento, and you really can’t beat that!

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Varied Celluloid is a film website intent on delivering views on movies from all genres. Started in 2003, the website has been steadfast in its goal and features a database of over 500 lengthy reviews. If you would like to contact us about writing for the website or sending screeners, please visit the about page located here.

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