THE CAT O’ NINE TAILS **** Italy / France / West Germany 1971 Dir: Dario Argento. 112 mins
Considered by Argento himself as his least favourite of his early movies, this middle entry in the unofficial “animal trilogy” (sandwiched in between THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET) bears the hallmarks of a commercial thriller made by a blossoming international filmmaker keen to crack the U.S. market after a popular earlier import. It also retains enough of Argento’s identity and works sufficiently as a stand-alone to hold up rather well alongside its showier contemporaries. The central partnership is one of the director’s warmest: lonely old blind puzzle-solver Karl Malden and his pre-pubescent, orphaned niece (Cinzia De Carolis) overhear a shifty conversation outside a top-secret biochemistry institute on the same night as a botched robbery and vicious beating. Reporter James Franciscus gets involved as the bodies start to mount up, and Argento gets to exercise the blend of horror, mystery and humour that worked so well in his acclaimed debut. The comic elements veer between the dark and the offbeat: an insult competition in a pool hall; a nervous Franciscus getting a wet shave from a barber cheerfully speculating about someone in his profession suddenly “snapping”; and a couple of reporters at the scene of a decapitation who get distracted by an arriving starlet. The pace slows when Franciscus slickly employs statistics, milk and the line “This couch is comfortable” to seduce glamorous clothes horse Catherine Spaak, but the wild plot turns keep it lively. Excellent individual suspense sequences – notably an intense crypt-based interlude – confirm both Argento’s craftmanship and a mile-wide cruel streak. The brutal climax is superbly realised, as the cute juvenile lead is threatened, the hero gets his arse persuasively kicked and the villain expires via an audaciously realised plummet down a lift shaft. The gorgeous score, like the other two Argento “animal” giallo, is by Ennio Morricone.
Review by Steven West