Sunday, July 28, 2019

Malden and Fraciscus Try to Solve a Cat O' Nine Tails

Karl Malden as Arno.
If you've never seen an Italian giallo film--and have an aversion to movie violence--then Dario Argento's The Cat o' Nine Tails (1971) just might be your cup of tea. It's not a prototypical example of the genre (see Argento's later Deep Red), but it will give you a taste of these movies. It features several familiar giallo elements: a mysterious killer whose identity isn't revealed until the climax, a dark noirish atmosphere, plenty of red herrings, and multiple murders.

Karl Malden plays Franco Arno, a blind former journalist who lives with his young niece Lori.  During an evening walk, Arno and Lori overhear two people in a car discussing blackmail. A couple of days later, Lori recognizes a photo of one of the car's occupants in the newspaper. The man, a scientist who worked at the Terzi Institute for Genetic Research, apparently killed himself by jumping in front of a moving train. 

James Franciscus as Giordani.
Arno suspects foul play and goes to see journalist Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus), who was investigating a break-in at the Terzi Institute. Arno suggests that a photo of the "suicide" be enlarged and Giordano contacts the photographer. The enlargement reveals a hand on the side of the frame, shoving the victim in front of the train. However, by the time Arno and Giordani reach the photographer, he has been strangled and the picture has been stolen.

Could the murders somehow be linked to the Terzi Institute and involve the discovery of a chromosome that makes people prone to violent behavior?

Director Dario Argento is justly famous for his fluid camerawork and dark visual aesthetic. His camera moves less than usual in Cat o' Nine Tails, but his visual design does not disappoint. Shadow-filled streets, hallways lit with a sliver of light, and close-ups of a bloodshot eye create a pervasive atmosphere of unease. As in Val Lewton's pictures, alleys and buildings seem devoid of people--except for the victim and the killer, whose presence is often indicated by a point of view shot.

Catherine Spaak as a suspect.
Malden and Franciscus don't really mesh with the Italian supporting cast, but that doesn't detract from the story. Malden fares best as the curious former journalist who jumps at the chance to unmask the murderer ("I like solving puzzles"). However, he disappears for a long middle section as the plot focuses on Franciscus and his relationship with one of the suspects (Catherine Spaak). Their awkward lovemaking scene is the film's low point. Well, that plus placing little Lori out of harm's way only to have the killer nab her near the climax.

The title refers to an metaphor used by Malden, in which the cat is the crime and the nine tails are the leads that should result in solving it. That may not quite make sense, but then Cat o' Nine Tails is not a movie that can withstand close scrutiny. Watch for the visuals and the atmosphere. If you're intrigued--and not squeamish--then look for Deep Red (1975). It stars David Hemmings (Blow Up) as a pianist who witnesses the murder of a telepathic woman who sensed the thoughts of a killer during a parapsychology demonstration in a theater.


  1. Thanks for the recommendation, Rick. I have been avoiding giallo forever but have been curious.

  2. I've stayed away from giallo because I'm too squeamish, but this sounds like a safe way to investigate.

  3. Ooh, this sounds good! I never heard the term "giallo" before but yes, if there is slasher elements involved, I'll gladly pass the genre by. This sounds good though.

    If you hadn't have captioned "Catherine Spaak" in that photo, I would have never recognized her with that hairdo!