UK Release Date: 29th January 2018
Runtime: 107 minutes
Director: Dario Argento
Writer: Dario Argento, Bryan Edgar Wallace
Starring: James Franciscus, Karl Malden, Pier Paolo Capponi, Catherine Spaak
Synopsis: A blind man fond of puzzles joins forces with an inquisitive journalist to solve a strange and unusual murder.
One of the real joys of the last year or so has been discovering the giallo works of horror/thriller maestro Dario Argento via their Blu-ray re-releases, carried out under the admirable stewardship of Arrow Video. The latest to make it to the small screen is The Cat O’ Nine Tails, which is part of Argento’s loose ‘animal’ trilogy with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Four Flies on Grey Velvet. It’s not the most accomplished of Argento’s giallos, but it is an engrossing thriller that poses an intriguing mystery, while building a handful of interesting characters in the process.
That mystery revolves around the murder of a scientist at a genetic research facility, who is shoved under a train while holding on to a shocking revelation related to a mysterious break-in at the laboratory. Investigative journalist Giordani (James Franciscus) begins sniffing around the crime and is soon visited by blind former reporter Arnò (Karl Malden), who is a puzzle enthusiast with a handful of potentially valuable hunches. They decide they have nine leads to explore in order to solve the conundrum – a cat o’ nine tails, if you will.
From the start, Argento crafts an eerie atmosphere in this film, aided by Ennio Morricone’s distinctive eye for an oddball musical score. He also immediately creates memorable characters, most notably Malden’s blind man, who involves himself in the investigation solely on the basis of his insatiable desire for a puzzle a little thornier than crosswords. It’s as if the absence of sight has sharpened his mind, though it’s a little disappointing that his obscured view of the initial crime lacks a pay-off akin to the perception trickery of Crystal Plumage.
This is certainly a film where the journey is far more satisfying than the destination. When the cards are finally laid on the table at the end of The Cat O’ Nine Tails, it’s with something of a shrug, particularly given the tease of a potentially far more compelling solution at the end of the second act. Giallo is all about the mystery, all about the turns and all about the climax, with this film only delivering on the first third of that equation.
For all of the intrigue The Cat O’ Nine Tails originally creates, it coughs and splutters its way to the finale with a lack of focus and ingenuity. As an early Argento work, it’s also notably lacking in the lurid, flamboyant gore that would become the director’s trademark in his more renowned works. Argento is on record as saying this is one of his least favourite works and, though, he’s undoubtedly harsh on it, there are certainly some missed opportunities in the execution.
It’s a typically loaded package from the Arrow team, with horror experts Alan Jones and Kim Newman chatting for a new commentary. There are also a selection of new interviews, as well as some trailers.
Pop or Poop?
It’s not up there with the most accomplished of Dario Argento’s giallo efforts but, along with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, it’s a valuable insight into the stylistic building blocks that would later become the core of Argento’s cinematic peak.
The characters are compelling and the mystery has a real gripping edge, but it all fizzles to nothing at the end and there’s a decided lack of the campy violence you want from giallo.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
The Cat O’ Nine Tails is available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK now, courtesy of Arrow Video.