That’s The Way The Cookie Crumbles… XYY-Rated Suspense From Dario Argento in THE CAT O’NINE TAILS

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BD/DVD Combi. Region B/2. Arrow. 15.

Due to his enhanced sense of hearing, blind crossword compiler Franco Arnò (Karl Malden) finds himself eaves-dropping on attempted blackmail while walking past a car with his niece / ward Lori (Cinzia De Carolis) outside the Terzi genetic institute in Turin. Later the same night there’s a break-in at the institute and shortly after that one of its leading scientific lights is crushed under a train at the city’s rail terminus. An Argento-patented obsessive amateur sleuth, Arno recruits newspaperman Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) to his ongoing investigation into what the hell is going on at the institute, as the killings rapidly multiply and skeletons start to slide from the closets of its eminently respectable staff, including the director’s glamorous daughter Anna Terzi (Catherine Spaak), though Giordani’s suspicions don’t deter him from his amorous pursuit of her. When his and Arno’s investigation gets too close to the killer for comfort, Lori is kidnapped, setting up a spectacular denouement on the institute’s roof top…

The Cat O’Nine Tails (1971) was, for a considerable time, Dario Argento’s second hardest-to-see feature-length thriller, behind only the disappeared-for-decades Four Flies On Grey Velvet (made, coincidentally, in the same year). It got a Saturday late-night screening on BBC1 during the early ’80s and tapes of that were all we had to go on for another ten years or so until Warner released it on VHS, followed by various DVD editions. Now its time has come for the 4K restoration treatment on Arrow BD, an ideal opportunity for us to re-evaluate the film hyped on its original US theatrical release as “nine times more suspenseful than The Bird With The Crystal Plumage”…

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In fact CO9T is a rather less suspenseful affair than Argento’s debut, not on account of any deficiencies in its conception or execution, rather due to its director’s impatience with the limitations of the “Italian Hitchcock” tag he’d been landed with and keenness to establish his own auteurist identity. There are suspenseful scenes here, for sure (Giordano trapped alone in a tomb after Arno has wandered off into the cemetery… poisoned milk that Giordano and Anna might or might not drink… that climactic roof top drama) but Argento signals his flagging enthusiasm for the “whodunnit” format via this film’s title (clumsily conceived to tie it in with its predecessor), by the anticlimactic, lazy unmasking of a minor character as the culprit (“We used to do that all the time”, co-writer Dardano Sacchetti admitted to me) and in the resolution of Lori’s fate (if, indeed, that is ever satisfactorily resolved) by means of an overdubbed afterthought.

Throughout, Argento is more interested in staging set piece spectacles (a body mangled under a train after head-on close up impact, the killer’s hands smoking as they attempt in vain to arrest their descent down a lift shaft by clutching cables…) and composing mannered visuals (is that our first sighting of the mythical “green puke” as Giordano’s photographer friend gets garroted in his dark room?) …

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… that are consistently complimented by an Ennio Morricone score – all staccato bass, chiming percussion and snarling trumpet – which suggests that il Maestro had been spending time checking out Miles Davis’s recent fusion explorations.

One thing that always strikes me about CO9T is its all-pervasive sense of (hetero)sexual unease bordering on disgust. The nuclear family seems to have broken down… Lori comes without parents and the marriage contract is reduced to a financial transaction for the elite, prefaced by a mandatory act of masturbation (“bim, bam!”) in the sterile confines of the Terzi institute. Has there ever been a colder “love scene” than the one between Giordano and Anna? (Things would warm up considerably, scant months later, between Michael Brandon and Francine Racette during a genuinely tender tryst in Four Flies). Argento explores an alternative gay lifestyle and examines it sympathetically, aided and abetted by the tolerant albeit slightly embarrassed way Franciscus plays his scene at the Saint Peter’s club. That scene unfolds very differently in Paul J. Gillette’s American novelisation of the film, wherein Giordano evinces a brand of petit bourgeois  homophobia that Gillette presumably believed would chime with his readers. He also novelised Play Misty For Me though I strongly suspect this is not the same Paul J. Gillette who translated the complete works of De Sade.

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Is it any wonder that Giordani and Anna go about making the beast with two backs so gingerly, given the film’s endorsement of the (once popular, now discredited) thesis that a predisposition to violent criminality can be chromosomally conveyed via the putative XYY triad? Argento plays this plot point with considerable, multi-faceted irony, presenting us with a character who champions the XYY hypothesis (indeed, their career has been based on work in this field) but feels “unfairly” treated on discovering that they conform to the suspect genetic profile. Once the gene genie is out of the sample bottle, they take the “rational” decision to dispose of those in a position to discover this damning secret, the killer merely confirming the psychopathic destiny written into their biology (and of course losing it completely during the denouement). Argento would revisit “rational” killers (or are they? Clue – check the pile of bodies at the end of Tenebrae) and Sergio Martino would subsequently make great use of this device (at one point in his kinky classic The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh, there are no less than four, variously motivated killers in operation) but the giallo which shares the most interesting affinities with CO9T in this regard, at least to these jaundiced eyes, is another 1971 effort, Fernando Di Leo’s characteristically brutal La Bestia Uccide A Sangue Freddo (known under several AKAs but the literal translation “The Beast Kills In Cold Blood” is surely most apposite here). In this one a “rational” killer stages a messy kill spree in order to distract police attention from his commonplace motivation for bumping off the one victim that really matters to him, though in the film’s truly delirious closing minutes it’s revealed that the culprit’s accelerating disinhibition in matters of murder has actually reduced him to a sweating, drooling, bloodthirsty maniac.

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My screener copy arrived minus the booklet (featuring new writing by Barry Forshaw Troy Howarth and Howard Hughes, illustrated by Matt Griffin), double-sided fold out poster and four lobby card reproductions which will accompany street copies. Prominent among the significant bonus materials I did get to see were new interviews with Argento, production manager Angelo Iacono and co-writer Dardano Sacchetti, who spills the beans on his late ’60s student activism. Sounds like this stood him in good stead for his later dealings with the Argento family, whom Sacchetti suggests he had to threaten with physical violence to secure his screen writing credit for CO9T. Entertaining as it is, I could have done without Sacchetti’s interview being repeated on my screener copy at the expense of the promised conversation with Cinzia De Carolis. It would be interesting to see what she looks like these days and hear her memories of appearing in this film and some of the roles she undertook in adulthood, e.g. in Antonio Margheriti’s Cannibal Apocalypse (1980) and such oddities as Raniero di Giovanbattista’s Libidine (1979). No doubt this oversight will be rectified by the time this limited edition hits the shelves.

Argento buffs will be particularly fascinated by a bonus reconstruction of the film’s original – and rather corny – ending, the only existing image from which is on the German lobby card below (and a slight variation on which is mentioned in the inevitable Jones / Newman commentary track).

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