Speaking of l gatto a nove code (The Cat o’ Nine Tails) in the book Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, Argento himself referred to his sophomore follow-up to 1970’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage as one of the his least favorites from his canon. Released just 51 weeks after Plumage, The Cat o’ Nine Tails is a weaker effort, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it is more grounded and follows a more linear narrative than Argento’s previous film. Where Plumage was impressive in that it already exhibited so many of Argento’s stylistic eccentricities, Cat almost seems like an earlier work, with mostly monochrome environments and a drab color scheme; whereas Plumage was populated by bizarre characters and situations (I still can’t get over the hermit painter who raised cats for food), Cat is much more straightforward.
The film follows Franco “Cookie” Arnò (Karl Malden), a blind retired reporter and caretaker of his young niece, Lori (Cinzia De Carolis). One night, he overhears a man in a car discussing blackmail; the next morning he learns that a nearby genetics research facility, the Terzi Institute, was broken into, but there is no evidence that anything was stolen. Still later, Lori tells Arnò that she recognizes the man from the car, Dr. Calabresi, as the victim of an apparent rail station accident, as this makes the front page. Arnò reaches out to Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus), a journalist whom he previously met when Giordani was investigating the Terzi break-in, and discusses his suspicions: Calabresi was involved with the break-in, and he was killed in order to prevent his blackmail from coming to light. The photographer who captured the supposed accident is also murdered, garrotted and then slashed, as is Calabresi’s fiancee once she uncovers evidence that names the killer. Giordani strikes up a sexual relationship with the adopted daughter of the Terzi Institute’s founder, and Arnò sends Lori away as attempts to kill the two journalists mount.
Cat trades Plumage’s psychological reason for the killer’s murder for a physiological one, as the killer is hypothesized (and ultimately revealed) to have a genetic mutation of the chromosomes, possessing XYY genes. The belief that this mutation leads to a predisposition toward violence has long since been disproven; it cropped up in the trial of Richard Speck (who was later found to have standard XY genes anyway), and still floats into the public consciousness from time to time, even featuring in an episode of Law & Order, long after everyone should have known better. This would seem to discredit the film’s premise, but modern sentiments can allow us to read the text as the killer learning of their condition and committing violent acts not because of their predisposition towards violence, but because knowledge of their genetic make-up allows them to act out in ways they could not before, essentially giving the murderer a reason to act on their desires, rather than an impetus for said desires. Still, it does date the movie in a way that other Argento films are not.
The performances here are stronger than in Plumage, but that does not always a great film make. Karl Malden is a stand-out, which should come as no surprise considering that his resume boasts On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Patton; his performance as Arnò encourages sympathy but not pity, and it’s impossible not to enjoy his screen presence. Catherine Spaak is underutilized as Terzi’s daughter, and it’s unclear if her coldness on screen is a result of a lack of talent for the craft or a deliberate stylistic choice. Even my brief synopsis above mentions her only in passing, as her contribution to the mystery is an obvious red herring; she could be removed from the film altogether, and this change would have virtually no effect on the outcome. Franciscus, for his part is well cast, and his range is greater than Plumage’s Tony Mustante, making Giordani a more compelling figure than Dalmas was; compare the scene in which Dalmas fends off the advances of an aging antique dealer in Plumage with the subtlety on display when Franciscus’s Giordani pursues a potential lead to a gay social gathering. He is clearly discomfited, but only on the personal level, not in the abstract, which is not only a mark in the actor’s favor but the director’s, as it demonstrates a positive departure from the way that homosexuals and other “deviants” were portrayed in Plumage.
Also telling is the way in which the murders are committed. As I wrote in my Plumage review, there has been no small amount of scholarship devoted to the sexual overtones of the slasher genre, with predominantly female victims and phallic murder weapons; here, however, the murders are committed with the specific goal of hiding information, and the victims are men as often as (or perhaps more than) they are women, and the woman who is killed onscreen dies in the same manner as the men: fully clothed, with her dignity, via strangulation (although her murder is, admittedly, more brutal and drawn out than those of Dr. Calabresi or the photographer). There are no scenes in which a woman becomes hysterical when trapped by the killer, or in which there is a component of lasciviousness. In fact, Lori, despite being a child, plays a very important role in noticing and gathering information that Arnò cannot because of his lack of sight. I honestly would have preferred to see more of this, as the older man/young woman mystery-solving duo is one of the elements that I love so much about my personal favorite Argento film, Phenomena, which we will be getting to eventually. Although Lori ends up becoming a hostage, this is less because of her sex and more because of her age, and it’s a bit of a surprise how much more progressive this film is than Plumage, especially since less than a year passed between the two movies’ premieres.
Cat isn’t a bad film; it has a great cast, a good mystery, and some great moments. Unfortunately, although this is a film not lacking for substance, its blasé cinematography is nothing new, and it lacks the stylishness that sets Argento apart from the herd (and the ending is so abrupt you’ll wonder if you missed something). Although I recommend the film for fellow Argento fanatics, and horror/slasher fans in general, home video releases of the film are generally abysmal. It seems that not a single VHS release escaped being trimmed, for censorship (of violence and homosexual themes) or to fit the length of tape in a videocassette, as was the case with JTC’s release. Despite advertising itself as being “fully restored,” Diamond Entertainment’s DVD release actually contained the same cut as earlier mangled VHS releases. Anchor Bay’s DVD of the film, which was what I watched, at least contains the full film; ironically, for a film with a disabled hero, there is no release of this film that would work for deaf or hard-of-hearing viewers. Fans like me, who prefer to watch Argento’s films in Italian with English subtitles, are unable to do so–the only subtitles are translations of onscreen text. Blue Underground recently released a Blu-ray of the film, but I don’t know if this oversight has been corrected. Still, if you have the time, opportunity, and a copy of the film in its entirety, it’s worth a watch.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond