The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971)

Posted: December 5, 2014 in Movie Review
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The Cat O' Nine Tails (1971)

Director: Dario Argento

Starring: James Franciscus, Karl Malden, Catherine Spaak

Mysteries are irresistible. They must be solved. The mystery of what the filmography of Dario Argento has in store is one I’d gone without solving for far longer than I should have. Until now, all I knew of the man’s career was that he’d directed at least one masterpiece of horror (“Suspiria”) and had co-written one of the all-time great Westerns (“Once Upon a Time in the West”). Those credits by themselves would be enough to cement his place in film history, but the question remained: What else did Argento have to offer me? More of a random choice than anything else, 1971’s “The Cat o’ Nine Tails” ended up being the first one I pounced upon.

Franco Arnò (Karl Malden) enjoys mysteries, as well. At one time an investigative journalist, Franco retired from that position after going blind. Literally in the dark now, this has not deterred Franco’s fascination with puzzle-solving. When a witness to a break-in at a medical facility is murdered, Franco seeks out fellow journalist Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus), who wrote an article about the break-in. Soon, the photographer who snapped the picture of the murder is himself killed. Well, of course, this only makes the two all the more curious about what’s going on.

It seems this all has to do with research at the lab involving the XYY syndrome, a 1 in 1,000 occurrence whereby a human male is born with an extra chromosome. Supposedly, so the story implies, this can lead to violent tendencies. So, whomever your killer is also has this extra chromosome. Everybody got that? Good. The problem is not in figuring out what’s causing the killer’s need to kill. It’s the identity of this person that remains a mystery, especially since he’s offing everyone who closes in on solving that particular riddle.

The title of the movie refers neither to an actual feline, nor the whip of the same name, but to the set of clues which the two protagonists follow. With each successive murder, their list of leads continues to dwindle. Soon, their own lives will be threatened. This includes a suspenseful, drawn out scene involving a poisoned carton of milk in Carlo’s apartment. Actor James Franciscus, whom I thought did well as the lead in the all-too brief “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” (which I actually like, in spite of all its flaws), gets another chance to shine here. Carlo will get to the bottom of this mystery and nab himself one hell of a story, even if it kills him.

Disappointing about “The Cat o’ Nine Tails” is both the pacing of the story and the musical score. The story moves at a slow pace that could cause some to glance at their wrist watch a time or two, but that much is made up for by the film’s competent leads. As the rock band Goblin wouldn’t even be formed until the following year, Dario Argento wouldn’t be making use of their talents until later. Instead, Argento calls upon the incomparable Ennio Morricone. So what’s disappointing about that? Well, the unfortunate thing is that “The Cat o’ Nine Tails” is one of Morricone’s least memorable scores. As this was just the second film directed by Dario Argento, he still hadn’t quite refined his skills at this time. Missing is the more colorful cinematography which makes “Suspiria” such a joy to watch. At least the murders are graphic enough… by 1971 standards, anyway. I can’t say this is one I’ll be revisiting any time soon. However, because of my interest in the film’s director, I still don’t feel as though my time was wasted in exploring “The Cat o’ Nine Tails.”

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Sounds intriguing. I love a mystery!!!!!!!

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