Sunday 16 September 2018

The Cat O' Nine Tails

X + YY = 9

The Cat O' Nine Tails
( aka Il Gatto A Nove Code)

Italy/France/West Germany 1971
Directed by Dario Argento
Arrow Blu Ray Zone 2

Warning: Slight spoilers.

Well it’s been quite a long time since I last watched Dario Argento’s second feature film The Cat O’ Nine Tales. It’s one I think I’ve only seen once before because, out of his first 8 or so films (I’ve never gotten around to watching Five Days In Milan - aka The Five Days -  so I can’t include that one), it’s the film I like the least. Strangely enough, I think Argento was of a similar conclusion for many years (perhaps still) that this was his least favourite of his own movies. Now, I remember reading decades ago that in terms of success, the film played to packed audiences and it was, at the time, the most rented or bought of Argento’s films on the home video format. I’ve never understood this one’s popularity but if you can get away from the fact that the story is just a little dull and simplistic, it’s really not a bad film and, in retrospect, it really is an amazingly put together example of an auteur piece in terms of Dario’s output.

As I said, the script is somewhat dull but the acting is actually a notch up from what you get in many of Argento’s movies, as the two Americans who headline the picture are both turning in top gear performances here. It’s really unusual to see this calibre of work in an Italian giallo, even if it is made by one of the two kings of the genre, Dario Argento. Both James Franciscus, who you might remember from such films as The Valley Of Gwangi and Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (reviewed here) and his co-star Karl Malden, who you may remember from films like Murderer’s Row and Billion Dollar Brain... are as good as I’ve ever seen them here.

The film starts its set up with break-in at a high end Genetic Research Laboratory in which nothing appears to be stolen. Newspaper reporter Carlo (Franciscus) and retired, ex-journalist Franco (Malden), who is blind and does a wonderful job convincing the audience of that, join forces in trying to solve the mystery, which seems to be connected to a string of deaths and an attempt on both their own lives.

We also have the lovely Catherine Spaak in the movie, who plays the daughter of the boss of the company and it has to be said, her fashion choices are partially worth watching the film for. Her role is strangely silent for a lot of the time and her striking figure isn’t in a whole lot of the movie but that might be deliberate as it seems that Argento really goes out of his way to make her the person of suspicion in terms of the serial killer here. Actually, in terms of the sex of the killer, this second film is one of the few that breaks the Argento mould but I won’t say too much here because he does really seem to go to great lengths to make sure that his red herrings are well set up. That being said, when the killer was revealed I was surprised but, to a certain extent, not that inspired by the choice of killer as I really didn’t have anything emotionally invested in that person. In fact, I didn't even recognise them.

The film takes the X-YY chromosome revelations of the time and runs with the idea that people with this ending of chromosomes in their genetic make up are more likely to be troubled or violent individuals... something which holds no water today although the idea that anybody can pick out the father of their child and promote certain tendencies in their future offspring genetically is something still very much relevant, from what I remember in the news a few months back. So despite the false premise, the film almost seems bang up to date in terms of the explorations of this particular obsession.

That being said, while the violent set pieces are mainly dull - asides from an interesting shot of a man’s face hitting the front of a train - there are a lot of Argento-isms to enjoy in this film and I think it’s one of his best in terms of the way it’s put together visually.

For example, early on in the film there’s a wonderful, three quarters view of a poorly lit corridor with two men walking up it towards camera which pans along with them. The moonlight  from the unseen windows past the camera’s field of vision is creating a series of verticals in the shape of a diminishing pyramid along the full length of the corridor at a certain height on the screen, punctuated by stabs of colour as it also lights up the brown doors of the many offices in the corridor. A truly gut punchingly beautiful composition. Then, not ten minutes later, the shape of the train tracks in relation to the height of the platform on the scene where the train murder is committed is a huge visual echo of this earlier shot. The director also splits the screen up into shapes and does stuff like an actors head and shoulders, off centre in the composition masking the vertical corner of a wall where the two colour textures meet... good stuff.

And talking of visual echoes... he does a thing here where future parts of shots or even shots from a previous scene are strobe cut into the current scene to show you what a character is thinking about or to give it forward momentum before actually going into the next sequence (a little like what Dennis Hopper does with his quick cuts in certain sections of Easy Rider or a less overt form of what Nicholas Roeg would do in his movies). I don’t remember Argento ever employing this technique again but it certainly gives the film an interesting dynamic, with these little visual stutters suddenly popping up out of the blue and giving you either an insight into a thought process or propelling you forwards into the next set piece.

Other more familiar Argento-isms might be the photographer’s dark room being a bright, neon green instead of the usual red colour (any good for developing photos?) and a wonderfully bizarre, close up, camera mounted POV shot from behind two glasses of milk as they are carried over to Catherine Spaak... similar to other quirky highlights Argento introduces in his art. Not to mention the ‘brown eyed’ close up shots to signal to the audience that... the killer is watching.

It’s been said almost exclusively of Mario Bava, that you could take any frame of the footage from any one of his films and have a perfectly composed, still photograph. Well, of all of Argento’s movies which have exquisite cinematography, this is certainly one where you could do just that too. Some of the shot compositions are truly breathtaking and, to give you some extra icing on the cake, we have another wonderful ‘atonalism meets jazz’ score from the wonderful Ennio Morricone. It’s well worth a listen away from the film too. Very interesting stuff with, of course, the wonderfully hypnotic shenanigans of Edda Dell’ Orso’s truly amazing vocal performance. This is music made in both heaven and hell and the dynamic between the two is always an interesting listen.

And that’s about all I have to say about The Cat O’ Nine Tails. Despite the gorgeous visuals and audio, it’s still one of my least favourites of the early Argento’s but certainly still one, I suspect, which I could watch over and over, if I had the time. Possibly not one of the best ones to take on if you’re an Argento novice but well worth checking out at some point.... especially if you managed to snag one of Arrow’s limited edition boxed versions of this dual Blu Ray/DVD edition, which also includes a booklet, poster and miniature lobby cards along with the usual high quality extras you would expect from their discs. The print and transfer sure look good on this one.

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