Animal Instinct: Dario Argento’s ‘Cat O’Nine Tails’ (Blu-ray)

Dario Argento’s oft-referenced ‘Animal Trilogy’ (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat O’Nine Tails, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet) are not linked by content, concept, or context. They all derive from the same cinematic sourcing – the crime thriller known as the ‘giallo’ – but for the most part, they are separate entities struggling to expand the then fledgling filmmaker’s frame of reference. It would take Deep Red (Profondo Rosso) to cement his status as Italy’s premiere genre artist, and Suspiria to move him over to auteur, and these first three films reflect the painful growing process Argento had to endure. Stylistically, Cat is the least flamboyant of the triptych, reading more normative than the rest of this efforts. It could be because of its American leads. It could also be because, like any sophomore struggle, the filmmaker wasn’t quite sure where to take his talents next.

A blind ex-journalist, Franco Arno (Karl Malden) who now creates crossword puzzles for the local Italian newspaper overhears what sounds like a blackmail plot. With the help of his doting little niece Lori he gets some vital visual pieces of information. Within hours, the building across from his, the genetic science lab known as The Terzi Institute, is the scene of an attempted break-in. Hot shot journalist Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) arrives at the scene hoping to get a scoop. He discovers that the only thing targeted was a filing cabinet in one specific doctor’s office, but no one knows what, if anything, was taken. Suddenly, a string of murders occur, all leading back to the Institute, it’s well placed owner, his statuesque daughter, and a staff that includes a gaggle of ripe red herrings. Together, Arno and Giordani try to crack the case, while the bodies – and threats – pile up around them.

With it DNA based exposition and alternative lifestyle subtext, Cat O’Nine Tails (new to Blu-ray from Blue Underground) was quite daring in its time. It tries to use the so-called XYY criminal chromosome conceit as an effective whodunit premise and then peppers the rest of the narrative with allusions to incest, homosexuality, and other so-called abhorrent antisocial behavior. Of course, this being 1971, much of this material is buried in inference and suggestion. Even the salty St. Peter’s Club where a clearly gay character hangs out with his boy consorts is never given a clear orientation definition. Unlike Bird and Flies, which rely on narrative gimmicks to get to its conclusion, the stunt here is buried in the script. We spend so much time hearing about genetics and cloning, heredity and the medical manipulation of all three that we forget that someone is killing the various ancillary characters, reducing the possible suspect pool significantly.

Part of the problem with this otherwise excellent thriller is that Argento is still just finding his form. The flash and fearlessness he would exhibit in Deep Red is almost non-existent here. There are no shocking sequences of knives plunging, in slow motion, deep into a scholar’s stifled neck, or a crazy clockwork puppet announcing the arrival of an assassin. Instead, Argento gives us Americans Malden and Franciscus as the eyes and ears of an investigation, and then allows the standard suspense puzzle pieces to fall into place. We never really fear for anyone except Lori, since she is a young girl who has little to do with the plot except to be small and vulnerable. Arno adores her, meaning she will have to play some part in the finale, and with Giordani making cow eyes at the fetching female lead (Catherine Spaak), our outside interests are secured.

For the most part, Argento manages to handle himself without question. He keeps the story moving along at a decent pace, rarely doubling back to let ancillary information clog his concerns. We get the blackmail threat, the first death, the connection between the victim and the Terzi Institute, and the various loose threads that lead to the somewhat left field ending. When Giordani follows up on the XYY facet and the field of possible institute employees, we can instantly see where the answer is bound to come from. As he circles the stylist German doctor who loves his lithe men, we hope the denouement won’t be this obvious -or offensive. Luckily (and without giving away much), Argento treats this material as just another fact in a soon to be overflowing dossier. This is not a movie out to condemn lifestyles. Indeed, it really wants to argue that crime is born within the criminal, not a real reaction to environment or circumstances.

It’s an interesting angle, but Cat O’Nine Tails does little with it. In this determined detective story, it’s just a device, a means of making the reveal seem even more “shocking.” It also adds a layer of ludicrousness. If we are to believe the whole XYY thing, Terzi and the rest would have known who was after them to begin with, confidentiality or not. Indeed, the company wouldn’t be the target of some secretive scam. Instead, all would be jockeying for position within a framework of who knows what and how to capitalize on same. Still, with Malden proving his polished acting chops and Franciscus keeping up with him, beat for beat, Cat O’Nine Tails literally tricks us into liking it. Upon reflection, it’s ridiculous. But in the moment, it’s clues and conclusions prove provocative.

Still, needed to change for our fledgling director. By the time of Flies, Argento was ready to reinvent himself. He tried a comic western (Five Days in Milan) and then dabbled a bit in TV. Still, audiences loved his gloriously gruesome giallos, and so a return to form with the fantastic Deep Red was merely a matter of time. With that amazing masterwork, the filmmaker signaled that the ‘Animal Trilogy’ phase was indeed over. No more working with the confines of the genre. No more meeting or matching viewer expectation. Instead, Argento reconfigured artifice into art. For a peek at where he came from, and where he might be going, Cat O’Nine Tails is terrific. As a standalone murder mystery, it’s a bit muddled and meaningless.

RATING 7 / 10