Originally released in 1971, The Cat O’ Nine Tails was written and directed by the mighty Dario Argento, who has done much better with films such as Suspiria, Deep Red, and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. The film is often labeled as one entry in Agento’s “Animal Trilogy” (with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Four Flies on Grey Velvet).
The Cat O’ Nine Tails is what Italians call a giallo. The term was inspired by a series of crime novels titled Il Giallo Mondadori (meaning the “Mondradori Yellow Books”). Each book used a trademark yellow (giallo) cover background. In Film, giallo refers to any type of thriller, ranging from hard crime drama to films that touch on horror.
Karl Malden stars as Frank Arno, a retired newspaperman who experienced an accident that rendered him blind—he now makes a living creating crossword puzzles for the syndicate. The movie opens with Arno walking with his young niece (who affectionately calls her uncle “Cookie”) when he overhears a conversation between two men sitting in a nearby car. It turns out that the men work at a medical institute (the Terzi Medical Institute) where genetic experiments are being performed. That very night, someone breaks into the institute, but there are claims that nothing was stolen.
A series of horrible murders begins to take place, and intrepid reporter Carlo Giodani (James Franciscus) is hot on the trail of the murderer. Giodani then join forces with Arno, and both men begin to unravel the complex trail of the murderer. The men conclude that there are nine principal leads to catch the “cat,” hence referring to the film’s title, a cat with nine tails.
As the men home in on the killer, he panics and kidnaps Giodani’s niece Lori (Cinzi De Carolis). The film’s final reel has both men battling the killer in an effort to save Lori’s life and at last solve the mystery behind the gruesome murders.
Hardcore fans of horror and Argento will find The Cat O’ Nine Trails something of a disappointment, but giallo fans and watchers of more conventional crime thrillers will find that they will enjoy the overall mystery and the performances in the film. There are a few gruesome sequences, but there is very little of the Argento style seen later in movies like Suspiria. However, serious fans of Argento’s work will admit that even here there are subtle elements of Argento’s use of color, use of sets, and an affinity toward the cerebral and complex. These hallmarks, though buried in the giallo framework, do peek out from time to time.
Argento has a tighter grip in The Cat O’ Nine Trails, perhaps contributing to his later quip, that it “was too much like an American movie.” The looseness in plot that could come in later films is not present, but Argento still demonstrates that he is capable of a more pedestrian outing that remains effective and suspenseful. The acting all around is good, with Malden carrying the show and perhaps even Franciscus, who remains his usual wooden self.
Although lacking the edge of his later works, The Cat O’ Nine Trails remains a solid entry into the giallo genre, and as such will not be a disappointment to most viewers, save those yearning for the Argento magic. Those into crime dramas and mysteries will watch it more than once.