Friday, 6 February 2009

Cat O' Nine Tails (1971)

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Throwing-Gold-Shit-At-The-Walls Pty Ltd.

Much like the last Fulci film I reviewed, Don't Torture a Duckling, Cat O'Nine Tails is a more subtle film from early in Argento's career (his second film, in fact). There is less attention paid to shot composition, colour and gory death scenes, but it trades that for a more coherent and well-developed plot. Argento claims this film as his least favourite, and while it's certainly not his best it's got some of the well-crafted set-pieces and creative cinematography that would be expanded on later in his career.

The film revolves around the Terzi Research Institute, a genetics laboratory where they are investigating the controversial (and long since debunked) theory that those with an XYY chromosome configuration are more likely to commit violent crime. Early in the film somebody breaks in and steals some files, but we don't see who they are or what the files contain. Soon, those with a connection to the laboratory start turning up dead. One man is pushed in front of a moving train (a pretty spectacular sequence) and a photographic technician is strangled (and his face slashed) when he discovers that a newspaper photo may hold a clue as to the identity of the killer.

Franco Arno (Karl Malden), meanwhile, is a blind and retired newspaper reporter with a penchant for puzzles. While taking a night-time stroll with his niece, her overhears some talk of blackmail in a parked car. Once he discovers that one of them has been killed, he teams up with another journalist, James Franciscus (Carlo Giordani, who looks like a young Charlton Heston), and together they try to uncover the identity of the killer. This involves looking into a whole bunch of leads (nine in fact, hence the title of the film). So with the police bumbling along (they surmise that the cuts were made with a "razor or a knife or something sharp", thanks guys), our two heroes uncover all sort of juicy tidbits: Incestuous lovers, gay love triangles, the typical giallo stuff.

One of the chief suspects is Professor Terzi's daughter, Anna Terzi (Catherine Spaak). She spends much of the film slinking around in an enormous perm and the most ridiculous, slit-happy dresses the early 70s had to offer. In fact, at one point she demonstrates that the only thing holding her dress together is a delicate strip of velcro at the shoulders. This leads to a love scene is tastefully obscured by two tetrahedrons of milk. Tetrahedrons of milk, you say? Why yes, I'm not sure what's wrong with the traditional rectangular carton, but it does give rise to a suspense sequence involving a glass of poisoned milk, complete with milk-cam.

Other suspects include Dr. Braun, who is homosexual. This leads to a freak-show scene where James has to go to a gay bar and elbow his way through a bunch of trannies and girly-men gazing at themselves in the mirror. Dr. Braun has a much younger lover named Manuel, and later in the film Manuel's ex-lover (also much older) shows up to tell James where Braun is hiding out. He says if Manuel doesn't come back to him he's going to kill himself. Wow, what a drama queen. Surprisingly, Dr. Braun isn't treated as too much of a stereotype and his sexual preference isn't assumed to make him an insane pervert.

There are some pretty good bits in this film. A grave robbing sequence is a particular highlight (Franco keeps a blade in his cane like Zatoichi, who knew?) There's also a decent car chase and some pretty good Argento trademark killer POV sequences. There's a pretty nice, jazzy Ennio Morricone score, too. If this film has one big flaw it's that the central mystery doesn't hold together as much as I would like. When the killer is revealed it isn't a huge surprise. Really, it could have been any one of the surviving suspects. However, it does lead to a thrilling rooftop chase and there's a pretty good bit where killer plummets to their death down an elevator shaft, hands smoking as they try to get a grip on the cables. Ouch!

Bad dubbing and weirdly stilted dialog combine to create some pretty hilarious moments. Franco's niece says she calls him "Cookie" because "cookies are sweet and besides, I like them with chocolate milk." A-whuh? We also see one of James' associates at the tail-end of an insult competition, where he wins with 132 non-stop insults, including "slime", "snotnose", "bed-wetter" and the big finisher, "ball-brain". They should really judge on quality, not quantity, but I guess he could have used up all the really good ones at the start.

Argento may consider this film a failure but I thought it was a pretty good giallo. Certainly not up to scratch with his later films or even his first film, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, but it's still head and shoulders above many giallos from around that time. A good film to enjoy with a tetrahedron of milk, preferably chocolate and served with sweet, sweet cookies.

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