In only his second film as director after The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Dario Argento was determined to demonstrate new facets of his talent, enthusing that The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971) – starring James Franciscus, Karl Malden and Catherine Spaak – would be a different beast to its giallo siblings. Sadly, the only discernible difference between this film and his masterful debut seems to be that only one of them is any good. Events begin abruptly with the saintly Franco Arno (Malden) and his niece overhearing a delicate conversation between two shadowy men in a parked car.
The film then quickly falls into a familiar trajectory of death and paranoia. The men’s words gather more relevance as the pair investigate following a string of murders related to a pharmaceutical company’s research into criminal gene theory, another underexploited and potentially interesting angle on an otherwise generic piece. “Technique is nothing more than failed style” offers John Water’s Cecil B. DeMented (2000), but the inverse is equally applicable in Argento’s early career, with films such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red (1975) exuding an inventiveness – even playfulness – born out of the filmmaker’s desire to push the technical and visual boundaries of the medium.
Argento opts for a more classical approach, unfolding predominantly in wide and medium compositions, panning slightly to accommodate movement. In the hands of a more versatile filmmaker, this would hypnotise; in Argento’s hands, it looks like bad television – a verdict confirmed by the hammy delivery of a script which, though ludicrous and exposition-heavy, could have actually been a lot of fun. Later outings are similarly flat, but always boast astonishingly designed set pieces that elevate even the most routine or ridiculous to a higher plain. What The Cat O’ Nine Tails lacks in its moments of suspense – or, in one particular instance, body horror – is consistency.
There are flashes of brilliance and what the filmmaker would later coin ‘violence as art’ – including one particularly memorable shot of a falling man’s hands smoking as they clasp an elevator cable. Sadly, these moments are sandwiched between such obvious and mundanely executed elements, making it hard to determine whether these flourishes are truly as inspired as they appear, or simply more favourable by comparison. One may well find themselves scouring The Cat O’ Nine Tails for silver linings or fresh takes, attempting to impose the filmmaker’s talents and preoccupations onto areas of the film where neither are present.