Synopsis: When a simple robbery at a research institute leads to a series of brutal murders, a blind puzzle maker (Karl Malden) and a tenacious reporter (James Franciscus) begin their own investigation of the crimes. With nine different clues to follow, they uncover a shocking web of twisted genetics and dark sexual secrets that will finally lead them to a shattering climax of violence and suspense.
Originally released in 1971, The Cat O’ Nine Tails secured the international reputation of director Dario Argento as ‘The Italian Hitchcock.’
Il gatto a nove code 7.5
eyelights: the enigma. the mood. the stylized, but relatively more realistic violence.
eyesores: James Franciscus’ performance. Karl Marlden’s dubbing. Catherine’s Spaak’s (lack of) presence.
You know, I never would have expected this mere months ago, but I’m becoming an amateur of Dario Argento – a minor one, admittedly, but an amateur nonetheless. Given my initial impression of his work, not only is it surprising that I decided to soldier on and explore further, but I’m amazed to say that I’m slowly appreciating his oeuvre to some degree.
‘Il gatto a nove code’ is another film that solidifies his reputation instead of hobbling it (much like ‘Phenomena‘ does for me). What I’m discovering is that I don’t much like his supernatural/fantasy-based motion pictures and tend to appreciate the more traditionally giallo offerings that he’s done – they are usually more psychological and, thus, easier to digest at face value than the others.
It doesn’t help that his films are frequently hampered by loose scripts that are filled with inconsistencies or plain old gaps in logic. One can forgive some of it, of course, but what I’m finding with his supernatural films is that they are even less rooted in reality, so the stories’ construction is often less carefully thought out, more stream-of-consciousness and less crafty.
‘Il gatto a nove code’ is not nearly as stylish as Argento’s other films usually are, but in some ways I found this to be a good thing – it turned the picture into a more traditional crime thriller, one that was likely quite excellent by ’70s standards. It’s not to say that it’s brilliant, though, and all allusions to Hitchcock are unwarranted, I think: Argento doesn’t have the skill that the Master of Suspense had.
The key issue, as always seems to be the case with Argento’s work, is the script. In this case, the script is decent enough, but it tends to be formulaic and to set up its victims all too obviously, not unlike a slasher film does. What could be irritating is that characters will do dumb things like refuse to divulge key information over the phone, insisting on meeting in person.
We all know that the meeting will never take place – it’s been done to death. So not only do we know who’s next in line well in advance, but our intelligence is insulted in the process.
Another prime example is when the mysterious killer(s) decides to inject two cartons of milk that our hero is taking home with some unknown substance. After having punctured the packaging, milk leaks through the hole. Bizarrely enough, it neither makes a huge mess, nor does the hero notice that the cartons are leaking in his hands – he has to figure out he’s being poisoned in a much more random way.
Our main hero in ‘Il gatto a nove code’ is a reporter, incarnated here by James Franciscus. Some may remember him as the Charlton Heston replacement in ‘Beneath the Planet of the Apes‘. I still find the similarities uncanny: he really is like Charlton Heston in so many ways (even down to the voice!), except that he’s much younger and arguably more of a pretty boy.
I’m no fan of Charlton Heston, so any (albeit mild) improvement on the original model works for me. Sadly, even though he’s more intense than Heston, Franciscus isn’t necessarily a better actor; intense isn’t always better (right, Pacino?). Still, he does physical stuff very well, like jumping over a fence, or participating in fight scenes himself. Basically, he turns this journalist, Carlo, into a sort of action hero – for good or bad.
The other star of the picture is Karl Malden. He plays Franco, a former journalist who is now retired. Due to blindness, he habitually wanders about with his niece as a companion. One night, as they’re walking back home, they overhear two people discussing a blackmail. His curiosity getting the better of him, Franco will soon thereafter be at the centre of a mystery, collaborating with our hero, Carlo, to solve it.
Marlden was alright, although I didn’t believe him one bit as a blind person; he looked like someone acting blind. I thought that he was okay, overall, but he was unessential to the picture – anyone could have taken his place. What was weird was that whoever dubbed his voice in post (a common practice of European films at the time), overdid almost every single utterance. It wasn’t annoying, but the voice seemed slightly detached from the character.
Anyway, Franco and Carlo end up investigating a series of crimes surrounding the Terzi Institute, a medical facility that has been doing genetic testing – claiming that they’ve found, through their tests, a chromosomal anomaly that can permit them to identify anyone who is predisposed to criminal activity. Not long after the first break-in begins a series of murders, murders that appear intended to erase the traces of foul play at Terzi.
I enjoyed that the film was based on a scientific principle, even if its supporting theory is not rooted in reality. Given the context, the early ’70s, and the fact that this type of research was still new then, one can excuse the simplistic nature of it here. As well, since one can easily substitute this particular theory (which is that there are people with XYY chromosomes) by almost any other, one carry on as if nothing happened – only sticklers for scientific accuracy would find this difficult to digest.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
What I especially liked was that ‘Il gatto a nove code’ totally stumped me; I didn’t guess the killer’s identity one bit. Admittedly, there are few clues to help the viewer along, but I had a completely different theory, thinking that Anna was a psychotic killer – and that she had a very peculiar relationship with Mr. Terzi (which turned out to be the case, actually). (B-t-w, I never would have recognized Catherine Spaak as Anna – my only recollection of her being in ‘La matriarca‘)I was less impressed with the closing moments of the film, however, which had the killer falling down an elevator shaft – all the while trying to stop the fall by gripping the elevator cables. I didn’t buy it: not only is this a ridiculous notion when one is tumbling head first, but elevator cables would tears the person’s hands to shreds. Furthermore, it just didn’t look real whatsoever. I know that it’s a European production from the early ’70s, and that they did what they could with what they had on hand, but it still nagged at me.
I also disliked the abruptness of the ending. I can handle it when it’s to deliver an unexpected twist, because being left hanging like that is always memorable, but otherwise not providing a wrap-up to a picture is like not savouring the afterglow after sex. I know that some people are probably happy with rolling the credits right away, but I like to linger a while. I must say that I appreciated the fact that the kidnapped girl’s fate is left ambiguous, though. That was a nice touch, because it makes the killer’s death terrible in more than one way.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
Fans of motion pictures scores would easily be pleased with the music in ‘Il gatto a nove code’. Argento had the good fortune of working with Ennio Morricone for his first three films, and Morricone delivered a terrific score on this one. I don’t remember all the details of it, but it was a standout element of the picture, reminding me in parts of Lalo Schiffrin’s score to ‘Dirty Harry’ – at once beautiful, vibrant and eerie. I will likely pick this up on CD, if ever I get the chance.
‘Il gatto a nove code’ may not be a Hitchcockian thriller as some would have you believe, but it’s a decent enough thriller to be enjoyable. It’s also not Argento’s most stylish or clever picture, but it’s a terrific second effort from a young filmmaker. Honestly, I have no doubt that there were few directors who could have boasted such a solid second outing in those days – I can see why it was popular and how he made a name for himself so early on. I realise that it doesn’t hold up to intense scrutiny, but I think that it’s good enough to warrant a few viewings.
Date of viewing: January 26, 2013