The middle installment of Dario Argento’s career-launching Animal Trilogy, The Cat o’ Nine Tails/Il gatto a nove code is the second of eleven of his -- plus five more related to his producer father Salvatore or actress-director daughter Asia -- comprising the Museum of Arts and Design “Argento: Il Cinema Nel Sangue” tribute to the film family.
Like its triptych mates, this 1971 police thriller was produced by Salvatore, imagined and co-scripted by Dario and scored by Ennio Morricone. All three are being pleasantly projected in vintage, faded, scratchy 35mm, and in fact the reels of this one arrived so late that there was no time to get around a hiatus and circle-number countdown separating each of its three parts.
Reputation to the contrary, it is not gruesome or sexy. All three of these first efforts lack the signature supersaturated color of later Argento, especially garish blood red. With sly blackish humor, they center on bystanders who witness, overhear or are forced into something that draws them into investigating murders.
CNT has two such amateur sleuths. Coincidence, certainly, but the same year that James Franciscus appeared as television’s blind insurance investigator Longstreet, in the film he is the sighted partner, newspaper journalist Carlo Giordani. Working alongside him as more the brains of the twosome is Franco Arno (Karl Malden), a journalist until losing his vision in an accident and now a crossword-puzzle professional using a Braille type tray.
Blind Arno’s compensatory acute hearing is made use of only to initiate the action, when he hears something, indistinct to the audience, about blackmail. The speaker is in a car which Arno walks by with Lori (Cinzia De Carolis), the child who calls him “Uncle Cookie” and is his only close tie in the world.
He and Giordani literally bump into one another at nearby Terzi Institute as the reporter hurries there to join his photographer Righetto (Vittorio Congia) covering a break-in during which nothing was taken. Liberally funded by the government, Professor Fulvio Terzi’s (Tino Carraro) medical research involves hush-hush work on XYY chromosomal aberration found -- audience titters -- in people prone to violence.
Terzi’s “adopted daughter” Anna (Catherine Spaak) is shoehorned in as the newsman’s problematic love interest. She is razor-thin among a generally slender cast, and even the capital’s cars make a Renault 2CV look wide. Franciscus himself is slight and, chiseled blond, attracts eyes and jealousy in the ironically named gay Saint Peter’s Club, where he seeks one of the Institute’s experts, recalcitrant Dr. Braun (Horst Frank).
Blackmail and industrial espionage are afoot and result in murders. Largely among Terzi employees, there are nine clues and/or culprits -- hence the fanciful title. The first, Dr. Calabresi (Carlo Alighiero), is crushed under an arriving train, the act luckily recorded by Righetto’s camera. Arno’s suspicion that the published front-page photo has been cropped and that the victim was pushed, brings him and Lori to the newsroom and the forming of a team with Giordani.
When the dead man’s dubious fiancée, Bianca Merusi (Rada Rassimov), is strangled, conclusive evidence is buried with her, leading the two amateurs to a crypt at night -- and a false momentary suggestion of the blind man’s guilt.
Somewhat experimental for its day, the film’s frequent camera approach is hammered home: point-of-view shot, through the eyes of the unseen perpetrator. Argento is not confident enough that the audience will grasp the obvious and so overdoes quick giveaway frames of the man’s/woman’s iris and pupil.
Abetted by police Superintendant Spini’s (Pier Paolo Capponi) bending regulations for them, and by humorous petty criminal Gigi “the Loser” (Ugo Fangareggi, the jailed stuttering pimp in trilogy opener, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), and mostly by Arno’s shrewdness and hunches, they come closer to solving the case, so close that the strangler-slasher turns his eyes on them.
A tall and slimmer Malden stands out, but even with a rooftop chase, the conclusion and revelation are abrupt. So much has gone on for so little in the hundred-twelve minutes that it was understandable that a woman who had just fallen asleep had to ask who the murderer was.
(Released by National General Pictures and rated “R" by MPAA.)