“The Cat O’ Nine Tails” (1971): Dario Argento’s stylish suspense-filled Hitchcock-inspired giallo

By on June 1, 2018

The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971) was the second entry in Italian maestro of the macabre Dario Argento‘s “Animal Trilogy,” which were the films he wrote and directed which had animals listed in their titles (Four Flies on Grey Velvet was the last film of the three).

Watch Arrow Video‘s glorious 4K restoration (from the film’s original negative) now on Night Flight Plus.


Academy Award-winning film legend Karl Malden stars as blind crossword puzzle designer, Franco Arnò, who one night is out walking with his young niece Lori (Cinzia De Carolis) when he overhears a man, seated in a parked car, apparently attempting to blackmail another man.

When the secretive Terzi Institute of Genetich Research — located across the road from his apartment, and led by its founder Professor Fulvio Terzi (Tino Carraro) — is broken into later that same night and a guard is killed, Arnò remembers the strange conversation he heard on the street.


Arnò then teams up with a newspaper reporter, Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus), to find out what’s going on.

Franciscus — a Charlton Heston lookalike, hot off the success of Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) — was still considered an up-and-coming star on the rise at the time.


We learn along the way that as a result of his blindness, Arnò was demoted from investigative journalist to crossword writer, although he certainly still has the skills to put the pieces of this particularly intriguing puzzle together.

Before too long, though, the dead bodies are piling up after a series of brutal murders, all connected to the Institute, and the two amateur sleuths quickly find their own lives, not to mention Arnò’s niece’s life, are all in jeopardy.


The supporting cast, including beautiful French-born actress Catherine Spaak (the film’s femme fatale, the daughter of the Institute’s founder), Rada Rassimove (“Bianca Merusi”) and German actor Horst Frank (“Dr. Braun”) also co-star in this stylish suspense-filled thriller.

Beyond Malden and Franciscus, though, most of the cast was largely unfamiliar to most English-speaking viewers at the time.


Read more below about Dario Argento’s The Cat O’ Nine Tails below.


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The Cat O’ Nine Tails — produced on a budget of $1 million U.S. — is one of Dario Argento’s most suspenseful and underrated films.

It was marketed and distributed in the U.S. by the National General Pictures, who pushed for the title — the original Italian title was Il gatto a nove code — so their marketing campaign could declare “Nine times more suspenseful than The Bird with the Crystal Plumage,” a clever way of drawing attention to the concept that felines have nine lives to live (audiences may not necessarily have agreed with them, but that’s beside the point).


The title was a request from Argento’s distributor, Titanius, who wanted him to follow up his successful debut feature, 1970’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, with a quick follow-up film, striking while the proverbial iron was hot.

Argento quickly came up with the idea for this effective giallo, which clearly demonstrates his love for Hitchcock-ian camera angles (the murderer’s identity is hidden behind POV shots and extreme close-ups of eyes).


Argento was also apparently inspired by director Robert Siodmak’s dizzying thriller The Spiral Staircase (1945), which also had a homicidal murderer stalking disabled and blind women.

Like Hitchcock’s stories, there are suitably suspenseful twists and turns, and occasional red herrings and false leads.


The institute’s research into a certain chromosomal abnormality (XYY syndrome) that might signify a “criminal tendency” in patients also provides a nice little backdrop.

The film’s title itself — the name of a particular type of multi-tailed whip, once used as a torture device, mostly for lashes in punishment of crimes, and now used by BDSM fans — is referenced in the nine separate leads that a pair of journalists follow in trying to identify a killer.


The film’s over-the-top violence — including several gratuitous strangulations — was apparently something that Argento pushed for, wanting his follow-up to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage to have the kind of brutal action sequences that were typically seen in Italo-American spaghetti westerns.

The Cat O’ Nine Tails is noted for its wonderfully captivating albeit one-dimensional musical score by the great Ennio Morricone, who had composed the music for Argento’s first film as well.


The Cat O’ Nine Tails was a success everywhere except in Italy, and it is reportedly Argento’s personal least favorite of all of his own films, but there’s still a lot to love in this lurid little spine-tingler, don’t worry ’bout that!

Seek out the Arrow Video DVD to watch the excellent bonus material, including a 16-minute interview with Dario Argento, who talks about working with American actors like Karl Malden and James Franciscus, and being able to shoot at the offices of Paese Sera, the newspaper where he began as a film critic.


There’s also a 30-minute interview (“The Writer o’ Many Tales”) with prolific screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti, in which he talks about his experience getting his big break on The Cat o’ Nine Tails, and he also talks about how Argento tried to downplay the participation of the film’s two screenwriters, leading to a violent confrontation between them (which we’re happy to report they’ve since made up).

There’s also a 15-minute interview (“Giallo in Turin”) with production manager Angelo Iacono, who discusses the locations used in the movie, and a chat with actress Cinzia De Carolis.

Watch Dario Argento’s The Cat O’ Nine Tails on Night Flight Plus.


About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.