After Dario Argento made his successful debut film, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, he immediately embarked on two films that were more conventionally structured, with chequered results. Screenwriting is a complex and fragile thing – you wouldn’t necessarily know that from what passes for acceptable in most American films – but particular structures, forms, motifs and characters that worked once, when repeated, will then fall inexplicably flat on next usage. It’s amazing that there are so many good, seemingly effective ideas in The Cat O’ Nine Tails and Four Flies On Grey Velvet, so it’s doubly disappointing that both of these films end up being such lukewarm failures; not bad movies, but boring, which, to me, is the far greater sin. We’ll expand on those missteps soon enough, but let’s summarize each film briefly, then figure out where things went, not wrong, but nonetheless unsuccessfully.
The Cat O’ Nine Tails (Il Gatto A Nove Code) (Italy, 1971) involves a blind ex-journalist, Franco Arno (the irreproachable character actor Karl Malden) joining forces with another streetwise reporter, Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus, who was a real-live terrific actor despite his easily-dismissed All-American demeanor) to investigate a series of criminal occurrences at the classy Terzi Institute For Genetic Research. There’s a break-in at the Institute, and a night watchman is killed, but, for all of the hubbub, nothing seems to be missing. Nonetheless, the night before, Arno heard a conversation between two men, in passing, concerning blackmail and exposure, that might throw some light on the situation. When another murder occurs, this time involving one of the Institute’s doctor/researchers, Professor Calabresi (Carlo Alighiero), Arno seeks out Giordani to compare notes. When they discover a photographic lead, the photographer is killed. When Calabresi’s girlfriend, Bianca (Rada Rassimov), volunteers information, she’s dispatched as well. Then the killer focuses on Arno and Giordano. Can they solve the multiple murders before becoming victims themselves?
Argento (here creating a story with fellow writers Luigi Collo, Dardano Sacchetti, and an uncredited Bryan Edgar Wallace) employs an old trick – writing a conventional police procedural (or poliziotteschi), but using characters outside of the police to expand the narrative point-of-view. How many hundreds of crusading reporters, or free-lance detectives, have solved crimes that baffled the police, in how many films? It’s interesting that Argento, who worships Hitchcock, would eschew Hitchcock’s normal-guy-in-abnormal-circumstances template in favor of characters who know a great deal about what they’re risking by engaging the mystery. The procedural form also dictates that we learn about the crimes on the same timeline as the characters – there’s no foreshadowing, no cumulative clues, no specific environment that gives rise to the evil deed. When we discover the perpetrator, he essentially explains to us why he/she did it – there’s no twist, no sense that he/she has been under our nose the entire time, if only we had put it together earlier. Argento sets up a lot of suspects – the imperious Terzi (Tino Carraro), his spoiled and slinky daughter Anna (Catherine Spaak), and Terzi’s other professors and researchers – but they just muddy the waters instead of creating genuinely malicious or opportunistic alternatives.
And yet many of Argento’s consistently good choices, from film-to-film, are present here; the eccentric supporting characters (Gigi the Loser [Ugo Fangareggi], a lockpick trying not to return to jail, who participates in local-tavern insult-contests, is especially noteworthy), the integration of gay culture into the fabric of the narrative (in Bird With The Crystal Plumage, it was a cartoon-ish antiques dealer; here, the gay character is a brilliant researcher, and a far more realistic, sympathetic figure), and a love-interest who is the equal to the protagonist, not just a potential victim who trips on her own high heels (although Catherine Spaak’s character does well on the script-page, she is done some technical disservice in the awkwardly written-and-staged seduction scene with Franciscus, and her voice is dubbed in both the English and Italian versions – she’s French, and speaks English, but that’s certainly not her voice; Suzy Kendall in Bird…, and Daria Nicolodi in Deep Red are far better served). And while Argento has good sense in camera angles and placement, his visual narrative here is as disappointingly conventional as his script (Erico Menczer is the cinematographer, but he’s no Ubaldo Terzano).
Even Argento thinks, along with most of us, that The Cat O’ Nine Tails is one of his weakest films. There are many good ingredients sprinkled throughout, including his usual bleakly-abrupt, open-ended ending, as well as his two capable Hollywood-export leads, and a spooky/jazzy musical score by Ennio Morricone. But its stylistic timidity, for the sake of proving to audiences that he could do it straight, undoes the film.
Four Flies On Grey Velvet (4 Mosche Di Velluto Grigio) (Italy, 1971) followed immediately after Cat…, and Argento revisited some earlier ideas from Bird…; an artist (in Bird… a writer, here a musician) is thrust into a perilous situation not of his own making (back to Hitchcock), and must solve an escalating series of crimes in order to save himself from becoming one of the victims. He’s also freer in introducing elements in the background that create atmosphere without necessarily serving the primary narrative – children play seemingly innocent but malevolently intrusive games, the idea of photography as a weapon (first used by Antonioni in Blow-Up, and exploited in both Cat… and Deep Red), and, indeed, weapons of all sorts (knives, metal vases, hypodermics, even a letter in an envelope) take on a malevolently disembodied life of their own.
Roberto (another American import, Michael Brandon) is a rock-‘n’-roll drummer who is inexplicably framed for a murder. A mysterious man has been stalking him for weeks, but when he finally confronts the man after following him into an abandoned theater, a struggle ensues, and Roberto finds himself with a bloody knife in his hand while the mortally-wounded man falls into the orchestra pit. How did that happen?! Things could be worse – there could be a witness. Oh, but, look, there in the balcony – a masked figure with a camera, snapping away. Roberto flees, but doesn’t report what happened, hoping to piece together his unfortunate circumstances before the body is discovered. But in the following morning’s paper… yup, the body’s been discovered. And those balcony-shot photos start showing up in the damnedest places, as well as the dead man’s I.D.; and, eventually, the framer makes a late-night visit to Roberto’s apartment, nearly strangling him while his girlfriend Nina (Mimsy Farmer) sleeps in the next room. Roberto finally confides in Nina, telling her the whole story of the murder, the frame-up, and the intruder who has just left. But when he goes to show her the souvenirs he’s been sent by the framer, they’re all missing. Nina wants Roberto to either spill it all to the police, or go far away with her and leave it behind forever. But Roberto won’t surrender or run, and their relationship, which was fraying anyway, deteriorates further.
We soon discover that those souvenirs have been discovered by Roberto and Nina’s housekeeper, Amelia (Marisa Fabbri), and, through them, Amelia has solved the identity of the framer. She makes an appointment with him (or her?) at a public park teeming with moms and kids, in order to cash in on her knowledge. This is another Hitchcockian sequence, as Argento speeds up time from afternoon to evening, crowded to deserted, public to closed, as Amelia nervously waits on a park bench. Then, of course, the killer attacks, and Amelia’s patient greed has undone her.
Nina’s cousin Dalia (Francine Racette) has come to visit for a few days, but between Nina’s being questioned by the police about Amelia’s death, and her own dread that their home is no longer safe, Nina isn’t around much at present, and Dalia and Roberto cozy up. Is this Roberto’s libido in overdrive, or does Dalia have motives of her own? Roberto also consults with an old friend, Godfrey (Bud Spencer), portentously referred to familiarly as ‘God’; God, a semi-vagrant intellectual who lives on the waterfront, advises Roberto to hire a particular private investigator – meanwhile, another of his eccentric friends, the Professor (Oreste Lionello), will stake out Roberto’s home and report anything suspicious to him. The private investigator is another Argento screwball, Arrosio (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who starts out as a flaming queen with an abysmal history of failed cases, but ingeniously ends up becoming the smartest and most sympathetic character in the whole film.
It’s interesting that the first murder in the film, Amelia’s (Roberto’s ‘murder’ was, of course, staged), doesn’t happen until well over a third of the film has gone by. But Argento’s inventive parade of supporting characters and potential suspects keeps us engaged; after Amelia’s death, the body count escalates rapidly. Death and dread surround Roberto, in party conversations, in his disturbing dreams, and in the framer’s intrusions into his private life. But, ultimately, Roberto isn’t a character we’re inclined to sympathize with, especially after he takes up with Dalia in Nina’s absence. We aren’t given enough backstory to relate to him early on, and his conflicted decisions through the course of the film, all made with the same monotonous-hipster self-interest, erode our sympathies towards him. When the killer is revealed, the motives are, indeed, revenge-based, but Roberto’s such a schlub by the time we get there that it’s hard to associate that much homicidal passion being directed at him.
As well as his colorful side characters, Argento also enlivens the proceedings with more direct visual stylization. He’s back to the overhead-and-low-angle tracking shots that enliven the majority of his work. (The cinematographer here is Franco Di Giacomo; he’s a capable journeyman, but he’s no Ubaldo Terzano.) His use of Ennio Morricone’s music is sparer here – there’s the music Morricone makes for Roberto’s jazz-rock band, which augments a few other non-band scenes, and particularly spooky children’s music in the Amelia / park sequence, but, otherwise, it’s negligible.
There are a few interesting footnotes here as well: Michael Brandon (Roberto) went on to the short-lived TV show Dempsey and Makepeace with Glynis Barber, and ended up doing voice work on Thomas The Tank Engine And Friends for nine years. Mimsy Farmer is a Chicago native who appeared in Barbet Schroeder’s More (with its notable Pink Floyd soundtrack), as well as a number of other giallos (notably The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974) and Autopsy (1975). Francine Racette (Dalia) is/was a Québécoise actress who shortly thereafter became the third Mrs. Donald Sutherland; she’s Kiefer’s stepmother.
The Cat O’ Nine Tails was a capable thriller that simply faded into the miasma of the hundreds of capable thrillers that were its contemporaries – solid but undistinguished. Argento went back to his trademark narrative and visual stylizations for Four Flies On Grey Velvet, but couldn’t really spin those particular ingredients into a satisfying, consistent whole. These two films, along with The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, are considered to be his “animal trilogy” by giallo aficionados, although I suspect Argento saw each of them as stand-alone projects. After these three films, Argento even thought of abandoning the giallo, and wrote and directed the low-budget spaghetti western Le Cinque Giornate, known here as Five Days In Milan. Never heard of it? There’s a reason. After its less-than-warm reception, Argento decided to take one more shot at the giallo after all, and, boy are we glad he did. Next up: Deep Red (Profondo Rosso).