Saturday, 14 April 2007

Some thoughts on Cat o' Nine Tails

I have been thinking a lot about Argento's second film, Cat o' Nine Tails, recently.

It is a film which is often evaluated as the weakest of his early period. Reading responses to the film, much of the criticism seems to fall into two camps. Many fans don't seem to be particularly willing to go beyond Argento's own negative appraisals of the film, in a the-master-has-spoken manner. Those with a more critical orientation, meanwhile, often seem to react negatively to the film because its particular interests do not accord with their theories; Gary Needham's Kinoeye article is a good example.

The more I think about the film, however, the more I find I like it. Admittedly this could be simple perversity; a desire to demonstrate an independent position vis-a-vis an author-god, or that the limited applicability of film psychoanalysis is in accord with the approach I want to use as an alternative.

Any film with a blind protagonist who feels his way through the world with a cane that is essentially a part of his body rather than a separate thing is, I have to admit, pretty much a gift as far as a phenomenological, cinaesthetic reading is concerned.

Plus, no doubt some would be suspicious of any film that has to be worked at in this sort of way – shouldn't the best films have an effect the first time round and then unveil new resonances and depths with each viewing?

In this regard, I find Argento films seem to fall into a number of camps here. There are some, like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red and Inferno, that I fell in love with the first time I saw them and can watch again and again and always find something new to enjoy in. There are others, including Trauma along with Cat o' Nine Tails, which took longer and more effort to get a handle on.

Crucially, however, I think this is a reflection of the interplay of “surface” and “depth” in Argento's cinema; that different films work in different ways with them, rather than as anything to do with one group being superior or inferior to the other.

So, my question to you is: what do you like or dislike about Cat o' Nine Tails, either in itself or in relation to other Argento films.

For the record, here is a brief itemisation of some of my current thoughts:

I think the film suffers, reception wise, from the lack of a endlessly re-viewable set piece as in its predecessor. But the sequence in the train station leading up to the murder of Calabresi is suspensefully constructed and the montage of shots as he goes under the train so tight and precise – bang, bang, bang – as to be sufficient compensation.

I think the performances are better, or at least Argento was more comfortable with his actors this time around and could get them to simply be there as elements within the frame, somewhat akin to the approach favoured Antonioni and Hitchcock; Cinzea de Carolis also has that rare quality among child actors of not being in the least bit annoying. Arno and Giordani are characters one feels warmer towards than their counterparts in the other Animal Trilogy films, although crucially this not come at the cost of making them idealised types devoid of flaws – Giordani makes his leaps of judgement, while Arno's flipping out at the end has dubious parallels with the killer's.

The editing has an edginess and experimental quality to it, as if with flashes of insight and precognition that seem to double for Arno's sixth sense and thus perhaps prefigure themes in Deep Red and beyond; Bianca Merusi's murder also feels like something of a dry run for Amanda Righetti's in Deep Red and if you look carefully you can see that she also has a door-handle incident slightly reminiscent of those in Inferno.

The science is more convincing than Four Flies on Grey Velvet. Even if the XYY chromosome idea might have been discredited, genetic predispositions seem to have become more rather than less discussed.

I especially like the ironies within the writing, the attention to detail that too often goes unrecognised perhaps on account of the legacy of the Argento-as-visual-stylist approach.

It is the way Arno and the killer respond existentially to the hands that fate has dealt them, and that we here have a scientist who for all his purported brilliance seems to too easily slip from correlation to causality – after all, it is only a significantly higher proportion of the prison population who have the XYY combination, not all of them. Or the way in which the blackmailer and those engaged in industrial espionage are seeking the same ends, independently and in ignorance of one another, yet it is the way in which they come together in terms of the subsequent investigation that confuses things so much. Or the parallel between Bianca's watch with the cameo portrait of her dead love and the cameo portrait on the slab of her own tomb.

Yes, there are weaknesses – who killed Braun, why and with what consequences (though I wonder if this could be given a queer reading akin to that Robin Wood performs on Hitchcock's Rope) or the coincidence of having Anna cut her hand at the inopportune moment for example – but ultimately I feel it is a film that deserves a second look.


Lizard McSpider said...

Can you imagine what kind of life someone leads who spends their time analyzing Dario Argento pictures using words like "phenomenological"? I can't wait to hear about the hermeneutics of Inferno. Sergio Martino forever!

Richard Harland Smith said...

CAT O'NINE TAILS is my favorite of "the animal trilogy." I'm intrigued by the notion of a vaguely futuristic Italy where the wealthy can fiddle with their bloodlines to create (or so they seem to think) the perfect progeny. Meanwhile, interpersonal relationships are going to Hell, with society existing in the "found families" of friends and lovers and the relationship to killer and victim. I even think the "wooden" sex scene between Franciscus and Spaak speaks volumes about a societal disinclination to allow true closeness.

Thomas McCain said...

What a sad,sad fate for two such fine actors as James Franciscus and Karl Malden. Poorly written,edited,filmed and acted; this horrible travesty of celluloid trash should have been on my professor's USC Film School cirriculum as a Prime Example of How to Make A Bomb.PPPPPPEEEEUUUWWWW !