If it ain't broke, don't fix it. 'The Cat O'Nine Tails' opens in similar fashion to 'The Bird with the Crystal Plumage': Rome by night, a street scene; a man on his way home is an accidental witness to ...
Actually, no; scratch that. It becomes a very different film quite early on. One of the chief pleasures of 'TCONT' is Argento's first-act manipulation of accepted giallo conventions. To begin with, our protagonist Franco Arno (Karl Malden) doesn't technically witness anything since he's blind. Secondly, what he stumbles on (a few words of overheard conversation) is indicative of blackmail, not murder. Thirdly, he's revealed, a few minutes later, as not even being the protagonist but a supporting character. Here's our hero of the day, another example of Argento's blandly interchangeable leading men: Carlo Giordano (James Franciscus), an investigative journalist hurrying to the scene of a break-in at the Terzi Institute, a renowned genetics research facility. En route, he bumps into Franco (quite literally); the two quickly join forces as blackmail and burglary leads to multiple murder and everyone at the institute seems to have a secret to hide.
There's institute head honcho Professor Terzi (Tino Carraro), whose interest in his adoptive daughter Anna (Catherine Spaak) is rather unwholesome; there's narcissistic German researcher Dr Braun (Horst Frank), leading a double life that leaves him open to personal as well as professional jealousies; there's Dr Calabresi (Carlo Aleghiero), who fatally discovers something about one of his colleagues ... fatally for him, that is; there's Calabresi's lover, Bianca Merusi (Rada Rassimov), who races to find the incriminating evidence before the killer can find her; there's Dr Casoni (Aldo Reggiani), whose work on the XYY project constitutes one discovery too many.
The XYY project, the Macguffin around which the narrative centres, explores the idea that criminal tendencies are genetically pre-programmed. Casoni enthuses that, once the research has been completed, a simple test at birth, followed by immediate incarceration of all carriers, will effectively stamp out crime and violence. It's a startling concept: a future in which the state whisks babies from womb to prison to guard against what they might do later in life. It's also a highly dubious bit of science, which is probably why the script doesn't explore it any further. Although, as with the later 'Deep Red', there's a brutal irony lurking at the end of the film once you think about it a bit.
It's curious that 'TCONT' remains so under-rated. Read the user comments on IMDB and the general concensus seems to be that it's lacking in Argento's trademark bravura visuals and camerawork ... but you could say that of 'TBWTCP'. In fact, Argento's operatic visual excesses didn't fully kick in until 'Deep Red'. True, there's nothing in 'TCONT' quite as striking as Sam Dalmas trapped between the two sets of glass doors at the start of 'TBWTCP', but there are still some great set-pieces: a murder at a railway station, a bunch of paparazzi distracted from the arrival of a pouting starlet as someone is pushed in front of an oncoming train (the face/front of locomotive impact is not so much homaged in Eli Roth's 'Hostel' as shamelessly plagiarised); a Hitchcockian bit of suspense involving a poisoned carton of milk (a sly reworking of a terrific sequence in 'Notorious'); a bit of business in a shadowy crypt that segues from blackly comic to just plain creepy; a roof-top confrontation/chase scene in which Franco proves himself more than capable despite his blindness.
There are also flaws, however: far too many scenes with the typically ineffectual cop, Superintendent Spini (Pier Paolo Capponi); a pointless romantic subplot between Carlo and Anna (Franciscus and Spaak pitch their performances at a narcoleptic level; there is absolutely no chemistry; their love scene is embarrassing); perfunctory and fairly ordinary death sences; way too many red-herrings (granted, a certain amount of misdirection is requisite in the giallo, but here there are too many instances when the actual plot is all but forgotten about); and a title that's as tenuous as the science is shaky. Discussing the various institute staff whose behaviour prompts suspicion, Franco and Carlo come up with nine names. "Like a cat o' nine tails," Carlo exclaims. "Yes, the old navy whip," Franco nods. "If we could just grasp one of them ..." Carlo muses.
And yet 'TCONT' is an intriguing and often entertaining film to watch. It also benefits from arguably the greatest acting performance in any Argento film: that of Karl Malden. I don't think I've ever seen a mainstream actor play a blind man so convincingly, so physically and with such dignity. Forget Al Pacino's inexplicably Oscar-rewarded turn in 'Scent of a Woman', Malden truly integrates with his character.