The Cat o' Nine Tails (Il gatto a nove code) is commonly reckoned among the director's minor works, despite attempts to make it part of a poorly defined 'animal trilogy' with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Four Flies on Grey Velvet.
All things considered The Cat o' Nine Tails deserves its for-completists-only reputation. As an attempt to push the envelope at a time when the classic giallo of the sixties was running out of steam, the film is overshadowed by Mario Bava's violent Twitch of the Death Nerve. But it's still full of interesting ideas that Argento recycled in later masterpieces like Deep Red.
Franco Arnò (Serbian-American actor Karl Malden), a blind man, and his niece Lori (Cinzia de Carolis) are out for a walk at night when they overhear a man in a parked car talking about blackmail to an unseen companion. Arnò, disturbed by this, is up at his home later solving a crossword when he hears the sound of a guard being struck at the head at a nearby research facility. The next day, it turns out that somebody broke into the Terzi Institute, but apparently stole nothing. The police, led by Superintendent Spimi (Pier Paolo Capponi), suspect industrial espionage, especially as the institute was spearheading research into XYY syndrome.
The case turns uglier when one of the institute's researchers, Dr Calabresi (Carlo Alighiero), falls off a platform at the railway station and is crushed to death by a train. Arnò suspects foul play and teams up with the journalist working on the story, Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus). Realising that Calabresi was pushed they begin to investigate the owner of the institute, Fulvio Terzi (Tino Carraro), his scientists and Calabresi's paramour Bianca Merusi (Rada Rassimov). Nine leads in all - hence the title. But that number goes down quickly as somebody starts bumping off possible witnesses to their crimes...
It's a weak plot. And not in the 'Whee, let's have fun with crazy surreal murders!' way we're used to from Bava's films, but as if Argento ran up against a deadline, could not figure out his own mystery, and tried to cover the unconvincing reveal with a tremendously abrupt ending. And that's without the whole chromosome nonsense, inspired by sensationalistic misreporting of men with XYY syndrome at the time. It's not just silly now that public understanding of genetics has moved at least somewhat beyond 'it's magic, and also rigid biological determinism'; it's also pretty insulting to those who were vilified as likely delinquents on the basis that they had an extra chromosome. (Full disclosure: as far as I'm aware, I have just forty-six chromosomes. There's a sentence I never expected to write in a film review.)
The characters are much better, as much as Argento's screenplay attempts to make mincemeat out of any arcs. Giallo heroes tend to be foreigners, but as a blind man Arnò is an outsider of another kind. If his impairment is mostly rendered stereotypically (enhanced hearing, that sort of thing), Malden elevates the character to something much better than the script had in mind. Franciscus's Giordano is a far more milquetoast character, although he's never less than likeable and gets something of an arc through his affair with Terzi's daughter Anna (Catherine Spaak). But the film's treatment of its co-leads is wildly uneven, with early hopes of an unconventional protagonist dashed as he is increasingly upstaged by Giordano. Argento would get the balance of a journalist-and-amateur team right the second time around in Deep Red - by demoting one of the characters.
Like many of Argento's films The Cat o' Nine Tails touches on risqué themes. Here it's homosexuality, presented sensitively for its time (as would be the case in Deep Red). Then there's the police, who are more competent here than they are in a lot of gialli but are fully aware of their reputation for reactionary politics. When Giordano insults him, Spimi agrees nonchalantly: 'Cops are all bastards. We beat confessions out of people. Take bribes. Oppress minorities.'
As is standard in the giallo, plenty of people die between announcing they've solved the case and actually passing on that information. The role of the telephone is one of the strongest links between the giallo and its North American bastard child, the slasher. (It's also a neat way of separating the two distinct traditions that I've argued can be found in the American slasher: if it's obsessed with the telephone, it's a giallo-style slasher, not a descendant of the countryside-revenge film.) In both subgenres, the telephone connects and isolates at the same time, as characters are able to speak to one another but are physically alone and vulnerable. As such, conversations interrupted by the murderer can be a key event (Halloween) or even the whole concept (Scream).
Stylistically Argento begins to move beyond The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, arguably the apex of the classic giallo. That means experimenting with Bavaesque colour, an enterprise he subsequently abandoned until the later seventies. Above all, though, it's by escalating the violence. While less extreme than Twitch of the Death Nerve half a year later, Cat pushes the envelope in nastiness with unflinching death scenes. Surrounded by a better film, that might be impressive; but here it leaves a sour aftertaste, especially paired with an underwhelming, synth-heavy Ennio Morricone score. The Cat o' Nine Tails may have been a cul-de-sac, but thankfully the director learnt from it.