Reviewed by Phil Poggiali
An American publication based on a European co-production, The Cat O’ Nine Tails is the only novelization of a Dario Argento film. It’s also one of the few penned by two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee (for the novel Carmela and the stage play Red River Rats) Paul J. Gillette.
The film’s screenplay, from a story co-authored by Argento, Luigi Collo and Dardano Sacchetti, follows the investigation by newspaper journalist Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) and blind crossword designer Franco Arno (Karl Malden) into a series of murders tied to the break-in of the Terzi Institute for Genetic Research in Rome. They discover the murders are connected to research subjects possessing an XYY chromosome aberration, which is thought to make a person more inclined to violence, and that two of the victims -- one of them a doctor who is pushed in front of a train -- were blackmailing the killer. Giordani falls for beautiful Anna Terzi (Catherine Spaak, in a stunningly wooden performance), adopted daughter of the Institute director and a suspect. After several attempts on the amateur detectives’ lives, Arno’s granddaughter Lori is kidnapped, and, in a gripping finale, Arno and Giordani trace the killer to the rooftops of the Institute.
Argento’s often subjective camerawork, jarring edits and a tendency to withhold information reinforces what Maitland McDonagh identifies in the film as the “impossibility of seeing ... anything in a world in which all perception is by its nature fragmentary or distorted” (67). The novelization runs counter to the film’s approach: it lets us see nearly everything. For example, Argento’s impulse is to drop us into the action, as Arno and Lori, during an evening stroll, overhear the conversation that sets off a deadly chain of events. Gillette, however, opens with a lengthy description of the Terzi Institute and the street on which it is located, the Via Pax Augusta -- including the street’s residents, architecture, and commercial properties -- before seguing into Arno’s childhood memories of the neighborhood, the details of the accident that left Arno sightless and, finally, his relationship to Lori. All before the two characters overhear that crucial conversation.
Also interesting is a scene that never appears in the film, in which Arno reveals the identity of the killer and his whereabouts to Giordani and the police. Arno believes the killer’s homicidal impulses are triggered when his XYY aberration is in danger of being exposed. In his summation, he questions the killer’s irrational behavior -- and, by extension, the film’s plot -- calling the killer “rather stupid,” “genuinely stupid,” and a “stupid man,” and marveling at the “limited intelligence” that drove him to murder people that posed no discernible threat to his security, since the records of his aberration, according to Arno, would have hurt him “only slightly if at all.” Arno’s lecture exposes the film’s wobbly foundation, as if Gillette were working out his own frustrations with Argento’s story.
The finale is almost a parody of the haunting, ambigious ending of the film. In the final scene Arno, thinking his granddaughter has been killed, causes the death of the murderer, leaving Lori (and Giordani’s) fate unknown. The novelization’s wrap-up, however, is silly: Arno and Lori are reunited after the killer accidentally falls to his death (Arno's involvement is played down), an injured Giordani jokes with Anna about his ability to perform in bed, and food-obsessed Deputy Inspector Morsella suggests to a colleague that they go out for a celebratory dinner of scungilli!
Argento, a reader of American crime novels who used Fredric Brown’s The Screaming Mimi as the basis for his debut effort, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, may have been aware of The Cat of Many Tails (1949) by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee using their Ellery Queen pseudonym (The Italian translation appeared in 1954 as Il gatto dalle molte code, #33 in the Serie gialla series published by Garzanti). The novel focuses on a hunt for a serial killer, named The Cat by the newspapers, who has strangled eight young women using a collection of multi-colored silk cords. A plot twist in both The Screaming Mimi and THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE has strong similarities to Dannay and Lee's revelation that the assumed murderer is actually a guilt-ridden husband protecting his psychotic wife, the real killer, from authorities.
Though the number nine does not figure into the title, it is significant: Ellery Queen, the heroic detective, tries to stop a ninth murder by using another woman as bait. Argento's film references its title when Giordani identifies “nine leads to follow,” though how he and Arno arrive at that number is never explained; in his critical study of Argento's cinema, L. Andrew Cooper counts the initial break-in at the Institute, the theft of incriminating photographs, and a combination of victims and suspects as a total of nine. Cooper explains that since a cat o’ nine tails is also an instrument used in fetish clubs, in such a context the title seems apt: most of the film’s nine threads involve some kind of sexual aberration (39).
Gillette forces the undercurrent of sexuality, aberrant or otherwise. He finds (lame) humor in the Institute’s research with unfertilized sperm (“Hi Spimi,” grinned Giordani, extending his hand as the inspector approached. “Who stole all the jism?”) and writes several minor characters as comically horny. Even investigating authorities are driven to distraction: “Inspector Spimi ... slid down in his seat, and fixed his eyes to her gorgeously golden thighs which were visible right up to her pink bikini panties.” When Giordani arrives at the Terzi mansion to question Anna, she greets him with her legs spread, sans panties. Gillette also graphically expands on a sex scene that, in the film, was depicted in a series of coy, PG-rated images.
Award Books may have requested Gillette spice up the material. It’s curious, then, that one of the more perverse aspects of the film didn’t make it to the book. In the film Giordani breaks into Terzi’s office and discovers from a series of journal entries that Anna may be having an affair with her adoptive father. When Giordani accuses her of committing the murders under threat of blackmail, Anna says "You petty, narrow-minded little reporter. You figured it all out, didn't you? A neat equation, Italian-style: whore equals liar equals murderer." Cooper points to this scene and its incestuous implication as one of the film's aberrations. This material does not appear in Gillette’s novelization; Anna never even seems to be a suspect.
Cooper, L. Andrew. Dario Argento. Champaign, IL: UI Press, 2012. Print.
McDonagh, Maitland. Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento. New York, NY: Carol Publishing, 1994. Print.