Like Yasujiro Ozu or Wes Anderson, Dario Argento has spent most of his career minutely refining one aesthetic worldview – that of the serial killer, a figure he has explored more thoroughly than any other director. In particular, Argento is fascinated by the way in which the serial killer exemplified the interface between the human body and urban space at the height of classic postmodernism. Whereas The Bird with the Crystal Plumage approached this serial killer muse from the perspective of high horror, The Cat O’Nine Tails takes a more procedural and noirish approach. This time around, we experience the case through the eyes of a reporter, Carlo Giordani, played by James Franciscus, who is investigating a series of murders in and around a medical research facility. The killings are kicked off by the discovery of an X-Y-Y chromosomal mutation that produces “a predisposition to be abnormally aggressive” – the serial killer gene, if you will – and proceed on Carlo’s suspicion that someone is taking out the medical staff to stop their own X-Y-Y orientation becoming public knowledge.
In the process, Argento abstracts the serial killer even more than in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, until they seem to exist primarily as the disembodied sound and sight of the camera itself. The presence of the killer is peculiarly embedded in the recurring shots of the street, which only seems to exist as a function or assumption of someone watching or listening. These streetscapes are always suffused with a palpable hush that evokes the presence of a listener, one who pays particular attention to the deliberate fall of footsteps, and staged in such a deliberate way that they also connote an unseen gaze, especially when people emerge around corners or pause in front of buildings. In effect, Argento removes the last vestiges of a neorealist public from the street, erases even the most residual sense of a public sphere, and instead turns it into the canvas of a disembodied gaze and voice that remain both as omniscient and invisible as the camera that doesn’t depict so much as enact their demands.
Argento includes two stylistic innovations to emphasise this identification between serial killer and camera, neither of which were present to the same degree in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. First, there are now long first-person sequences shot from the killer’s perspective, ushering in the hyper-mobile camera work of Argento’s classic era. Second, the killer is condensed to an enormous eye that fills the entire screen, and that makes the noise of a camera shutter whenever it blinks. The presence of the camera presupposes the serial killer, and vice versa, recalling William Friedkin’s infamous proposition that he would have become a serial killer if he didn’t turn to directing as a career. Something of that equation makes its way into the vision of Argento, who reverses its import, suggesting that all serial killers might well have made magnificent directors if they had only managed to channel their preternaturally scopic sense of space and sound into the language and fantasies of cinema.
Throughout The Cat O’Nine Tails, Argento is fascinated with the way in which this serial killer-camera nexus – this disembodied sight and sound – interacts with a more old-fashioned human body. These bodies don’t even seem to stem from modernism, but from the rustics of the nineteenth-century – or at least they seem positively rustic when compared to the futuristic gaze and voice of the serial killer. The traditional investigative drama revolves around this Balzacian tapestry of rich, thick and broad characters, all of whom are potential suspects, producing some of Argento’s most intricately novelistic plotting; the “cat o’nine tails of the title,” in which every thread may possibly hold the key to the case. Interestingly, the inherent rusticity of these bodies tends to collapse the traditional distinctions that might be expected to differentiate them, as young and old, gay and straight, men and women, are collapsed into a picaresque panoply that is comically ill-equipped to contend with the killer.
For while all these rustics fall victim to the killer, none of them can fully apprehend him, or operate on his aesthetic plane. That job falls to Franco Arno, a blind man played by Karl Malden, who becomes a consultant to Carlo as he investigates the case. As the counterpart to the killer’s enormous magnified eyes, the blankness of Franco’s eyes disrupts all regular continuity between sound and vision and, in doing so, disrupts the rustic realism that prevents the victims from perceiving the serial killer before it is too late. With sight and sound permanently severed, Franco develops a preternatural capacity for both. On the one hand, he has an acute sense of hearing, and often plays like an auditory update of Jimmy Stewart’s character in Rear Window, witnessing the key events of the opening crime with his ears rather than his eyes. On the other hand, Franco was not born blind, and retains enough memory of sight to posess an acute visual sense in the midst of his darkness, which becomes a source of indirect illumination in the same way that the darkness of a theatre draws a cinematic screen into vivid relief. Cinematically dreamed images here are more vivid than those of “real” life, and so to catch the killer Carlo must engage with him as a creator of mise-en-scene above all else, as Franco realises when he “spots” a fleeting cinephilic detail in a photograph that has remained invisible to the reporting team, even as they describe the images around it to him.
The Cat O’Nine Tails is thus driven by two quite different registers – first, the police procedural and escalating whodunnit that is reserved for the rustic-realist sphere; second, a more alien horror that emerges from the disembodied sight and sound of the serial killer. The serial killer himself straddles these two realms too – murdering, on the one hand, for a practical purpose, to prevent news of his X-X-Y orientation going public, but also murdering, on the other hand, simply as an emanation of this X-X-Y genetic destiny. In other words, the killer is targeting people to prevent being outed as a sociopath, with all the sociopathic logic that entails. As these two strands of the film start to converge, Argento attempts to transmute his images into interfaces capable of reconciling them. In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, these interfaces tended to be imposing vertical surfaces, but here they have started to migrate into more mercurial vertical trajectories, from a plot point revolving around poisoned milk that recalls the inexorable upstairs march of Cary Grant at the end of Suspicion, to the machinations of a climactic sequence that take us from the upward gaze of Carlo through a skylight dripping with blood to the serial killer falling back through this skylight, and then down a lift shaft, his hands chafing on the cable in what becomes the final image of the film.
In that image of unbearable verticality, descent as pure pain, Argento moves away from the purer and starker nexus between images and interfaces that preoccupied The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Here, he suggests that the emergent postmodern sphere, the collapse of space into so many abstracted visual and sonic cues, that hangs around the fringes of his action, may not be so easily resolved by alchemically applying the right image, or catching the right image as it migrates into an interface. Instead, the most pregnant interface between these two worlds, rustics and serial killer, comes at the beginning, when we meet Carlo completing a crossword puzzle that has been designed especially for the blind. As he reaches his hands over the braille letter cards, he “sees” the word “City” spelled out in front of him, and hears the clink of each of the four individual pieces as he puts them in position. In that fusion of visuality, aurality and urbanity into a preternaturally abstracted tactility lies the manner in which Argento wishes to reach out and touch his audience too, drawing them into the purview of an arcane new gaze that he will try, time and again, to tame with his camera.