Cat O’Nine Tails (1971)

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Not Dario Argento’s favourite of his own films – too American, he thinks. But it’s more coherent than most of his output and graphically interesting at the very least. Karl Malden is crossword-setter Cookie Arno, a blind man who overhears an odd conversation in a car while walking past a science lab, the Terzi Institute, where couples are helped to reproduce. His little niece Lori (Cinzia de Carolis) helps him identify the man speaking. She lives with him since her parents died and all they have is each other. The man breaks into the institute. A scientist, Calabresi, knows what’s been taken and by whom and agrees to meet someone. Then he falls under a train. Journalist Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) is investigating the death and it’s the first of a series – even the newspaper photographer who is developing what Cookie identifies as potentially incriminating evidence of the train death being a murder is garrotted. Eventually the killer is after Giordani – and Cookie – and Lori … Argento’s sophomore outing is fabulous looking – constructed around the prism of vision, point of view and perception. Everything is continuous within the spatial organisation, characters’ movement through interiors, colour, the repetition of shapes (look what he does with triangles and pyramids), and there’s a great chase using an underground car park plus a spectacularly odd sex scene between Franciscus and doll-like Catherine Spaak, playing the daughter of the Professor running the lab where an unusual research project concerning chromosomal dispositions toward criminality has triggered a serial killer. There’s a  fantastically inventive soundtrack by Ennio Morricone and the crisp cinematography is by Enrico Menczer. There’s no cat, by the way:  that title is an expression used to describe the number of false leads in the case. This is stylish as hell if not quite as shocking as some of the Maestro’s work. And the cars! Shot in Berlin, Turin and Cinecitta.

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The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1969)

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Or, how a spaghetti western writer (Once Upon a Time in the West!) created the European slasher film with a stylish twist in this chic Roman giallo thriller. Dario Argento made his directing debut with this tale of an American writer (Tony Musante) who happens upon a near-homicide in a gallery and he and his girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) become the prey of an unhinged serial killer while assisting police. If it seems a tad familiar it’s because it’s a riff on The Screaming Mimi which was already filmed under that name earlier in the decade in the US. Wonderful camerawork and sheer chutzpah camouflage a few plot holes but this set Argento on a long and brilliant career. It’s hard to see it in the cut originally intended since it varied from territory to territory but worth catching any which way you can as it just hasn’t dated. And Maitland McDonagh has written a wonderful study of the man and his influential films which is a great read. See this first!