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Dario Argento’s Guide to Getting It On

Ben Simington

Dario Argento avows that Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971) is one of his least artistically successful films, but recently viewing it in a restored print on the big screen at MoMA’s Sixth International Festival of Film Preservation, “To Save and Project,” I was impressed by the precision of its mise-en-scene, easily overlooked during DVD viewings (though the Anchor Bay/Blue Underground release is excellently transferred). A murder mystery revolving around and contained frequently to a suspicious genetics laboratory, this exemplary entry into the giallo canon lacks the diversity of locations and oddball characters that propelled the scenario, visual panache and in turn vivid color design of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). However, Cat O’ Nine Tails’ strength is a consistency of vision about the framing, lighting and dressing of its ubiquitous institutionalized 70s interiors. Out of this arises a corollary relationship to the visual representation of the citizens who inhabit those interiors. The culminating hyperreality that is achieved pegs Argento as a cheeky critic of modernity’s momentum and the impositions it makes upon humanity’s sanity...Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1967) with nastier bad guys and way more fake blood. Throughout Argento’s career, serial killer set pieces (often unfolding against astonishing architectural backdrops) have provided an excuse for such exploration of cultural trauma upon the individual and the tension between public and private space in the modern city. The murders are particularly titillating hyperbolic allegories for the pressures we uneasily feel from all these impositions.

Holding its own against the grisliest and most eye-catching of Argento’s graphic on-screen murders is a stunningly artificial sex scene which ranks among the most subversive and blackly comic depictions of human passion in cinema history. Seemingly influenced by meticulously staged magazine advertisement photography, the below stills do justice to the uncannily frozen quality of pristine shallowness that overlays the interaction…I don’t think I’ve ever seen hairstyles do so much acting before or since. In 'The Future' (i.e., any present whose technological developments are at the turning-point of decadently outpacing their usefulness to the very culture that created them), this is what all sex will be like...

The Bachelor Pad with our protagonist-turned-amateur-detective and one of his seductive suspects:

The Pick-Up Line, “Do you know how many people are together right now making love this very second? 780 on the average…I don't know if you're aware of it or not, but that was an invitation.”:

The break-away blouse:

The Gaze:

A hesitation:

...then, The Abandon:

...then, The Sensuality:

The object of erotic desire, subjugated:

…a negligible downward camera tilt:

…and an inexplicable zoom in:


Finally, The Climax, anti-climactically without a motion or a sound:

And of course, the freshly delivered milk, POISONED BY THE KILLER!:

Did Woody Allen watch this film before writing in Annie Hall (1977):

Pam: Sex with you is really a Kafka-esque experience.
Alvy Singer: Oh. Thank you.
Pam: I mean that as a compliment.

Cat O’ Nine Tails is pervasively paranoid to its core, to its DNA, but what else can you expect in Argento's antagonistically irrational universe? Especially from (spoiler alert!) a modernist Möbius strip of a murder mystery whose killer is initially driven to kill to cover up the fact his colleague has discovered he bears a genetic predisposition to kill to cover up the fact his colleague has discovered he bears a genetic predisposition to kill to cover up the fact his colleague has discovered he bears a genetic predisposition to kill to cover up the fact his colleague has discovered he bears a genetic predisposition to kill, etc., etc., etc…

Genius. When do we get the re-make?


Dario Argento
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