The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) was a massive hit, making twice its budget back in Italy alone, so it’s unsurprising Dario Argento made a follow-up within a year and would make his third film, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, another six months later. The Cat O’Nine Tails starts with a similar premise: a vulnerable man - this time blind, rather than trapped behind glass - is the only witness to a murder when a laboratory break-in leads to the death of a security guard.
Bird, Cat and Flies‘ lead protagonists were American TV actors Tony Musante, James Fransiscus and Michael Brandon respectively, Bird‘s lead actress (and former ‘Bond girl’) Suzy Kendall is British, while Cat‘s witness (who ends up as Fransiscus’s sidekick when he starts investigating the crimes) is Czech-American film star Karl Malden, whose post-Argento career would mainly be on television. The casting of Americans as the leads shows the director’s international aspirations - understandably, following the popularity of Leone’s Westerns with American leads, who would be dubbed into Italian for the local releases. Cat in particular is a slick thriller in the American mould, Argento keeping his own stylistic flourishes to a minimum compared to the other films in the ‘trilogy’, and including an exemplary car chase and cross-cutting between scenes in the style of American spy shows such as Man in a Suitcase and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Other international affectations include a climactic rooftop chase that recalls Hitchcock’s Vertigo and a Morricone score similar to the music of Lalo Schifrin, as well as references to Edgar Allan Poe, who would inform much of Argento’s work. The opening credits of Four Flies on Grey Velvet would make this explicit - a beating heart against a black background - and here we have grave-robbing, someone trapped in a locked tomb, and rats menacing a bound child. German cinema also gets a look in, with an uncredited rewrite by ‘Krimi’ scribe Bryan Edgar Wallace and Teutonic star Horst Frank.
Argento may have also looked to the work of Michelangelo Antonioni - another Italian director working with English-speaking actors at the time - as many of Cat‘s twists and turns recall the obsessive nature of the photographer investigating a crime in that director’s Blow-Up, made five years earlier. In contrast with the frustrating endings of Blow-Up and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento and his three collaborators provide The Cat o’Nine Tails with a satisfying conclusion: the killer tries to convince Malden’s character that he murdered his little girl and should be executed at his hands in revenge, which recalls the beginnings of the previous and next film by the director.
The fact that all three of Argento’s films made in 1970-71 contain an animal in their title suggests that at some point during production of his second film, he or the producers decided to brand them as a trilogy. But although the titles of Bird and Flies refer to clues that lead to the discovery of the killer, The Cat o’Nine Tails doesn’t feature a cat anywhere on screen or in the foley recording, nor does it feature the 17th-century torture device. One explanation of the title is that it refers to the number of suspects that Franciscus investigates, while I prefer the idea that it suggests the multiple chromosomal combinations that get discussed in a scene about the genetic psychopathy of the killer. Either way, since the title has no reference to the plot, this suggests it was added to the film late in production, to tie it to its predecessor and thematic sequel, which Argento would have already started work on before Cat arrived in cinemas.