Giallo, that distinctly Italian crime subgenre, has some signature characteristics. There’s usually a ludicrous whodunit plot, some striking visuals, and a groovy soundtrack. Fans like me watch these movies for the flash, since there’s precious little substance. And we’re seldom given anyone to really root for, becauseall the characters, even the heroes, are frequently utter jerks. Dario Argento’s Terror at the Opera (1986) provides a fitting example when a stage manager tells the protagonist, an opera singer, that a stagehand died while she was singing. Apparently, it was “molto strano”. With his very next breath, he tells her to leave her costume in the dressing room for refitting. She hangs her dress on the coat stand, turns back, and asks him to accompany her to the opening night party. Yikes! There’s cold, and then there’s heartless, know what I mean?
To compensate for the insensitive weasels and shrill hellcats that often populate these callous movies, Italian filmmakers will usually include a character that’s so innocent and goody-goody as to nearly induce vomiting. This person, sometimes an ebullient colleague of the main character or some absurdly kind neighbor, inevitably suffers a grisly death at the hands of the killer. This person adds nothing of value—other than a cool death scene. To craft a genuinely sympathetic character in a giallo, the actor has to do all the work, through sheer talent and star power. As it happens, that’s just what veteran character actor Karl Malden did in Argento’s The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971), in which he plays a blind one-time reporter. His Franco “Cookie” Arno has inane dialogue like everyone else around him, but Malden’s acting chops and charisma help him rise above the material. And although his is a small part, it’s one of the better performances in the Argento back catalogue. Leonard Maltin once wrote that he “brings his innate dignity to every role he tackles,” and that quality is certainly on display here. Imagine, dignity in a giallo!
When Malden passed away on July 1st, at the ripe old age of 97, the media was already in a frenzy. Six days earlier, some controversial pop star or other had expired from an accidental drug overdose, and consequently most people were far too busy elsewhere to notice that a Hollywood legend had died. It’s pretty disconcerting that a suspected pederast gets saint-like status upon his death, while a genuinely decent guy and top-notch actor is practically ignored. Watch Cat o’ Nine Tails to see how Malden injects sincere warmth into otherwise trashy, but certainly entertaining, material.