Cat O’ Nine Tails Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)
When a break-in occurs at a secretive genetics institute, blind puzzle-maker Franco Arnò (Karl Malden), who overheard an attempt to blackmail one of the institute’s scientists shortly before the robbery, teams up with intrepid reporter Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) to crack the case. But, before long the bodies begin to pile up and the two amateur sleuths find their own lives imperilled in their search for the truth. And, worse still, Lori (Cinzia De Carolis), Franco’s young niece, may also be in the killer’s sights… (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italian: L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970) was a huge surprise hit that redefined the young giallo genre, produced a virtual legion of imitators, and left a young Dario Argento in an awkward situation. Distributor Titanus and German investors were flush with chips, wanted to cash-in immediately, and pressured the writer/director into making a second “Jet Set Giallo” (the German producers’ term for Crystal Plumage’s specific style, according to Argento). The good news was that Argento would be working with a considerably larger budget and a high caliber international cast, including a hot-off Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) James Franciscus, French-Italian star Catherine Spaak, and Academy Award-winner Karl Malden (about a year before his career-redefining performances as Det. Lt. Mike Stone on Streets of San Francisco and the guy in the American Express commercials). The bad news was that Argento ended up wedging himself between the financiers’ call for more Bird with the Crystal Plumage and his own rebellious streak as a young filmmaker. He never worked well with actors, either (even great ones), but that’s another story.
According to an interview with Alan Jones (published in Profondo Argento: The Man, the Myths & the Magic, FAB Press, 2004), he spent so much time railing against his own instincts and fearing that he was giving in to the producers/distributors’ demands that he ended up accidentally making an overly Americanized thriller, complete with car chases and a happy ending. He cut the ending to be more ambiguous (the second recut, actually, following an even more depressing option), but was still left with what he considered a generic thriller and his worst film. The Cat O’ Nine Tails (Italian: Il gatto a nove code, 1971) does lack the charming weirdo touches that set Bird with the Crystal Plumage apart from the hundreds of Italian thrillers that surrounded it. Really, the only moment that stands out as intrinsically Argento-esque is the train station murder, which begins with the killer’s P.O.V. as he shoves a man onto the tracks. The man’s face is smashed against the train’s grill in extreme close-up and slow motion, before he’s ground beneath its wheels like a whirling dervish. The effect is perhaps unintentionally funny, but it’s also genuinely shocking and imaginatively macabre (especially as a group of paparazzi photographers all but completely ignore the incident to lavish attention on a starlet actress exiting the train) in the tradition of Opera’s (1987) “bullet through the keyhole” and Tenebrae’s (aka: Tenebre and Unsane, 1982) “bloody stump wall painting.” On the other hand, the action and suspense sequences are among Argento’s most technically adept direction (especially when compared to his post-’80s movies) and what was considered ordinary filmmaking in the early ‘70s feels unique in 2018. It’s easy to balk at the idea of Argento kowtowing to trends with a Hollywood-friendly car chase or dismiss the poison milk sequence as too heavy handed of an homage to Hitchcock, but both scenes are really well-executed, proving that the king of niche Italian bloodshed probably could’ve been a successful conventional filmmaker, had the circumstance been different.
One side effect of Cat O’ Nine Tails’ accidentally conventional approach is its (comparable) mainstream appeal. There aren’t many of Argento’s movies or, really, many gialli in general, that play well to modern audiences who aren’t already acclimated to the director’s flourishes or the genre’s oddball storytelling traditions. Cat O’ Nine Tails represents the early phase of Argento’s career, when he was transitioning from screenwriter to director. While it still favours the style of its set-pieces over the substance of its narrative, its plot is competently structured and the story moves briskly without too many lapses into illogical contrivances. Well, aside from the central conceit that men with an extra Y chromosome are predisposed to be antisocial/violent. According to Luigi Cozzi, who co-wrote the story with Argento, Dardano Sacchetti, and Luigi Collo*, the plot point was borrowed from Roy & John Boulting’s British thriller Twisted Nerve, which was released only two years before Cat O’ Nine Tails in 1969. However – putting aside the fact that Twisted Nerve isn’t about an XYY killer, but, um, a Down Syndrome killer – the antisocial XYY syndrome had already been debunked by 1969. Looking back, this may not have been as big of a faux pas as it seemed at the time. Argento uses similar pseudosciences in all three of his Animal Trilogy films (Bird, Cat, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet [Italian: 4 mosche di velluto grigio, 1971]) and, during both Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Cat O’ Nine Tails, these prove to be untrustworthy plot devices. And, as Maitland McDonagh notes in her book, Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento (University of Minnesota Press, 1991/1994), theoretically speaking, Cat O’ Nine Tails’ mystery killer isn’t driven to violence by their secret spare Y chromosome, but by their paranoia of someone discovering it.
The higher quality of Cat O’ Nine Tails protagonists is also worth talking about, though this would not have been a surprise following Bird with the Crystal Plumage, which thrived as much on character dynamics as it did on shocks and suspense. Either Argento actually had a good relationship with the actors or Malden, Franciscus, Spaak, Horst Frank, and the rest of the leads were prepared to direct themselves. Considering that the director is rarely shy about bad-mouthing past collaborators (especially actors) and didn’t in this case, I’m going to assume that it’s a bit of both. Humor is another of Bird with the Crystal Plumage’s unsung strengths, so it makes sense that Argento would load up Cat O’ Nine Tails with gags. The dialogue has wit enough wit to override cultural barriers and dubbing issues and the slapstick is tastefully applied to a handful of sequences. Argento largely avoided levity for his next film, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, but returned to cracking jokes for Deep Red (Italian: Profondo Rosso, 1975), despite having spectacularly crashed and burned when he attempted to make a slapstick historical satire, The Five Days (Italian: Le cinque giornate, 1973), between his giallo hits.
When it was first released in American theaters and VHS, Cat O’ Nine Tails was cut from 112 minutes to about 92. Most of these cuts related to plot and character development, but the violence was also trimmed by a few frames. Due to some grey rights issues, this version was released on VHS by the usual suspects – Simitar, Timeless Video, Summit International, and Vestron. Fans were forced to pass around bootleg tapes of the director’s cut duped from a letterboxed Japanese laserdisc, until Anchor Bay released it simultaneously on DVD and clamshell VHS. The shorter cut endured on budget label discs from Diamond (I once found one in a grocery store) until Blue Underground released the first Blu-ray, followed by discs from ‘84 Entertainment in Germany and Arrow in the UK (an earlier one). There’s also a third, German-only cut that runs almost 114 minutes, adding two short dialogue sequences. Here is a short breakdown of the footage found in the German cut that is missing here and on every other Blu-ray available, including the German one.
* Edgar Wallace’s son, Bryan Edgar Wallace, is rumoured to have co-written the screenplay with Argento, but I don’t believe there has ever been conclusive proof that this is true.
Arrow continues slowly working through remastering their entire Argento catalogue. Cat O’ Nine Tails follows this new tradition with a brand new 4K restoration, made using the original camera negative. I don’t have access to the studio’s original release, but I do have Blue Underground’s original BD and, from what I understand, those two early transfers were taken from the same source. So, I’ve included caps from both this new Arrow disc (left) and BU’s transfer (right) for the sake of comparison.
Cat O’ Nine Tails was one of Blue Underground’s earlish Blu-rays and the studio was still trying to figure out what consumers wanted from the HD format. Admittedly, I didn’t really know what I wanted from the format at the time, so their heavy-handed digital restoration looked impressive to my ase yet untrained eyes. Basically, Blue Underground was handed a subpar, noisy telecine scan and tried to correct the issue with noise reduction software, then attempted to bring out more detail by brightening everything. Besides producing significantly more detail, Arrow’s new transfer rather thoroughly corrects these issues. By working from the negative, they’re able to avoid the machine noise and replace it with natural film grain. Grain is persistent, but thin and the improved clarity creates surprisingly soft gradations during well-lit sequences. If you’re only looking at the images as they appear on the page (i.e. they’re very small), the Blue Underground disc’s brightness may seem like an asset, but the extra elemental value isn’t usually worth undermining Argento and cinematographer Enrico Menczer’s intended tonal qualities – both dark and light. I will concede that the brighter version brings out some nice highlights and that perhaps the ideal gamma/brightness balance lies somewhere between the two discs. The restored disc’s color quality is warmer and more eclectic, especially throughout the daylight backgrounds, though it does run a bit red, which helps to punch up costumes and props, but does hinder skin tones a bit. On the more incidental side of things, Arrow’s transfer has slightly more information on the sides of the frame.
Arrow has also updated their previous uncompressed soundtracks, exchanging the 2011 disc’s LPCM mono English and Italian tracks for remastered DTS-HD Master Audio counterparts. Here’s the part of every giallo, spaghetti western, and Eurosploitation review I do where I remind you that the Italian film industry, by and large, shot movies without synced, on-set sound. Every track is a dubbed track and there is no ‘official’ single language track. As is often the case, the English dub has a slight advantage, because the lead actors were speaking English on set and have dubbed their own performances (in this case, it appears that Malden, Franciscus, Spaak, and Frank all dubbed themselves). This particular English track has higher volume levels and better separation, while the Italian track features less distortion and perhaps a better balance between dialogue, effects, and music. Speaking of music, Argento wasn’t the only success story from Bird with the Crystal Plumage who was asked to strike gold a second time – composer Ennio Morricone was tied to all three of the director’s Animal Trilogy projects and a number of other giallo projects throughout the ‘70s. Cat O’ Nine Tails’ score recycles the jazzy horn/bass/drum motifs and eerie bell and piano techniques from Bird with the Crystal Plumage without recycling any specific melodies. It’s a modest step down, but there’s slightly more music overall, so it’s a net positive.
Commentary with Alan Jones and Kim Newman – The authors of Profondo Argento: The Man, the Myths & the Magic and Nightmare Movies (pub: 1985, ‘88, ‘89, 2011), respectively, are back for another smart, well-researched, and free-flowing expert commentary about a Dario Argento movie.
Nine Lives (15:57, HD) – A new interview with Argento, who still finds Cat O’ Nine Tails too ‘American,’ but seems to have mellowed a bit on the subject over the years. He recalls shooting locations, praises Karl Malden, and has mediocre-to-nice things to say about the rest of the cast & crew.
Writer O' Many Tales (34:46, HD) – Co-screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti talks about his pre-industry life, getting his first gig on Cat O’ Nine Tails, continued collaborations with Argento, struggling to get credits and payment for his contributions, and shares a number of mostly unrelated anecdotes from decades writing Italian horror movies.
Child Star (11:02, HD) – Actress Cinzia De Carolis, who is outstanding as young Lori in the film, discusses her short career, the dubbing process, and recalls vague memories of being a child on the set of Cat O’ Nine Tails.
Giallo in Turin (15:11, HD) – Production manager Angelo Iacono closes out the new interviews with a chat about location scouting and securing processes.
Original ending (3:09, HD) – As I mentioned in the review, Argento had shot a happy ending and decided not to use it. That footage is lost, but Arrow has thrown together a decent slideshow with stills, music, and English language text from the original script.
Italian, international, and U.S. domestic trailer
It’s worth noting that Arrow did not include their previous BD/DVD featurettes/interviews, so it’s probably worth hanging onto those discs if you still have them.
The images on this page are taken from theArrow BD and the Blue Underground BD and sized for the page, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Full-sized .jpg versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab.