Crimes of the Black Cat Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: March 16, 2021 (LE)/July 6, 2021 (SE)
Audio: English LPCM 2.0 Mono; Italian Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Subtitles: English and English SDH
Run Time: 98:38
Director: Sergio Pastore
After a young model seemingly dies of a heart attack, her lover, Peter Oliver (Anthony Steffen), and his butler begin their own investigation into the death and soon find an intertwined series of murders, all involving a cat and a yellow shawl. One step ahead of the police, but always right behind the killer, Peter manages to piece together clue after clue until the final, shocking showdown with the bloodthirsty killer. (From Cauldron’s official synopsis)
Originality was not a priority in the Italian film industry during the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the issue became more prevalent during genre boom times. The giallo boom burned quickly, leading to several short stylistic stages that helped keep the formula somewhat fresh, despite the sheer quantity of movies released. Sergio Pastore’s The Crimes of the Black Cat (Italian: Sette scialli di seta gialla, 1972) was a case of blatant copy-cattery (excuse the wordplay) working, because the filmmakers understood the stylistic value in the movies they were swiping from and recognized the benefit of borrowing from many sources, instead of straight carbon-copying a single popular film. Having been released post-1970, Crimes of the Black Cat naturally owes a structural debt to Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italian: L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970), but that influential thriller wasn’t its key Argento influence. Instead, Pastore and co-writers Giovanni Simonelli & Alessandro Continenza looked to Crystal Plumage’s immediate follow-up, Cat O’ Nine Tails (Italian: Il gatto a nove code, 1971), as well as an earlier giallo cornerstone, Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (Italian: 6 donne per l'assassino, 1964).
One might assume that the title is the giveaway, but Crimes of the Black Cat’s Italian title actually translates to Seven Shawls of Yellow Silk. The cat itself and the English title were probably designed to conjure comparisons to Cat O’ Nine Tails in other countries, but the actual connections are the fact that the lead protagonist is a blind man who deputizes himself junior detective after overhearing a criminal scheme and some set-pieces, including a murder via subway car and a sort of variation of the villain's death from Argento’s film. From Blood and Black Lace, the writers borrow the basic idea of the murders being connected to a fashion house and models being the victims of choice and, from Bird with the Crystal Plumage, they borrow the idea of a birdcall being a vital clue. Non-giallo tributes include the typical Hitchcockian nods, such as a (particularly brutal) murder in a shower, and, as noted by Antonio Bruschini & Stefano Piselli in Giallo & Thrilling All’Italiana (Gingko Press, 2010), Henry Hathaway’s 1956 noir 23 Paces to Baker Street (based on Warrant X, by Philip MacDonald; pub: 1938).
Again, the Crimes of the Black Cat works, because the filmmakers understood what made good gialli tick. It often feels less like Pastore is ripping off better directors, but paying homage to them and adding his own flavor. This feeling extends to the script, which is, at times, ridiculously convoluted, but never annoyingly convoluted. The tone is consistently dead serious, as are the majority of the performances (Anthony Steffen makes a particularly compelling lead, despite frowning his way through the entire performance), but the neverending twists and red herrings are presented with a sense of fun. Perhaps knowing that his playful camerawork wasn’t quite up to Argento and Bava’s standards (a high bar, indeed), Pastore ups the visual ante on the sex and violence, including full-frontal nudity. One of the most violent images is from a film within the film and borrowed directly from Lucio Fulci’s notorious Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Italian: Una Lucertola con la Pelle di Donna; aka: Schizoid, 1971), something Pastore uses to his advantage when he outdoes the Godfather of Gore in a similar sequence during the finale.
Neither Giovanni Simonelli nor Alessandro Continenza were big names, but they stayed busy throughout booms and busts. Simonelli’s output includes scripting the bizarre John Travolta-themed comedy The Face with Two Left Feet (Italian: John Travolto... da un insolito destino, 1979), from director Neri Parenti, a different cat-themed giallo from Enzo G. Castellari, Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eyes (Italian: La morte negli occhi del gatto, 1973), and Castellari’s Any Gun Can Play (Italian: Vado... l'ammazzo e torno, 1967). Continenza worked on Riccardo Freda’s The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire (Italian: L'iguana dalla lingua di fuoco, 1971) and Jorge Grau’s superior, pre-Fulci Italian/Spanish zombie classic, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (Spanish: No profanar el sueño de los muertos, 1974). Both had longer careers than Pastore, who never made another crossover hit. From what I can tell (I cannot read Italian, so research is difficult), he only made one more film that might be construed as a giallo and that was 1987’s La tempesta – a crime drama co-written and directed by his wife and widow, actress Giovanna Lenzi.
Crimes of the Black Cat doesn’t seem to have ever seen release on US VHS and the only (official) DVD releases came from Italy – one from Dagored Films that was correctly framed, but otherwise ugly, and one from Federal that was cropped to 1.85:1. Both discs also reportedly contained the slightly censored Italian cuts of the film and didn’t include English audio or subtitle options. Needless to say, Cauldron’s Blu-ray, which is correctly framed at 2.35:1, English-friendly, restored in 4K from 35mm archive materials, and features the uncut international version of the film, is an exciting release for giallo fans internationally. While digital noise and compression artifacts are minimal, they appear to be working from a print source (“archive materials” isn’t really specific), which leaves them fighting against some pooly blacks, blown-out whites, and thicker grain levels. Fortunately, cinematographer Guglielmo Mancori’s moody photography fits with the occasionally crushed blacks and the highlights are strong enough that not a lot of significant detail is missing. There’s a tinge of old film print blueness to the palette, but it doesn’t wreak havoc with the other colors – flesh tones are warm, neutral hues are consistent, and all the hideous decor and costumes are, well, they’re effectively purple and green. The edges are tight, but not too hard, and, though the print is worn, the element separation isn’t smudgy.
Crimes of the Black Cat is presented with English and Italian mono dub options. This is a reminder that basically every Italian film from this era was shot without sound and that all language tracks are dubbed. The only bummer this time is that they ended up with a lossy Dolby Digital version of the Italian dub, giving the uncompressed LPCM 2.0 English track an unfair advantage. Compression aside, the Italian track has more natural performances (lip-sync doesn’t match in either case, but it appears that most actors are speaking Italian on set) and, surprisingly, a better mix. The English track isn’t distorted or anything, but the music is crowded and some of the incidental sound effects go missing. Manuel De Sica’s funky score accounts for Ennio Morricone’s genre-defining jazz work with Argento and the rock-infused soundtracks that followed Goblin’s work on Deep Red (Italian: Profondo Rosso, 1975) years later. Unfortunately for me, I waited too long to request a screener and missed out on the limited edition that included the soundtrack on CD.
Commentary with film historians Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson – The power commentary couple, Howarth, the author of So Deadly, So Perverse 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films (Midnight Marquee Press, 2015) and Thompson, owner/reviewer at Mondo Digital, return for another in-depth look at another cult film. As per usual, the duo offers up information about the production, the careers of the cast & crew, the history of the genre around 1971, and the films Crimes of the Black Cat was inspired by.
Commentary with Peter Jilmstad and Rachael Nisbet – This is an episode of the Fragments of Fear: A Giallo Podcast, smartly reappropriated for use here. It’s episode 3 from December of 2019, to be precise. Being a podcast, it has a different vibe and perspective than the Howarth/Thompson track, even if there is some information overlap.
Remembering Sergio Pastore (17:47, HD) – Pastore’s daughter Sara recalls her father’s career, private life, personality, and relationships with his contemporaries. She also sings for us.
Sergio Pastore – Un Ammirevole Indipendente (17:12, SD) – An earlier featurette narrated by Sara Pastore about her father, including more family photos and a brief appearance from the director’s other daughter, Laura.
English export trailer
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.