The Cat O' Nine Tails Review
After the surprising success of his directorial debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Dario Argento almost immediately put another thriller into production. The result was Il Gatto a Nove Code (The Cat O’ Nine Tails), a film that seems far less original and elegant than its predecessor, something acknowledged by the director himself, who has frequently labelled it his worst film.
Former reporter Franco Arno (Karl Malden), now blind, is strolling home at night with his niece Lori (Cinzia De Carolis), when he overhears a conversation involving blackmail. Later that night, a mysterious intruder breaks into the nearby Terzi Institute, a centre for advanced biological research, but seems to have stolen nothing. The following morning, one of the Institute’s researchers (and coincidentally one of the men Arno overheard) is murdered. Nosy journalist that he is, Arno teams up with a younger reporter, Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus), to solve the mystery, but the pair soon end up endangering both their own lives and those of anyone they come into contact with. Naturally, the list of suspects is massive, ranging from the mysterious head of the institute to his sultry daughter Anna (Catherine Spaak).
There are some really nice performances on display, particularly those of Malden and Franciscus. The interplay between the two actors is good, resulting in a believable friendship. It also marks the first time Argento paired up a younger character with an older mentor, a motif he would revisit in several later films. In contrast, the interaction between Franciscus and Spaak is painfully stilted. I can’t be quite sure whether this is the fault of the actors or whether it was intentional, but their relationship just never rings true. The scene where Anna bares her breasts for Giordani, and their subsequent lovemaking, are disquietingly wooden. The clothes Anna wears are also hilariously outdated. While clearly an attempt to appear sexy, they look thoroughly embarrassing from a modern perspective. I remain undecided on this character, since although it could be argued that her personality requires a cold, detached performance, there are times when she simply seems so removed from the whole affair that it borders on bad acting.
If it has nothing else, the film has bucket-loads of tension. There are a number of highly imaginative set-pieces, including a scene were Giordani breaks into Professor Terzi’s house in the middle of the night, unaware that the man himself is actually at home. Another features Giordani and Arno going tomb-robbing, and Argento skilfully manages to take the scene from being comedic to being nail-bitingly tense. A personal favourite of mine, however, is one where Anna, with a terrified Giordani in tow, speeds through the streets of Rome in an attempt to shake off a pair of police officers who are trailing her car. Not only is it well-paced and imaginatively shot, it is also one of my favourite ever car chase sequences.
The film’s greatest flaw is its jagged narrative. It starts off by showing us a crime in which seemingly no real damage has been done, and then proceeds to provide a ridiculously large list of suspects. It is made pretty clear that everyone has their own agenda, but the results are confusing, since far too many indistinct characters are introduced. The script has a tendency to go off on tangents and often feels more like a series of loosely connected events than a single story. A perfect example of this is Arno’s blindness. It’s a neat plot device early on, but in the end it does nothing more than create a talking point for the characters. Furthermore, after the terrifically surprising triumph that was the unveiling of the killer’s identity in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento here settles for a villain who spends the rest of the film as a virtually unnoticeable secondary character, and whose grand unmasking scene falls completely flat. For an Argento film, the script is surprisingly dialogue-heavy, getting bogged down with exposition and the explanation of scientific theories. Apparently Argento found these matters very interesting, but in the context of cinema the lengthy and dull descriptions of various experiments seem extraneous, not to mention somewhat far-fetched at times.
Photography-wise, the film is competently shot but not particularly vibrant. This was the first time Argento made heavy use of roving cameras to represent the killer’s field of vision; something John Carpenter would later go on to imitate in the opening scene of Halloween. The Cat O’ Nine Tails is relatively similar in its look to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, although here Erico Menczer’s camera is more mobile than that of Vittorio Storaro in Argento’s previous film. Argento’s trademark baroqueness is nowhere to be seen (such a style would not really cement itself in his work until Profondo Rosso), but the various scenes are artfully composed and show that, even at this early stage in his career, he had a strong understanding of the aesthetics of composition. Sadly, the gore comes as something of a let-down. Yes, the film is at times brutal in its violence, but it is for the most part quite understated and oddly pedestrian. The death scenes definitely never reach the wildness of his later films.
The film’s greatest technical innovation is its editing. Franco Fraticelli, who cut all Argento’s films up to and including Opera, throws in some very inventive techniques, the best of these being the short inserts that frequently appear towards the end of a scene, anticipating the next one. The sudden flashes of displaced images create a wonderful feeling of disconcertment, and do a great job of setting up what is to follow. Musically, the film is also very good, with Ennio Morricone deliverying a bizarre, almost jazzy score, that has a vaguely industrial sound and was more than likely very contemporary at the time of the film’s release. The audio presentation on this DVD fails to do it justice (see below), but it manages to shine through as a powerful piece of work.
Despite all its flaws, the film fails to be as poor as The Phantom of the Opera, the film most people see as the nadir of Argento’s work. The Cat O’ Nine Tails is simply too mainstream and conventional to stand up either to Argento’s debut or to his subsequent efforts. The film is by no means bad, but it lacks the extra spark that make this director’s films special.
The Cat O’ Nine Tails is presented anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The quality is not particularly good, but judging from screenshots I have seen of the Anchor Bay version there is not a whole lot of difference between the two. The image quality problems are probably as much to do with the film’s age as anything, but it certainly doesn’t help that it has been heavily edge enhanced. The results are very heavy aliasing and an accentuation of the film grain that goes beyond looking film-like and starts to resemble video noise at times; fuzzy is the word of the day here. Furthermore, Argento’s previous film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, looked somewhat better on DVD.
I have no idea what the source of this transfer is, but judging by the fact that the opening titles are bizarrely in English rather than Italian (the closing credits are Italian), and the print is in places quite badly damaged, it could easily have been a British or American theatrical print. The fact that all of the text-based inserts (such as diary entries that Giordani looks at) are in English as well would back up this theory. Perhaps the original negative was lost – I have no idea. One thing’s for sure, the results are not particularly pleasing.
Two audio mixes are provided: a Dolby Digital 2.0 track preserving the film’s original mono Italian recording, and an Italian Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. It’s a great shame that no English audio was included, as I have a feeling that the film might have worked better in the language that at least Franciscus and Malden, if not others, were speaking.
The sound is continually thin and strained, with Ennio Morricone’s often inventive and unnerving score reduced to a shrill squeal. It is the dialogue, however, that suffers the most, with a continually rough and muffled quality. The mono mix actually offers better quality dialogue than the 5.1 track, which has the same “echoing” problem that plagued The Stendhal Syndrome’s 5.1 audio.
Subtitles are provided in English and Italian. They are reasonable for the most part, but with the odd spelling mistake – e.g. “first” becoming “fist” and “breaking and entering” becoming “creaking and entering”. They are perfectly coherent, but were clearly transcribed by a non-native speaker.
The menu is moody and nicely-done, featuring footage and score from the film. One annoying aspect, however, is that, when accessing the extras’ sub-menus, there is no option to return to the extras’ root menu – only the main menu.
I absolutely love the front cover artwork, which merges the face of a cat with that of a screaming woman. A four-page booklet is also included, featuring chapter listings and descriptions of the bonus material.
There’s nothing really worth mentioning here: just some small photographs (9 black and white and 9 colour), and some rudimentary cast and crew info that really only amounts to a list of the principal players and their roles.
One of Argento’s less interesting films gets a decidedly lacklustre DVD release. I’m not sure whether the audio-visual problems are due to laziness on Medusa’s part or simply because better quality elements don’t exist, but there really is nothing here worth writing home about. I am inclined to recommend the US release by Anchor Bay over this one, which seems to have similar image quality, but includes an English dub as well as some interviews.