The Cat O' Nine Tails Review
With the waves of his delightful Italian giallo debut translating into impressive ripples miles away at the shore of the States, there was a huge potential export opportunity for Argento’s coming films. And so it is that whilst his impossibly stylish opener The Bird with the Crystal Plumage benefitted from cross-cultural influences atop a distinctively Italian foundation, a collective drive towards the substantially more lucrative American market resulted in The Cat O’ Nine Tails building upon a suitably American base, featuring American actors and some distinctly American components (including a dramatic city car chase). Yet for all of that, the movie also carries forward sufficient Italian giallo to ensure the film retains the requisite character and impact.
Argento has spoken of his disappointment when first viewing the finished article of his second entry into the so-called ‘Animal Trilogy’ (a loose umbrella to compartmentalize his first three movies, all featuring an animal reference in the title, with the third being Four Flies on Grey Velvet), yet the anticipated American market were delighted with this entry, and the film proved a strong commercial success.
The key building blocks which made Bird… such an effective blueprint for future giallo cinema are largely present here. There is, of course, the shadowed and obscured murderer, killing in brutal and clinical fashion (often vicariously experienced by the horrified viewer, as shot from the killer’s point of view), the race for the revelation – and concealment – of truth between the intuition of the human (in this instance, maverick journalist lead, Carlo Giordani - played well by James Franciscus) and the rationality of science, and - one of the most enjoyable elements of early Argento cinema which seemed to fade as his career progressed – a surprising knack for humour. The scene where Giordani sits beneath a razor whilst the barber speaks of the press’s suspicion that the killer may actually be a barber is delightfully squirm-inducing.
Whilst The Cat O’ Nine Tails has been touted as a violent film – and in comparative terms to regular crime dramas of the time, the violence is especially vivid and unflinching – it’s certainly not one of Argento’s most violent, and the patience of the viewer during the subtle and restrained progression of the plot is something which is rewarded by a couple of spectacular scenes. The climax itself, after almost two hours of viewing, proves especially rewarding, and ranks amongst some of Argento’s most technically proficient achievements.
With Erico Menczer’s effective cinematography, a jangling score from Morricone, strong performances from James Franciscus and Karl Malden, and the depiction of a charming relationship between the blind Arno (Malden) and his niece (Cinzia De Carolis), Cat O’ Nine Tails is well worth the viewing time investment, and considerably superior to Argento’s modern output.
If Argento’s words about his second film have prevented you from watching the movie up to now, perhaps you should consider the movie an important step on his journey towards his most important film of all, the magnificent Deep Red (Profondo rosso). Whilst it never reaches the giddy heights of his beautiful 1975 shocker, you can observe the director honing his craft here, and all in all this makes for a decent early doors giallo that still stands tall against the director’s direct competition.
The Cat O’ Nine Tails arrives in typical Arrow retro-style, with an option of 4 different covers, and the disc specs show much promise on paper; the aspect ratio presentation uses the native 2.35:1, with the high definition resolution being presented in 1080p.
Yet the visual reproduction here is, unfortunately, likely to cause disappointment. Whilst it’s appreciated that the source material is going to have suffered degradation over the years, it seems difficult to justify a visual quality here which is of a lower standard than Arrow’s release of the earlier The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, which struck a good balance between maintaining the original visual appearance of the period, whilst also presenting a clean and accurate image. The picture here is subject to a certain level of noise, with occasional flecks making an unwanted appearance with surprising regularity.
The Blu-ray format has witnessed some fine re-releases of movies featuring an excellent quality visual presentation, yet rather than enhancing the quality of the image in this instance, the format actually betrays the movie by highlighting and exposing the lack of accuracy and definition. Excessive grain is frequently apparent, yet most off-putting of all is the poor colour handling. The strength of colour itself is reasonable considering the age of the film, yet the shading is frequently a problem, with colours failing to blend seamlessly and regular anti-aliasing spoiling the smooth movements of the camera.
English subtitles are available if you watch the film with the Italian soundtrack, and whilst the subs may be a little small for some tastes, they are undeniably unobtrusive and clean. I did spot a couple of errors, including ‘look at that car we just past’, but largely the words are pretty solid, and I’ve got no real complaints.
Arrow continue to release a number of important films from the archives, and should be commended for doing so, as they clearly have great passion for the features they choose to release. It’s a real shame that they open themselves to some level of criticism for transfers like this, which fall slightly below the standard we have come to expect today.
The aural presentation for Argento’s movie is unspectacular in all respects, but scrapes through with an adequately functional performance. The audio options are Italian or English mono, and whilst the middle is fairly harsh and the bass lacking forceful punch, the presentation is clear enough, and I didn’t detect anything by way of poorly pitched levels or distortion.
Arrow do work hard on providing additional material for their Argento releases, and there are a handful of extras here to lend some additional background to the film, the director, and some of his other works. Regular viewers of Arrow-released Argento will recognize the participants and locations in the extras, as the interviews are taken from the same sessions as featured in other Arrow releases of Argento films, albeit with different sections shown as pertaining to the film in question.
A ten minute featurette opens proceedings, with Dario’s Murderous Moggy: Dario Argento Remembers The Cat O’ Nine Tails presenting the director’s comments on the ‘animal’ trilogy, the admission that Argento doesn’t care much for the film, and the fact that despite its overarching Americanism, that the film proved suitably lucrative. He also recalls his pleasure at working with Karl Malden, a man who, it seems, was something of a gentleman.
Argento’s buddy Luigi Cozzi is up next with Luigi Cozzi: The Cat O’ Nine Tails in Reflection, a 16 minute piece where Cozzi discusses the film in his usual engaging style, and with his rare background insight into many of the thought processes and activities which surround the making of Argento’s films. Of particular interest is Cozzi’s reflections upon how ‘National General’ pushed the Italian ‘Titanus’ to make a more American style giallo in order to stimulate the requisite cash haul.
The slightly less engaging but interesting enough Sergio Martino features next in Sergio Martino: The Art and Arteries of the Giallo, grabbing a 24 minute slot with plenty of clips and stills from the films the man discusses. As usual, Martino manages to discuss many of his own films alongside the work of Argento, and he also wanders outside of the giallo genre, to discuss a variety of related films and topics.
Martino also delves into the psychology behind the killers that are characterized in giallo, analysing what drives them, and noting their terrifying lack of empathy and ability to easily objectify the plight of their victims. He ponders the predominant female victim that is featured in such films, discusses the possible misogyny which can be attached to such musings, and in doing so manages to bring Fulci’s uber-shocker The New York Ripper into the analysis. Finally, it’s worth noting that Martino also manages to get a mention of Paranormal Activity in the mix too.
As an aside, I feel I should report that despite the 1080p presentation of all of these extras, much of the source material results in the clips being reproduced in shockingly poor fashion.
Rounding up the extras quotient is the Theatrical Trailer, which I maintain is one of the best giallo trailers out there, capturing the sheer stylishness and oddity of Argento's work.
The transfer may be somewhat underwhelming, but it’s still watchable enough, and despite Argento’s depressing summary of his American-targeted second film, The Cat O’ Nine Tails remains a strong enough giallo to constitute recommended viewing beyond the legions of Argento stalwarts.