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Blind crossword puzzle designer Franco Arno (Karl Malden) is walking Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) is sent to investigate. On his way to the crime scene the next morning Carlo trips into Franco, and the two men make acquaintances. Later Lori notices a newspaper article with a picture of the man she identified from the car, and learns he died in a horrible train accident. Franco suspects fowl play, and enlists Carlo’s help in solving the crime, as more murders continue to pile up.

 Cat O' Nine Tails Blu-ray
 Cat O' Nine Tails DVD
Watching Cat O’ Nine Tails again, for probably the fifth or sixth time, I think I’ve decided it’s Dario Argento’s most undervalued/underrated film. I’m probably, relatively speaking, alone in this new decision, but I’ve put some thought into this. I think most fans, passing and passionate alike, can agree that Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red and Suspiria are certainly the top of this pack, a sort of ‘unholy trinity’ of generally great filmmaking. Most of us are probably relatively satisfied with the treatment of Tenebre and Opera, and most of us like to ignore, snicker, Phantom of the Opera and Mother of Tears defenders. From here things break up into the usual factions, each with their own valid arguments: Inferno was unfairly overshadowed by Suspiria, Phenomena and Stendhal Syndrome saw Argento really flexing his creative muscles, Trauma is just dumped on because it’s relatively conventional, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet was so undervalued it wasn’t even released officially on US video until a few years ago. The best Cat O’ Nine Tails usually gets is something around the lines of ‘it’s not as bad as its reputation suggests’, and Argento himself usually calls it his worst/least favourite/least successful film in interviews (strangely even blaming the actors and downplaying the cinematography – two of the only definitively good things about the film). Defense isn’t easy in this case, and before I get started I want to make it clear that ‘underrated’ does not equal ‘best’, or even ‘better’.

The ‘Sophomore Slump’, which by definition only applies to artists that broke out with a massive success, is an incredibly difficult hex for most filmmakers to break. I certainly wouldn’t argue that Cat O’ Nine Tails is in any way better than Bird with the Crystal Plumage (a film that isn’t entirely Argento’s directorial debut), but had fate somehow reversed the order of the ‘Animal Trilogy’, I think it would be better received. Four Flies on Grey Velvet is a good film, but it’s noticeably sloppy at times, and sees Argento fiddling with editing and camera techniques like a first timer with amazing new toys (generally in a good way). Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Cat O’ Nine Tails are slicker and tighter films, with Bird appearing to be a culmination of skills, and a defining moment in the director’s personal style. Cat O’ Nine Tails makes sense as a sophomore film in both this hypothetical, and the real world, as it’s closer to the mainstream than any other Argento film, save maybe Deep Red and Trauma (depending on your argument), and many successful freshmen productions lead directly to a slightly faceless sophomore flick. Cat O’ Nine Tails doesn’t really follow the template Argento set forth with Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and followed through with almost every other film in his Giallo canon (not to mention all the other films that were inspired by this template). In fact, it’s hardly a Giallo at all (Argento himself claims he was aping spaghetti western tropes in a new context), sticking closer to the late ‘60s/early ‘70s Hollywood thriller standard, specifically cop flicks like Bullitt (there’s even a car chase). The only expressly Argento-like touches come out of the subjective, POV photography during some of the murder scenes, and the flash of an ECU on a deranged eyeball signifying the killer’s warped state of mind.

 Cat O' Nine Tails Blu-ray
 Cat O' Nine Tails DVD
It’s easy to forget that Argento once dealt in strong narratives, and was even a sought after script doctor before decades of career defining style over substance masterpieces like Suspiria. The basic story here unfolds with wistful grace, at a brisk pace, and without stopping short between murder set pieces. Cat O’ Nine Tails is so buoyant and brisk it’s easy to miss the fact that it more or less doesn’t make any sense. Every time Carlo and Franco discover another piece of the puzzle we tend to just kind of go with it without even trying to connect the impossibly convoluted sign posts that led them to their ridiculous, but of course accurate conclusion. The major characters here are certainly simplified, and their dialogue is often stilted in that patented Italian fashion (‘Why do you call him Cookie?’/‘Because he’s sweet, and besides, I always like my cookies with chocolate milk.’), but I’d count them among Argento’s most natural and likeable creations (believable being a different matter altogether). Besides being generally charming guys, and Carlo and Franco are among the only male protagonists Argento has ever written that aren’t beat up by women and the elderly (Malden is also, next to David Hemmings and Harvey Keitel, one of the best actors Argento has ever worked with). This is also another one of Argento’s rare ‘funny’ screenplays, including Benny Hill-inspired gags (an elderly couple tries to cross the street, but after the protagonists and cops narrowly miss them in the crosswalk, they change their minds, and turn around to return from whence they came), along with snappy bits of sardonic discussion (‘What was that? Must’ve been a cat…Yeah, cat’s love cemeteries, don’t they?’). I find Argento’s wit and affection for slapstick quite charming.

Cat O’ Nine Tails is pretty brutal for the time (the train kill straddles the line between hilarious and shocking), and like many of Argento’s films it was censored and shortened for its American release. If you own a R1 copy and it doesn’t say Anchor Bay or Blue Underground on the label you are probably watching the shorter, censored cut. The cuts here, which add up to about 22 minutes don’t entirely change the tone of the film, or rob it of it’s emotional core like the more extensive cuts made to Deep Red, but they do leave the viewer extraordinarily baffled, similar to the case of the even more extensive cuts made to Phenomena during its American release. The uncensored version is, as always, preferable, and features both the full shock of the murder sequences, all the relatively chaste sex, and overt references to homosexuality.

 Cat O' Nine Tails Blu-ray
 Cat O' Nine Tails DVD

Video


The Anchor Bay/Blue Underground release of Cat O’ Nine Tails on DVD was always plenty effective, so a fine Blu-ray release was always in the cards. Unlike Deep Red, Suspiria and Inferno, Cat O’ Nine Tails features a rather natural, even understated sense of colour, so the upgrade from 480p to 1080p wasn’t as high on my personal ‘must’ list. However, the film’s groovy period interiors and costumes to lead to some nice colour contrasts. Some of the more eloquently decorated sets are swimming with sharply cut dueling elements that tended to bleed together on lesser transfers. The frequency of the more vibrant hues, such as Anna’s elaborate costumes, and the reds and blues of the cars in the streets, is bolder, and all around cleaner. Argento and cinematographer Erico Menczer use the full breadth of the 2.35:1 frame (another reason to avoid those censored budget releases), including the backgrounds of most shots. Besides close-ups, the majority of the film is shot to celebrate the depth of field, and things are shot with wide lenses. Though the clarity of close-up details, especially those dramatically zoomed eyeballs, is clearly more impressive than the DVD release, it’s the backgrounds that really stand out. Wallpaper is an especially enhanced when comparing the two releases. Grain is certainly an issue, and it does increase with the overall darkness of the frame, but the frequency is fine, and there are very few digital artefacts crammed into the mix. There really very little room for improvement based on the film’s age, aside from a tendency to blow-out some of the brighter whites.

As you can see from the screen caps here the DVD to Blu-ray upgrade is almost overwhelming. This isn't just a sharper version of the previous transfer, this is an entirely new transfer, without all the digital artefacts, grotesque green overhues, and interlacing effects. The brightness, colour and detail increase is gigantic, and I even caught a few bits of print damage that are no longer present, so even Argentophiles that don't love the film might want to double dip for video quality alone.

 Cat O' Nine Tails Blu-ray
 Cat O' Nine Tails DVD

Audio


Since Franco is blind, and bases his clues on sound cues, so sound design is more important here than any of Argento’s other early films. The entire soundtrack here was put together in post, so it does have a bit of a ‘canned’ quality, and like many similar period productions it doesn’t feature a whole lot of aural texture, or anything that isn’t entirely necessary to the on-screen action. Still, the choices made in terms of sound editing are interesting and precise. This DTS-HD Master Audio track is, for all intents and purposes, a mono track, just like the DVD release, but is marked as 2.0 surround. There’s also a DTS-HD MA 1.0 track for comparison’s sake, and the differences are pretty minor. Though I noticed almost nothing in terms of stereo effects, the whole soundtrack is a bit wider, and the effects, dialogue and score slightly more obviously separated. Both tracks exhibit similar minor high end distortion, and occasionally fuzzy bits of dialogue. Ennio Morricone mostly mimics the success he had with his bizarre, free jazz inspired, genre-defining Bird with the Crystal Plumage score. There are fewer cues here overall (I’m guessing Morricone wrote maybe three pieces, that were then chopped up and sprinkled over the film), but what we get is a solid representation of the repeating and building style. Again, I didn’t notice much in the way of overt stereo representation, but in general the 2.0 track is a bit wider overall.

 Cat O' Nine Tails Blu-ray
 Cat O' Nine Tails DVD

Extras


The extras, unsurprisingly, match those used on both the Anchor Bay and Blue Underground Blu-ray releases. These start with ‘Tales of the Cat’ (13:50, SD), a collection of interviews with Argento, co-writer Dardano Sacchetti, Ennio Morricone,
The basics are all cover, including inception, inspiration, screenwriting, refining style, music (including a bit of a lesson), and why Argento himself doesn’t particularly like the film. The rest of the include a US trailer (HD), and international trailer (HD), two TV spots (great if you want to have a clue as to how difficult the film is to watch in 1.33:1), two radio spots, a radio interview with James Franciscus (7:40), and a radio interview with Karl Malden (7:40).

Overall


Cat O’ Nine Tails certainly isn’t among Dario Argento’s finest hours, but I continue to maintain it isn’t the dull, faceless mess so many fans seem to regard it as. This new Blu-ray release is the perfect excuse for refined fans to revisit a film they may have dismissed, and for budding fans to experience a film they may have been scared away from. The 1080p transfer looks nearly perfect, better even then expected from Blue Underground based on the film’s age, and the simple DTS-HD MA 2.0 and 1.0 mixes are plenty satisfying. The extras, which match the Anchor Bay and Blue Underground DVDs, are pretty disappointing, but act as a decent primer.

 Cat O' Nine Tails Blu-ray
 Cat O' Nine Tails DVD

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Then the Anchor Bay DVD images have been resized to match the Blu-ray caps. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the screen-caps.


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