The Cat O' Nine Tails/Review
From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
Franco Arno (Karl Malden) is a blind former newspaper reporter who spends his days taking care of his young charge Lori (Cinzia De Carolis) and fashioning the daily crossword puzzle on an elaborate braille board. While he and Lori are out for a walk one night, he overhears a conversation punctuated by the word "blackmail" outside of a genetics lab called the Terzi Institute, which is subsequently broken into that night. When the man who spoke the incriminating word ends up dead after being pushed in front of a train by an unseen killer, and it is discovered that he also worked at the institute, Arno tracks down a reporter named Giordani (James Franciscus) to see if he can use his fading reporter skills to help crack the case. As the two get closer to solving it, though, they soon discover that the killer is onto their pursuit and he starts stalking them, as well.
Dario Argento's follow up to his smash success thriller The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, The Cat O' Nine Tails (his second feature as a director) is a worthy successor to the relatively unknown brand of Italian mystery film that he helped to make popular in the seventies, while also being just as low key of a film as his first feature was. The bulk of his early career was made up of these mysteries (or gialli, as they are known in Italy) before he decided to move on from that genre and take on the world of the supernatural. While his visual style would increase tenfold during these new efforts, there is no denying that the man did some of his best work when focusing on the mysteries that brought him acclaim (Suspiria notwithstanding).
Although the first film I was really introduced to Argento through was 1987's Opera (which is one of his best films, though it is far more brutal than the rest of his oeuvre), getting to revisit his past catalog and see where the style that I am most familiar with sprang from is indeed a treat. He has always had a visual sense that not only complemented his stories, but also became its own character within the film. For Cat O' Nine Tails, his brilliantly conceived style allows us to see strangely subjective viewpoints of events that none of the characters in the film should be witness to, even though they seem to be aware of the events taking place. The irony of these viewpoints is that they normally occur during scenes in which the blind character Arno has flashes of visual information which are made up of events that are occurring elsewhere in the film. Though it is obvious that Arno isn't really seeing the events (thanks to the fact that little Lori must pass on whatever visual clues there may be in the film to him verbally), there is a subtle suggestion that he may have some sort of telepathic ability which makes him more in tune with information that he can't get optically.
The film's plot is as finely crafted as its visual style, dealing with the matter of genetics and its role in the human animal. When the Terzi Institute genetic studies building is broken into, it appears that nothing is stolen, but the character we are introduced to at the beginning of the film (who apparently doesnít want to "have to" to blackmail someone) knows what was taken and this vital clue is the key to solving the entire film's riddle. We are given tantalizing tastes of what it could be, involving studies of the XYY chromosome, which was a real study in the sixties in which scientists thought they could isolate genes in criminals that could detect a tendency towards criminal acts, but little information is offered beyond that and a wealth of red herrings are thrown our way to get us off track. The film's killer is never obvious, and when it is revealed finally, it doesnít seem like it came out of nowhere either. For a film to maintain its mystery and solve it plausibly is a pleasure that is hardly seen in today's cinema.
No Argento film would be complete, though, without the gruesome, cringe-inspiring scenes of violence that inform the bulk of his work. The death of the character by train features a disturbing slow motion shot of his head connecting with the front of the engine car, but it is subsequently followed by an intensely painful scene in which we watch his body get flipped and mangled between the car and the station platform. Another sequence features a character who had just been strangled to death getting some poor postmortem treatment from his murderer in the form of some excruciatingly nasty scalpel cuts to the face. The most painful sequence to watch, though, is a moment where a character falls down an elevator shaft and tries to stop the fall by grabbing the cables. The attempt doesn't work and we end up getting subjected to seeing the characterís hands start smoking from the rapid downward descent and can actually smell the flesh burning as he heads for his fate at the bottom of the shaft. Though I canít say I havenít seen worse from him, I can definitely say that the scenes here rank moderately high on the "Argento pain list".
The Cat O' Nine Tails has been released on DVD as part of Anchor Bay Entertainment's impressive Dario Argento Collection. The film is presented uncut for the first time in the US in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and the transfer is utterly amazing, especially considering the fact that the film is thirty years old. Anchor Bay has packed the disc with extras, including two theatrical trailers (one for the US release and one for the International release), two TV spots that run :30 and :60 seconds, two radio spots running :30 and :55 seconds, and two eight minute radio interviews with stars Franciscus (in which he incorrectly labels The Bird with the Crystal Plumage as The "Girl" with the Crystal Plumage) and Malden. I would highly recommend skipping the trailers (and Malden's interview) before watching the film, because they give away the film's ending right in the opening moments! A still gallery featuring the really cool ten-stage promo pack that shows all nine of the "tails" of the cat on lobby cards, along with a mini-poster lobby card and some interesting promotional ideas (like dressing a girl up in "hot pants" and having her hand the lobby cards out in the streets), is also included, as are bios for the cast and crew.
Rounding out the disc is a fascinating thirteen and a half minute documentary on the making of the film featuring Argento, screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti, and composer Ennio Morricone. Shown in Italian with easy to read English subtitles, Argento describes how this film is the least favorite out of all the films he has made, though he is happy that most of his fans seem to like it. Sacchetti and Morricone spend most of the documentaryís short running time describing how they came to work for Argento, with Morricone really enlightening us to the fact that he was only used to writing music for directors he was familiar with and was reluctant to work for Argento as first (as supposedly evidenced by his "restrained" music in Crystal Plumage). Although its running time will barely make a dent in anyone's day, it still manages to provide a wealth of information throughout and is an important inclusion to yet another great Argento release by Anchor Bay. For even more information, there are detailed liner notes on the reverse side of the keepcase packaging.
Review by Pockets of Sanity