The Cat O’ Nine Tails

The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: James Franciscus, Karl Malden
Extras: Interviews, Still Gallery, Theatrical Trailer

For his first three films, Italian director Dario Argento created a series of films that has come to be known as the "Animal Trilogy", as each film has featured an animal in its title — "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage", "The Cat O’Nine Tails", and "Four Flies on Grey Velvet". Though the films are unrelated and thus, do not comprise a standard trilogy, all three are related thematically, being that all three fall under the heading of giallo, or an Italian murder-mystery. The second of this "trilogy", "The Cat O’Nine Tails" is making its domestic DVD debut courtesy of Anchor Bay Entertainment, giving fans and newcomers alike a look at the highly-respected Argento’s early work.

"The Cat O’Nine Tails" opens with a mysterious break-in at a medical research clinic called The Terzi Institute. The odd thing about this crime is that nothing was stolen. The only real witness to the crime is a blind-man named Franco Arno (Karl Malden) who was walking near the Institute shortly before the break-in and overheard two men who seemed to be conspiring. Arno had his adopted daughter Lori (Cinzia De Carolis) look at the men, who were sitting in a car, and describe them. The next day, Arno visits the Institute to try and learn what had occurred. There, he meets a reporter, Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus), who is covering the story. Giordani is flashy and cocky, and makes an odd companion for the older, blind man, but they soon learn that they each have information that could help to explain who broke in and why.

The subject turns to murder when one of the researchers from the Institute is killed. The police treat this incident as an accident, but Giordani obtains proof that it was anything but. He and Arno decide to start interviewing the employees of the Institute to uncover some leads. Giordani meets with Professor Terzi (Tino Carraro), but is much more interested in the professor’s daughter, Anna. Meanwhile, Arno talks with the girlfriend of the murdered scientist. Together, Arno and Giordani are able to surmise that the Terzi Institute is involved in some ground-breaking and controversial research and that everyone at the facility seems to have something to hide. What this detective duo doesn’t realize is that the killer is now stalking them, and is willing to kill again to keep his secret safe.

Argento has commented that "The Cat O’Nine Tails" is his least favorite amongst his films, and upon close inspection, one can see why. "Cat" is an unbalanced film. The positive aspects of the film lie in Argento’s direction and the performances from his two leads. "The Cat O’Nine Tails" brings us a young Argento who was just beginning to explore the power of inventive camera angles and clever editing. While we don’t get the "hey mom look at me!" camera antics of "Tenebre", "The Cat O’Nine Tails" does feature some impressive point-of-view and subjective camera angle shots, my favorite being the "glass o’milk" cam. Also, Argento makes good use of momentary edits to show a character’s thoughts. These brief, almost subliminal, touches allow Argento to tell the story without introducing more exposition. In addition, Argento makes good use of the <$PS,widescreen> frame, the best example being the scene in the crypt. It was films like this that taught the world to watch for action in the background, and influenced filmmakers like John Carpenter.

James Franciscus and Karl Malden are both very good in the lead roles. As Giordani, Franciscus joins a long-line of Argento heroes who get involved in a mystery which they don’t understand. His laid-back approach to the role actually helps to heighten the suspense, as we know that something is bound to happen to shake up his world. Karl Malden’s Arno character would later be echoed in the Donald Pleasance character from Argento’s "Phenomena", a knowledgeable character whose physical limitations keep them from fully becoming involved in the investigation. (Although, Arno proves that he can take care of himself!) Malden creates a convincing blind character and is able to bring across a great deal of emotion with his voice and mannerisms. Also of note is Horst Frank, who is very good as the mysterious Dr. Braun. The only weak link in the cast is Catherine Spaak, whose "deer in the headlights" stare and gigantic hairdo seem to slow the film down whenever she is on screen.

While all of these attributes benefit "The Cat O’Nine Tails", its story keeps it from ranking among Argento’s great masterpieces. At this point in his career, Argento was being hailed as "the Italian Hitchcock". (Just check out the supplements for confirmation of this.) Hitchcock was well-known for giving the audiences tidbits of information so that they would be one step ahead of the characters. "The Cat O’Nine Tails" does not follow this Hitchcockian pattern, and suffers for it. The film opens with a crime in which nothing apparently happened and then introduces us to an absurd number of suspects. From there, the movie gives us little to go on, except for the fact that the dead people probably didn’t commit the murders. This plot-structure causes the audience to be just as confused as Arno and Giordani, and while this is exciting on one level, it’s also extremely frustrating. At nearly two hours, the film is too long, and doesn’t really pick up until well into the second hour. At times, Argento allows the pace to become a bit too leisurely, as when we watch Giordani walk around his apartment for about three minutes. The scientific angle is clever, and still feels fresh today, but the film doesn’t do enough to integrate it into the story. If you’re the kind of viewer who enjoys playing detective along with the film, then you may find "The Cat O’Nine Tails" frustrating. Conversely, if you don’t mind a "how was I supposed to know that" ending, then the film’s lack of information dispensing shouldn’t bother you.

As with most of their product, Anchor Bay has apparently made a great effort to create an enticing DVD package with "The Cat O’Nine Tails". The quality of the video transfer is certainly worth the purchase price alone. The film has been transferred with great care, and the <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> transfer has been <$PS,letterboxed> at its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It’s amazing how sharp and clear the image on this film is, as there is basically no grain or distortion present. This 30-year old film has survived the digital transfer with barely a scratch, as there only one or two defects from the source print evident. As with most of Argento’s early work, "Cat" was shot in Technicolor, and those lush colors look fantastic here. Fleshtones look realistic and the garish "mod" colors in the set decorations certainly stand out. My only complaint about the image is that at times, this looks like an older, low-budget foreign film, as the image is slightly dark. Other than that, this is a very good transfer.

However, the audio on "The Cat O’Nine Tails" DVD isn’t quite as impressive, although it’s still satisfactory. We are treated to a Dolby 2-channel surround soundtrack, which brings us clear dialogue and sound effects that are never muddled. The score by Ennio Morricone sounds particularly good on this track. But, do not expect much in the way of surround sound action. For the most part, the audio in the rear speakers in very quiet and is typically just mimicking the sounds coming from the front speakers. While this in no way detracts from the viewing experience, this soundtrack sounded more like a standard stereo mix than a surround sound track. It should be noted that the film itself is not subtitled, but English or French (depending on the selected language option) will pop up occasionally during the film to translate any on-screen Italian text.

Similar to their recent release of "The Day the Earth Caught Fire", on "The Cat O’Nine Tails" DVD Anchor Bay has managed to dig up many interesting extra features for an older film. We start with a "Tales of the Cat", a 14-minute featurette offering interviews with director/co-writer Dario Argento, co-writer Dardano Sacchetti, and composer Ennio Morricone. These three interviews were done separately and edited together. Argento talks about the origins and production of the film; Sacchetti (surrounded by Italo-horror video boxes) speaks of the writing process; and Morricone gives insight into the film’s music and how it would influence his later scores. It’s in this segment which Argento reveals his true feelings about "The Cat O’Nine Tails", and he seems comfortable speaking very candidly about the film. All three participants speak Italian, and the featurette has easy-to-read yellow subtitles.

Staying with the interview theme, the DVD has two radio interviews (done presumable in 1971) with stars James Franciscus and Karl Malden. Each interview is 8-minutes long and Franciscus has some very strong (and inflammatory) things to say about the quality of filmmakers in Italy. Also in the "audio only" department, there are two radio spots for "Cat", running at 55-seconds and 30-seconds respectively.

If you’ve been wondering about the accuracy of the color settings on your monitor, you’ll wonder no more when you watch "The Cat O’Nine Tails" trailers. Both the U.S. trailer (1.85:1) and the international trailer (2.35:1) offer an amazingly trippy psychedelic color scheme, which tells you little about the film, but is enticing nonetheless. These colors are not carried over to the U.S. TV spots, both are which are <$PS,full frame>. (Did you know that this film was rated "GP", which is equivalent to today’s PG?) Rounding out the extras are a still gallery with 43 stills, many of which are culled from international lobby cards, and in-depth biographies of the main cast and crew.

Argentophiles while certainly want to get their paws on "The Cat O’Nine Tails". While it may not be Argento’s finest hour, the film does show his usual class and style. The Anchor Bay DVD is very impressive, giving us a great transfer and several extras, which Argento fans will eat up.