Blue Underground // 1971 // 112 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ike Oden (Retired) // May 31st, 2011
Caught between the truth and a murderer's hand!
Forgive me readers, for I have sinned.
The first time I watched Dario Argento's The Cat O' Nine Tails I fell asleep. Keep in mind this was after a long week of college classes and schoolwork, viewed with my girlfriend between the hours of 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. with more than a few beers in me. Regardless of the drunken and sleep deprived state that influenced my viewing of the film, the reality is I found Cat to be just too...un-Argento. I wrote it off as a tame suspense thriller that played around with wonky genetic science and corporate espionage. This wasn't the Dario Argento I knew and loved. Where was opulent gore? Where was the crazy-ass, candy-colored cinematography? What the hell was Karl Malden doing starring in it? It was right about that third question (asked around the forty-minute mark) that I fell asleep. When I came to, a rooftop climax was in high gear and I was too embarrassed to admit to my Argento scholar ladyfriend that I fell asleep through the majority of the film.
She knew anyway (I snore), and has tormented me about it ever since. Rightfully so, I'd say, as a second viewing of The Cat of Nine Tails reveals me for the fool I was. The film ranks as one of the finest pieces of suspense filmmaking the auteur has ever crafted. In this review I repent my former fan boyish opinion of the film and hail Blue Underground for yet another spectacular Blu-ray release. See below for details.
The robbery of a genetic institute expands into a series of murders, witnessed in part by a blind puzzle maker (Karl Malden, On The Waterfront) and his daughter (Cinzi De Carolis, Cannibal Apocalypse). The pair teams up with a bachelor reporter (James Franciscus, Beneath The Planet Of The Apes) to uncover the identity of the killer. They discover nine different keys to the murderers' identity, each one leading right into the path of the killing spree.
Director Dario Argento (Suspiria) wasn't always the reigning Italian king of gory horror. Before he was crafting fairy tale slasher films, he cut his teeth on a fairly restrained (by Argento standards, anyway) trilogy of giallo murder/mysteries, which began with The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and ended Four Flies On Grey Velvet.
Cat O' Nine Tails, the middle child of the trilogy and his second feature, shows the director's level of mastery over the suspense genre early in his career. Cat is a seemingly straightforward whodunit set in the rather off kilter world of genetic science. Keep in mind, this isn't genetic science in the sense we know about it in 2011, but the muddled, thoroughly dated 1971 perception of genetics. This gives the film a dated, somewhat surreal feel as a whodunit with one foot planted firmly in the realm of science fiction. This science fiction element comes along later as a plot device explaining why the killer so enjoys taking lives. Beyond device, it also serves to create an alien context that keeps the viewer slightly out of the loop during the investigation.
It certainly isn't the sort of surreal context Argento would come to be known for in his later films. Cat O' Nine Tails isn't set in the implied, visually lush unconsciousness of the film's protagonist like most of Argento's other gialli. The film is grounded in regular movie realism. Ridiculous things happen, but nothing more strange than something you'd come across in a pulpy Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie story.
In this way, the film often feels more Hitchcock than it does Argento, a little more concerned with stacking the plot's deck of cards than something like Deep Red or even Bird With The Crystal Plumage. It moves significantly slower than the rest of Argento's films, bogged down by the mechanical nuances of the mystery at hand. Then again, when a film's densely layered set of clues inspire the title Cat O' Nine Tails, it is hard to expect the film play out without every single detail being thoroughly accounted for.
Argento has been quoted as saying the film is among his least favorites, regarding it as a bit of a kitchen sink film, borrowing and mixing conventions and archetypes from science fiction, horror, comedies, and even westerns rather than organically pulling together characters and a story from original elements. Though I love Cat, I sort of agree with him. The attention spent on preserving archetype and conventions in turn bolsters a strain to keep the plot coherent. Argento does, but the struggle is apparent and it causes a bit of lag.
Later in his career, Argento would stop worrying about coherency and focus more on mood, pace and imagery. Cat O' Nine Tails isn't that sort of movie. It's very stylized, to be sure (riddled with tons of great subjective shots and excellent trick photography) but is so married to conventions (even disparate ones) it becomes a black sheep of an Argento film. It is still a great film, whose overcautious approach is what makes it work so well. Don't let its uniqueness within Argento's cinematic output turn you off of the film like I did the first go-around.
The film is creepy when it intends to be, eliciting enough "Get the hell out of there!" moments to legitimately place the film in the horror genre. It helps that the killer is right within Argento's wheelhouse -- an efficient and ruthless monster that ups the ante with each victim. He or she (I'm not telling you) is hardly the sort of overtly creative killer we come to see in future movies. Nonetheless the killer has a taste for subtle stalking that packs a punch if you're willing to play ball with the movie. This murderer is more into poisons and strangulation than stabbing and hacking, so gore hounds have to settle with a minimal amount of corn syrup shenanigans. Despite a lack of the red stuff, the kills scenes are as powerful and effective as Argento's most ghoulish setpieces, going for intense emotion over fetishistic violence, a choice that, in this case, keeps the viewer -- and the protagonists -- on their toes right up to the big reveal.
Also, that comment I made about Karl Malden earlier? Way off base. The guy is absolutely phenomenal here as Franco, the puzzlemaker. He's partnered with James Franciscus, whose smooth operator reporter Giordani is more or less the film's main protagonist. The pair shares a traditional, mismatched buddy relationship. Like most movie buddy relationships, the characters are a bit imbalanced. While Franciscus' Giordani is a fine, if bland enough, protagonist, Malden pretty much steals the whole movie and runs away with it as Franco. His character is a sweet natured, seemingly innocent blind man trying to survive in the world with his little niece taking care of him. Of course, you don't put a little girl in a suspense thriller unless you intend on having the killer kidnap her. He or she does, of course, and the result is an ingenious set-up: a final act following a blind, murderous Karl Malden sporting a hidden blade in his cane, a cane that wants to taste the blood of his niece's captor. Malden sells every emotion, every beat, and elevates the film as a byproduct. His vendetta against the killer would make Roger Murtaugh smile, building toward a riveting, strangely ambiguous ending that makes you question the darkness in Franco's heart.
Blue Underground gives The Cat O' Nine Tails a typically regal release that fits right in with their impeccable work on Inferno, Deep Red, etc. The 2.35.1 1080p picture looks great, boasting very deep blacks, natural skin tones and amazingly clear details. There is a good amount of grain, but it stems naturally from the film stock, making it the good type of grain Blu-ray fans are looking for in releases of this type. The transfer is just about perfect given the age of the film, making it reason enough to constitute upgrade. The DTS stereo soundtrack lacks the bells and whistles of a surround mix but is crystal clear and very impressive, especially when that jazzy Ennio Morricone score kicks in.
Extras are ported over from the original Anchor Bay DVD release. Tales of the Cat, presented in standard definition, is a 14-minute featurette interviewing Argento, co-writer Dardano Sacchetti, and Ennio Morricone. It's predictably produced stuff, but packs in a lot of substantial information in a short running time. Trailers, TV and radio spots are included, as well as some very enthusiastic radio interviews with stars Franciscus and Malden. Malden's in particular is infectiously enthusiastic and good-humored, delving deep into his approach to playing a blind puzzlemaker and his enjoyment of gory thrillers. It's one of those bonus features that makes you think, "Wow, what a cool guy!" and almost makes up for the fact Blue Underground didn't spring for new bonus features. Almost.
So it's a little slow at times. So it's overplotted. So it isn't an out and out gorefest. So maybe Karl Malden isn't your first choice to star in a Dario Argento picture. So what? The Cat O' Nine Tails may not be a traditional Argento film, but it is a masterfully directed murder mystery. It's creepy enough to please horror fans, coherent enough to please Argento naysayers, and kitchen sink surreal enough to make it very strong entry in the then-burgeoning Italian giallo genre. Blue Undergound's Blu-ray is an absolute must-buy, meaning only a drunken, close-minded, asleep-at-the-wheel idiot like myself could dismiss it as anything less. Yes, Dario Argento, I'm talking about you.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Italian)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Not Rated