Blu Reviewed: Dario Argento's The Cat O' Nine Tails – Arrow Video Limited Edition

Arrow Video has once again proven themselves to be the final word on Dario Argento (Synapse's definitive Suspiria aside) with another beautifully-packaged limited edition box set, featuring a brand-new 4k restoration and a very thorough array of special features. Last year they gave us their definitive editions of Phenomena (UK-only) and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, both in lavish sets with gorgeous, haunting and dream-like artwork by painter Candice Tripp. Now they are giving that same treatment - complete with another beautiful Tripp cover - to The Cat O' Nine Tails, Argento's follow-up to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in his so-called Animal Trilogy. A bit of background for those unfamiliar with Argento's early work: the Animal Trilogy isn't really a trilogy at all in the narrative sense (the three films are unrelated plot-wise), but a triptych of stylistically-similar giallo thrillers shot back-to-back. They are his first three films - The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat O' Nine Tails, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet - modern-day homages to Hitchcock with some extra blood and visual style to burn. Crystal Plumage is a staggeringly confident debut feature which announced Argento's arrival as an auteur in a big way; it is every bit as great a successor to Hitchcock as anything that Brian De Palma did around the same time, and Arrow's reverent release made an irrefutable argument for its classic status. Now, in the context of this likewise Criterion-esque special edition, let's see if his rapidly-made follow-up feature can live up to the greatness of its predecessor, or if in retrospect it is something of a sophomore slump.

The Film:

The Cat O' Nine Tails begins with a superficially similar set-up to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage: a bystander witnesses a shadowy and uncertain event which they are sure is the key to solving a mysterious murder. But rather than repeating the same formula, Argento does something completely different with that set-up, once again exploring the power and deceptiveness of perception (the central theme of Bird), but from a perspective that only a few other thrillers – notably the classic Wait Until Dark – have. The film begins with a blind man (Karl Malden), who had once been an investigator before he lost his sight, inadvertently overhearing a blackmailing which culminates in murder. The blind ex-detective teams up with the reporter investigating the crime (James Franciscus) to try and solve the mystery, but they quickly find themselves in over their heads in a world of corporate espionage, personal vendettas, and a rapidly-mounting body count as the killer eliminates anyone who starts putting the pieces together.

It is often said that Dario Argento is a style-over-substance filmmaker whose mysteries don't make much narrative sense. That certainly is not the case here: yes, the style is ultimately king in The Cat O' Nine Tails, but it is also a tightly-plotted film whose twists and turns tend to feel quite well-earned indeed (well, for the most part, anyway). Yes, he veered rather strongly off into style-over-substance territory in the 1980s, but his second film, like his first, finds him to be quite a disciplined filmmaker in his manipulation of plot as well as suspense. The mystery genuinely keeps the viewer guessing, as Argento loads it up with macguffins, red herrings, and dead ends; the title comes from a conversation between Malden and Franciscus's characters about how many loose threads the investigation seems to have. It isn't the sort of mystery which is necessarily meant for the viewer to be able to solve before the detectives do, but is instead the kind of mystery that feels like a rollercoaster, and it makes for a very fun and suspenseful ride.

Argento's craft in creating this ride is once again admirable for such a young filmmaker: his handling of tension shows him to be a scholar of film thrillers well beyond his actual level of directorial experience, and his command of visuals is already excellent. Once again his film boasts gorgeous widescreen shot compositions which often make striking use of architecture, and once again he employs a lot of highly kinetic dolly and steadicam work. It must be said, however, that the visuals are not quite as potent in this film as they were in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, since that film's cinematographer could not return for this project due to a scheduling conflict, and his replacement isn't quite at the same technical level. Argento's eye for shots is still obvious and powerful, but the technical panache is a few notches lower. One crucial artist from Bird who was able to return is composer Ennio Morricone: the music legend provides an excellent score for The Cat O' Nine Tails, which is instantly recognizable as his style from the very first notes, even before his name appears in the opening credits. While most fans will always associate Dario Argento film scores with the band Goblin, his collaborations with Morricone on the Animal Trilogy produced some truly great stuff, and made those films feel very unique among his filmography.

Then there's the matter of the film's actors: Karl Malden gives what is probably one of the strongest performances by a lead actor in any of Argento's films, and James Franciscus is pretty solid as well. Franciscus is very much the archetypal macho and charismatic hard-boiled investigator type, in the Robert Mitchum tradition, and he plays the part quite well, even if his character is pretty tropey and two-dimensional, and even if this is one of the reasons why many fans think that Cat O' Nine Tails feels more like an American thriller than an Italian one. But it is Malden who steals the show, both by bringing believability and emotional depth to the concept of the blind detective, and by imbuing the character with a warmth and humanity which is very rare in the icy and ominous world of Argento films. One of the central traits of Malden's character is that he is the surrogate grandfather of his otherwise orphaned niece, and Malden cultivates in their mutual-caretaker relationship a genuinely sweet and human connection which has got to be the most touching interpersonal relationship in the filmography of a director who usually couldn't care less about such things. This relationship gives the film a sense of emotional weight and personal stakes that it wouldn't have otherwise, and this is all thanks to Malden's talent as an actor, and the trust that Argento put in him to shape the film as a collaborator. Argento famously has a short fuse when it comes to actors seeking to influence his material (something he got from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, dealing with Tony Musante's prickly ego), but in the special features on this disc he raves about what a joy it was to work with Malden, and how much better he feels the film is because of the expertise that the veteran Oscar-winner brought to the project.

All of these strong points about Cat O' Nine Tails are undeniable, but there are plenty of other ways in which the film is rather uneven, and in the end it is not quite as successful, and not as uniformly strong, as his debut feature. The biggest problem is that, given the greater freedom Argento had over the final cut as a result of his success with Crystal Plumage, Cat O' Nine Tails is a bit self-indulgent in its pacing. With a runtime just shy of two hours, it is nearly twenty minutes longer than Crystal Plumage, and by no coincidence it feels about twenty minutes too long. The middle drags considerably, and this is very much to the film's detriment: one of the main reasons why Crystal Plumage is such a strong and confident debut is that the tension pretty much never lets up, with its brisk pacing and suspenseful set-pieces keeping the viewer on the edge of their seat throughout. This obviously can't be true of a film with a quarter-hour of fat that could be trimmed in the second act, even if it eventually recovers and gets back up to full-steam by act three.

It also doesn't help that this weak second act is dragged down by two rather dubious plot-points. The first is a pseudoscience plot device that might have seemed plausible at the time, but is based around a theory that has been so thoroughly debunked in the intervening years that modern-day viewers have to really work in order to suspend their disbelief. This is the one part of Argento's otherwise well-constructed mystery that falls flat in a modern context, and it takes some good will on the part of the viewer to give it a pass and focus instead on the other, stronger aspects of the mystery. Then there is the romantic subplot between Franciscus's hard-boiled reporter and the story's femme fatale: it serves no purpose except to shoehorn some romance into the film for the sake of marketing, and it feels extremely forced, with very little chemistry between the actors. Not to mention that at its core, its view of sexual politics and romance is dated and old-fashioned at best, and casually sexist at worst. It unquestionably feels like a romance subplot right out of a 1971 pulp detective story, which is exactly what it is, but which is nonetheless somewhere between eye-rolling and a little cringey.

Surprisingly more progressive and less old-fashioned is the film's attitude towards homosexuality: the story has several gay characters, and they and the gay-bar nightlife in which they reside are treated seriously and matter-of-factly in a way which is pleasantly surprising for 1971. Yeah, there is the expected unintentional camp element of this clearly being a gay subculture written by a straight outsider who doesn't quite know what he's talking about, but Argento's intentions are clearly positive, and the characters are treated without much (intentional) stereotyping, and certainly without judgment; indeed, their homosexuality would be totally incidental to the plot, and just an extra layer of character development, were it not for the unexpected way in which the murder mystery interacts with the homophobia they face. One of the gay characters comes to our reporter/detective duo for help specifically because he is afraid to go to the police, out of certainty that the cops would be homophobic and either refuse to help them, or actually harass them. This crucial detail makes this subplot ultimately feel like an indictment of the homophobic, macho norms forced on men in Italian society at that time. Argento is often fascinated with conflicts between Italian cultural norms of sex and gender and the more complicated nature of human sexuality, as can be seen in subplots like the gay detective in Four Flies on Grey Velvet and the existential crisis of masculinity hinted at in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, but this is his most fully-realized attempt to articulate these conflicts thematically, and the result makes Cat O' Nine Tails feel like a pretty progressive-for-the-time film for LGBT inclusion, even if its treatment of women is unfortunately lacking.

All in all, The Cat O' Nine Tails isn't quite as strong a film as its predecessor, thanks largely to its overlong middle section and its couple of clunky and dubious plot-points, but it isn't too far behind either. Its many-threaded, red-herring-laden mystery is an engrossing and suspenseful thrill ride which more or less refutes the criticism that Argento is strictly style over substance. Its strong widescreen visuals and great Ennio Morricone score make it quite technically impressive (if slightly less so than The Bird with the Crystal Plumage). Its cast is quite strong, anchored by a genuinely great, wonderfully human performance by Karl Malden. All in all, it is highly recommended viewing not only for fans of Argento, but for fans of vintage, post-Hitchcock mystery/thrillers in general.

Unfortunately, Argento gave his first signs of being a highly uneven filmmaker with his next film, Four Flies on Grey Velvet. He cranked that movie out less than a year after The Cat O' Nine Tails to meet studio demands, and it feels very much like a movie thrown together out of obligation to a distributor even though the script wasn't anywhere close to ready. Four Flies on Grey Velvet is Argento's first bad movie; a rushed, borderline-incoherent mess, and I would not recommend that anyone but the most hardcore fans seek out that final chapter in the so-called Animal Trilogy. Both of the first two installments, however, are great (or at least nearly-great) films by an exciting new filmmaking voice, and the worthy foundations of the iconic horror career which followed. And both are highly deserving of the new spotlight that these Arrow special editions are shining on them.


The Video:

Just like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat O' Nine Tails comes to us in a brand-new 4K restoration sourced from the original camera negative. And just like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, this restoration is absolutely stunning. The picture is crystal-clear, with fine detail never visible on a previous release, and a healthy presence of natural grain that gives the transfer an authentically filmic texture. This new restoration with its added detail allows Arrow to present the film as it never really has been before: this a very dark movie (in the lighting and cinematography sense), and previous discs have upped the brightness on the picture to make details visible, but this transfer is noticeably darker, in keeping with Argento's intended aesthetic. Given the fine level of detail, though, everything is still perfectly visible within the darkness, and it never looks at all murky; indeed, the result is a more atmospheric film. Arrow has knocked it out of the park with this one: the film has never looked anywhere close to this good, and between the quality of the remaster and the darker and more shadowy aesthetic, Argento's visual power really shines through.


The Audio:

The audio on Cat O' Nine Tails is presented in its original mono format – nothing too fancy, and no artificial surround mix, but just the audio as it was intended, restored to the best quality possible. It sounds very good, with the dialogue always coming through clearly and strongly, and Ennio Morricone's excellent score packing plenty of punch. Granted, the mono has its inherent limitations, but I'm a believer that the mix created by the film's sound designer is the one to go with, rather than an artificial upgrade, and I don't have a surround set-up anyway, so I was more than happy with the presentation. Both the English and Italian tracks are present, and as with most Italian films of this era, it's about a 50/50 mix of actors speaking both languages, so no matter which track you go with, someone is going to be dubbed. I think the English track is the correct one to go with, though, since that is the language that Malden and Franciscus are both speaking, and the two of them are in almost every scene in the film.


The Extras:

Once again Arrow has put together a pretty solid array of extras for this special edition, including not only several key people who worked on the film, but some film scholars to give it context as well. First are foremost are four brand-new interviews with the actress who played Malden's young niece/surrogate granddaughter, the film's co-writer, its production manager, and Argento himself. All of the interviews are very interesting and go into a nice amount of depth given that none of them are longer than 20-ish minutes (though it should be noted that the review screeners of the disc had an error that made the interview with actress Cinzia De Carolis inaccessible, and while this error was fixed before the for-sale discs were pressed, this means I was unable to watch and review that interview). Production manager Angelo Iacono and co-writer Dardano Sacchetti both have some very interesting behind-the-scenes anecdotes, especially Iacono, since he was something of a jack of all trades during the production; Sacchetti is very long-winded and meandering, however, making his interview occasionally frustrating or tiresome.

The interview with Argento is the most interesting, because of how candid he is about his memories of the production, and how fondly he clearly remembers it. Just as Argento is famous for having a low tolerance for egos and personal drama from his actors, he is also famous for being very vocal over the years about his dislike for The Cat O' Nine Tails, which he thinks was too influenced by American thrillers, and thus doesn't feel to him enough like a personal Dario Argento film, or even an Italian film at all. Yet despite this, it is clear from his interview that he and his equally young and enthusiastic crew had a wonderful time filming the movie, and the production was a very positive experience even if the end result was not. He also speaks at great length about his positive experiences with this cast, and especially Malden, who he clearly has great respect for, and saw as an important collaborator on the production. Between these different, somewhat surprising attitudes, this interview provides a side of Argento that we don't often get to see. Rounding out the extras is a commentary by two Argento scholars, who provide a very entertaining, enlightening, and thick with information conversation. It really puts the film in context; context of Argento's body of work, of Italian cinema, and of genre cinema. The disc also includes the script for the film's original ending, which was shot, but changed after Argento screened his rough cut. All in all, it is a very strong bunch of extras.


This is a fantastic special edition of an often-overlooked film in the Argento filmography which truly does deserve the attention. It may not be as well-regarded as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage which came before it, or Deep Red which came four years later, but it is a very strong film in its own right, and a solid (if a bit inferior) follow-up to its excellent predecessor. It is certainly recommended, and this Arrow special edition is the perfect way to watch it. This current limited edition package comes in a beautiful hard-case with a book, a set of lobby cards, and a poster of the gorgeous Candice Tripp artwork. However, many retailers have sold out of the limited edition in pre-order, so if you want it, you have to act quickly. Don't despair if you miss out on the limited edition, though: as always, Arrow will release a non-limited variant in a few months, with the same blu-ray disc and artwork in a standard plastic case. Whichever version you get, this is the definitive presentation of this lesser-seen Argento classic, and I can't wait to see which of his films they will restore next.

Overall Score:

- Christopher S. Jordan

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