Arrow Blu-ray Review: The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971)

Written by Dario Argento
Directed by Dario Argento
Starring James Franciscus, Karl Malden, Catherine Spaak
Released May 21, 1971 (US)
RT 115 min.
Home Video Arrow Video
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)CAT_O_NINE_TAILS_UK_2D_BDFrom the bonus materials included with Arrow’s limited edition release of The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971), it’s easy to conclude that the movie is generally considered one of Dario Argento’s lesser films.  The second movie in his “animal trilogy,” sandwiched between The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), The Cat O’ Nine Tails was supposedly made in haste as a reaction to the huge success of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.  The result was a box office failure and a movie that Argento himself doesn’t like.

In an exclusive interview recorded for Arrow Video in 2017, Argento calls the movie, “too American.”  I’m not sure what he means.  Alan Jones and Kim Newman speculate about it on their commentary track.  One reason could be that the cast features not one, but two leads from the United States: James Franciscus and Karl Malden.  Another could be that the story is even more generic than most gialli.  The killer could be anyone, interchangeable with any of the nine suspects.  The identity has no impact on the story itself.

Franciscus, whose blue eyes pop off the screen (providing the only reason you need to upgrade your DVD to Blu-ray), plays Carlo Giordani, a journalist investigating a robbery at a genetic research facility.  Malden is Franco Arno, a blind man who lives beside the facility with his young niece, Lori (Cinzia De Carolis), and overhears talk on the street about blackmail and  corporate espionage.  He initiates contact with Giordani when he learns he was the author of a newspaper article about the subsequent murder of one of the scientists at the train station.

Let’s talk about that murder!  It’s a Hitchcockian scene that contains POV shots from the killer, a swiftly panning camera, and an unflinching depiction of a man being pushed in front of a train.  (Jones and Newman say it’s impossible to make a movie like this without Hitchcock’s inspiration.) It’s graphic in that we see his head hit the front of the train and his body tumble; however, it’s not particularly bloody.  It’s Argento-lite, a big, showy murder around which the story revolves, but without the gore that would later become the director’s trademark.

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That doesn’t make me cringe as much as the movie’s finale, though.  It’s less graphic, but more imaginable that it could happen to you, like fingernails being ripped off or eyes being poked out.  Interestingly, the finale was written by Argento the night before it was filmed.  Jones and Newman discuss an alternative ending, but it differs from a scripted ending that is included in the bonus features of the Blu-ray.  The actual footage is lost, but the script pages are presented on screen, as is a lobby card photo proving it was at one time filmed.

I like the ending exactly as it is.  I don’t need to be shown whether or not the hero lives; I never suspected that he didn’t.  Likewise, when Lori is kidnapped by the killer, I never thought she’d actually die.  The alternative ending(s) that would have clarified their fates was wisely excised.  Now, if either, or both, did not survive, I would like to have known.  That would have changed the tone of the entire movie, though, and nothing that comes before is brutal enough to indicate that such a downbeat ending was coming.

Funny to say that, considering the movie includes a fairly graphic strangling.  A suspect is eliminated early, pushed facedown on the floor by the killer as he’s choking her.  Pink foam oozes from her mouth and her bright red lipstick stains the carpet.  Argento pays attention to those little details, but, again, not in an exaggerated way.  It’s a far cry from something like the first murder in Suspiria (1977).  Whether this quality makes The Cat O’ Nine Tails more American or more Argento-lite, I’m not sure.

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The most tense scene in the movie, and it’s brilliant, is when Giordani gets a shave.  The barber waves his blade wildly while he rants about the fact that the police say the killer may share his career.  Periodically, he places his razor to slide down Giordani’s shaving cream-covered neck.  Talk about imagining it could happen to you!  The scene elicits constant discomfort, like fingernails on a chalkboard.  Yet, it’s also funny.  The movie contains more humor than I remember in something like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

Some of the laughs appeal to my sense of humor; some do not.  When Giordani and his “associate,” Gigi the Loser (Ugo Fangareggi) are walking and Gigi trips, he looks at Giordani and shrugs, “It happens.”  It seems almost improvised, but is a clever, funny moment.  Prior to that scene, though, an elderly couple attempting to cross the street find themselves in the middle of a car chase and have to keep returning to the curb.  The car chase is barely necessary, so this attempt at a cheap laugh is certainly not necessary.

Having mentioned the commentary track a few times, I must say that while it’s quite entertaining, it offers less information about the making of the movie than I’d like to hear.  Instead of researched facts, the two men offer a lot of speculation.  The banter between Jones and Newman is funny at first, but gets a little repetitive.  I also grew tired of Jones dropping Argento’s name, talking about how much time he spends with the man.  I don’t know if either is gay, but I got a particular kick out of their reactions to Giordani’s visit to St. Peter’s bar.

As always, if you’re an Argento or giallo fan, the Arrow Video limited edition is a must-have. To be honest, I can’t say how the bonus features compare to their previous Blu-ray release, but this one is 4K restored and looks terrific, Franciscus’s blue eyes and all.  For me, I enjoy The Cat O’ Nine Tails itself, and don’t find it to be particularly better or worse than The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.  They’re both a little long and I can easily identify the scenes which could be cut to make them more perfect viewing experiences.Arrow-Video-January-2017-01Contents

  • Brand new 4K restoration of the film from the original camera negative
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations
  • Original mono Italian and English soundtracks (lossless on the Blu-ray disc)
  • Newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack
  • New audio commentary by critics Alan Jones and Kim Newman
  • New interviews with co-writer/director Dario Argento, co-writer Dardano Sacchetti, actress Cinzia De Carolis and production manager Angelo Iacono
  • Script pages for the lost original ending, translated into English for the first time
  • Original Italian and international theatrical trailers
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Candice Tripp
  • Double-sided fold-out poster
  • 4 lobby card reproductions
  • Limited edition booklet illustrated by Matt Griffin, featuring an essay on the film by Dario Argento, and new writing by Barry Forshaw, Troy Howarth and Howard Hughes

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