The Cat O’ Nine Tails (Il gatto a nove code) (4K UHD)

Director: Dario Argento
Screenplay: Dario Argento (story by Dario Argento & Luigi Collo and Dardano Sacchetti)
Stars: James Franciscus (Carlo Giordani), Karl Malden (Franco Arno), Catherine Spaak (Anna Terzi), Pier Paolo Capponi (Police Supt. Spini), Horst Frank (Dr. Braun), Rada Rassimov (Bianca Merusi), Aldo Reggiani (Dr. Casoni), Carlo Alighiero (Dr. Calabresi), Vittorio Congia (Righetto), Ugo Fangareggi (Gigi the Loser), Tom Felleghy (Dr. Esson), Emilio Marchesini (Dr. Mombelli), Fulvio Mingozzi (Spimi’s man), Corrado Olmi (Morsella), Pino Patti (Barber), Cinzia De Carolis (Lori)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1971
Country: Italy / France / West Germany
The Cat O’ Nine Tails 4K UHD
The Cat O’ Nine Tails

After the international success of his directorial debut, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1969), director Dario Argento returned to mine similar territory with his second effort, The Cat O’ Nine Tails (Il gatto a nove code), which stylishly evokes the Italian giallo mystery literary genre that began in the late 1920s, deriving its name from the signature yellow paperback editions in which they were published. Argento, with his penchant for aesthetic overkill, narrative ambiguity, and graphic violence, was always a natural fit for the lurid sex-and-violence-addled genre, and he honed his skills as a director with convoluted murder-mysteries that didn’t always demand coherence, linearity, or, most importantly, restraint. If The Cat O’ Nine Tails is his weakest early effort, it is only because he was still trying to find his voice, experimenting with different techniques and gradually learning just how far he could push the envelope.

The story is based on the scientific concept—first published in several journals, magazines, and newspapers in the late 1960s and now recognized as erroneous—that men with XYY syndrome (meaning they have one extra Y chromosome) are predisposed to criminality. The plot centers around a late-night break-in at the Terzi Institute, where scientists are conducting high-profile genetic research. We see the break-in during the opening credits, but it is from the subjective perspective of the criminal; thus, although we see what happens, we don’t know the who and the why. The break-in becomes a point of interest for Franco Arno (Karl Malden), a former newspaper reporter who lost his sight 15 years earlier and now spends his time creating crossword puzzles and taking care of his young niece, Lori (Cinzia De Carolis), who calls him “Cookie” and acts as his eyes. Arno makes up for his lack of physical sight with both an unexplained “second sight” (he seems to “see” the break-in as it happens) and a deductive mind that causes him to ask just the right questions.

Arno finds an unlikely ally in Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus), a gregarious newspaper reporter who may be physically striking, but lacks Arno’s intuition. Together they begin investigating the break-in and the subsequent murder of Dr. Calabresi (Carlo Alighiero), who Arno overheard the night of the break-in talking with someone about “blackmail.” The number of potential suspects is almost overwhelming. There is Dr. Calabresi’s fiancée Bianaca (Rada Rassimov); Dr. Baun (Horst Frank), a gay researcher at the institute who always seems to be hiding something; Dr. Casoni (Aldo Reggiani), a brilliant young researcher who blatantly tells Giordani that he knows things he will never reveal; and Anna Terzi (Catherine Spaak), the seductive daughter of the institute’s founder.

The potential red herrings (of which there are arguably nine, hence the otherwise irrelevant title) pile up fast and high, and the convoluted nature of the unfolding plot is bested only by some of the more ridiculous implausibilities, such as a newspaper photographer not noticing that he was cropping out the hand and arm of the killer in his snapshot of a murder. The film benefits from the presence of Oscar-winner Karl Malden (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront), who was certainly on the downside of his storied career by the early 1970s, but still makes for a sympathetic protagonist whose lack of sight does little to keep him from asserting his desire to solve the mystery. James Franciscus, on the other hand, who starred in the groundbreaking TV series Mr. Novack in the early 1960s and starred opposite Charlton Heston in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), is the very definition of handsome blandness (a rarity for Argento, who tends to favor odd-looking men and beautiful women).

Argento, who penned the script from a story idea he concocted with Luigi Collo and Dardano Sacchetti, has always leaned toward the ridiculous and the sublime, and the problem with The Cat O’ Nine Tails is that it never quite pushes its way into the absurd levels of hyperreal brilliance that have defined his best films such as Deep Red (Profondo rosso, 1975) and Suspiria (1977). There are a few high points, including a queasy sequence in which two characters must break into a crypt to retrieve an important piece of evidence and a grisly death in which a character falls down an elevator shaft and literally burns his hands trying to grab the cables on the way down. Argento also indulges in some effective black humor, especially a sequence in which Giordani is being shaved by a barber who is angry that the newspapers are suggesting the murderer might be a barber. The barber explicitly describes how he would slit someone’s throat while his blade comically flicks back and forth beneath the increasingly exasperated Giordani’s jaw.

But, despite these stand-out setpieces, the film as a whole feels like a mixed bag. Perhaps because Argento was a young director still growing into his talents, the films feels like it’s trying to fit the conventional mold and failing at almost every turn. Seen in retrospect against his subsequent output, especially with its obsessive return to the ideas of “seeing” and “blindness,” it is clear that The Cat O’ Nine Tails is a nascent work in which Argento’s voice was just beginning to find its tone both thematically and visually. But, in and of itself, it is a somewhat clumsy mystery, burdened by too many unbelievable developments and random episodes and lacking the truly over-the-top theatrics to bind it all together.

The Cat O’ Nine Tails 4K UHD

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
  • Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by critics Alan Jones and Kim Newman
  • “Nine Lives” video interview with Dario Argento
  • “The Writer O’ Many Tales” video interview with co-writer Dardano Sacchetti
  • “Child Star” video interview with actor Cinzia De Carolis
  • “Giallo in Turin” video interview with production manager Angelo Iacono
  • Original ending
  • Trailers
  • DistributorArrow Video
    Release DateAugust 24, 2021

    This Limited Edition 4K UHD edition of The Cat O’ Nine Tails upgrades Arrow Video’s previously available Blu-ray from 2017 with a new 2160p transfer from the original 35mm two-perf Techniscope negative. According to the liner notes, it was scanned and restored in 4K resolution at L’Immagine Ritrovata, Bologna, and graded in 4K HDR/Dolby Vision at Silver Salt Restoration, London. The result is an excellent image, with impressive clarity, color saturation (note the intense green light in the photographer’s lab and the Crayola red of the blood), and grain structure. Some of the sequences are pretty dark, but that is clearly an intended dimension of the original cinematography by veteran lenser Erico Menczer (Big Deal on Madonna Street, Machine Gun McCain). The image is very clean and bears no traces of age or wear. In terms of the soundtrack, the monaural mixes were remastered from the original sound negatives at L’Immagine Ritrovata. As noted in the liner notes, “[t]he audio sync will appear slightly loose against the picture, due to the fact that the dialogue was recorded entirely in post production, as per the production standards of the period.” The disc includes both the English-language and Italian-language tracks, neither of which is inherently superior to the other since they both involve extensive post-production dialogue recording. I tend to prefer the English-language track, if only because most of the actors, including Malden and Franciscus, were speaking English when the cameras were rolling so there is more synchronization with the dialogue. Otherwise, the tracks sound clear and well balanced, giving Ennio Morricone’s jazzy musical score a bit of depth.

    All of the supplements included on this disc previously appeared on Arrow’s 2017 Blu-ray. We get an excellent and informative audio commentary by film critics and genre specialists Alan Jones (co-curator of the London FrightFest Film Festival and author of Profundo Argento) and Kim Newman (Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s). Jones and Newman have good rapport and they have probably forgotten more about Dario Argento and the horror genre than most of us will ever know, so it is definitely worth a listen. There are also four interviews that were recorded in 2017 for the Blu-ray: “Nine Lives,” a 16-minute interview with Argento; “The Writer O’ Many Tales,” a 35-minute interview with co-writer Dardano Sacchetti (who regularly collaborated with Lucio Fulci); “Child Star,” an 11-minute interview with Cinzia De Carolis, who plays Lori; and “Giallo in Turin,” a 15-minute interview with production manager Angelo Iacono (who also worked with Argento on Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Deep Red, Inferno, and Phenomena). Also on the disc is the original ending, which runs three minutes and uses images and text from the original script to show what it would have been like (the original footage has been lost), and three trailers (an Italian trailer, an international trailer, and a U.S. trailer). Inside the packaging is a nicely designed, perfect-bound insert booklet with an original essay by Argento and essays by Barry Forshaw (author of Italian Cinema), Troy Howarth (author of the three-volume giallo study So Deadly, So Perverse), and Howard Hughes (author of Cinema Italiano: The Complete Guide From Classics to Cult), six double-sided, postcard-sized lobby car reproduction artcards, and a double-sided fold-out poster with original and newly commissioned poster art.

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    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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