Dario Argento revitalized the Italian thriller in the early 1970s with his directorial debut, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. The film was a worldwide hit and Argento would soon be known to American moviegoers as "The Italian Hitchcock." He immediately followed the success of BIRD with THE CAT O' NINE TAILS, the second in his so-called “animal” thriller trilogy that concluded with FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET. Argento once noted that THE CAT O' NINE TAILS was the least favorite of his films, but on viewing this new Blu-ray edition, the film still holds up a prime giallo, and I would have to argue with him.
Franco Arno (Karl Malden, PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE) is an ex-reporter in Rome, blinded by an accident 15 years earlier. Arno spends most of his time doing puzzles, and he lives with his young niece Lori (Cinzia De Carolis, CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE), a little girl that he adopted. While walking home one evening, Arno overhears a conversation about blackmail between two men sitting in a car. Stopping and pretending to fix his shoe, he has Lori look at the men. She can only identify one of them, and Arno can't seem to make out the rest of what they're saying.
A few days later, Lori tells Arno that the man she saw that night is on the cover of the newspaper, apparently killed in a train accident. Arno becomes fascinated with the circumstances and visits the office of Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus, VALLEY OF GWANGI), a reporter that he had bumped into on the street earlier. The murder is connected with Terzi Institute, a center conducting advance research concerning the XYY chromosome and its relation to violent behavior. As more related murders occur, Arno and Giordani get completely absorbed in the case and work skillfully as a team. Their lives are now in constant danger as the unknown assailant is fully aware of their involvement, and apparently knows where they are most of the time.
In the competent hands of Argento, THE CAT O' NINE TAILS is a well-meaning, entertaining giallo that's not nearly as graphic or overblown as some of his later work. The script is neatly concocted, and the film has a more controlled, Hitchcock-style ambiance to it. Karl Malden and James Franciscus are extremely satisfactory in their roles: Malden has to portray a blind man trying to make himself useful with his heightened awareness, while Franciscus is a ballsy newsman who comes off as very likable, despite the margin for annoyance with his character. Together, the two are probably the best lead actors that Argento ever had, and they're instantly gratifying as a crime-solving duo, work extremely nice off each other's character.
Beautifully shot in and around Rome, THE CAT O' NINE TAILS contains an appropriate level of tense episodes (Franciscus is accidentally trapped in a dark crypt not knowing the status of his companion, the delayed consuming of some poisoned milk, etc.) and black comedy (an insulted barber giving a nervous Franciscus a shave, lovely French actress Catherine Spaak [TAKE A HARD RIDE] maniacally driving through the streets of Rome to dodge the trailing police, etc.), accompanied by a biting, jazzy score by Ennio Morricone. Instead of showing off a black-gloved menace (an Argento and overall giallo trademark), the murderer's hands are never in view of the camera, not even during his numerous point-of-view assaults.
Going back to when THE CAT O’ NINE TAILS was first released, National General's U.S. theatrical version shed the film of some 20 minutes, and gave it a GP rating. Anchor Bay first released it on DVD in its uncut form in 2001, and now ten years later, Blue Underground has granted us another wonderful Blu-ray issue of an Argento classic. Presented uncut and uncensored (would you expect anything else?), the brand-new 1080p High Definition transfer (from the original camera negative) has the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and it’s another absolute stunner from BU. Colors look perfectly vivid, detail is exquisite and grain is hardly ever visible, making the presentation more than definitive. The audio options all match the picture in terms of quality, and include English 2.0 DTS-HD, DTS-HD mono, Italian Dolby Surround 2.0 and French Dolby Surround 2.0. Subtitle options are English SDH, French and Spanish.
The standard definition featurette entitled, “Tales of the Cat” (13:53) was originally produced for the 2001 Anchor Bay DVD release. It’s made up of interviews with Argento (who claims this is his most rented title, despite it being his least favorite), Morricone, and co-writer Dardano Sacchetti. All three gentlemen are interviewed in Italian, with accompanying English subtitles. There are also two trailers (one a U.S. theatrical trailer, and the other, a very psychedelic international trailer presented in High Definition), two TV spots, two radio spots, and most unique of all, two 8-minute radio interviews with the late Malden and the late Franciscus conducted on the set of the film. Both are surprisingly enthusiastic about the project. (George R. Reis)
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