Saturday, October 22, 2011

Blu-ray Review: CAT O' NINE TAILS (1971)

Label: Arrow Video
Region Code: Region FREE
Rating: 15 Certificate  
Duration: 111 mins
Audio: LPCM Audio English, LPCM Audio with English subtitles
Video: 16:9 Widescreen (2.35:1) 1080p
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: James Franciscus, Karl Malden, Catherine Spaak
Tagline: Caught between the truth and a murderer’s hand!

CAT O' NINE TAILS (1971) is Dario Argento's sophomore film following THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. It's the middle entry in what's known as Argento's "Animal Trilogy", a trio of films with names of animals in the title which is capped off with FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET and share little in common aside from being that oh-so wonderful Italian variation on the classic whodunit called a giallo and Argento's artful eye for the stylish macabre, not unlike John Carpenter's "Apocalypse Trilogy".

The film stars Karl Malden (HOW THE WEST WAS WON), features a score by Ennio Morricone (THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY) and is co-written by Italian screenwriting legend Dardana Sacchetti (BAY OF BLOOD). The story revolves around a blind, middle aged man named Arno (Malden) who cares for his young adopted daughter Lori (Cinzia DE Carolis, NIGHT OF THE DEMONS) and bides his time assembling the daily newspaper's crossword puzzle. One evening while walking down the street with Lori he overhears two men discussing blackmail in a car parked on the street outside of a genetics lab which just happens to sit next to Arno's apartment. Pretending to bend over and tie his shoe he asks Lori to observe the men in the car, she's only able to describe one of the men to Arno. Later that night while working on a new puzzle Arno overhears a scuffle outside his window which unbeknownst to him is a crime taking place.

The next day Arno is out on the street when he's accidentally knocked over by a reporter named Carlo (James Franciscus, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES) near the genetics lab and when he asks the reporter what has happened he's informed that the previous evening the night watchmen of the lab was knocked out cold and that someone has broken into the Terzi Institute to perhaps perform some act of industrial espionage. Whatever it is Prof. Terzi (Tino Carraro, WEREWOLF MAN) doesn't seem too keen on assisting the police with their investigation. Soon after the break-in one of the lab's lead scientist Dr. Calabresi (Carl Alighiero, BLADE OF THE RIPPER) is thrown in front of a speeding train pulling into the station during the high profile arrival of a movie starlet, his moment of death is caught on camera and makes the front page news.

The next day Arno's daughter Lori notices the picture of the victim at the train station and recognizes that it's none other than one of the men from the car outside the genetics lab. The two seek out reporter Carlo and the trio set about sleuthing the mystery in classic whodunit fashion as the killer sets out to eliminate those who may be able to finger them as the devious culprit. Red-herrings abound in this atmospheric, slow-burn including the sexy, spoiled daughter of Prof. Terzi, Anna, played by the vivacious French actress/singer Catherine Spaak.

The set-up is your classic murder whodunit but it soon becomes entangled in an improbably array of twists and turns stemming from the strangest chromosomal motivation this side of well, nearly most everything, it's very odd and not one of Argento's better twists in my opinion, it's a head-scratcher for sure and not in a complimentary way.

The cinematography from Erico Menczer lacks the stunning scope and framing of say Storaro (THE BIRD WITH TH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE) or Tovoli (TENEBRE) but it's an early Argento so there's some great Euro 70's style and set decoration courtesy of set designer Carlo Leva. Love those 70's fashions, locations and decors, ornate wall paper and a funky 70's color palates. The kills are not particularly elaborate (mostly strangulation) and are lacking in my opinion but there are some great POV shots, trademark stairwell shots, cool eyeball close-ups and nifty set pieces, a particularly fun departure from life occurs when the villain meets a grisly end screaming down an elevator shaft, his hands torn to pieces grasping at the steel cables.  
Perhaps not on par with Argento's finest works but still a very fine giallo that absolutely outshines anything he's done post-OPERA in my estimation. It's a bit of a slow burn, which I rather enjoy, and the kills aren't as intricate as you may have hoped but still an enjoyable whodunit that's wonderfully acted, steeped in atmosphere and masterfully directed.

Highlights for me were a particularly tense seen featuring Carlo getting a close shave from a barber who takes exception to his article implicating that a barber may in fact be the murderous maniac, a white-nuckle care chase through the busy streets Italy and the film's elevator shaft shocker finale, fun stuff. I am reminded in a way of Lucio Fulci, whose later gore-riddled films brought him much notoriety but it is forgotten that he once also directed suspenseful, less visceral film such as THE PSYCHIC and I think Argento's CAT O' NINE TAILS  is similarly lost amidst his oeuvre and it's definitely a film deserving of some respect for the thriller that it is.
Blu-ray: The CAT O' NINE TAILS Blu-ray from Arrow Video presents the film in original 16:9 enhanced  aspect ratio (2.35:1) in 1080p HD, the transfer comes from a very nice looking print that is nearly free of print damage. The transfer is a tad bit brighter than my Blue Underground DVD from a few years back and occasionally appears unnaturally bright which may be attributed to some brightness boosting, but not ruinously so. Otherwise, colors look quite good, black levels are fine and the film's fine grain structure is nicely intact. Arrow's 1080p transfer definitely boost the fine detail and facial features and is a welcomed upgrade over my DVD edition.

Panel B

The LPCM mono sounds very nice handling the high and lows with ease, no distortions were noticed on either the English or the Italian track, the latter I only sampled now and again for purpose of this review. It's mono so we don't get a lot of depth but the dialogue, effects and score are all well balanced and sound great, particularly Ennio Morricone's score, which isn't his finest work but the "Lullabye in Blue" is definitely a haunting highlight that opens the film.

As usual Arrow Video and High Rising Productions have come through with a sweet array of bonus content that compliment the film. Dario Argento Remembers The Cat O’ Nine Tails (10:31) features the maestro recalling the film and his distaste for it, stating the film is too American for his taste sand is his least favorite of all his films, obviously this was filmed prior to GIALLO. The Cat O’ Nine Tails in Reflection, an interview with long-time Argento collaborator Luigi Cozzi (16:24) is a nice reflection on Cozzi's friend and collaborator Argento's career plus Giallo mastermind Sergio Martino (TORSO) is featured on Sergio Martino: The Art and Arteries of the Giallo (24:05) as he recounts Argento's contribution to the giallo genre, his style and touches on quite a few of Argento's films, as well as his own masterful giallo entry TORSO. All three the interviews are conducted in Italian with English subtitles and interspersed with clips from the film, trailers and poster art, lastly we get  the Italian language theatrical trailer for the film with English subs

Panel C

The final round of content unfortunately did not accompany my "check disc" but for everyone else you'll be treated to four reversible art options including a sweet new panel from artist Rick Melton whose Arrow covers I'm a huge fan of, great stuff that captures one of the film's most effective scenarios, a two-sided fold out poster and an exclusive collector’s booklet featuring brand new writing by Alan Jones, author of ‘Profondo Argento’. I'm quite a fan of the bonus content that High Rising Productions are creating for the Argento films from Arrow Video, perhaps my only regret is that scream queen Daria Nicolodi is not featured in the film and therefore offers no interview for inclusion on this set which is a loss for all because that woman tells it how it is. It's worth mentioning that there is no commentary track, where's  Calum Waddell, Allan Jones, Kim Newman or Thomas Rostock? Two minor gripes aside there's some really nice supplements here that really point to Arrow Video's and High Rising Production's devotion to the film and the director.

Verdict: Overall a very fine Blu-ray release from Arrow Video that's well worth the upgrade. CAT O' NINE TAILS might not be as stylish as THE BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE or TENEBRAE but is still a first-rate thriller, a slow burn for sure, that ends with a satisfying conclusion, even if I think the XYY chromosomal motivations are quite absurd. Just a reminder that the disc is region FREE and playable worldwide, even the features are in HD and look great.