Thursday, January 4, 2018

THE CAT O' NINE TAILS (1971) (Arrow Video Blu-ray Review)


Label: Arrow Video
Region Code: Region FREE
Rating: 15 Certificate
Duration: 112 Minutes
Audio: English and Italian LPCM Audio Mono with Optional English Subtitles
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (2.35:1)
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: James Franciscus, Karl Malden, Catherine Spaak, Pier Paolo Capponi, Horst Frank, Rada Rassimov, Cinzia De Carolis

When a break-in occurs at a secretive genetics institute, blind puzzle-maker Franco Arnò, who overheard an attempt to blackmail one of the institute’s scientists shortly before the robbery, teams up with intrepid reporter Carlo Giordani to crack the case. But before long the bodies begin to pile up and the two amateur sleuths find their own lives imperiled in their search for the truth. And worse still, Lori, Franco’s young niece, may also be in the killer’s sights…

Cat O' Nine Tails (1971) is Dario Argento's sophomore film following the seminal giallo entry The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). It's the middle entry in what has become 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 (1971) 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 has quite a pedigree, starring American actor Karl Malden (How The West Was Won), featuring a low-key score from Ennio Morricone (The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly) and it's co-written by Italian screenwriting legend Dardana Sacchetti (A 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 turns out to be a crime in-process.

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, perhaps to 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 - it's a great set-piece and kill.

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 the 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 Italian whodunit but it soon becomes entangled in an improbable 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 the 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, the locations and décor are over-the-top and fun, with ornate wall paper and a funky 70's color palates. The kills are not particularly elaborate (mostly strangulation) and are lacking those great POV shots Argento went for, but we do get some 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 this is still a very fine giallo entry that absolutely outshines anything he's done post-Opera (1987) 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 for, 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 car chase through the busy streets Italy and the film's elevator shaft shocker finale, all fun stuff that's expertly directed. 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' Noine Tails is similarly lost amidst his oeuvre and it's definitely a film deserving of some respect for the thriller that it is.

Audio/Video: The Cat o' Nine Tails arrives on Blu-ray from Arrow Video for a second time, this time with a brand new 4K restoration sourced from the original camera negative, framed in the original 2.35:1 widescreen. The image is crisp and clean, grain is nicely managed without being intrusive and the colors are natural looking with nice deep black levels. The image is noticeably darker than the previous Blu-ray from Arrow, in a good way, the former looking to have been brightness/contrast boosted a bit too much in comparison, that older release also having been DNR'd a tad too much by today's standards. 

The lossless 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 low-key score, which isn't his finest work but the "Lullabye in Blue" is definitely a haunting highlight that opens the film.

Onto the extras we have new interviews with co-writer/director Dario Argento, co-writer Dardano Sacchetti and production manager Angelo Iacono coordinated by Freak-O-Rama Productions, also advertised is an interview with actress Cinzia De Carolis but through what looks to be a disc authoring error the interview is nowhere to be found, when selected on the menu the Dardano Sacchetti interview plays again - shortly after discovering the error I see that Arrow are aware of the issue and have said the following in regard to the release being pushed back to correct it:

Unfortunately we have discovered a small authoring error on the Blu-ray of our upcoming release of THE CAT O' NINE TAILS in which one of the menu links incorrectly links to the wrong interview. We have rectified the problem and replacement discs are currently being manufactured. We are hoping that we can have the replacement discs swapped out for the faulty ones before New Year, regrettably this process is going to result in a short delay to the release date, the product will now be released on January 29th in the UK and January 30th in the US.

We caught this error before any stock had shipped to retailers, so all copies will be correct come the new release date, however a very small number have shipped to some customers who ordered directly from our website (we have contacted you via email if you order has shipped/been affected so please check those inboxes!)
Apologies for the delay and we very much hope you enjoy the release once it arrives!

My favorite extra on the set is a new audio commentary with Argento-experts and critics Alan Jones and Kim Newman who fill their commentary with loads of info, personal anecdotes and observations about the film, a great track. We also get some script pages with the original ending, and three trailers for the film.

Special Features: 
- 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 (16 min) HD
- New interviews with co-writer Dardano Sacchetti (35 min) HD
- New interviews with actress Cinzia De Carolis (N/A)
- New Interview with production manager Angelo Iacono ( min) HD
- Script pages for the lost original ending, translated into English for the first time (3 min) HD
- Original Italian Theatrical Trailer (2 min) HD
- Original International Theatrical Trailers (2 min) HD
- US Domestic Theatrical Trailer (2 min) HD
- 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

Cat O' Nine Tails (1971) might not be as stylish as Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) or Tenebre (1982) but is still a first-rate thriller, a slow burn for sure, but one that ends with a satisfying conclusion, even if I think the XYY chromosomal motivations are quite absurd, Much as they did with their 4K restoration of Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage Arrow Video have offered us a superiors release of an Argento classic, well-worth the upgrade for the new audio commentary alone.

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