Dario Argento’s The Cat O’ Nine Tails (Il gato a nove code) gets a bad rap. The maestro’s middle chapter in his vaunted “Animal Trilogy”, many critics, hardcore Argento enthusiasts, and even Argento, himself, consider the film one of the director’s weaker offerings, but I absolutely adore it. No, it’s not nearly as accomplished as Profondo Rosso or Suspiria, but The Cat O’ Nine Tails is an absolutely charming and engrossing little film; a film that’s perhaps most interesting in that it shows Argento at his most reserved.
Karl Malden stars as Franco Arno, a former journalist who, after an accident that cost him his sight, spends his time caring for his niece, Lori (Cinzia De Carolis), and solving crossword puzzles. Whilst walking home late one night, Franco and Lori happen past a vehicle parked near the building in which they live in which two men are arguing. Franco’s reporter’s instincts kick in, and he stops, pretending to tie his shoes, to listen in. He asks Lori to describe who she sees in the car, but she only sees one man – the other is hidden in the shadows. Franco, having enjoyed the little bit of excitement, takes Lori home, and settles down to work on his latest puzzle. Meanwhile, outside, we see a man knocked unconscious by a gloved assailant who then breaks into the Terzi Institute - a medical research facility located near Franco’s apartment building.
The next morning newspaper reporter, Carlo Giordani (James Francsicus), rushes to the site of the break-in and, in his haste, knocks the curious Franco to the ground. He chastises the man for being in his way, but, once he realizes that Franco is blind, is apologetic. While Franco listens in on the police, Carlo ventures inside for the scoop. The institute’s director, Professor Terzi, informs the press that nothing of value was taken, all the while dodging questions about his facility’s research. While the police go off on the assumption that the break-in was a botched burglary attempt, one of Terzi’s fellow doctors, Dr. Calabrese, knows better. After arranging a meeting with someone over the phone, Calabrese informs his fiancé, Bianca, that he knows the identity of the robber, and hints that this knowledge could mean big things for them. Later that day, when Calabrese shows up to the train station for his secret rendezvous, however, he’s thrown in front of a train to the horror of the dozens of paparazzi assembled to photograph the arrival of a young female celebrity. With his death deemed an accident, Calabrese’s photograph, as well as a picture of him “falling” to his death are featured on the front page of the local newspaper, and Lori identifies him as the same man she and Franco passed in the car the night before.
Suspecting foul play, Franco and Lori pay a visit to Carlo at the paper’s offices, where Franco asks Carlo if his photographer still has the negative of the photo from the train station. Franco’s suspicion is that the photographer may have cropped the photo, not realizing that he’d also cropped out the man’s killer. Carlo phones the photographer and asks him to check, and, sure enough, Franco’s instincts prove correct. Carlo, Franco, and Lori race to the photographer’s studio, but someone’s gotten there before him, killing the photographer, and stealing the evidence. With a newfound sense of purpose, however, the puzzle-loving Franco assists Carlo in his investigation, but as the they get closer to the truth, they find themselves targets of a killer who will stop at nothing to hid their secret.
The Cat O’ Nine Tails is so dissimilar to the rest of Argento’s films , were one to take his name off of the credits, I’d doubt that anyone would be able to identify it as an Argento film. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, as, like I stated in the beginning of this review, the disparate nature of this film is what makes it such a pleasurable curiosity for me. It’s a surprisingly light, relatively tame murder mystery that’s more Hitchcock than the giallo, from its high-profile cast to its (relatively) high-concept plot – one that eschews the conventional giallo-style tales of lust, madness, and greed in favor of one of industrial espionage. Almost wholly absent from the film is any trace of the stylized violence and dizzying camerawork that have become the hallmark of Argento’s oeuvre, but that’s not to say that The Cat O’ Nine Tails is a visually uninteresting film; it’s just a more disciplined one.
Blue Underground brings The Cat O’ Nine Tails to Blu-ray in what I think is their finest quality transfer to date. Seriously, as good as their releases have looked, The Cat O’ Nine Tails is just that much better. This is an amazingly sharp and vibrant image, brimming with fine detail, most evident in the myriad close-ups of faces where virtually every wrinkle and pore is accounted for. Contrast levels are spot on, with rich and velvety blacks that hum with just the right amount of cinematic grain. I’m not sure what sort of work went into the image’s restoration, but whoever did it, did it with a deft hand, leaving no trace of excessive DNR or tinkering. The bottom line is that the film looks flawless! The accompanying DTS HD audio tracks – one mono and one stereo – are perfectly serviceable, but obviously won’t knock audiophiles off of their feet. The mono track is the way in which the film was meant to be heard, and it’s this track I favored, but both offer clear dialogue and a lush representation of Ennio Morricone’s excellent score.
Extras are carried over from previous DVD releases and most are presented in standard definition. These include “Tales of the Cat” - a short featurette that offers interviews with Argento; one of the script’s co-writers, Dardano Sarchetti; and Morricone. Sarchetti and Morricone seem more enthused about revisiting the film than Argento, who appears reluctant to speak of it. Other extras include radio spots, a pair of vintage radio interviews with stars Malden and Franciscus, as well as both the U.S. and International trailer (the latter of which is presented in HD).
While it’s certainly not amongst Argento’s best films, in my opinion, The Cat O’ Nine Tails is certainly better than its reputation suggests, and sits comfortably in the middle of the pack in terms of the overall quality of the director’s work. Whether you love it or hate it, Blue Underground’s handling of The Cat O’ Nine Tails on Blu-ray is nothing short of a technical marvel, boasting an eye-popping transfer that will have even the most vocal detractors of the film standing up and taking notice.