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CAT O' NINE TAILS

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  James Franciscus, Karl Malden, Catherine Spaak
Director:  Dario Argento
Audio:  Dolby 2-Channel Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Anchor Bay
Features:  See Review
Length:  112 Minutes
Release Date:  July 10, 2001

“I like solving puzzles!”

Film *** (on the cheese scale)

Dario Argento has been called “the Italian Hitchcock”…perhaps a bit of a stretch, but his string of films is usually entertaining enough, with a certain amount of charm in spite of (or because of) low budgets, hoaky dialogue, and contrived stories that sometime defy convention as well as logic.

Cat o’ Nine Tails is a terrific example.  On the surface, it’s a suspenseful mystery picture, but underneath, there’s not a whole lot going on.  Yet it’s well-paced, offers superb and innovative camerawork, and I had a good time watching it…so why complain? 

The story takes off with a break-in at a genetics laboratory, where nothing seems to have been taken.  “Could it be industrial espionage?” one employee wonders.   “They could have photographed some of our documents.”  No, he is told.   There is no evidence someone took pictures (what evidence would that be, we wonder?).

But before long, one of the lab’s scientists ends up dead under the wheels of a train (a nifty little shocker of a sequence), and a reporter (Franciscus), along with a blind man (Malden), who correctly identifies the death as murder, are teaming up to crack the case. 

It turns out, somebody seems a little too interested in the lab’s research on men with an extra Y chromosome (and take the explanation with a grain of salt if you’ve taken higher than ninth grade science).   The extra chromosome is often considered a trigger for abnormally aggressive behavior, and the killer seems very interested in squelching whatever discovery the lab has made. 

The film succeeds, but not because of a thin, absurdly developed storyline.  The characters are good, and the movie progresses at a good clip, taking care never to lose us along the way.  The dialogue, which is sometimes unintentionally funny, goes a long way in boosting the picture’s entertainment value.  Some examples:

“The coroner thinks we’re dealing with a maniac.  After strangling the victim, the murderer cut him up with a knife.  Or a razor.  Something very sharp.”

“Why do you call him Cookie?”
“Because cookies are sweet.  I love them with chocolate milk.”

Or my favorite, said by one of a group of reporters at the station immediately after the poor guy gets run over by the train:

“Hey, we’re forgetting about the starlet.”

See what I mean?  Priceless.  Throw in for extra measure some poor looking dubbing and gratuitous bits of nudity and violence, and you have all the makings of a camp classic.

But I have to say, I really liked the film on that level.  I smiled all the way through at the cheesiness, but I also appreciated the stellar camera work (including plenty of Argento’s trademark subjective POV shots), and a well executed and satisfying climax, owing some tips of the cap to Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Rear Window.

The acting is better than average for this kind of affair, even if the dubbing throws off the performances a little bit.   I enjoyed both male leads in Franciscus and Malden, and Ms. Spaak is quite a beauty to behold, even if she’s sporting 80’s hair a decade too early.

The “cat” of the title, by the way, refers to the nine leads the two men have to follow up on, but in actuality, a cat o’ nine tails is a kind of whip.  Truth be told, it was nothing more than an excuse for Dario Argento to use an animal’s name in the title, and thus make this picture the second installment of his Italian pulp story films after The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

Cat o’ Nine Tails is mostly low grade filmmaking with mainly high grade entertainment value.  For what it is, it works, and works better than most other genre examples.

Video ***1/2

After a fairly rough looking opening credit sequence, this anamorphic transfer from Anchor Bay finds its feet and proceeds beautifully the rest of the way.  Cat o’ Nine Tails doesn’t look a bit of its thirty year age.  The print is generally clean, and the new remastering from the original negative has produced splendid results.  Colors are beautifully rendered throughout; bright, vibrant and well contained, maintaining good balance and contrast throughout, from lighter to darker settings.  Image sharpness and detail is remarkable, with no distortions, blurs or softness to spoil the integrity.  All in all, once you pass those opening credits, this has to be considered one of Anchor Bay’s finest DVD video accomplishments.

Audio **

The audio shows its age a little more than the video does.  While a perfectly serviceable soundtrack, with dialogue clearly rendered and even a few loud moments to give it dynamic range, there is still some occasional noise noticeable in the form of some hiss and pops here and there (I didn’t find it distracting).  Though it purports to be a Dolby Surround track, I never really noticed much happening over my shoulders, nor did I really miss it given the nature of the film.

Features **1/2

This disc boasts a number of trailers, TV spots and radio spots, plus a poster and still gallery, radio interviews with James Franciscus and Karl Malden, talent files, and a short collection of interviews with director Argento, writer Dardano Sacchetti and composer Ennio Morricone.

Summary:

In reality, Cat o’ Nine Tails is not quite as good as fans have claimed, nor is it nearly as bad as its detractors have insisted.   It is, however, an entertaining movie that doesn’t quite work as a mystery thriller, but succeeds on many other levels.   As part of Anchor Bay’s Dario Argento Collection, fans should be thrilled with this high quality DVD offering.