Cat o' Nine Tails, The
The sophomore slump. Because of the exposure, expectation and sheer amount of money that films draw and require, it is perhaps the toughest art form to follow up success. When a film succeeds, it’s makers are in a sense obligated or pigeon-holed to emulate that success with subsequent films. Nobody is going to let a successful first-time horror director follow up their film with a big budget musical. Likewise, nobody is going to let the director of an indie-comedy follow it up with Titanic. For directors, it is often a trying and lengthy process to emerge from the shadow of their first success and establish themselves as the voice they’d later become known for. We know Stanley Kubrick now as the visionary behind The Shining, 2001, A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon (okay, that one’s probably just me), not as the director who first achieved fame as the man behind Spartacus. His follow up to that? Lolita. New York, New York, The Fountain, 1941, Cul-de-sac, Raising Arizona…all sophomore follow ups that now sort of fit awkwardly in the canons of directors who’d go on to achieve even greater success as distinctive voices in cinema.
When we shift focus to horror directors, we’re able to observe a similar pattern. John Carpenter followed his success on Halloween with the appreciated but moderately received and reviewed The Fog before establishing himself as more than just a one-trick horror director with a series of successes like Escape From New York, Starman, Christine and (on video, at least) The Thing. Wes Craven became a drive-in icon with The Last House on the Left, and his follow up, The Hills Have Eyes, enjoys pedigree today too, but it wasn’t until a few years later that he’d establish the subject matter and style we’d know him for with A Nightmare on Elm Street. Lastly, we know Dario Argento today for his stylish horror operas like Suspiria, Tenebre and Deep Red…how many remember him for The Cat o' Nine Tails? The latter was his follow up to the surprising worldwide success of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the film that “out Psycho-ed Psycho!” It was made very much in the same vein as his original giallo hit, and even marketed itself almost entirely around Bird’s success (“9 times scarier than The Bird with the Crystal Plumage!”). Today, Argento now decrees it his least favorite work (he must have blocked Phantom of the Opera forever from his mind) and among his canon it’s probably one of the least remembered. Even his maligned final film in his early “Animal” trilogy, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, enjoys more publicity for varying reasons. Is it really a sophomore film to be forgotten, or does this tale of Tails have a few more lives left to it?
The blind Franco Arno (Karl Malden, On the Waterfront, Phantom of the Rue Morgue) goes for a late night stroll with his niece in custody, Lori (Cinzia De Carolis, Cannibal Apocalypse). Although he cannot see he was once a reporter and still has a keen sense of observation. He overhears two people in a car talking about blackmail and stops to tie his shoe for a better listen. He gets Lori to get a good look at them, too. The next day his niece reads him the paper, and she remarks that the man he heard and she saw, was murdered. Through some virtuoso first-person camerawork, we too saw the murder. Franco returns to the site of the murder the next day and is run into by newspaper reporter Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Nightkill). Carlo informs him that they’re outside a pharmaceutical research plant and thus starts a curious and unlikely relationship between the two.
They soon discover that the man killed was doing some top-secret research on gene makeup. The central discovery of the research was that those with an extra chromosome have a high probability of enacting violent crimes. Such a development could shape the course of child development, law and punishment (think Minority Report) and with the publicity of the recent murder it risks being leaked to the public. When a second power in the company is pushed to his death in front of a moving train it becomes clear to Carlo and Franco that someone is trying desperately to protect some dark secrets within the organization.
The two split up and start to inquire across various channels to find more information. Carlo ends up bedding the head of the company’s daughter, Anna Terzi (the ravishing Catherine Spaak, Take a Hard Ride [Ed.: “Don’t mind if I do!”]) but rather than get more information he seems to only get more questions. When the killer poisons their milk, he knows he’s now targeted. Franco finds out some news from the wife of one of the deceased, but he too is placed in danger when his daughter is kidnapped. Franco and Carlo scramble to put the facts together with lives on the line, and fittingly end up at the end of the film at a graveyard. Who lives and who dies depends on how quickly the two can connect the various leads (the “Tails” of the title).
Where to start with this one? The Cat o’ Nine Tails is, above all things an interesting film in Argento’s canon. Although he was without visual luminary Vittorio Storaro behind the lens (as he was for Argento’s debut), Argento still continued to experiment visually, incorporating a number of ambitious first-person point of view shots and interesting uses of perspective (the elevator shaft sequence), focus (the poisoned milk delivery) and slow motion (the train death). More stagnant was his use of score, using Ennio Morricone’s tried and true melodies a second time. His tracks are once again beautiful, particularly Lori’s theme, but the soundtrack is very sparse here and you get the sense that Argento was growing tired of the same old melodies, which is why he’d shake it up with his next film and end up parting ways midway through production with Morricone. Plot-wise you can see Argento trying to expand his palette, incorporating subtle comedy and even some interpersonal drama (a few moments between Franco and Lori are some of the more touching Argento has committed to film), but this is where you see what started to go wrong.
The Cat o’ Nine Tails is credited to four different writers and it really shows it with the way the story seems to yo-yo between characters, tone and plot. Even compared to most gialli this one seems hard to follow, and you can see the trouble Argento had with bringing it all together with his climax, when the killer is forced to have a lengthy and out of place recantation of his motive and where the rest of the characters are in the story. With two different protagonists in Franco and Carlo, it almost appears as if two different stories were amalgamated into some kind of whodunit brew that doesn’t quite taste right. Red herrings don’t really pay off, major plot threads (like Anna’s relationship with her adoptive father) are not finished, and everything just ends too suddenly. It’s a shame, really, because throughout the runtime Argento explores a lot of interesting ideas.
The most lasting theme from Tails is Argento’s preoccupation with sight. It’s something he introduced with his debut feature (with more than a bit of debt to Michelangelo Antonioni and Blow-up), but it’s something he starts to make his own here. Throughout the film he frequently cuts to a closeup of an eye, whether it’s during a kill or while the killer is watching. Rather than serve its usual utility like it does in most Argento films, that of voyeurism between the killer, the director and the audience, here it interestingly becomes an abstraction. Eyes are not exactly important for sight here, made all the more evident by the lead being a blind man. Instead, the extreme close-up of the killer’s eyes becomes more about geneology or identity. We see every swirl of color around the retina, and while at first we try and figure out just who we’ve seen has the same eyes, we later see something more. By making the eye an abstraction of texture and color, Argento reduces the killer’s identity to something similar to a cell under a microscope. The killer becomes but a slave to his/her own genes, something made all the more poignant by the film’s pharmaceutical research and the motive of the killer during the finale.
Argento would go on to really explore the nature of sight and seeing in Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Deep Red and Opera, but this remains the only film in his canon where eyes have a function above merely seeing. Considering it would be his penultimate fixation throughout his career, The Cat o’ Nine Tails offers an interesting second take on what our eyes mean to us. Of course, Argento still falls back on Antonioni’s old tropes here too, featuring a scene where a photographer must look deeper into a photograph to help discern a murder, but you get the sense between his use of eyes and his expanded use of the POV that he was really coming into his own as a distinctive voice in Italian cinema. The problem is that he also had three other writers taking him in other directions that nearly sink the film. Considering he went from a writer of one for his first film to this, it’s no surprise he had trouble making it work or that he now considers the film his least favorite.
Near the end of the film there’s a tomb labeled “Di Dario” or “For Dario” in English. Perhaps this was his way of expressing his suffocation with the script and the many hands (tails?) that had a hand in it? Was he digging his own grave trying to tread down a similar path of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage? You certainly get the sense that Argento felt this way, given how much he tried to mix it up with Four Flies and how ultimately he’d set himself free from his first film’s shadow with the grand success of Deep Red and Suspiria. In The Cat o’ Nine Tails, though, you look at Carlo when he’s trapped in the tomb at the end and you can’t help but see Dario, wondering if he’ll ever get out on his own before the limelight went out. Lucky for him, and luckier for us, he did.
You know when you’re dealing with Argento that you’re going to have a visually dynamic film to look at, and Cat o’ Nine Tails is no exception. Unlike a lot of his films though, certainly his later ones, this one employs a muted, more earthy color palette. Colors nonetheless are solid and deep and have a very filmic tone to them. That’s not the only indicator this was shot on film, with some intermittent grain that reveals itself in varying degrees throughout. Grain gets quite intense, and even a little noisy, when the lights turn out, and some of the darker murders don’t quite look their best because of it. There’s also an uncharacteristic amount of specs and dust found on this print compared to most Blue Underground releases. Still, saying this exhibits a thoroughly film look, for good and bad, is always a plus, and make no mistake, this is still a marked improvement over the previous home video releases of Cat o’ Nine Tails.
Unlike most Blue Underground releases these days, this one is presented in mono, although it still gets the bandwidth of a DTS-HD stream. There’s also a 2.0 mix, but I couldn’t really tell a difference between the two. Truth be told, they sound pretty good. There is still some depth to the sound register, so while the tracks sound limited and unidirectional, there is a natural depth to the sound that feels fuller than a lot of older tracks. They’re clean without any hissing or playback fuzz, and the mixes adequately balance Morricone’s ethereal music tracks with the English dialogue. Italian and French 2.0 tracks are included as well, but since the two main actors recorded everything in English, that’s certainly the preferred way to watch this picture.
Extras have been ported over from the previous DVD release(s), which isn’t entirely a bad thing. First is “Tales of the Cat”, a 13-minute retrospective with interviews with Argento, Morricone and one of the co-writers, Dardano Sacchetti. Dario mostly runs the show, talking about things he liked about the film (the POV work, the ambiguity of the finale), how some of the effects were done (the smoking hands) and how he collaborated with some of his other Italian peers to make the film. He also talks about his impetus of making an animal trilogy and how because of the imitators it became tough for him to motivationally accomplish. The other two don’t really offer much other than a few words to support what Argento is saying, but it’s a nice look back at the film, even if it is all standard def and interlaced.
The unsung interests of this release though are those two radio interviews with James Franciscus and Karl Malden. Both run 8 minutes and offer their refreshingly honest and unfiltered takes on filming in Italy and working with Argento. It’s not all rosy, with Franciscus admitting he likes the crews in the US more and Malden admitting he’s made some stinkers in the past. Both have good things to say about Argento though, and it’s interesting to hear their takes on this young, up and coming director, since both were recorded before the release of Tails back in 1971. Today it’s tough to get any of the personality of the stars to come out in their EPK stuff, since they’re just working as a PR mouthpiece, and these interviews here present a window into a time when stars actually had personalities with things to say.
The release is rounded off with a bunch of trailers, TV spots, and radio ads, all in standard definition and interlaced. Seeing the trippy Warholian trailer is certainly a time warp, with lots of weird filters and colors splotched all over the screen. You can tell they REALLY wanted to milk the association with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage with these, with the international trailer doing so much as beginning with a zoom of a box office report with Plumage on top.
Lastly, there’s also an easter egg hidden within the extras menu. With close to forty minutes in extras this is a satisfying, if curt, little collection, although I continue to wish that Blue Underground will eventually outfit the rest of their Argento canon with critical and historical commentaries like the excellent one found on The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. His films, even the lesser ones, deserve as much.
Cat o' Nine Tails didn’t do so well in its first life, but thanks to Blue Underground’s solid audio-visual presentation here, it’s ready for eight more. It’s a minor film in Argento’s canon, but still an entertaining and interesting one for fans of the director. The extras, although nothing new for owners of the previous DVDs, give some candid commentary on the film from its lead actors and director. It’s been a long time coming for Argento films on Blu-ray, but even a minor film like The Cat o' Nine Tails shows how his kinetic visuals can purr in hi-def. Recommended for Argento fans.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
I think this movie was a greater example of the sophomore slump than a B- indicates. I think a C rating would be more fair. This movie really is Argento's weakest until Phantom of the Opera (or possibly The Black Cat, as I haven't seen it).
Truthfully, I used to like the movie far less, but watching the film again I found a lot of things to really appreciate. Most importantly I saw Argento really grow and push himself as a filmmaker. Other than maybe Asia in Stendhal and Jennifer Connelly in Phenomena I don't think Dario has handled performances better than Malden, Franciscus and little Cinzia de Carolis's in this one. You can see him making a lot of visual leaps of faith too. Considering how he's been continually regressing for years it only makes under-appreciated early work like this age all the better.
Nice review rhett. i need to rewatch the film, my memory of it is rather sketchy. sorry to be a nit-picker, but none of the titles you mention in the opening paragraph (with the exception of raising arizona) are actually sophomore efforts. they might be more accurately described as disappointing follow-ups.
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