View Full Version : Cat O Nine Tails (Thoughts)

03-22-2004, 01:30 PM
Tracking Argento's directorial career can be a bit unsettling at times. For the most part, fans of his middle to late career offerings go into the earlier films expecting more of the same. That is, lots of gore. Most of the time, they end up a little disappointed, though they are often won over by the more intricate and well developed plots.

Many of the things we associate with Argento, great set pieces, cinematography crafted from the Director?s vision, are intact in even the earliest of his works. On the other hand, the over-the-top nature of both the action, and the storyline, are sometimes absent. In Cat o Nine Tails, the murders can be brutal, but the choice of murder weapon, as such, is mostly uninspired. Overall, the general impression I get is that Argento arrived on the scene mostly fully formed, with only time causing any kind of deterioration in his work (strange fashions, cars, odd set pieces).

Of course Argento started, as a director, with the giallo genre. Sleepless was the last giallo from Argento to get a DVD release (Card Player to come soon), and in this later release you can see how the more mature Argento has combined old style giallo with the more nasty aspects of his middle work (with it must be confessed, less attention to detail plot wise).

Of the two that are readily available, Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Cat O Nine Tails, seem well respected. On the surface, you can see a connection between the two films, but once you dig underneath a bit, the differences are more evident. Cat O Nine Tails has a tighter script, it has more wit and humor, and its storyline has almost every plot hole plugged.

Argento is on record (this is actually taken from an onscreen interview with the director in the copious extras) as saying this is his least favorite film because it is more "American". On the other hand, he also goes on to say it is his most rented title. I wonder how this kind of contradiction ends up affecting the director? Does he ever question the people who love the movie so much? I guess we'll never know.

I put myself amongst those that did not really enjoy Cat O Nine Tails on my first viewing (which was through the AB R1 release of the film). It seemed overly long, and the storyline was confusing. It turned out that actually, the story is not so much "confusing", as it is detailed. There are lots of suspects and strange parallel subplots that involve incest, gay men, and extra-marital affairs (not all of which are resolved by the end of the film). At the center though, we have a mystery around a series of rather brutal murders.

The core of the film is based around some classic mis-information about the XY chromosomes we all possess. Apparently, two years before the film was made, Argento and his colleagues read an article that stated that people with a XYY chromosome, instead of an XY, were more likely to commit violent crime. Taking this as the central premise, Argento sets out to prove the theory, which he does in this fiction. Perhaps sadly (or maybe not) this whole theory was debunked much later, but who says films have to be real?

The set pieces here are many, including an all too rare car chase. With some scenes rehashed for Sleepless (the pummeling of a woman's face), given the different times in which they were made, this was probably considered just as gory as Sleepless when it was first released.

The two central characters, both men, are played by American actors. This adds weight to the film, as for once, bad dubbing can?t ruin the nuances of the lead performances. Given that Bird with the Crystal Plumage was a hit in the US, it is clear that at this early stage, Argento very much had in mind that he had to appease the American audience. I must say, for me, it does wonders for the film, while at the same time, probably adds to why Argento does not like it so much.

I'll have to brush aside my concerns about the lead actors as voiced in the radio interviews, given as extras here. Karl Malden, in his interview, talks about the "A B C chromosome" which is unfortunate, and James Franciscus informs us that he really liked "Girl with the Crystal Plumage". Oh well :)

Why do I think this film is less talked about? Well, I think it's in the details. It turns out that if you add American actors, and a rock solid plot, it just doesn't feel like an Argento film anymore. During my first viewings, I thought it was LESS of a film for that. Subsequently though, when I was able to meet the film on its own terms, I found I liked it a lot.

The shots of humor are many. From the scene in the barber shop which has the newspaper reporter running out in fear of his life, to the scene of the same character, who cannot bring himself to drink milk given to him by his friend, to the scene at the end of the car chase, where a policeman is sprayed with water through the window of his pursuing car, are somewhat unique to any Argento film, and work well. Actually, it's surprising how little humor Argento brings to his films (intentional, anyway).

The AB R1 DVD holds up very well. In a move I have seen several times, the title sequence does not seem to have been through the same restoration as the rest of the film. Speckles, and a general lack of clarity pervade it. Once that's over though, the film looks very good indeed. It is said to be uncut, and I have no reason to disbelieve that, however, the one sex scene in the film is strangely edited and truncated. Perhaps this was intentional, but it makes the one shot of Catherine Spaak's breasts seem rather gratuitous. Oh well, why complain?

The extras are phenomenal, from a 14 minute interview segment that includes both Argento and Morricone, to some rather strange trailers and radio interviews, you can learn a lot about the film and its genesis. Add to that some interesting liner notes printed on the back of the cover, and you have a nice package missing only a commentary.

I also find I must mention the main reason this movie keeps resurfacing in my mind - the soundtrack. Morricone has scored many films, and I always enjoy his work. On this film, he combines avant garde jazz with a soft melody that really adds something to the film. I happen to own the soundtrack CD, and play it all the time. It's great stuff. Given the rather pedestrian nature of some of the music he wrote for Bird with the Crystal Plumage (namely the title track), it's a joy to hear something so abstract. Bird had this too, but it is better in Cat O Nine Tails.

While later films such as Suspiria and Opera will continue to get most praise, I'm glad to have finally discovered the beauty of Cat O Nine Tails. It's a heavier film, leaving us with much more to think about. Great performances, a great script, and a nice release from AB (albeit with the earlier manufacturing faults) come together to make this a film no-one should miss.

Having watched this film two times over the last couple of days, and having played the soundtrack CD afterwards, it's still an experience that is staying with me. It's probably time to revisit Bird with the Crystal Plumage too. If you have not watched Cat O Nine Tails lately, give it a spin.

Lyle Horowitz
03-22-2004, 02:04 PM
One of Argento's most underrated films. **** (of *****)

I hope it gets a better DVD presentation on R2 or something, because the AB DVD is disgraceful.

Crystal Plumage
03-22-2004, 02:06 PM
I still haven't seen the AB disc.I only have the Dutch disc.
I think I'll put it on my wishlist.
Thanks for the review,gonna rewatch this one soon.Been a while.

03-22-2004, 02:08 PM
--I hope it gets a better DVD presentation on R2 or something, because the AB DVD is disgraceful.--

I'd say it is far from "disgraceful". What do you think is wrong with it?

The Chaostar
03-22-2004, 02:44 PM
Maybe you own the Diamond version and don't know about it yet.

Crystal Plumage
03-22-2004, 04:33 PM
Look at http://horrordvds.com/vb3forum/showthread.php?t=5932
I posted some links there for comparisons.

Lyle Horowitz
03-22-2004, 05:39 PM
--I hope it gets a better DVD presentation on R2 or something, because the AB DVD is disgraceful.--

I'd say it is far from "disgraceful". What do you think is wrong with it?
I think it looks like shit. *shrugs*

03-22-2004, 05:42 PM
Wow, well then, we'll have to disagree. I think it looks really good. The film was, apparently, made without the lavish colors and dramatic lighting of other Argento flicks, but the detail is there, and most of the colors are pretty rich (some great red for instance).

I'd be interested in the opinion of others, since I'm a long way off agreeing with Lyle on this one. Having experienced a lot of "shit" in the past, I can honestly say the AB Cat O Nine Tails is a long way from it.

hell ya!
03-22-2004, 07:31 PM
I always liked Cat, a good story with great preformances especially James Franciscus who i thought was great. I actually perfer it to Bird. And regarding the transfer i think it looks wonderful. No complaints here, but it's very far from being "shit".

03-22-2004, 08:20 PM
I forgot to mention that there's a shot in the photo gallery that is not in the film. It shows Francesco in bed with the wonderful daughter, obviously after the end of the film - since his shoulder is all bandaged up.