Il gatto a nove code
DVD - Image B+ Sound B+ Extras A
BD - Image A+ Sound A Extras A-
starring James Franciscus, Karl Malden, Catherine Spaak, Pier Paolo Capponi
written and directed by Dario Argento
by Walter Chaw Nicknamed "The Italian Hitchcock," Dario Argento is more aptly classified "The Italian DePalma": a director with his own set of stylistic excesses who, especially early in his career, borrowed many tropes from the Master of Suspense en route to crafting his own distinctive thrillers. Again like DePalma, Argento of late has fallen on hard times, creating a series of clunkers that have blundered from the brilliant homage of his nascence to the tired and derivative garbage of his twilight. Indicated by somewhat straightforward mystery plots that elaborate death scenes and gory climaxes serve to punctuate, the giallo (so named for the colour of the covers--yellow--that enshrouded Italian penny dreadfuls) genre of thriller reached its stylistic apex with Argento's 1975 Deep Red, just prior to the director experimenting in the "supernatural" sub-genre of Italian horror with his masterpiece, Suspiria. Argento's first three films, the so-called "animal trilogy" (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat o' Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet) deepened the giallo as introduced to cinema by the late, great Mario Bava.
Sightless Franco Arno (Karl Malden) is walking along with his young niece when he overhears a strange conversation in a parked car. He stops to listen and instructs his charge to peak at the speakers, only one of whom is visible. When that man shows up dead the next day, the victim of an "accident" at a train station, Arno, a former journalist, senses that all may not be well. Teamed with investigative reporter Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus), Arno discovers that the man has been murdered by someone who will kill anyone able to identify him or connect him to a seemingly unrelated break-in at a pharmaceuticals lab. (Where they're manufacturing a "miracle drug" that could end violence.) Will Arno and Giordani be able to foil him and divine his motives before they find themselves at the mercy of his psychotic rampage?
The mystery plot is somewhat staid: a series of revelations as the crime-solving duo of Arno and Giordani follow up on each of the nine leads they uncover (hence the film's title). Malden and Franciscus (a physical cross between a young Burt Lancaster and a young Charlton Heston) make an appealing pair, working off one another with a surplus of affection and charm while subverting some of the conventions of the hero construct. Rather than the dashing Giordani swooping in to save the enfeebled Arno, Arno time and again discerns the key clues and performs the pivotal actions. The Cat o' Nine Tails does suffer, however, from extremely weak supporting performances (particularly Catherine Spaak as the requisite bare-breasted fatale) and a script that relies too heavily on extended monologues, which inspire a stultifying awkwardness in their speakers.
Almost entirely lacking in the gore that would define Argento's middle works and masterpieces, The Cat o' Nine Tails distinguishes itself with the quality of its two central performances, a jarring score by Ennio Morricone, trademark references to Hitchcock's films, and the lush beauty of Argento's own distinct visual style. A scene in a crypt involving a disinterred child and a pocket watch is appropriately discomfiting, as are visions of another wrapped in tape and surrounded by curious rats. The Cat o' Nine Tails predicts shots and images that Argento would use in his later works and, because of the transparency of the classical auteur theory, this rather stolid thriller entry holds the most interest for students and fans of Argento's distinctive flourishes and obsessions. That being said, an extended tour de force conclusion recalling the opening and closing of Vertigo and the climax of To Catch a Thief ranks among the most beautiful and visceral action sequences ever committed to genre cinema, a mini-masterpiece of direction, editing, and score.
Anchor Bay continues their magnificent Dario Argento Collection with this very impressive release of The Cat o' Nine Tails. A 2.35:1, anamorphically-enhanced widescreen video transfer, after a few line flaws on the negative during the opening credit sequence, is remarkably clear and saturated with the deep greens of Argento's moody colour palette. Though some shadow detail is murky, requiring of a low light viewing room, the image, given the age of the source, is nothing short of amazing. The Dolby 2.0 surround sound is a good match for it, providing a simply wonderful platform for Morricone's weird stings and haunting theme. Dialogue is cleanly reproduced.
A fifteen-minute featurette intercuts interviews with Argento, writer Dardano Sacchetti, and Morricone, each of them contributing fascinating anecdotes concerning the production of Argento's "animal trilogy" and doling out a great deal of technical and artistic insight into the development of the director's visual style. Morricone chimes in with his idea of post-modernism while Sacchetti claims credit (along with Argento) for the script to Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. The DVD is a must-have for film historians just because of this section.
Radio interviews with Franciscus and Malden (each eight minutes long) add up to little more than a promotional tool, though I was intrigued to hear Malden's preparations for playing a blind man. Two television commercials, charming for their quaintness, are nonetheless grainy and melodramatic, and a 42-picture stills gallery showcases various poster art and lobby cards for the original release of the film. A trademark for Anchor Bay's special releases, the cast and crew bios are actually extended essays on each of the subjects, bursting with information and a dry wit and indispensable for the collector and Argento-phile. Two trailers and two radio spots round out the disc's extras. One note of interest, however, is that although the DVD allows you to switch between three language tracks (Italian, English, and French) and offers two subtitle tracks (French, English), the only portion of the film that actually has subtitles encoded for it is a brief moment towards the beginning that translates the sign on a building. Originally published: August 30, 2001.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers The third Dario Argento title to get a Blu-ray upgrade from Blue Underground in as many months might just be the best of them from a transfer standpoint, though with its tack-sharp focus and hard, flat lighting schemes, the film probably lends itself to HiDef better than the more diffuse, more baroque Deep Red and Inferno. Cover copy alleges that this 2.35:1, 1080p presentation was sourced from the original camera negative, and I'm inclined to believe it: grain has that ultra-fine, answer-print quality and textures--and textiles (dig the occasionally loud '70s attire)--really pop. The pristine condition of the film elements suggests that, as Argento's most popular renter, The Cat o' Nine Tails was protected over the years from neglect, although I don't doubt that Blue Underground worked their usual voodoo on it to bring it up to code; gone are the scratchy opening credits that marred the movie's previous incarnations on home video. (I'm at a disadvantage, having not audited the Anchor Bay DVD myself, but some reviewers are calling this disc a revelation.) English and Italian dubs are offered in DTS-HD MA and Dolby 2.0 Surround, respectively, the former in 2.0 and 1.0 configurations I had a difficult time telling apart. In any event, the slight harshness of the English tracks is preferable to the Italian option, which even after level-matching sounds comparatively dead. Interestingly, the picture was blown up to 70mm for its Spanish theatrical release to accommodate six-track audio, but who knows whether any of those prints survived. With the exception of the stills gallery, extras are ported over intact from the Anchor Bay DVD (in SD where applicable, save the HD international trailer). Originally published: June 7, 2011.
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