The Cat O' Nine Tails (1971)

On the heels of his highly successful debut, Bird With the Crystal Plumage, Dario Argento's second feature film has never received the accolades it deserves; even Argento himself disparages the film as "too American, practically an action movie". Fans of the director tend to disregard it, lacking as it does the director's later flourishes of expressive camera work and gore. But this movie cemented Argento's reputation as "The Italian Hitchcock", and with good reason: it's a darned good suspense thriller, concerned more with story and character than much of his later work.

The plot centers around a series of murders which all seem to be somehow connected to the Tenzi Institute, a center for genetic research. It's all up to regular-guy protagonists Carlo (James Franciscus), a reporter, and Cookie (Karl Malden), a blind puzzle maven, to figure out the mystery with a set of nine clues - the "Cat O' Nine Tails" of the oblique title. Also along for the ride are Catherine Spaak as the daughter of the Institute's founder and Cookie's eight year old niece, who might as well be wearing a jacket with "Future Hostage" embroidered on the back.

Argento and his hardcore fans dismissory attitude aside, Cat has several sequences that will have the viewer occupying the very edge of his or her seat, including one scene in a cemetery that should be required viewing for every director that cannot understand the difference between implicit and explicit.

If you look very hard, you'll see some speckling in the plentiful night scenes, but the print used for this transfer is otherwise pristine. The image is as sharp as the killer's scalpel, and the color accurate within the limited palette chosen by Argento and his cinematographer (the very rare splash of blood is visually shocking in these confines). The widescreen presentation is especially welcome, as Argento has always - even at this early point in his career - made very fruitful use of the entire frame.

The inclusion of the original Italian soundtrack is a plus, but the lack of any subtitles is a bit frustrating.

Tales of the Cat is a 14 minute collection of interviews with Argento himself, scenarist Dardano Saccheti, and composer Ennio Morricone (Ah! So that's what he looks like!). These are all subtitled in English. Argento has never been very forthcoming when it comes to talking about his pictures, and it's obvious he has little to say about this one in particular. Malden and Franciscus are represented by radio interviews (about eight minutes each), and there are US and international trailers for the movie, as well as TV and radio spots and a gallery of posters, lobby cards and stills. In all, a nice package for an unjustly ignored film.

Dr. Freex, 2/20/2002