Cat O' Nine Tails (The) AKA Il Gatto A Nove Code (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (5th February 2018).
The Film

The Cat O’Nine Tails (Dario Argento, 1971)

Whilst walking near the Terzi Institute with his young orphan friend Lori (Cinzia De Carolis), blind former journalist and crossword designer Franco Arno (Karl Malden) overhears a conversation involving blackmail. He asks Lori to act as his eyes and describe the man whose voice he hears. That night, an intruder breaks into the Terzi Institute, killing a night-watchman and stealing some important paperwork. The next day, Arno once again passes the Terzi Institute and encounters reporter Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus), who is covering the story. Giordani discovers that the Terzi Institute’s primary concerns are biochemistry and genetic research.

Dr Calabresi (Carlo Alighiero), one of the employees of the Terzi Institute, tells his lover and co-worker Bianca Merusi (Rada Rassimov) that only he knows what was stolen during the break-in. He also knows who the culprit was: it was an inside job, and Calabresi is planning to seize this opportunity to get ahead by blackmailing the person responsible. However, at the train station Calabresi is pushed in front of an incoming train. He is crushed to death; the incident is caught on camera by Giordani’s colleague Righetto (Vittorio Congia), a photographer.

The incident makes front page news and Righetto’s photograph of Calabresi tumbling in front of the train is prominently featured. At Arno’s apartment, Lori recognises Calabresi as the man she saw in the car during the evening of the break-in at the Terzi Institute. Arno visits Giordani at the newspaper offices and asks him if the photograph printed to accompany the article was ‘an enlarged detail or the whole negative’. Giordani calls Righetto and discovers that the photograph was indeed a crop. Checking his contact sheets, Righetto tells Giordani that he can see part of Calabresi’s killer at the very left-hand side of the frame. Righetto promises to make an uncropped blow-up of the complete negative. However, whilst Righetto is alone the killer breaks into his darkroom and garottes him with a length of cord.

Intrigued by the mystery, Arno likens the crimes to one of the crossword puzzles that he designs. He teams up with Giordani to investigate them. Giordani speaks with Anna Terzi (Catherine Spaak), the daughter of Fulvio Terzi (Tino Carraro), the owner of the Terzi Institute. Meanwhile, Arno and Lori pay a visit to Bianca Merusi; Arno’s heightened auditory sense is drawn to the sound of Merusi playing with a locket around her neck. Later, he asks Lori about it, and Lori tells him that the locket had a photograph of Calabresi upon it.

Anna Terzi tells Giordani that one of the Terzi Institute’s research projects is a government-funded investigation into XYY syndrome: she tells Giordani that some men are born with an extra Y chromosome, and this has been linked to violent criminal tendencies.

After Arno and Lori have left, Merusi remembers that Calabresi’s car is still parked at the train station. She makes a journey there and discovers in the glove box a list of meetings with the presumed killer. She places this information in the locket about her neck and returns home, telephone Arno and Giordani to inform them that she knows who killed her lover and wants to meet with them to show them the note. However, after putting the telephone down Merusi is attacked by the killer and garrotted.

Arno and Giordani receive a note from the killer; the note threatens their lives and tells them to discontinue their investigation. Arno decides to send Lori to stay with an old friend. Separate attempts are made on the lives of Arno and Giordani: Arno returns home to find his apartment flooded with gas, whilst the killer poisons Giordani’s milk.

Giordani turns to a reformed criminal, Gigi the Loser (Ugo Fangareggi), for help. Gigi and Arno visit Terzi’s home at night and break into Terzi’s safe. In it, they discover documents proving that Anna Terzi isn’t Terzi’s biological daughter: he adopted her at a young age. The documents also hint at Terzi’s sexual infatuation with his adopted daughter.

Arno reasons that the clue to the crimes is in the note found by Merusi, and he believes that Merusi must have hidden that note in her prized locket. The only problem is that Merusi was buried with the locket around her neck. Arno and Giordani visit the cemetery at night and break in to the Merusi family crypt, opening Bianca Merusi’s casket and retrieving the locket. However, Giordani becomes trapped in the crypt when Arno is attacked by the killer outside.

Arno eventually opens the crypt, freeing Giordani. Giordani treats Arno with suspicion, until Arno explains the reason for his ‘off’ behaviour: the killer tussled with Arno before telling him that he had kidnapped Lori. The killer once again warns Arno and Giordani to stop investigating the murders. However, the pair follow new leads as they present themselves, leading to a final confrontation with the killer that takes place on the grounds of the Terzi Institute.

Dario Argento’s second feature as a director, Il gatto a nove code (The Cat O’Nine Tails) follows the paradigms of the thrilling all’italiana (or giallo all’italiana/Italian-style thriller) that Argento had helped to consolidate in his debut feature, L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970, recently released by Arrow on Blu-ray and reviewed by us here). Like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat O’Nine Tails features a whodunit-style narrative and an amateur sleuth (actually, in the case of this film, two amateur sleuths working as a team) who witnesses a key detail at the start of the film but only realises its significance much later in the narrative.

In The Cat O’Nine Tails, Arno is the equivalent of The Bird…’s Sam Dalmas: like Dalmas, Arno is an unwitting witness to a crime during the film’s opening sequence. His decision to investigate this crime leads to his life being put in severe danger. Where Dalmas is blind to the precise nature of what he has seen, wrongly believing the perpetrator to be the victim and only realising the truth of this scenario during the film’s climax, Arno is quite literally blind. Lori acts as Arno’s eyes, so when Arno overhears the mention of blackmail by two men in a car, he walks Lori to a safe distance and then asks her to look towards the car and describe what she sees.

However, once Arno begins to work with Giordani, the narrative focus becomes more heavily biased towards the younger reporter – to such an extent that when near-simultaneous attempts are made on Arno’s and Giordani’s lives, all the audience knows of what happens to Arno is the telephone call that Arno makes to Giordani, which tips Giordani off to the poison in his milk. Arno isn’t seen during this conversation, but over the telephone we hear him coughing sharply and telling Giordani that someone has tried to kill him by flooding his apartment with gas.

As the narrative progresses, the audience is alienated from Arno to such an extent that, during the extended sequence in which Arno and Giordani break into Bianca Merusi’s family crypt and open her casket in order to investigate the note hidden in the locket around her neck, we are led to suspect Arno when the door to the crypt slams shut, locking Giordani within it. However, eventually the door opens, revealing a tense and breathless Arno standing outside. Arno responds harshly to Giordani, and Giordani reacts with suspicion, until Arno reveals the reason for his strange behaviour: he was confronted by the killer outside the crypt, the killer revealing that he has abducted Lori and will kill her unless Arno and Giordani stop their investigation.

One of the ways in which the film alienates the viewer from Arno, thus creating an additional layer of suspense within the narrative, is by juxtaposing Arno and Lori’s relationship with Terzi’s relationship to Anna. Speaking about his relationship with Lori, Arno tells Giordani that as he was alone in the world and Lori had lost her parents, it seemed natural for the pair to gravitate towards one another: ‘I’m all alone in this world, and she lost her parents, so we find that we need each other’. (In the Italian-language version, Arno goes further, telling Giordani explicitly that he is like a father to Lori: ‘We’re like father and daughter’, Arno says.) Giordani displays a slightly incredulous look on his face and Argento holds the camera on Giordani’s reaction just long enough to undercut the sentiment within Arno’s assertion. Giordani’s punctive glance towards Arno gains added import later in the film, when Giordani suggests to Arno that ‘there’s something fishy about one of the scientists’. ‘Isn’t there something fishy in all our lives?’, Arno asks cryptically in response. When Giordani confronts Anna after discovering the papers which tell him that Terzi adopted Anna when she was young. Anna reveals to Giordani that her relationship with Terzi is partly sexual: legally his daughter, she has also taken on the role of his mistress. By juxtaposing the Terzi-Anna relationship with the Arno-Lori one, the film might leave viewers wondering whether Arno and Lori’s relationship is similarly corrupt. (In light of this, Lori’s assertion that she calls Arno ‘Cookie’ because he is ‘sweet like a cookie’ becomes subtly sinister.) Argento’s ‘point’ seems not to depict Arno and Lori’s relationship in any single specific way (as a pure paternal relationship, or as a more disturbing one which has sexual undercurrents) but to contrast it with the Terzi-Anna relationship so as to destabilise the audience’s identification with Arno.

At the denouement of the film, the pursuit of the killer across the rooftop of the Terzi Institute is ended by Arno, after Giordani has been stabbed in the stomach whilst attempting to defend Lori. Arno catches the killer, who taunts Arno by suggesting that he has already killed Lori. Despite the detective’s pleas, Arno pushes the killer, who falls to his death down a lift shaft. Arno’s act is transgressive, and we must assume that outside the diegesis, his character’s punishment by the law is inevitable. However, the fates of both Lori and Giordani are ambiguous. As the closing theme begins on the soundtrack, we hear Lori’s voice shouting ‘Cookie! Cookie!’, the line given a sense of reverb as if it is coming up to Arno from the bottom of the lift shaft. The viewer is left wondering whether the killer was lying or telling the truth about having killed Lori, and for that matter it seems he may also have killed Giordani, who the audience last saw in dire straits on the floor prior to the final confrontation between the killer and Arno.

The Terzi Institute is depicted as a company at the forefront of genetic research and biochemistry. A shocked Giordani is told that the company performs ‘pre-marital’ examinations on men’s sperm, ‘to tell you if you have a hereditary disease or if your gun’s jammed’. Initially, the robbery at the Terzi Institute during which the night-watchman is killed is believed by the managers to be an act of corporate espionage. Argento’s depiction of the Terzi Institute’s research into the XYY chromosome and its perceived association with criminality was very much of its time. About one in a thousand men are born with an extra ‘Y’ chromosome; ‘XYY syndrome’ (or ‘Jacobs syndrome’, as it’s sometimes called), was first identified in 1961, and in the mid-1960s research conducted by the cytogeneticist Patricia Jacobs drew an association between males born with an extra ‘Y’ chromosome and violent tendencies. This perceived correlation, seemingly confirmed by a number of similar studies in the mid/late-1960s, was later criticised for selection bias: almost all studies of XYY syndrome had taken place within institutionalised settings (prisons and hospitals for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled). Biochemist Mary Telfer infamously labelled those with the XYY chromosome as ‘supermales’, and her incorrect and very public claim in 1968 that serial killer Richard Speck carried the XYY chromosome consolidated in the public’s imagination the relationship between ‘XYY syndrome’ and criminality.

Within the film, it’s suggested that identifying those with XYY syndrome at a young age may result in segregating such individuals, thus preventing them from mingling with the general population. Eliminating violent crime would simply be a matter of screening people at birth and isolating those with the XYY chromosome, Giordani is told by one of the scientists. During an era defined by the struggle for Civil Rights and equality in terms of ethnicity and gender, The Cat O’Nine Tails displaces broader anxieties about segregation onto the Terzi Institute’s pseudo-scientific claim that our chromosomal makeup determines our behaviour. The film’s narrative renders this suggestion in highly, and deliberately, ambiguous terms: the killer has committed murders to cover up the discovery, during a standard test of the Terzi Institute’s employees, that he carries the XYY chromosome. He fears that discovery of his ‘XYY syndrome’ will result in him being viewed differently by his colleagues and perhaps treated differently by his employers, and in response to Calabresi’s decision to blackmail him, he commits himself to murder: his first victim is Calabresi, but this act of murder leads to a spiral of violence as the killer finds himself having to cover up one murder after another in order to stay one step ahead of the investigation. Certainly, the film suggests that it is not the ‘XYY syndrome’ that is responsible for the killer’s actions, but rather his fears of the consequences – both social and economic – that will result from the revelation of his chromosomal imbalance. The discovery of the XYY chromosome and its supposed association with criminality thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The film is filled with strangely off-kilter elements, from the aforementioned comic interludes to the oddly dispassionate sex scene between Giordani and Anna Terzi: Anna allows Giordani to seduce her with some incredibly awkward dialogue before simply removing her top to reveal her breasts. The pair share ambiguous, uncomfortable glances but have intercourse without kissing or demonstrating any sense of intimacy. It’s a strange, mechanical scene that is either clumsily orchestrated or contains a profound sense of symbolism. This theme of awkward, shameful sexuality is picked up in a number of other sequences: in Terzi’s perverted relationship with Anna, mirrored in Arno’s relationship with Lori, and in the shame of a man (Umberto Raho) who visits Giordani and tells him where one of the Terzi scientists, Braun (Horst Frank), is hiding. ‘I’d rather not to have dealings with the police’, the man tells Giordani: he is the former lover of Braun’s new ‘squeeze’, a much younger man named Manuel (Werner Pochath); ‘You may feel contempt for me’, the man says, reflecting on his relationship with Manuel, who is little more than a youth, ‘Perhaps you think I’m despicable’.

Made after The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat O’Nine Tails was the second of Argento’s so-called ‘animal trilogy’ – a trio of naturalistic thrilling all’italiana pictures featuring animals in their titles – and was followed by 4 mosche di velluto di grigio (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, 1971). However, whereas The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Four Flies on Grey Velvet all featured moments of epiphany in which animals help to reveal the identity of the killer to the amateur sleuth-protagonist, thus explaining their animal-themed titles, the title of The Cat O’Nine Tails refers not to an animal but instead to Giordani’s observation that there are nine leads in the case – which Arno compares to the naval whip, the cat o’nine tails. In response to the success of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in America, The Cat O’Nine Tails features a more heavily American cast (with the dual protagonists being played by Karl Malden and James Franciscus) and a slightly more restrained ‘Americanised’ aesthetic. However, where The Bird with the Crystal Plumage had been well-received outside Italy, both The Cat O’Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet were criticised by English-language critics for their plot contrivances and perceived emphasis on style over substance (see Mendik, 2015: 112). Argento’s subsequent thrillers, beginning with Profondo rosso (Deep Red, 1974, Arrow’s Blu-ray release of which has been reviewed by us here), would come to feature increasingly off-key supernatural elements: Danny Shipka has observed that with Deep Red, Argento’s Italian-style thrillers began to blur ‘the boundaries between a thriller and a horror film’ (Shipka, 2011: 95).

Video

The 1080p presentation uses the AVC codec; the film takes up just a little over 30Gb of space on a dual layered Blu-ray disc.

The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage before it, The Cat O’Nine Tails was photographed in Techniscope.

As readers are no doubt aware, Techniscope was a widescreen process that used spherical, rather than anamorphic, lenses. It were cost-saving in the sense that, by halving the size of each frame in comparison with anamorphic (4-perf) widescreen processes, Techniscope reduced the negative costs involved in making a film by half. However, this was reputedly offset to some extent by lab costs, which it is said were more expensive for films shot in 2-perf formats like Techniscope; it has also been suggested that increases in lab costs were one of the reasons why 2-perf non-anamorphic widescreen processes such as these became less popular during the late 1970s and the 1980s.

Release prints of Techniscope pictures were made by anthropomorphising the image and doubling the size of each frame, resulting in a grain structure that was noticeably more dense/coarse than that of widescreen films shot using anamorphic lenses. (This was compounded in many 1970s Techniscope productions by the movement away from the dye transfer processes used by Technicolor Italia during the 1960s and towards the use of the standard Kodak colour printing process, which necessitated the production of a dupe negative, with the additional ‘generation’ of the material making the grain structure of the release prints of Techniscope productions during the 1970s even more coarse and the blacks less rich.) Another of the characteristics of Techniscope photography was an increased depth of field. Freed from the need to use anamorphic lenses, cinematographers using the Techniscope process were able to employ technically superior spherical lenses with shorter focal lengths and shorter hyperfocal distances, thus achieving a greater depth of field, even at lower f-stops and even within low light sequences. By effectively halving the ‘circle of confusion’, the Techniscope format shortened the hyperfocal distances of prime lenses and altered the field of view associated with them – so an 18mm lens would function pretty much as a 35mm lens, and shooting at f2.8 would result in similar depth of field to shooting at f5.6. The use of shorter focal lengths also prevented the subtle flattening of perspective that comes with the use of focal lengths above around 85mm. (The noticeably increased depth of field, combined with short focal lengths/wide-angle lenses, is a characteristic of many films shot in Techniscope, including Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, 1964.)

In its photography, The Cat O’Nine Tails demonstrates the characteristics of Techniscope-shot films outlined above. The film features some bold stylistic devices, such as extreme close-ups of the iris of the killer during the murder scenes; this was a visual paradigm that would feature in many of Argento’s subsequent films, from Deep Red to Opera (1987). Here, however, these close-ups are so incredibly tight and extreme that they become almost clinical – whereas in some of the later pictures, Argento used less extreme close-ups of the eyes of his killers.

This presentation of The Cat O’Nine Tails is very impressive, a big improvement over the film’s previous Blu-ray release from Blue Underground in the US (and Arrow in the UK). Those previous releases were based on an older, more problematic transfer which was very soft and featured some heavy scanner noise. Arrow’s new presentation is much better, and features some impressive fine detail which is evident in the close-ups. Colours are evenly balanced and naturalistic, in line with the film’s original photography. Some shots feature a noticeable softness at the edges of the frame; this is sourced from the lenses used during production rather than a ‘fault’ in this presentation. Contrast is also very pleasing, with deep blacks gradating into strongly defined midtones and balanced highlights. Gone is the scanner noise of the earlier BD releases, and in its place is a natural, organic grain field which is carried excellently in the robust encode. Onscreen text is a mixture of English and Italian: in the sequence in which Giordani and Gigi break into Terzi’s home and discover the adoption papers, the adoption paperwork is in English whilst other onscreen text is in Italian.

The Cat O’Nine Tails was released in America in an abbreviated version which removed 20 minutes of footage, trimming and in fact elimating many narrative scenes and also toning down the moments of violence. Argento considers the film to be his weakest, and fans of Argento often suggest that the film is a little too long. Like the director’s other pictures, Cat O’Nine Tails features some oddball comedy scenes, such a scene in which Giordani visits a barber and listens with terror as the barber, shaving Giordani with a cut-throat razor, tells Giordani why the killer can’t be someone of his profession: ‘a barber goes off his rocker, the first thing he’s gonna want to do is make a nice clean slash across somebody’s throat’. For the abbreviated US edit, this scene was removed in its entirety without damaging the narrative flow.

Notably, in this presentation there’s a very abrupt cut in the music, at the end of the scene in which Giordani discovers Braun dead. There’s a cut of the film which has been released in Germany that features a slight extension to this scene, in which Manuel and Giordani approach the sofa on which Braun’s body lays and continue their conversation. (Here, this moment is cut by an abrupt shift to the scene in Arno’s apartment.)

This Blu-ray release contains the full-length version, running 111:48 mins. (It’s perhaps a shame that the shorter edit isn’t included, as like the shorter English export cut of Deep Red it arguably represents a legitimate alternative edit of the picture with its own merits and defects.)

Some large screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review.


Audio

The disc presents the viewer with the option of watching the film with either (i) an English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track or (ii) an Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track. Both audio tracks are pleasing, with good range and depth. The Italian track is a little more shrill and piercing, but only in direct comparison with the English track. The Italian track is accompanied by optional English subtitles translating the Italian dialogue. The English track is accompanied by optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing. In both cases, subtitles are accurate and error free.

The English and Italian dialogue differs in some interesting ways. For example, during the train station sequence in which Calabresi is murdered by being pushed under an incoming train, after the train has pulled into the station a group of paparazzo gather around the doors as they open and a stereotypically gormless starlet steps out. In the English version, Giordani’s photographer friend mutters dryly, ‘Smile, smile! A man is dead’. In the Italian version, the line of dialogue is more pointed: ‘Smile, bitch: you train crushed a guy’.

Extras

The disc includes:
- An audio commentary with film critics Alan Jones and Kim Newman. Jones and Newman deliver a breathless and entertaining commentary track which is filled with carefully-researched detail and Jones’ firsthand comments on Argento’s working methods.

- ‘Nine Lives’ (15:57). In a new interview, Dario Argento reflects on the origins of The Cat O’Nine Tails as ‘a kind of a sequel’ to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. He discusses the casting of the film, his feelings of warmth towards Malden and the more aloof approach of Franciscus, and talks about its production and reception. Fans of the director have no doubt heard or read these stories before. The interview is in Italian with optional English subtitles.

- ‘The Writer O’Many Tales’ (34:46). Writer Dardanno Sachetti reflects on his relationship with The Cat O’Nine Tails, the first film for which he wrote the screenplay. Sachetti discusses his friendship with Argento and their shared love of cinema, expressing a particular interest in Godard’s early films. Again, this interview is in Italian with optional English subtitles.

- ‘Child Star’ (11:02) (see Note below).

- ‘Giallo in Turin’ (15:11). Angelo Iacono, the film’s production manager, discusses his role in the production of the picture, reflecting on the actors and in particular his friendship with Karl Malden.

- Original Ending (3:09). Originally, the film was to end with the rescue of Lori and feature an epilogue in which Giordani and Anna Terzi were shown together. Onscreen text tells us that Luigi Cozzi suggested this was too clichéd, resulting in Argento reconsidering the film’s closing moments and excising the epilogue. The footage no longer exists, but and English translation of the pages from the script are presented here accompanied by animated still frames from the film.

- Trailers: Italian trailer (1:48); international trailer (1:54); US trailer (1:39).

Note: on the copy of the disc provided for review, selecting the interview with Cinzia De Carolis (‘Child Star’) in the ‘Special Features’ menu plays instead the interview with Dardanno Sachetti. Given the pushed back release date for the release, Arrow have reputedly fixed this error on commercially-available copies of the disc.

Overall

The Cat O’Nine Tails is a mixed bag, feeling much less distinctly ‘Italian’ than other Italian-style thrillers/gialli all’italiana, largely thanks to the preponderance of US actors in the lead roles; however, the film’s visual style is also muted, in comparison with Luciano Tovoli’s photography for The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. It’s certainly an interesting thriller, though it drags slightly, especially in the 111 minute full-length version. Argento has often stated that he considers this to be his weakest film, though considering some of his later pictures this assertion seems slightly absurd. It’s far from his best, but it’s a competent and often stylish thriller that is anchored by some interesting points of ambiguity and a solid performance from Malden (though Franciscus is a bit of a ‘cold fish’ in his role).

The Cat O’Nine Tails’ exploration of the ‘XYY syndrome’ feels very much of its time but also has resonance for today. There are clichés which bog the film down (Arno’s blind amateur sleuth who has an acute sense of hearing is a recurring trope in detective fiction, such as Ernest Bramah’s Max Carrados stories.)

Arrow’s new Blu-ray presentation is a huge improvement over the film’s previous outings on the Blu-ray format, featuring a presentation that is rich in detail and has the natural texture of 35mm film. It’s a very pleasing presentation of the main feature that is accompanied by some excellent contextual material, sitting alongside Arrow’s recent releases of some of Argento’s other films.

References:
Mendik, Xavier, 2015: Bodies of Desire and Bodies in Distress: The Golden Age of Italian Cult Cinema, 1970-1985. Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Shipka, Danny, 2011: Perverse Titillation: The Exploitation Cinema of Italy, Spain and France, 1960-1980. London: McFarland


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