Putting his young niece to bed one evening, professional crossword writer Franco (Karl Malden) begins to unwind in his apartment, doing what he does best: solving puzzles. But then he overhears a conversation outside his window, concerning blackmail. Unfortunately Franco’s blind, so even when he opens his window to hear more, he does not see what we do: a security guard being hit over the head, and a mystery person breaking into a nearby scientific institute infamous for its genetic experimentation.

The following morning, Franco takes a stroll outside the institute, where he literally bumps into journalist Carlo (James Franciscus). Carlo is there by special permission of the police that have gathered, to report on the crime. After briefly being distracted by Anna (Catherine Spaak), the beautiful daughter of the institute’s owner, he begins to immerse himself in his latest story: who broke in, what did they take ... and why?

Following the killing of the institute’s lead researcher, Franco’s niece conveys the details of it to him from the local newspaper’s article. Intrigued, Franco decides to pay the article’s writer a visit: Carlo.

The pair wastes no time in digging deeper into what they perceive to be an intricate plot. Their first clue comes from Carlo’s photographer friend, who took a snap of the researcher meeting his demise. Upon further inspection of his photograph, he notices a hand pushing the man to his death. Predictably, he doesn’t survive long enough to investigate this matter further.

This incident does, however, convince Franco and Carlo further that they are on to something really heavy. But can this mismatched pair (and Franco’s young niece) ever make sense of the nine clues they eventually gather, and stop the killer before they become his or her next targets?

THE CAT O’ NINE TAILS was first released in 1971, and came with a lot of expectancy attached to it, following on from Dario Argento’s hugely successful directorial debut THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. Unfortunately the film failed to capture the imagination of critics or audiences in the same manner, possibly due its more leisurely approach to its whodunit plot and a more low-key attitude to on-screen violence.

Certainly those expecting the regular thrills of DEEP RED or gory highlights of TENEBRAE are going to be disappointed. THE CAT O’ NINE TAILS is a much more reserved proposition, on these levels at least.

But there are some marvellous moments of sheer Argento style: the early break-in to the institute, with its attention to minutiae such as locks being picked and shadows being chased along white walls; a show-stopping rail station murder which benefits from some sterling editing work; the excellent finale and its taut employment of atmospheric compositions.

Argento’s sardonic wit is at play here too: there’s a great moment of cynicism during an early murder scene where several paparazzi are gathered to photograph the arrival of a glamorous actress. They are distracted momentarily by bearing witness to a brutal killing – but then quickly turn their attentions to the starlet patiently waiting for the glare of their lenses. Nice.

Elsewhere, performances are excellent throughout and the film certainly looks very nice from beginning to end. Seeing the controlled set-up of even expositional scenes here makes you wonder how modern-day Argento could ever allow for his recent films to look so anonymous and workmanlike.

The plot is hokum but is crafted in a sufficiently labyrinthine manner that it still draws the viewer in, and will most likely keep you guessing until the final act. Complemented by a romantic Ennio Morricone score and Argento’s trademark "killer’s POV" shots, this makes CAT a worthwhile experience – despite its failure to reach the heights of top tier Argento (DEEP RED; SUSPIRIA; TENEBRAE; BIRD).

Arrow’s region-free blu-ray proffers THE CAT O’ NINE TAILS fully uncut in a 1080p transfer, which presents the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The picture is enhanced for 16x9 television sets.

I haven’t seen Blue Underground’s reportedly exquisite blu-ray to compare presentations, but the film looks nice enough here.

Blacks are very sturdy and colours are much more vivid than they have been on DVD releases. Contrast is good throughout and the palettes employed seem accurate when compared to previous versions. But a lack of natural grain and occasional softness of detail, especially in faces, suggest a little too much DNR at the mastering stage.

The overall result is a thumbs up though, as CAT looks good in this HD rendering, and certainly offers a big step up from Anchor Bay’s 2001 DVD release (and its identical 2007 Blue Underground DVD re-release).

Master mono audio is provided in both Italian and English, with the option of well-written English subtitles. Both audio tracks are clean and consistent propositions. Morricone’s score is particularly well served.

An animated main menu page includes a pop-up scene-selection menu allowing access to the main feature via 12 chapters.

Extras begin with "Dario’s Deadly Moggy", a new 10-minute interview with the Maestro. He discusses the film in the context of his other gialli of the era, and it makes for a fairly diverting featurette.

"Cat O’ Nine Tails In Reflection" is a 16-minute catch-up with fellow filmmaker and "long time Argento collaborator" Luigi Cozzi telling us why the film is so good, and how it shouldn’t be perceived as a disappointment after THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE after all.

The best extra is a 24-minute featurette entitled "The Art and Arteries of the Giallo". In it, our host is director Sergio Martino (TORSO; THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS WARDH) who takes us through the themes and conventions of the genre – heavy reliance on colour, etc – as well as praising Argento’s influence on the cycle, and giving Arrow an excuse to furnish this bonus feature with welcome clips by name-checking films such as DEEP RED, ALL THE COLOURS OF THE DARK, THE CAT O’ NINE TAILS and more. It’s a great addition to the disc.

We also get the original Italian theatrical trailer for THE CAT O’ NINE TAILS, in windowboxed standard definition.

All of the above extras are presented in Italian with optional English subtitles. The featurettes are given in 1080p. A minor quibble: the featurettes are still opening with titles sequences that are too long for their overall running times.

The disc opens with Arrow’s now-customary 3-minute trailer celebrating their excellent horror range (a fast-paced montage of salacious clips from the likes of CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, MARTIN, SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT and so on).

Unavailable for review was the disc’s packaging, which is set to include Arrow’s usual attention to detail: a fold-out poster, booklet and four choices of cover art.

THE CAT O’ NINE TAILS is not prime Argento. But it does possess some memorable set-piece scenes and builds towards a satisfyingly atmospheric finale. The presentation of the film here is good, and the extras cap off this fine release nicely.

Review by Stuart Willis

Released by Arrow Video
Region B
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review