The Cat o' Nine Tails ★★

During the past year I've revisited many gialli, most of which I watched more than a decade ago. Director Dario Argento, a "second-generation" founding father of a style of Italian murder-mystery-thriller c. 1970 that the world deems as the definitive giallo, has had many of his films newly scanned and restored for the HD market (today I received my Arrow Video limited edition region-A release of "Deep Red"). "Cat O' Nine Tails" had a nice set released recently, which was available to rent at the local arthouse theater/rental shop. Why not reappraise it, especially since I didn't like it much when I first saw it?

Turns out, it's still not very good. In fact, of Argento's films I'd consider it one of his most bland, boring, uninventive, and blatantly commercial. The giallo as Hitchcock-ripoff is exemplified in this one, minus many of the basic payoffs we thriller-seekers expect.

This is disappointing. Argento is known as a master stylist. Even with his first feature, "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage," there's an assuredness in the direction and picture quality (doubtless aided by the skills of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, however). A viewer can reasonably foresee a future of talented filmmaking by the young Argento. Alas, it'd take about five years and a few feature-length misfires before audiences could see this visual talent flourish—and only in that aspect, really, for Argento's scripts did regress into red herrings, illogic, and goofs. The style-over-substance trope of film criticism is suited almost perfectly for the career of Dario Argento.

The premise, which in typical gialli is usually underdeveloped on principle, is very interesting. A genetic research firm has found a correlation with the XYY chromosome and criminality. Though nearly five decades of interdisciplinary studies on human behavior after this film has the scientific community doubting the certitude of such a hypothesis, it's an interesting setup for a story. The protagonists are a blind ex-journalist teamed with an employed journalist to uncover the identity of a killer who seems to be engaging in a coverup involving this firm.

The implications of authoritarian law and order and social elitism are bountiful, but the bounty we get is meager. Without spoiling too much, we get nothing more than a brief revelation of deceit and hypocrisy. We're left with an idea that goes almost nowhere, just a quick-scripted story to ride the success of a prior feature ("The Bird with the Crystal Plumage"). Perhaps a genre-hound would claim my eyes are set too high relative to the "meaning" of the average giallo, but if the screenwriters of Umberto Lenzi's "Nightmare City" can include hilariously strident idealists into zombie trash, surely the heirs of Hitchcock can do a little more than plant a narrative seed with no intent to help it grow above ground.

What's bothersome about all this is the fact that the film's runtime is close to two hours. This is too long for the paltry proceeding. It needs to be cut down, yet given the way it was shot and directed that'd probably require a reshoot. Its length is dyed in the negative. Space is wasted in the image and in the intervals. Good kill scenes can save a film in this circumstance, but Argento messes those up too. Excepting the finale, every death arouses bemusement, not shock and awe. As I mentioned, this problem was fixed in 1975 with "Deep Red."

Aesthetically, "Cat O' Nine Tails" is a wider-screen feature compared to "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage," but it feels ill-fit for the direction and staging. Most of the time we feel too far from the subjects. There are only a few shots that capture the benefits of a wider lens. The rest of the time we're bombarded by useless space and a lack of intimacy with the performers. The new 4k restoration (which I watched in 1080p on blu-ray) does have fine detail, lovely texture, and a Seventies vibe that's not at all lost in high definition; alas, again, there's nothing visceral or intense in the look, despite some decent montages. Only Ennio Morricone's score keeps the beat, à la Miles Davis's "Bitches Brew." This music is worth listening to isolated from the feature. It's the best part of the movie.

And with all that, we have a film that can only be appreciated by completists. Unless you're already crazy for Dario Argento, "Cat O' Nine Tails" should be skipped. Try "Tenebre" instead.

Jesse_Wroe liked this review