Color, 1970, 112m.
Directed by Dario Argento
Starring James Franciscus, Karl Malden, Catherine Spaak, Pier Paolo Capponi, Horst Frank, Rada Rassimov, Cinzia De Carolis, Werner Pochath
Blue Underground (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/PAL), Anchor Bay (US R0 NTSC), Benelux (Holland R2 PAL), Medusa (Italy R2 PAL), TFI (France R2 PAL)

While strolling at night with his ward, Lori (De Carolis), a blind retired reporter named Franco Arno (Malden) overhears a conversation involving blackmail in a nearby car. Following a break-in at the pretigious Terzi Institute for genetic research, one of the leading researchers winds up decapitated by a passenger train the next morning. Coincidentally the victim happened to be a participant in the blackmail discussion, so Arno teams up with scrappy newsman Carlo Giordani (Franciscus), both of whom get more than they bargained for. Carlo gets close to Anna (Spaak), the mysterious daughter of the institute chariman, while Arno chases down several clues of his own. Meanwhile the garotte-wielding killer continues to strike again and again, determined to cover up a most deadly secret.

After scoring a smash hit with his first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, director Dario Argento quickly attempted a reprise by expanding that trendsetting giallo's formula of Americans in Italy rubbing shoulders with the criminal element and a psychopathic killer. The end result, The Cat o' Nine Tails, didn't initially capture the critical and commercial appeal of that first hit thanks to its abrasive insistence on refusing to conform to expectations as romantic subplots, whodunit elements, and standard three-act plotting are all tossed out the window with a glee bordering on the sadistic, allowing Argento instead to experiment wildly within the template of a murder mystery in which form and style coexist most uneasily. After this film Argento returned one year later with the even more troubling Four Flies on Grey Velvet before launching onto a different plane entirely with two successful hits in a row, Deep Red and Suspiria.

Though Argento's previous film had its share of quirky moments, Cat fractures itself entirely into a series of bizarre incidents. A mysterious locket, a champion cursing pro from the underworld, a deadly gay love triangle, chromosome experiments on murderers, a razor-happy barber, and a speedy police chase through a parking deck are just a few of the odd tricks up Argento's sleeve. Though the tone of the film is oddly antiseptic and jagged, the characters are among Argento's warmest with Franciscus and Malden making a most appealing pair of sleuths. The violent finale deliberately subverts viewer expectations by operating less as a whodunit than a nasty piece of narrative machinery which leaves its major characters, some of whose outcomes is never confirmed, emotionally or physically scarred for the rest of their lives. Ennio Morricone's score performs a similar function, beginning with a soft and sweet lullaby theme before plunging into some of his darkest, strangest jazz improvisations, with shots of the killer's eyes punctuated by disturbing musical clicks, yowls, and thuds. Cat also finds Argento experimenting more with the possibilities of editing to layer his narrative, such as the obvious example of subliminal flashes used to indicate an upcoming scene or recap an important piece of information. He later expanded on this technique in Four Flies (particularly the memorable finale) and, most effectively, in the celebrated visual and verbal echoing of Deep Red. The murder sequences themselves are brutal though comparatively light on blood; in fact, the rough rooftop finale is the goriest sequence in the film, sort of a savage updating of the climax from To Catch a Thief. The strangulation of Rada Rassimov is probably the most memorably brutal moment though, a protracted bit of nastiness with touches which Argento would later repeat and embellish in Deep Red as well.

For many years after its release, Cat was one of the hardest Argento films to see in anything resembling its original form or a decent print. An RCA Japanese laserdisc came to the relief of some collectors; letterboxed at approximately 2.00:1 and sporting an odd goldish tint, this was the best option available compared to, say, the slaughtered TV print offered by Bingo Video on VHS in America (which cut over 22 minutes of material including much of the violence as well as the barber and car chase scenes); this wretched presentation is still available on bootleg DVD from several bargain labels. (Also like Bird, Cat was rated GP for its theatrical U.S. run, which just goes to show how out of whack the MPAA has gotten in the last thirty years.) Bearing these factors in mind, Anchor Bay's official DVD of Cat (later reissued by Blue Underground with identical contents) was a salvation for the film at the time. Apart from the noticeably scratchy credits which appeared to be spliced in from another print, the element for this release is clean and comparatively improved, not to mention uncensored. The stereo audio is limited mostly to Morricone's score, which has been rechanneled to the front speakers; even the car chase plays out almost entirely in mono. The disc also includes surround tracks in Italian and French-- without subtitles or captions, alas. However, an English subtitle track is activated to translate some onscreen text (newspapers, identifying building plaques, etc.) in Italian, as opposed to the Japanese LD which used awkwardly inserted English language footage (with much paler color) instead. Extras include "Tales of the Cat," a standard featurette in which Argento, Morricone, and co-writer Dardano Saccheti offer a thumbnail version of the circumstances which led to the film's creation, complete with views of its successes and faults, though Argento seems a bit too hard on it in retrospect. The promotional material is at least as interesting; an immaculate international trailer features a delirious mixture of footage and tinted stills to create a genuinely appealing promotional piece, including a psychedelic rock instrumental borrowed from the film May Morning. This trailer was obviously reworked to lesser effect for the U.S. trailer and TV spots (in much more battered condition), which spoil the visuals with some unconvincing verbal hype. Finally you get some appreciative liner notes by Travis Crawford, a gallery of posters and stills, and two radio promos featuring some highly unorthodox soundbites from the two stars.

The Dutch disc features a similar English-language transfer with Dutch subtitles, while the French disc contains Italian and French tracks with optional French subtitles. One interesting alternative is the Medusa disc from Italy which offers a few twists of its own and is worth picking up for Argento diehards. The Italian language version is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0 mono with optional English subtitles; while the 5.1 track is an artificial-sounding wreck (though not as disastrous as Medusa's botched mix on Tenebre), the 2.0 mix sounds fine and offers a somewhat different experience from the English language edition. The actors are voiced in a far more lively fashion which, surprisingly enough, gives the film a markedly energetic and engaging tone, while the murders feature far more dramatic screaming, gurgling, and other noises the voice artists conjured up probably after swilling too much vino. This remains the only way to watch the film in Italian with standard English subtitles, so collectors may want to seek this one out. No extras to speak of, however.

And now we reach the most satisfying and truly surprising release of them all, Blue Underground's 2011 Blu-Ray edition. The new HD transfer from the original camera negative is, to put it mildly, a major revelation. Since its release, this has often been cited as the most visually drab of Argento's classic films, but that view can now be put firmly to rest as it's now obvious that it was originally shot in rich, Technicolor hues that rival the most striking images in his other two "Animal Trilogy" thrillers. Blues, reds, and pure whites pop off the screen with astonishing clarity now, and shots that once seemed muddy and flat are now artful and feature a remarkable amount of depth. (Click on any of the screengrabs in this review for a look at them in full resolution.) From Malden's book-lined apartment to the sleek, Tenebrae-style modernistic interiors of the Terzi Instititue, the film takes a significant step forward in aesthetic rewards here and will probably undergo some serious reevaluation from those who dismissed it before. The image clarity is so fine you can also clearly see how they pulled off the fleeting but very nasty cheek-slashing effect with a scalpel, too. (And yes, the blood is now very, very red.) An absolute pleasure to watch from start to finish, and thankfully, the English opening and closing titles are now in mint condition as well. For a direct comparison, click here for a shot from the Blu-Ray and click here for the same shot from the DVD; the different is dramatic, to put it mildly. The English, Italian, and French tracks are all present here along with the of subtitles in English, French, and Spanish; the one caveat is that the English subs are SDH, which means that sound effects and voice directions are included as well which might make it a bit awkward for anyone watching it in Italian. The featurette, trailers, TV and radio spots are all included; the only missing extra is the stills gallery, which is a shame as it included a glimpse of the film's deleted epilogue which concluded in a more traditional and romantic fashion. Incidentally, fans may also want to seek out the 1971 movie tie-in paperback, which features yet another resolution as well as numerous bits of additional character and plot information. Definitely one of the banner Italian horror HD releases to date-- and a terrific, underrated film, too.

Reviewed on May 14, 2011.