Profundo Argento: “The Cat O’Nine Tails” and “Deep Red”

The Cat O’Nine Tails (Blue Underground)
Deep Red: Uncensored English Version (Blue Underground)

It’s official: Blu-ray has redefined my home repertory schedule. DVD is the format of home video debuts and rarities unearthed, but the Blu-ray release calendar has become my guide for revival screenings of films not seen in years, maybe decades, and sometimes for classics that I never got around to seeing in other forms.

David Hemmings stares down his nightmares in “Deep Red”

Thanks to Blue Underground, Dario Argento’s number has been coming up with some frequency (see my review of Inferno here). This month, two early Argento gialli (that’s plural for giallo) debut on Blu-ray, neither of them among his masterpieces but both showing a young director exploring the possibilities of play within genre filmmaking and perfecting his technical skills and expressive talents. I reviewed the English language versions of each film, in my first viewing of the films since Anchor Bay first released them to VHS at the end of the nineties.

The Cat O’Nine Tails (1971), Argento’s second feature, follows up his directorial debut The Bird With the Crystal Plumage in genre, style and “animal” theme (stretched into a trilogy with Four Flies on Gray Velvet). In Bird, Argento explores, pushes at and plays with the mechanics of suspense and murder mystery spectacle in a psychodrama thriller (an uncredited adaptation of Fredric Brown’s “The Screaming Mimi”). Developed with novelist and screenwriter Bryan Edgar Wallace, one of the godfathers of the German “krimi” genre of gruesome body-count murder mysteries, flamboyant killers and creative murders, with stylistic inspiration from Mario Bava’s elegant dances of death. The Cat O’Nine Tails continues down the same twin paths, but this time he also starts to play with the conventions and tropes of the genre, not defying or overturning them, simply bouncing them around with buoyant sense of play as he turns them into opportunities for style.

James Franciscus (under a blonde dye job) is a reporter chasing down a mysterious break-in at a genetics lab, where nothing was apparently stolen, and Karl Malden is a blind man who overhears a conversation that appears to tie in to the mystery. Their meeting is a narrative contrivance to team them up (what reporter rushing to a scoop would take the time to explain what’s going on to a blind bystander?), the hot-shot reporter with all-access to crime scenes and police officials and the retired journalist, blinded years ago, who spends his days caring for an orphan and solving puzzles. Malden comes off as the cheerfully amateur detective of British cozies, smiling as he checks off the clues and bounces ideas off of Franciscus, himself a fairly animated and buoyant presence. Only when the little girl is kidnapped does Malden falter, the fun tipped into danger and the stakes become personal.

There’s nothing unique or daring in this handsome CinemaScope production, and little of the bravura flights of style that will define his later, more flamboyant exercises in color and camera movement and the fine art of murder. Even the spare score by Ennio Morricone looks back to traditional Italian horror, which Argento left behind for the pounding prog rock scores of his subsequent films. But he has a flair for juicing up characters with personality quirk (not subtly or even all that convincingly, but with a certain sense of fun) and he keeps the film moving ahead or bouncing around characters as they dole out the exposition and a mystery that twists and turns with almost arbitrary direction.

Partners in crime solving look for clues in a mausoleum

The beginnings of his trademark style can be glimpsed in the POV sequences of the killer at work, begun with a close-up of the eyes so tight all you see is iris and whites and continuing through the stalking and dispatching of characters intercut with the fragments of murder mosaics, the most obvious evidence of his debt to Hitchcock. The shower scene from Psycho is his touchstone, only Argento’s mini-symphonies of murder aren’t about fooling viewers into thinking they’ve seen more than is actually onscreen. He uses the discreet shots to foreground the assault on the flesh and the shedding of blood and impress audiences with his spectacle. A body pushed in front of a speeding train is punctuated with a close-up of the engine colliding with the skull and the freefall of another victim is just the prologue to the desperate grasping for purchase before the crush of impact, complete with the crumple of the body. It’s not exactly sadistic—Argento is like Malden’s character in the movie, delighting in the design and execution of his set pieces like a puzzle—and he doesn’t revel in their suffering. It’s all rather dispassionate, a matter of cinematic engineering.

For all of Argento’s virtuosity, he’s no master of suspense or even tension. He’s a showman and a stylist and his set pieces are pulp art pieces, with a camera that shifts between subjective killer POV (picked up as a staple of the American slasher explosion of the late seventies and eighties) and the technician’s eye for killer detail. He sweeps us into the process as spectators to the art of murder and he pushes his art further in his subsequent films.

Deep Red (1975), Argento’s fifth film and his fourth giallo (his non-horror interim film Le Cinque giornate remains unreleased in the U.S.), stars David Hemmings as an American jazz pianist and music teacher in Italy. He witnesses a bloody murder in an apartment window and rushes up from the street to find the victim (French actress Macha Méril, of Godard’s Une femme mariée) dead, the killer gone and a clue of sorts in the back of his mind: there’s something missing from the scene of the crime, he’s sure, but just what that elusive detail is remains a foggy memory.

That sliver of indistinct detail haunting the mind of a witness to murder is right out of The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and, as in his earlier films, the ostensible mystery is a modern psychodrama thriller (rooted in the childhood murder of the pre-credits sequence) framed by a detective story. Hemmings turns amateur sleuth driven (for no reason but to move the story along) to investigate on his own, though he gets a little help from a kooky Italian journalist (Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s wife and co-writer on the subsequent Suspiria) who drives him around in a rickety car that provides a smattering of gags. Meanwhile the murders continue with a sadistic edge this time—one victim beaten bloody and drowned in scalding water, another pounded into a stone cornice until his teeth are bashed out—and Argento tops it off with two accidental deaths built out of chains of cause and effect (and a modicum of suspension of disbelief) that surely gave ideas to the creators of the Final Destination films. Not simply killed, these folks are punished as if it’s personal, not a matter of sadism so much as an act of retribution. And again, Argento isn’t asking us to take satisfaction or pleasure in the killings, merely to admire his work.

If the narrative logic (the whole thing begins with a conference of telepaths and psychics and moves into the realm of folklore and local legends) makes little sense, the mood and atmosphere show more attention than ever, from the nighttime street scenes of monolithic buildings and looming statues over streets bereft of crowds to an abandoned house haunted by blood red colors of past horrors. This house may not be literally haunted, but it manages to threaten just the same. His camera and his eye for unsettling imagery is more sure than ever and his construction of murder set pieces from isolated fragments of extreme close-ups even more effective, communicating the helplessness of victims under attack by an unidentified killer seen only as gloves, hat, and anonymous coat wrapped tight. The score, by Giorgio Gaslini and Goblin, is synthesizer-driven prog rock that, kitschiness aside, sets a mood of gothic flamboyance with a modern sensibility while driving the film forward.

Also adding to the atmosphere is the unique Italian production reality of MOS: shooting without recording live sound and building the soundtrack completely in the recording studio, from looping voices to layering foley effects. By Deep Red, Argento has become quite gifted at orchestrating his soundtracks like music, balancing a sense of “realism” in sonic atmosphere with an audio expressionism that isolates and shapes audio elements the way his camerawork and color schemes transform the visuals. It’s hardly revolutionary, mind you, and nothing American directors don’t do, but the same Italian sound studio style that made the spaghetti westerns such a sonically spare world where gunshots and punches ring out as almost symbolic expressions of real sound gives Argento the ability to create audio worlds that are just a bit off from American soundtracks, yet familiar enough not to foreground its artificiality. The effect is a stark, subjective audio atmosphere where a few key sound effects dominate. As sculpted by Argento, the soundscape is as distinctive as his visuals.

The Cat O’Nine Tails is presented with English, Italian and French soundtracks, with Franciscus and Malden providing their own post-synch dialogue in the English version. The signs or newspapers in the film are in Italian, of course, but Argento did shoot English language inserts of a key dairy that provides a defining clue, and it’s so slapdash it’s almost laughable. Features the supplements of the earlier DVD release: the 14-minute interview featurette “Tales of the Cat” with Argento, co-writer Dardanno Sacchetti and composer Ennio Morricone (from 2006) and archival radio interviews with stars James Franciscus and Karl Malden (purely promotional and about eight minutes apiece).

Blue Underground previously released Deep Red in its extended Italian cut, which (at over two hours) is full of unnecessary exposition (plot was never Argento’s strong suit). Deep Red: Uncensored English Version, remastered from the original camera negative, is twenty-minutes shorter than the Italian director’s cut but more satisfying: less padding, fewer diversions (including less of Nicolodi’s fumbling comic relief, which is made more awkward in the English dubbing) and more forward momentum. And we get to hear Hemmings, the English star of the otherwise Euro cast and a wonderful voice. The DVD features the 105-minute American version while the Blu-ray features the HD debut of both the “Uncensored English Version” and the “Full Length Director’s Cut” of the film with a newly mastered 7.1 DTS-HD soundtrack for both editions (in addition to 5.1 Dolby Digital and original mono). Both DVD and Blu-ray feature interviews with director/co-writer Dario Argento, co-writer Bernardino Zapponi and Goblin (Claudio Simonetti, Massimo Morante, Fabio Pignatelli & Agostino Marangolo), who scored the film, plus two music videos.