Restoration does justice to Argento mystery
The Cat o' Nine Tails said to be director's least favourite film
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/08/2018 (1646 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Cat o’ Nine Tails
Director Dario Argento pretty much set the ground rules of contemporary giallo with his first directorial effort, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). The success of that film prompted a quick followup in 1971.
In The Cat o’ Nine Tails, Argento tamps down his more extreme stylist instincts to fashion a somewhat more conventional mystery, albeit with unconventional characters. Chief among these is Franco (Karl Malden), a blind crossword puzzle maker whose penchant for solving puzzles places him in jeopardy when he overhears a soon-to-be-murder victim discuss blackmail with an anonymous criminal on a dark street.
After that, Franco hears about a break-in at a sketchy genetics facility and enlists pushy reporter Carlo (James Franciscus) to help investigate. After several more murders, it becomes clear both Carlo, Franco and Franco’s young niece are in deadly peril.
In subsequent films, including Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Deep Red and especially Suspiria, Argento would indulge his singularly dark creativity. The Cat o’ Nine Tails sees him playing it relatively straight, proving himself fully capable of delivering a murder mystery in classic Hollywood style, more or less. (One wonders if the presence of mainstream movie stars Malden and Franciscus cramped his style.)
This Arrow 4K restoration is welcome, especially in the wake of pretty crummy past releases of the same title. Since Argento films are so consistently stunning visually, it’s gratifying to see he didn’t drop the ball on this one.
On the other hand, this one falls on the tame end of the Argento spectrum notable for surreal elements and baroque violence. It’s been said this is Argento’s least favourite of his own films, so… not a bad worst.
Released theatrically in time for Mother’s Day, Breaking In fashions a variation of David Fincher’s 2002 thriller Panic Room as a protective mother is determined to protect her offspring from the thuggish thieves who have besieged her new home.
But Breaking In was largely panned upon its release, and that’s understandable to some extent. It’s maybe a little too derivative of Panic Room, especially as related to the dynamics of the three thieves — one loose-cannon sociopath, one cold-blooded killer and one reluctant hoodlum with reservations about unseemly violence.
The twist in this film is that it’s mom (Gabrielle Union) who is stuck outside her late father’s remote, high-tech fortress. Her son and daughter are stuck inside with the home invaders, led by ruthless mastermind Eddie (Billy Burke). The thieves only have a small window of opportunity to break into a cleverly hidden safe. Union’s character Shaun has her work cut out trying to get back into the house and rescue her kids while keeping the hoodlums at bay.
So, no, it doesn’t have the visual invention of Panic Room. The movie’s budget and shooting schedule were clearly not in the bracket of a major motion picture.
Yet the film has certain old-school pleasures. Director James McTeigue’s approach is refreshingly back-to-basics. Most significantly, Shaun is not the kind of superwoman we’ve come to expect in contemporary action films. She’s not a retired MMA fighter, nor a special forces veteran. As she tries to rise to the challenge of taking on three armed thieves, she mostly has nothing more than Mama Tiger ferocity going for her.
Hence, the movie’s fight scenes have a jolt of unpredictable panic to them. Union, a skilled and charismatic actor, gets us onside by keeping it real.
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.