The Cat o’ Nine Tails

It has nothing to do with a cat, other than being supremely sly and getting out its claws when it needs to.

Really more thriller than horror, the Rome-homed “Cat” purrs along like a good, pulpy mystery should. When a late-night break-in at a genetic research firm appears to have resulted in no theft, the authorities figure no harm, no foul. But one exec realizes he’s the only one who knows what was taken and who took it; not only does he not share this knowledge, but it gets him killed.

That sparks an investigation by dogged newspaper reporter Carlo (James Franciscus, “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”), who finds an unusual source/ally in Franco (the legendary Karl Malden, he of “On the Waterfront,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” and many an American Express ad), a blind puzzle constructor whose heightened senses other than sight may provide a clue to the killer’s identity.

To me, the lost item is a MacGuffin, existing as a thread between Argento’s trademark pulse-pounding set pieces; still, the plot has more meat — and makes more sense — than most of the director’s work that followed, as he soon dove into the supernatural. Seeing it unfold is one of “Cat”‘s tangible pleasures; they number more than the tails of the title.

Embedded in the story are a seemingly half-cocked theory about the link between genetics and violence, a possibly drugged glass of milk, a car chase, a trip to a crypt, a romp in the hay with the institute head’s lovely daughter (Catherine Spaak, “Hotel”) and a too-cute little girl (Cinzia De Carolis, “Cannibal Apocalypse”) who gets used as a pawn in the culprit’s ever-complex chess match.

Of course, it’s Argento’s “gotcha” moments that getcha — those brief bits of terror intended to shock the viewer, and do. In “Cat,” the most memorable range from a man catching a train to taking the elevator. I’m speaking euphemistically; trust me. His inclination to put audience members in the killer’s perspective compounds the mystery as it unsettles. The trick is easy, but a damned effective one.

As with Blue Underground’s other early-career Argento Blu-rays this season (“Inferno” and “Deep Red”), the disc is not without some extras. A lot about the production is revealed in a short time on a 14-minute documentary. It’s interesting to hear Argento explain how he overlaid his story onto a classic Western template, and appalling to watch him call “Cat” his “least favorite” among his films. Considering his more recent output, this suggests the man has not only lost his touch, but his mind.

The doc even makes time for composer Ennio Morricone — the best to score cinema, bar none — to discuss his structure in writing the music, which is a giant part of creating “Cat”‘s cunning mood.

Remember when Hollywood stars would call in to radio shows to promote their films? (Hell, remember radio?) Take a listen to the pair of eight-minute interviews with Malden and Franciscus; the former talks about his approach to playing blind, while the latter somewhat slams Italy’s crews, then gets the title of Argento’s debut wrong, calling it “Girl with the Crystal Plumage.” (Try “Bird,” Jimmy.)

Trailers and TV spots exist, spoiling the film’s bitter, beloved ending. Compare their condition to the feature film to see how cleaned-up this “Cat” now is. Meow! —Rod Lott

Rod Lott

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