A while back, us Los Angeles movie fans were treated to an all night marathon of Dario Argento's movies, on 35mm and in chronological order (ending with Phenomena, so it was exclusively "glory days" selections). The first two movies were The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italian title: L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo) and The Cat O' Nine Tails (Il gatto a nove code), which make up the first 2/3s of his so-called "Animal Trilogy" (the third entry, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, was bypassed), and if you've seen them, you'd know neither film is exactly a roller coaster ride, and it does them no favors to watch them back to back as you'll end up being exasperated at their relatively low-key existence when compared to his later work. Worse, the print for Tails was one of the most faded and beat up I've ever seen (a sentiment shared by many others in attendance, including some of the theater's staff), so that didn't help much either.
But that was my most recent memory of the film (which I had only seen once before anyway), so when I popped in Arrow's new Blu-ray release* of Tails I was kind of blown away for a bit. Granted, it's a great transfer anyway, but seeing actual color in the film and not wondering what someone just said because half of their line was lost to print damage was so satisfying! It also gave me a chance to reassess the film on its own instead of in Plumage's shadow, coming away with the opinion that it works better if you not only have a cleared palate, but also if you don't put too much stock into the fact that it's a "Dario Argento Film", because you're just setting yourself up for disappointment. Argento himself has said it's his least favorite of his movies (he said this a while ago, however - not only has his own opinion perhaps changed, but he said it before he made things like Dracula 3D), but I don't agree - I think it's as good as Plumage and better than Four Flies, in fact.
To me, Four Flies is the weakest of the three because it's too much like Crystal Plumage, albeit with a less interesting hero (he's kind of an asshole, really) and a mystery that's confusing even by giallo standards. It's got its moments, and an all-timer sequence where the villain is dispatched (and earns a spot in the freeze-frame to credits hall of fame in the process), but Plumage hits many of the same beats and in a more engaging way, far as I'm concerned. Tails, on the other hand, is the odd man out of the three, giving it more of its own identity - and in many ways it stands out across all of Argento's gialli, not just these three. For starters, it gives us two heroes: Karl Malden's blind crossword puzzle designer Arno, and James Franciscus as Carlo Giordani, a reporter who meets Arno while investigating a break-in that may have been perpetrated by a man Arno overheard discussing it the night before.
In short time, the two become buddies as they solve the mystery together, and it's legit endearing to see them hanging out and cooking pasta while discussing the case. Not for nothing, but Argento's heroes (in fact, the heroes in MOST of the Italian genre films, especially in this era) aren't usually the most upstanding folks in the world - Four Flies' protagonist cheats on his wife with her cousin, for example. But these guys aren't misogynistic or dickish; Giordani even puts himself at risk to help rescue Arno's niece, and refrains from slapping around the woman he briefly suspects is the killer, another thing that puts him a notch (or seven) above the guy in Four Flies. It's a shame that Arno disappears for a large chunk of the film while Carlo romances Anna (Catherine Spaak), but considering what usually happens to blind people in Italian horror movies (even Argento's own Suspiria) I guess it's in his best interest to sit on the sidelines for a while.
In a new interview with Argento on the Tails disc he mentions that Plumage was a huge hit in the US and thus he perhaps made this followup "too Americanized". He's not wrong; there's a car chase in the middle that has no bearing on the plot, and while it has a respectable body count, the deaths themselves are, for the most part, less elaborate and gory than they are in his other films. In fact, of all his gialli it's probably the one that would be of least interest to the horror fans he earned with the likes of Suspiria and Phenomena, sticking to the mystery/procedural side of things more often than not. There are really only two gonzo moments; a man being pushed in front of a train early on (the body flopping around under the wheels is a meme-worthy visual), and the killer's demise as he slides down an elevator shaft while holding onto the sharp cables with his bare hands.
But again, this helps set it apart from his others. Plumage, Four Flies, Deep Red, and Tenebre all involve a guy (either a writer or a musician) getting mixed up with a murder plot, falling under suspicion themselves by the police, but there's none of that here. The police presence is somewhat muted here compared to the others, and never antagonistic - in fact, one of the cops enlists Carlo to help write a story that will help them locate a man who had gone into hiding. The "civilian teams up with police" plot is always a fun one to me, but there's usually a point where I wonder why the cops keep allowing this non-officer to hang out at crime scenes and such. Here, everyone kind of has their own part to play without interfering much with anyone else's role, which kind of helps flesh out the mystery in a way - people aren't usually this cooperative unless they're actually the bad guy!
Oh yeah: bad GUY (spoilers for all these movies ahead!). Another, and perhaps the most crucial, thing that makes Tails stand out from the others is that the killer is a man, instead of a woman like in Plumage and Four Flies. I try not to read too much into these things, but I believe in equality when it comes to whodunit reveals, and Argento seems to prefer villainous women to men - the killers in most of his other mysteries were women as well. So it's kind of refreshing when the finger is pointed at Anna for a bit and it turns out that she's totally innocent, as she's the only woman of note in the film that's still alive in the second half (not counting Arno's niece, which would be an amazing twist), thus meaning the killer HAS to be a man for a change. It's one of the few things about the film where it actually kind of pays off to think about it as an Argento film, because you'll likely be looking at the wrong gender when trying to figure out who the killer is.
Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying it's his secret masterpiece or anything. Like everyone I agree Deep Red and Tenebre are his best gialli, and I certainly get why the other two entries of his Animal Trilogy are largely preferred by his fans. But if you've been skipping it for all these years because even the maestro doesn't think too much of it, I urge you to reconsider. There's more to like than not, and it's fun to see him approximate an American movie while indulging in his usual penchant for random humor (one character is introduced at an insult contest, winning the match by insulting a priest over 100 times in a row without repeating himself) and black-gloved murder scenes. Arrow's blu has enough extras to justify the cost (including a fun commentary with Kim Newman and Alex Jones, who point out a few of the movie's flaws while also celebrating its cast, the Ennio Morricone score, etc.) and a terrific transfer to match, making it a worthy addition to my increasingly well-stocked shelf of Argento titles (Arrow also gave us knockout Crystal Plumage and Deep Red editions). It may not be as iconic as his other films, but when I watch Plumage or Four Flies I can't help but think "He did these things better in Deep Red and Tenebre." Cat O'Nine Tails is its own thing, and even if it's a bit slow in spots, overall it's a pretty enjoyable one to boot.
*They previously released a limited edition version with a booklet and a DVD copy of the Blu-ray. This is a new standard release of just the Blu-ray disc (with all the bonus features), the transfer is the same.