Friday, September 19, 2008

The Cat and the Canary (Great Britain, 1979)

A dark and stormy night deep in a forest at a far, far away mansion named Glencliff Manor, a group of nine people, mostly relatives who don't seem to really like each other, come for the reading of the will of a rich, cranky curmudgeon who died some twenty years earlier. Old tensions and new attractions arise as but a single heir is named, the stipulation being that all guests must spend the night, for if the first beneficiary named goes insane within the next twelve hours, a new heir will be designated. But wait! Not only is there a valuable diamond necklace hidden in the house, but a mad killer has escaped from the loony-bin down the road. Is the heiress named losing her marbles? Where do all the secret passages go? Who is going to survive the night? Why do only the women change into skimpy night clothes?
Arguably, more so than James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932) and Roland West's The Bat* (1925)—and, in turn, West's own remake of his silent film five years later The Bat Whispers (1930)—the original version of The Cat and the Canary (1927) is probably the first and last word in comic, old dark house murder mysteries. This 1979 version is, of course, a remake of a remake of a remake of a film version of a play by John Willard (who actually directed the first remake, The Cat Creeps, in 1930). The original film version of The Cat and the Canary was made by the great and unjustly forgotten German émigré director Paul Leni, whose brief Hollywood career ended much too early in 1929 when he died at the age of 44 from blood poisoning caused by an ulcerated tooth. Leni, who first made noticeable waves as a director in Germany with his expressionistic film Das Wachsfigurenkabinett/ Waxworks (1924), was brought over from Germany by Carl Laemmle, head of Universal Studios, and made four macabre genre films of note before his untimely death.
Paul Leni followed The Cat and the Canary with The Chinese Parrot (1928), the first Charlie Chan film ever made and a lost film. The morbid drama The Man Who Laughs** (1928), the murder mystery The Last Warning (1928) and the horror comedy The Cat and the Canary, however, all still exist and are all, in one way or another, early masterpieces of "American" film and feature some truly groundbreaking and stunning touches, many of which went on to become clichés of the industry. Aside from the crisp, clear cinematography, Leni's films feature excellent usage of lighting, effective shadows, noteworthy set design and imaginative compositions, camera moves and angles. Like his fellow-countryman F. W. Murneau, whom time and history has treated much more kindly despite an equally untimely early death, Leni was the perfect example of an auteur filmmaker long before the concept was even coined. (Leni died while in the midst of preparing his next film with the German émigré actor Conrad Veidt, a small project for Universal called Dracula. Anyone who has actually seen any of Leni's unjustly forgotten oeuvre will undoubtedly agree that had he been able to see that project through, the final result would have in all likelihood been much better than the rather static and campy final version of Dracula (1931) we all know today.)
If the historical background of The Cat and the Canary alone doesn't pique one's interest in watching the 1979 version of the movie, then the director who made it should. Like that of Paul Leni, the name Radley Metzger is hardly a familiar name to the masses, although quiet a number of today's moms and dads have probably seen at least one of the movies he made under his nom de plume Henry Paris in the 1970s during the "Golden Age of Porno." Amongst others, his most stylish and enjoyable dick-hardeners are probably The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976) (short clip), Barbara Broadcast (1977) and Maraschino Cherry (long clip, the sex cut out) (1978). (In 1975 he also directed a hardcore version of the famous best seller Naked Came the Stranger, supposedly written by one "Penelope Ashe" but later revealed to have been written by a pool of 25 Newsweek writers, each of whom supplied a different chapter written after the following guidelines: no plot or character development, no social insight, no verbal skill and at least two sex scenes. The book is easy to get on eBay.)
Aside from his famed and often arty filmic masturbation aids, however, Metzger also has a long history in the late 1960's of making interesting and arty Euro-erotica, most of it being so many miles ahead of anything else produced at the time in regards to aesthetic values and artistic pretensions that it does the films great disservice to label them simply as soft-core porn. Virtually all his films at this time are considered highpoints of the genre and include such cult favorites as The Lickerish Quartet (1967/Trailer), Carmen, Baby (1967/Trailer), Therese & Isabelle (1968)/Trailer), The Alley Cats (1968/Trailer), Camille 2000 (1969) and Little Mother (1973). (Metzger actually delved into anatomically correct and functioning close-ups the first time in 1972 in Score, which not only was once available in both a hardcore and soft-core version but was also decidedly bisexual and featured both homosexual and heterosexual sex scenes. Filmed in Yugoslavia and utilizing some of the crew left over from Fiddler on the Roof (1971), the movie may have looked up-scale but it was a flop at the box office. Score features an early starring role of the one-time popular hardcore gay actor Casey Donovan (billed as Cal Culver); Donovan, pictured here in his full glory, died of complications related to AIDS in August 1987.) Further back and even more obscure in his career, Metzger edited the classic B&W "guilty pleasure" The Flesh Eaters (1962/Trailer)....
But if the history of The Cat and the Canary and the directors of the original and the remake don't ignite some interest, then some of the cast of the remake should. The most interesting names, their performance aside, are probably Honor Blackman, Michael Callan, Wendy Hiller, Olivia Hussey, Carol Lynley and Wilfrid Hyde-White. Obviously, most of the names and faces are as English as the entire production, but two American names do stick out: Carol Lynley and Michael Callan.
Lynley actually headlines as Annabelle West, the heiress and heroine of the movie. Although an American in real life, Lynley's accent in the movie is flawless, rather unlike her career. In all truth, by 1979 her career was beginning to be an imitation of The Poseidon Adventure (1972/Trailer), the hit film in which she lip-synched the Top 40 song There's Got to Be a Morning After. Soon to be found only on television, thereafter her most memorable performance outside of the boob-tube was her I'm-here-give-me-the-check-I'm-gone performance in The Howling: The Freaks (1991)/Trailer) or when she let her naked tits do the talking in Blackout (1988).
Fewer people might remember Michael Callan, who plays Paul Jones, the American cousin and good guy of the film, from parts of varying importance in Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961), Chained Heat (1983/Trailer), Freeway (1988/Trailer)—which was once accused of causing copycat crimes—or Leprechaun 3 (1995/Trailer). His career never went downhill because he never really had one, so, obviously enough, The Cat and the Canary is one of the highpoints of his résumé.
Rather unlike both Honor Blackman and Olivia Hussey, who play an unabashed (if discreet, by the standards of today) lesbian couple in the movie. Honor, of course, is remembered by most for her role as Pussy Galore in the much over-rated James Bond flick Goldfinger (1964/Trailer), but others remember her much more fondly for Jason & the Argonauts (1963/Trailer), Fright (1971/Trailer), To the Devil a Daughter (1976/Trailer) or the two years she spent kicking butt on The Avengers. Likewise, the undeniably gorgeous Olivia Hussey is generally remembered from Romeo & Juliet (1968/Trailer), but some people prefer her career-destroying roles in movies such as Black Christmas (1974/Trailer), Turkey Shoot (1981/Trailer) or Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990/Trailer).
Two familiar faces to which few people can probably place a name are Wilfrid Hyde-White as Cyrus West, the dead guy leaving the inheritance, and Wendy Hiller as Allison Crosby, the stiff lawyer who reads the will and eventually gets her throat cut. Hyde-White is a familiar character actor whose career goes back even further than his appearance in The Third Man (1949/Trailer), while Hiller, who won an Oscar in 1958 for her supporting role in Separate Tables, was primarily a stage actor who only occasionally took film roles.
So, after this brief history lesson, let's take a look at what we got: A 1979 remake of a classic film, the first (and last) attempt to go mainstream by an erotic auteur, made in England and featuring numerous familiar faces and names. Add that all up, and what do you get?
Well, to tell the complete truth, a pretty crappy film.
In his attempt to go mainstream, Metzger made the mistake of taking a story that, despite being a classic in its earliest form, has dated horribly. Even worse, not only does he do nothing in any way that can be called an improvement, he even manages to make some truly dubious choices in terms of story development and direction. The jokes are lame, the characterization often questionable and mostly bad, the intentionally hokey acting aggravating, the plot development inconsistent and, worst of all, the whole film is as innately homophobic and misogynistic as it is thoroughly boring. True, he does do one or two interesting tricks with the camera—like in the scene of the reading of the will when Mrs. Pleasant's movements coincide with the her movements caught on film some twenty years earlier—and there is an occassional scintillating line of dialogue, but not only is most of the rest of The Cat and the Canary visually dull or sloppy, even the few flourishes he displays pale terribly to those found in the 1927 version. Unforgivably careless are oversights such as how, after Hendricks (Edward Fox) comes crashing through a window, the window magically repairs itself for the rest of the movie. Or, for example, how the killer doesn't kill some people—though he has the chance and no reason not to—just because they are needed again later in the film to advance the plot. Worse, it is somehow a bit un-understandable that the only deaths (aside from the baddies at the end) are that of a somewhat militant female lawyer and one-half of a lesbian couple, and that main aspect used to show the degeneracy of the killer(s) is their decidedly sadism-tinged homosexual relationship. Lastly, Carol Lynley is simply miscast as the lead. True, she may have a perfect accent, but she has no charisma. (Not only that, but the way she and Callan ham it up is as palatable as Spam.) In this regard, Metzger would have been much better served to have cast Olivia Hussey in the lead instead of keeping her in the background as the surviving-half of the lesbian couple. (Okay, so she can't act—but unlike Lynley, she does have presence.)
All in all, Metzger's version of The Cat and the Canary tries hard to be a camp comedy-thriller but fails in every way to be anything enjoyable. No tension, no terror, few laughs, very little fun. Truly regrettable, seeing how that this is not only the most mainstream of all his films but also his last non-porn project before he retired from filmmaking in 1984.

*Bob Kane’s inspiration for Batman. **Bob Kane's inspiration for The Joker.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...