Saturday, May 2, 2009

Saturday Night Fun: An "Old Dark House" Mystery

The Cat And The Canary: Uncut Director's Edition
First Run Features // 1979 // 98 Minutes // Rated PG

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“Where there’s a will, there’s a relative.” ~ From the Promotional Poster.

Opening Shot (or: why should you give a damn about this picture?)
Director Radley Metzger was renowned for shooting slick, elegantly photographed soft-core sex films in the late 1960s, later veering into hard-core. The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976) is probably the best-known picture in his hard-core oeuvre, although the director's real talent was erotica — an entirely different beast. Metzger's The Lickerish Quartet is widely considered one of the most sensual and erotically-charged of all films. Possibly in a bid to go legit, Metzger took a break from those probing pursuits to co-write this script and direct an international cast in the fourth film version of The Cat and the Canary. The film features a sturdy ensemble, headlined by Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore in Goldfinger), Olivia Hussey (Death on the Nile), Edward Fox (Day of the Jackal) and Carol Lynley (perhaps best known for warbling “There's got to be a morning after” in The Poseidon Adventure). Metzger elicits good performances from his cast, considering the silly story and purple prose that passes for dialogue. If characters sound stilted, that’s only because a pornographer with artistic aspirations put the words in their mouths.

A Bit of Plot…
1934 England. A wretched, rainy night.

A sniveling family of snobs arrives at their dead uncle’s mansion, Glencliff Manor, for a reading of his will 20 years after the man’s death, as was his final wish. Via home movies (let’s just accept the notion that the wealthy could afford movie cameras in 1914), the dead man (Wilfrid Hyde-White, The Browning Version) speaks to his money-grubbing relatives from beyond the grave. As they watch his flickering image during dinner, the cantankerous old geezer taunts and insults them — accurately calling his kin a bunch of bastards and leeches — and finally bequeaths his fortune to lovely, wide-eyed Annabelle (Lynley). There’s just one hitch: all of the assembled relatives must spend the night in the mansion. If Annabelle dies or is declared insane within 12 hours, then the relatives must sit through a second film, when a new heir will be named. As one cousin observes, it's practically an invitation to murder.

While these avaricious types mull this development, an escaped psycho killer known as The Cat is roaming the countryside — heading for Glencliff Manor. This new wrinkle is confirmed by Hendricks (Edward Fox), the director of an insane asylum, who makes a curious entrance by crashing through a library window on the ground floor of the old mansion. He brusquely warns the dinner party about home security, then disappears into the night.

With all the pieces in motion, there’s nothing to do but beware of things that go bump in the night. Some of the assembled guests will not see the dawn.

Historical Context and Significance
Although this hoary “reading of the will” plot was done perhaps most memorably in Bob Hope’s comedy version from 1939, Metzger’s take on the material is not without merit. (What attracted him to it is a greater mystery than the plot itself.) Metzger brings wry humor to the stuffy and veddy British proceedings, poking fun at the manners and mores of the wealthy and those who desperately wish to be. This is all handled very tongue-in-cheek. Think of an Agatha Christie novel crossed with an episode of Fawlty Towers, or imagine the characters from the board game Clue all high on airplane glue.

The humor is often subtle and occasionally sophisticated: Characters toss off witheringly sarcastic remarks, punctuated by droll observations, general rudeness and laughable pretentiousness. This is not a criticism but a caveat, as the film is an acquired taste and probably not for viewers expecting blood and guts horror, low-brow comedy or the arty smut for which Metzger was most famous.

Blackman acquits herself despite a campy performance; in a few scenes where she is required to get catty, Blackman comes close to gnawing on a hambone, instead. Hussey is given little to do but look beautiful, which she does effortlessly anyway. Given the choice, Hussey would have been much better cast as the lucky Annabelle, while relegating the dull Lynley to a supporting role. Fox was fascinating as the relentless assassin in Day of the Jackal, but here he has little more than a cameo. With such a commanding presence, it’s unfortunate that the script did not accommodate a few more scenes for this great character actor.

Maybe we’re asking too much. As it happens, the cast is mostly slumming through material that had long since been filmed to death. The Cat and the Canary started life as a 1922 stage production in New York, followed by a silent film in ’27 and two versions during the 1930s — including the Bob Hope classic. Most of the possibilities had been played out. So Metzger tries to have it both ways and ends up with a fascinating 98 minutes of schizophrenia. He plays up the comedy in the first act, shifting radically toward horror and madness in Act Two, then winks at his audience as the proceedings turn completely crazy at the climax. A happy post-mortem brings us full circle before the credits roll.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. The Cat and the Canary is presented in a widescreen transfer with a gorgeous color palette and sumptuous cinematography. This is a non-anamorphic transfer, albeit a good-looking one, probably owing more to the source material and Metzger's talents with camera placement, lighting and film stock.

Close inspection of the camerawork reveals many inspired flourishes, such as when a servant pouring coffee at dinner walks behind the movie screen during the reading of the will. She suddenly appears on the portable screen to pour the dead uncle a cup of coffee in the twenty-year-old home movie, then remerges on the other side of the screen, coffee pot in hand. Though it was a cliché decades before this version was released in 1979, there are several terrific lightning effects to illuminate shadowed faces and reveal horrific surprises at key moments.

The audio presentation is in the original Dolby mono, clean and relatively free of hiss. Dialogue is clear.

Extras include production notes and a slide show that chronicles the evolution of the story from its origins on the stage, to the 1927 silent movie, two films made in the 1930s and a selection of nine production photos from this 1979 version. The disc also includes four trailers of other films released by First Run Features; three were directed by Metzger.

This “Uncut Director’s Edition” is a misnomer, as there is no information to indicate what has been restored to the film. A director’s commentary is sorely missed (Metzger is still around’ he turned 80 earlier this year). Regardless, viewers aren't going to encounter anything beyond a PG rating, which could disappoint fans of Metzger’s racier work.

The Contrarian View
Wild shifts in tone may also be off-putting to viewers accustomed to contemporary comedy-thrillers that demand little of an audience. Half the pleasure of this film is listening closely to the dialogue, ripe with sarcasm and venom as bug-eyed characters roam the cavernous old mansion, stumbling across secret passages and generally acting foolish — considering there’s a madman on the loose.

As a whodunit, the unmasking of the psycho killer is handled rather clumsily, while the explanation for the crimes carries all the narrative sophistication and surprise of a Scooby Doo cartoon. That places The Cat and the Canary squarely in satire territory, as the thrills and suspense are too sparse to qualify the movie as a genuine mystery. Truth is, there are more spoofs than spooks in Glencliff Manor. But since the actors don’t take this too seriously, why should we? Given the narrowly defined appeal of the film and a list price approaching $30, the disc seems targeted toward highly selective collectors who know precisely what they’re looking for in an arid comedy-thriller.

The Cat and the Canary is an entertaining bit of English drollery that pokes fun at British snobs while having fun with the conventions and clichés of the mystery genre. As dry as a martini, the film is the cinematic equivalent of after-dinner sherry and cigars in a drawing room with witty, irreverent companions. The tale is as old as film itself. Because Metzger clearly understands this, he infuses the picture with as much satire as the thin story will support.

Those who enjoy “old dark house” mysteries and British humour should find this picture delightful. I’d like to see First Run Features start releasing proper anamorphic transfers of films in its catalog. Until then, everyone but The Cat is free to go.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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