The year is 1904, and on the grounds of Glencliff Manor a cat is hung to death before it can snatch the oh-so-tasty canary that hangs above its head (surely not a metaphor?). The adolescent killer goes undiscovered. Thirty years later, the remaining relatives of rich eccentric Cyrus West (the magnificent Wilfrid Hyde-White) gather on the estate to hear the reading of his will. But there’s a catch. If the initial beneficiary is declared insane or deceased (and old Cyrus know that his clan is predisposed to insanity, so either way is a safe bet) within the next twelve hours (say, over night), a secondary beneficiary will be named. Oh, and a psychopath who thinks he is a cat has escaped from the local mental institute. Let the games begin.
So goes the plot for this, Radley Metzger’s adaptation of John Willard’s 1922 play, The Cat And The Canary, arguably one of the most famous examples of the Old Dark House subgenre. Generally speaking, they center on a group of characters forced to stay in said house, and they get picked off one by one until the killer is usually unmasked at the finale. Tonally, they are predominantly a mixture of Comedy and Thriller (the 1939 version of this story starred Bob Hope, just to give you an idea). They are also loaded with characters almost all of whom have some deep, dark secret which makes them a suspect at some point of another. The Old Dark House is also considered quaint, even antiquated, not only because of when it was prominent, but also because of when they are typically set (roughly the same time periods, but generally accepted as the first half of the twentieth century). This attitude is reinforced in this film by the symmetrical, traditional compositions. But the real star of this type of film is the house itself. It is loaded with sliding bookcases, hidden staircases and rooms, and is gothic in the extreme. Characters will often be pulled offscreen from behind some false wall as some other character occupies him or herself, oblivious to the goings-on. Without the mysteries of the house, these films wouldn’t be what they are, and they wouldn’t be as fun as they are, the same as luchador films wouldn’t be the same without luchadores.
The manor and its riddles are all about the unknown, and its clandestine nooks and crannies reflect the unraveling of the characters’ secrets. The characters don’t even have to be inside the labyrinthine conduits in the walls. So, as the Cat scurries around behind the scenes, we discover things. For example, Harry (Daniel Massey) was on trial for accidentally killing a patient while he was intoxicated. Cicily (Olivia Hussey) shot and killed an employer who allegedly attempted to rape her. Of course, our hero Paul (Michael Callan) crows the most about how bad a person he is, while actually being the lily-whitest of the bunch. It should also be noted, that Callan is consciously channeling Hope in his delivery as the heroic poltroon, but he really doesn’t hold much of a candle, to be honest. Metzger’s (and cinematographer Alex Thomsen’s) camerawork favors low angles and long shots (very often extreme long shots), making the people small in frame. The house looms over all of them, a reminder of their past mistakes, that which has brought them to this state and formed their lives and livelihoods. Similarly, the Cat is the punishment for the sins of the characters, as well as being a sinner. Essentially, the house is the mouth; the Cat is its teeth.
I came to the work of Radley Metzger fairly recently, and I think it bears stating that this particular entry in his filmography contains absolutely no nudity (with the exception of a bit of Carol Lynley’s cleavage) or sex for those only familiar with his name in the realm of erotic pictures. Outside of the fantastic visual sensibilities the man displays (in what few films I’ve seen), he also has a fascination (which I share) with film and reality in a metatextual sense. This notion is incorporated into The Cat And The Canary, as well. Cyrus announces his beneficiary at a dinner he hosts for the house guests. How does he do this, you ask (being the decedent and all)? He filmed his part in the dinner years prior, and this is projected (along with synchronized sound via a cylinder phonograph) onto a screen at the head of the table. Cyrus is framed in such a way that, outside of his being in black and white, he does appear to be present at the meal via the magic of intercutting. He also dictates the menu for the meal, controlling the reality of the characters from the beyond by way of film. There is also an absolutely marvelous piece where kindly, old housekeeper Mrs. Pleasant (Beatrix Lehmann) moves behind the movie screen and appears onscreen, serving Cyrus with exceptional timing and orchestration. Then, as she paces off screen-left, she emerges back into the real world. She not only crosses the time barrier in this way, but she also makes herself part of the film, and the film, because of this interaction, once more lays claim to the reality of the story. During this scene, there are shots focusing on the projector and phonograph in the foreground, while the actual humans in the scene are blurred out in the background. Cyrus may be onscreen, commanding their attention, but the true master sits behind them, unnoticed as anything other than a machine, though without it none of this would be possible. This is further cemented by the instances when Cyrus will pick up and flip through cue cards in the event the sound fails. In other words, even if he can’t be heard, the film’s mastery of this world will still be felt because he can be seen, and his confidence in sight over sound is telling. Interestingly, Cyrus also insists that he doesn’t want to be remembered forever, yet his recording of himself for the future testify to at least some small nod to immortality. Ironically enough, the effort needed to preserve film does mark its impermanence, and these films, having served the whole of their purpose, will likely be discarded. Not immortality, but an additional thirty years isn’t too shabby a number to tack onto a lifetime.
MVT: Metzger takes it, hands down. I can’t speak for his oeuvre in total, but from what I have seen, I’m shocked he isn’t recognized more widely for his talent and skills as a filmmaker. I suppose it’s part of the stigma of his work in pornography, and I think it’s a damned shame, frankly.
Make Or Break: Watching the dinner scene play out was mesmerizing for me. Ostentatious? Maybe. But mesmerizing all the same.