Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Catman of Paris (1946)

NetFlix (3/5)
IMDB (5.4/10)
My Rating: 5/10

A troubled author suffers memory lapses and suspects he may be transforming into a killer were-cat and stalking the streets of Paris.  As the bodies pile up, who can he trust?

Sometime back in the misty depths of the middle 1970's, there's a young Me collecting Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines and poring over all the black & white photos from exotic monster movies that are well nigh unattainable, unless he's really, really lucky with the Late Show.  One of those photos grabs his attention - A ferocious looking wolfman-like creature, incongruously wearing a top hat and cape, menaces a woman in a fancy gown who tries to hold it at bay with a pistol.  He thinks this flick looks as cool as another fave, Werewolf of London, because seeing monsters dressed up in 19th century garb is somehow so bizarre that it's fascinating.  Why would a wolfman wear a scarf?  Why does this catman put on a top hat?  Is there some upper crust echelon of movie monsters that won't leave home without a proper dinner jacket?  In any case, young Me remembers the photo and always keeps an eye out for Catman of Paris in every new TV Guide's movie listings, but no such luck...  It may as well not exist.  Today, however, thanks to the wonders of Netflix and their crazily-populated streaming libraries, young Me finally got his wish.

So what the heck is this, anyway?  Well, the best definition is that it's a Val Lewton wannabe, a sort of weird fusion of 40's film noir and classic horror that really wants to be a Wolfman but just doesn't quite make it due to uneven pacing, a hard-to-buy storyline, and the ultimate sin of Not Enough Monster.  This movie needs MORE MONSTER.  It flails around in the middle ground between beastie features like Dracula and "Is it real?" mystery-thrillers like Cat People, never really sure if it wants to come right out and be a crazy lycanthrope movie or go full Scooby Doo and yank the curtains back to reveal that it's just Old Man Farmer in a mask.  Surreal touches don't help - After the first murder, the Paris chief inspector has built, in his office and overnight, a miniature diorama of the murder scene, complete with tiny plastic trees and modelled cobblestone streets... but WHY?  And how?  (I lived in France.  You can't get a letter mailed to your next door neighbor overnight.)  This mini-Paris is shown for a scene or two and then totally forgotten, leaving you to wonder about this copper who spends his office time playing with tiny toy murder victims.

Reviewers on IMDB complain about the pacing - I didn't have a problem with it.  In fact, I thought it moved pretty briskly if you're accustomed to appreciating the nature of film noir, where dialog and character interaction take the place of the car chases and backflipping karate battles of modern films.  It's only 65 minutes long, and in that tight frame we have several murders, a crazy cat man, a government conspiracy, a publishing empire on the verge of ruin, a bitchy fiance determined to force her man into marriage, an expert in ancient cat people legends, a three way love triangle, a fight scene right out of Wild Wild West, and even a horse-drawn carriage chase scene - Who could get bored?  Also, and I give them great props here, when he does appear, the Catman is a fearsome thing.  He maxes out the creep factor very nicely using just minimal makeup, again much like my favorite wolfie, Werewolf of London.

Our hero Charles Regnier moves the story along as he pursues such quintessentially French activities as going out to dinner repeatedly, going out for coffee, and juggling a fiance and a mistress.  Is he a were-cat?  Seems in his past, he traveled the world and was exposed to bizarre tropical fevers which left him comatose for a long time.  Periodically, he's afflicted by a condition we'll call Obvious Plot Device, where he has a headache that forces him to leave his companions and venture out alone into the streets, where he promptly blacks out and awakens a day later, after another gruesome kitty murder.

The cat theme doesn't help the story.  Cats are not wolves.  This seems obvious, but Cat People got around this by intimating that Irena might be transforming into a decidedly panther-sized animal.  Here, our hero sees visions of arctic wastes (?) and black housecats, and when the Catman attacks we're treated to a lot of howling catfight noises that will freak out your own felines, but mostly make grown humans chuckle.  He looks scarier than he sounds.  Fortunately, he's aided by some great shadow play that amps up his first big kill and announces very loudly that the director has seen Nosferatu.

We're presented with a very visual Catman, yet the story remains stuck firmly in film noir territory - Is our hero the Catman?  Is it all just a fake?  What does it have to do with this government cover-up happening in the background?  While the amazingly credulous police jump right onto the were-cat angle (The senior fellow doesn't bat an eye as he pops out with, "It's obvious that what we have here is a human who is transforming into a catlike beast!" - Is this a common thing in Paris?), our main characters are more skeptical and the movie becomes a whodunnit as Charles stays one step ahead of the police.  Sadly, this involves a very long, Catman-free middle act that will try the patience of horror movie buffs.  If you want noir, you get noir, but viewers wanting more wolf-out antics will start dropping out around the 30 minute mark.  Van Helsing fans, however, will enjoy the late entry Basil Exposition character, who just happens to be a walking storehouse of Catman lore and myth all crammed into one crazy-haired package... Unfortunately again, he's a character that gets too little screen time.

It redeems itself at the end, however, with a cracking climax that sets up an ideal peril situation before you even know it's happening, and when we reach our Scooby Doo moment it turns out to be many things at once - A villain unmasking, a WTF, an, "Aha!  So, Watson, you see...", and a Darth Vader death scene all rolled into one bizarro mixture that really doesn't make a lot of sense at all.  And then BAM, we're End Credits so fast you can practically hear the director barking about the price of an extra five minutes of film stock.

Bottom line - It's an obscure oddity, not great, not bad, but certainly worth viewing for any fans of noir, classic Universal horror, or Val Lewton.  Don't expect it to be on the level of any of the above, and you'll probably get some enjoyment from it.  Like Werewolf of London, it has that lesser-sibling appeal - Everyone knows its more famous, bigger budgeted brother, but if you're willing to show it some attention, it isn't without charms of its own.  Extra credit goes to the wildly varying French accents of the actors, some of whom do a great job portraying the locals while others speak in Clouseau voice or just don't give a damn - The "French" chief inspector looks American, talks American, and gives his French character all the localized characteristics of Sean Connery's, "Och, less nae hie back tae thae Kremlin noo, laddies" Russian sub commander in Hunt for Red October.

Suggested Accompaniment:  You have at least one French pipe, yes?  A Butz Choquin, an Enrique, or even one of our own Ligne Bretagnes?  Dig it out and find a good coffee-flavored blend, something with some added flavoring that brings to mind the smell of the Cafe du Bois (I'd suggest a French tobacco, except that there are no good French pipe tobaccos, so you'll have to approximate as best you're able).  Mix in something offbeat to drink - A wheat beer, maybe, or one of those microbrew limited runs that they claim they're only making 9 bottles of, each one stored in oak casks that were salvaged from a 17th century derelict three master.  It's a rare movie that not many people have seen and probably even fewer care much about, so pick some unusual libations to go along with it, and enjoy!