Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

Directed by Paul Leni
Starring: Laura La Plante
              Creighton Hale
Run time: 82 mins
Studio: Universal
Black & White

Based on John Willard’s popular Broadway stage play, Paul Leni's The Cat and the Canary holds the distinction of being the first 'proper' horror film produced by Universal Studios following the success of 1925's The Phantom of the Opera. As such, it marks the beginning of a cycle of films that would go on to have a profound influence on the genre; and for all that it is a very early entry in the ‘old dark house’ sub-genre, it’s probably fair to say that The Cat and the Canary remains the definitive example of the form, responsible for countless imitations and the subject of no less than five remakes. Noting the success of previous film adaptations of similar Broadway material (such as The Monster (1925)) Universal Studios were perhaps playing it safe by opting to film John Willard’s play; but the result is a film that bids fair to be called the first classic American horror movie.
Leni was a German Expressionist filmmaker whose previous works had included the fantasy anthology Waxworks (1924), and it was this film that brought him to the attention of Universal founder, Carl Laemmle. What set Leni apart from his Expressionist contemporaries, however, was his willingness to adapt the non-realist tropes of Expressionism (such as geometrically absurd sets) to satisfy the needs of a more mainstream audience, without sacrificing the movement's use of shadow, lighting and scenery to influence mood. He also seemed possessed of a playful sense of humour, which was undoubtedly another reason why Laemmle felt that he was the right man for the job - The Cat and the Canary is another horror comedy, after all. There’s no denying that the film's plot is simplistic (and was probably verging on the hackneyed even in 1927) but Leni set out to transcend the story's limitations by concentrating instead on the film's mise en scène. The result is a veritable triumph of style over substance, hugely entertaining, and one of the most forward-looking horror films of its day.
From the start, Leni takes every opportunity to do something different with the material: the opening credits, for example, are standard title cards, but are revealed by a hand brushing away cobwebs. The film's prologue isn't simply narrated on intertitles, but is told in a series of extraordinary dissolve shots. We meet Cyrus West, a dying millionaire, trapped in his fortress-like mansion, besieged and driven to the verge of madness by his greedy relatives. The spiky towers of his grotesque house are seen transforming into towering medicine bottles, symbolising West's terminal condition, which then transform into a clowder of giant hissing cats representing the relatives who are tormenting him and goading him towards death. We learn that West's last will and testament isn't to be read until twenty years after his death. It is sealed in an envelope and locked away in a hidden safe; but whose hairy, spider-like hand is this we see removing it from the safe? And what of the second envelope, never to be opened if the terms of the will are carried out?

For twenty years it is said that West's tormented ghost wanders the deserted halls and passageways of his house. Leni establishes early on that the real star of the film is the house itself - a celebrated tracking shot takes us on a tour of the decrepit pile, gliding down a long, dusty corridor with billowing curtains and into the library with its towering windows and bookcases, where torchlight explores the panelled walls and a gloved hand is seen placing the envelope back in the safe. When the family solicitor, Mr Crosby (Tully Marshall), arrives during the obligatory storm, he is met by Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox), the equally obligatory sinister housekeeper, herself a ghost-like figure who has apparently lived in the house ever since her master's death. Indeed, when Mammy Pleasant opens the door to admit the lawyer she disturbs a mass of congealed cobwebs around the doorframe, suggesting that she rarely, if ever, sets foot outside the tomb-like house. When Crosby asks her if she has been lonely on her own all these years, she smirks and assures him that she doesn't need the company of the living; and when Crosby discovers that someone has accessed the safe, Mammy Pleasant continues to insist that no one other than herself and Cyrus West's ghost has lived in the house since the millionaire's death.

One by one the relatives arrive: rival cousins Harry and Charlie (Arthur Carew and Forrest Stanley), spinster Aunt Susan (Flora Finch) and vain, empty headed niece Cecily (Gertrude Astor). Next is the bumbling Paul Jones (Creighton Hale), a young man given over to fantasising and exaggerating; and, finally, the beautiful ingénue Annabelle West (Laua La Plante), apparently the image of Cyrus West and, we are told, probably just as mad. As they all gather in the library for the reading of the will, the clock strikes midnight for the first time in twenty years, suggesting that supernatural agencies may be at work after all.

Leni establishes character with the minimum of fuss: Harry lurks behind a table lamp, looking shifty; Charlie on the other hand looks worried, as though he has something to hide; Aunt Cecily fidgets impatiently, clearly a woman unused to having to wait for anything; and Cecily powders her nose, oblivious it seems to why she is even there. Meanwhile, Paul doodles and dreams of being rich, while Annabelle watches him with amusement and obvious affection. The relationship that develops between Paul and Annabelle during the film is another aspect that sets The Cat and the Canary apart. Avoiding the literalness and over-emphatic gesturing that was common to many other films of the era, their love story is realistic and genuinely touching precisely because it is hesitant, reliant on non-verbal cues, and a little awkward.

The will is read and it is revealed that the estate is to go to the most distant relative with the name West - in other words, Annabelle. Mammy Pleasant hands Annabelle another sealed envelope, one that she has kept on her person for twenty years. In accordance with West's final wish, the letter is to be opened in the privacy of the dead man's bedroom before Annabelle retires. The other relatives speculate that the letter may give the whereabouts of the famous West diamonds, the mention of which causes Cecily to stop pampering herself and finally take notice of what is going on. Annabelle now realises that she is in the same position as the long dead West - trapped in a cage surrounded by scheming relatives, a point emphasised by having the actress filmed through the backing splats of a chair, giving the impression that she is behind bars.

Of course, there's a condition to the will: West's heir must be proved sane by a physician, who will arrive later. If it turns out that she is even slightly mad, then the estate will go to the person named in the second envelope. As if on cue, Cyrus West's glowering portrait comes crashing down to the floor, an apparent coincidence that is interpreted by Mammy Pleasant as a sign of death. It's almost as if West is acting as referee from beyond the grave, signalling that the deadly fun and games can begin.

Shaken, the relatives retire to the dining room for a very late dinner; but no sooner have they settled down to eat than a guard arrives to inform them all that a maniac has escaped from the local lunatic asylum – a maniac who likes to tear his victims to pieces, like a cat devouring a canary. The guard claims to have tracked the lunatic to the house and informs the group that the killer is either inside the house or somewhere in the grounds.

While this is going on, Crosby is discussing the terms of the will with Annabelle in the library. He informs her that the second envelope has been tampered with and that whoever’s name is in it probably knows the conditions of the will and may do Annabelle harm. In case her sanity is questioned, Annabelle asks to be warned who her successor is; but before Crosby can reveal the name, a clawed and hairy hand emerges from a secret passage behind a bookcase and snatches him away. It's one of the best moments in the film. Leni teases his audience and builds the suspense by showing us the bookcase inching slowly open while Crosby paces the room unaware of how close he keeps straying towards his doom. It's possibly the classic example of the audience being let in on the secret before the characters realise what's going on.

Although the commotion of Crosby's abduction startles Annabelle, she doesn't actually witness it; so when she informs the others that the solicitor has vanished into thin air, they immediately begin to doubt her sanity (all, that is, except Paul) - either she is mad or she has engineered the disappearance herself. 
Advised not to leave the house by the asylum guard, the relatives retire to their rooms for the night. In Cyrus West's room on the ground floor, Annabelle opens the envelope given to her by Mammy Pleasant and learns that the missing West diamonds are in fact hidden in a secret compartment in the fireplace. Charmed by the glittering jewel necklace, Annabelle decides that it would be a good idea to wear it while she is asleep. Needless to say, it's not long before that same spider-like hand is emerging from a panel above her bed, its shadow feeling around her neck for the diamonds. When the hand snatches away the necklace, Annabelle awakes and her screams bring the others running. Her story only raises further suspicion; but when they examine the wall by Annabelle's bed they discover another secret panel, out of which tumbles the dead body of Mr Crosby (a moment spoiled ever-so-slightly by Tully Marshall's obvious attempt to break his fall at the last moment).

An attempt is made to contact the police, but the telephone wires have been cut. Harry believes that the escaped lunatic killed the solicitor, but Paul suggests that the murderer is whoever was named in the second envelope, which should still be in Crosby's pocket. But when he and Annabelle return to the bedroom to retrieve the envelope, Crosby's corpse has mysteriously disappeared.
Paul decides to explore but soon becomes lost in the house's secret passageways, leaving Annabelle alone in the library when the physician, Dr Lazar (Lucien Littlefield) arrives and proceeds to question her to determine her mental state.  Lazar is a thoroughly sinister-looking character, reminiscent (intentionally, one suspects) of Dr Caligari, and his examination of Annabelle is one of the film's more unsettling sequences. When encouraging her to tell him her troubles, his fingers beckon like claws; and when he examines Annabelle's eye for signs of madness, the close-up shot of his grubby fingers holding open her eyelids while her eyeball rolls creates a genuine sense of unease, serving to further highlight the young woman's vulnerability.

Meanwhile Paul has found his way to the cellar where he encounters at last the escaped lunatic, the Cat of the title. In appearance, the Cat is a bizarre and uniquely disturbing manifestation of evil, and the most Expressionistic element in the film. His face is a nightmare of features gone horribly wrong, while his long talons and battered hat give him more than a passing resemblance to a certain Freddy Krueger (I've often wondered if Wes Craven was influenced in some ways by Leni's film). In an uncharacteristic display of bravery, Paul engages the maniac in a fight, but is knocked unconscious, leaving the Cat to go in search of Annabelle.

In another scene that would be imitated countless times (most famously in James Whale's Frankenstein a few years later) the Cat enters the library where Annabelle has again been abandoned, emerging from the secret passageway and creeping up on her from behind while she stands in the doorway peering out into the hall. Once again, Leni plays on our expectations masterfully, teasing us with shots of the Cat's arm reaching out, receding, then reaching out again from behind the door while Annabelle frets. When the moment arrives and she comes face to face with the horror, her screams bring Paul (who has regained consciousness) running and another fight ensues, during which one of the Cat's eyes falls out of its socket and ends up lying on the floor like a hardened fried egg. It's a disguise! The Cat isn't an escaped lunatic, after all. So who is he (or she)?

At this moment the police arrive, having been summoned by Aunt Cecily, who earlier fled the house on a milk cart, and the Cat is unmasked like some forerunner to all those villains in Scooby-Doo, Where are You?. Who, how, and why, are all revealed; but I'm not going to tell you here.

The Cat and the Canary is a brilliant film. With its combination of dark horror and light comedy it set the tone for many of the Universal horrors to come. Again, Leni's masterstroke was to insist on realism, despite his Expressionistic background, and his cast play their parts with utter conviction, avoiding (for the most part) the theatrical overacting that mars many other films of the period. The comedy is never allowed to detract from the underlying menace of the piece (and in actual fact there are really only two episodes of overt comedy in the film - a scene when Paul is trapped under the bed while Aunt Susan and Cecily undress for the night, and the sequence in which Aunt Susan escapes the house on the milk cart) and a suitably sepulchral atmosphere is sustained throughout. There is so much to admire while watching this film. In addition to the examples given above, look out for the way in which characters’ faces are lit from below to imply sinister motives and agenda, or the way in which the camera zooms in on them to magnify their terror. Then there's Leni's creative use of animated intertitles, with words like 'g-g-g-ghosts' appearing in shivering letters. Finally, keep an eye out for the floating skull...

If you hadn't guessed already, The Cat and the Canary is one of my all-time favourite horror films. I can't recommend it enough.

(The first of the film's many remakes was The Cat Creeps in 1930. One of the early talkies, it is now a lost film, but you can view surviving clips of it here:

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