The above phrase, more than any other, has probably signaled the death knell for the mystery movie genre within the post-modern popular culture. At one time, the detective thriller was the bread and butter of the literary set, a sure-fire smash crafted out of ink smoke and narrative mirrors. The legendary names in the game Christie, Doyle, James, Queen instantly recall a time when the cleverly crafted book with a perfectly synchronized story and creatively clue-laden tone frequently filled up the bestseller's list. From the well mannered machinations of a Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes, to the hard-boiled bluster of a Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, the appearance of a super sleuth or two-fisted private dick meant a page-turner, and in multimedia translation, edge of the seat sending experience was about to begin. But somewhere around Scott Turrow and Susan Grafton, the backwards preparation of the thriller tome took a dive, losing its legitimate luster while becoming a worthless one trick timewaster to millions mesmerized by pulpy, preposterous shoreline summer reads. Even films purporting to present a throwback to the drawing room denouement often failed to fulfill their promise. Thankfully, we can go back through the canon of cultured crime films and discover the true essence of suspense within the once flourishing motion picture pantheon. Though it takes a far too artificial and farcical view of the genre, Radley Metzger's The Cat and the Canary from 1979 (derived from the famous turn of the century play by John Willard) is a reminder of what made the murder mystery such a nail biting bit of fun. Though it spends far too much in theatrical notions of pace and personality, it is still a royal hoot of a whodunit.
During a delightful dinner, Cyrus speaks from beyond the grave via a new novelty, the motion picture. He names the beneficiary of his estate and then warns: if said individual is declared incompetent by morning, the inheritance will be null and void and the next person in line will gain everything. Naturally, this means everyone must stay the night, hoping to see the heir or heiress lose their marbles, leaving them to take over the estate. But there's another catch as well. An administrator from a local asylum stops by to warn the household of an urgent matter. A psychopath has escaped, an evil killer with long, jagged fingernails, a deformed face, and a penchant for vivisection and flesh renting. They should not leave the house and they should be wary until the horror is caught. You see, the fiend likes to hide out, wait until everyone is asleep and then go about his baneful business. Thus, an uneasy night of sleepless waiting is effectuated. Somewhere surrounding them is a madman waiting to dismember them. Inside, greed and backstabbing await anyone in line for the fortune.
Though it is based on material so old and moldy that dinosaurs sneer at how out of step it is, The Cat and the Canary is still a fun, frisky ride through ancient entertainment ideals. As stated before, the old fashioned whodunit is such a stalwart of the stage and the page that it's interesting how often the cinematic translation pales by comparison. A modern audience often thinks it is smarter than the crafter of the brain teasing tale, and they spend most of the movie trying to second guess the clues and eliminate the red herrings to determine the killer before the last act denouement. Play your hint hand too early, and the rest of the narrative seems unnecessary. Be too complex and convoluted, and the audience will abandon your cheating conceit. To be fair, The Cat and the Canary is an expertly formulated thriller, an edge of your seat scenario where anyone can die at any time and death seems around every darkened corner. In its previous incarnations (there have been a few other film versions of the theatrical classic, including a 1939 entry featuring funnyman Bob Hope) the kooky aspects of the plot have been accented, utilizing delirium instead of deductive reasoning to resolve its outmoded intrigues. Acclaimed sexploitation expert Radley Metzger (The Punishment of Anne, Camille 2000) makes his first foray into the formulaic arena of the murder mystery, and thankfully he brings a great deal of his quirky, campy style to what would otherwise be a bone dry drawing room detective story.
It helps that Metzger re-envisions this will-reading, bequest-hedging, psycho-from-the-local-asylum-on-the-loose style of silliness as another chapter in his canon of gratuitous grandeur. Utilizing a manor as massive as it is mysterious, the director moves his characters in and around areas that suggest suspense, as well as decaying excess. He loads the frame with idiosyncratic elements, like the Gothic Victorian "preservation" unit, which houses something far more somber than the creepy exterior implies, or the sedate "secret" playroom which appears to be barely visited...until, that is, you see the fresh blood splattered along the furnishings. From the moments during the home movie where old and new elements meld seamlessly together (especially as the maid passes behind the screen) to the carnival freak facets of the escaped loony, Metzger's mad hatter ideals really perk up The Cat and the Canary. Without them, we'd have a rather routine inheritance yarn where the rather stagy aspects overwhelm any sense of dread or danger. But since Metzger announces that he intends to play with the visuals, that he means to thwart expectations and twist the traditional portions of the plot, we settle in and actually enjoy ourselves, allowing the devious director to amaze and amuse us. As much as for the acting or the anarchic atmosphere, The Cat and the Canary succeeds because of Metzger's mischievous mentality.
This is not to discount the bon mot spewing, acid tongued talent of the cast here. Indeed, The Cat and the Canary contains some absolutely marvelous performances buried within all of Metzger's amusing diversions. Dame Wendy Hiller gives a delightfully droll turn as the family attorney, Allison Crosby. Simultaneously creepy and comic, she licks each line like the fabled feline cleaning its razor-sharp claws. Equally impressive, though he only appears as an image on a movie screen, is Wilfred Hyde-White, chewing up the choice bits of balderdash he is given as the dead man still manipulating things from beyond the grave. Just hearing him repeat "bastard" over and over again is worth the price of admission. Honor Blackman Ms. Pussy Galore herself gets the privilege of playing the slow burn Sappho sister Susan Sillsby with all the lip-smacking venom she can muster. And Edward Fox gets the double delight of trying to be both protector and punisher as he inhabits an enigmatic man named Hendricks, who may not be what he seems. Certainly, the rest of the performers here do admirable work. Carol Lynley is perhaps too light and slight as newly appointed heiress Annabelle West (what all the men see in her, besides her bank book, remains an aggravating ambiguity) and Michael Callan just can't shake the modern American ideal that permeates what is supposed to be his songwriter personality from the past. Only Olivia Hussey proves that her continued career as an actress obviously has something to do with a renewable contract with the Devil. She is awful here, unable to say simple phrases, let along create a complete character.
Yet Hussey is not the only issue hampering The Cat and the Canary. For someone who wants to instill a sense of biting wit and wicked satire into the setting, Metzger is just not harsh enough. He has several opportunities during the course of the comedy where he could turn up the viciousness and ratchet down the rococo. Characters always seem on the brink of interpersonal assassination as they trip over each other's attacks and taunt one another's legendary foibles (as with most mystery tales, everyone has a sordid history that gives them plenty of motive and potential menace). But instead of going for the throat, we end up just falling short and sometimes flat. This facet alone keeps this film from becoming the funny, edgy free-for-all it thinks it is. Also, Metzger makes the mistake of taking the original play far too literally. His screenplay gives us more than 50 minutes of setup character description, arrivals and introductions, the usual dollar-based discussions before we get to the true meat of the movie. You can also sense the three act structure derived directly from creator John Willard's work (though it is a one act offering, the original author provides a definite dramatic arc). If you look carefully, you can see the clockwork plotting (a real plus here) click over into a near gear shift as certain aspects of the fiction wear out their welcome and drop off. Finally, for a film made in the mid to late 70s with a far amount of implied gruesomeness, the special effects are very sedate in this film. The gore is suggested, not slopped on and most of the murdering happens off screen. Some brave bloodletting would have helped this saga over the more stagnant bits. As it stands, The Cat and the Canary is all tell and no show.
Still, one can derive a great deal of pleasure out of this film. Metzger and his cast work double-time to entertain, and triple time to stay within the stage story's strict set-up/payoff parameters. The use of space is incredibly effective, allowing tension and trepidation to build as unknown horror lurks in long halls and hidden passageways. By the third movement, when it's killer vs. guests, the pace is brisk and the narrative engaging. And the final pronouncement of guilt or innocence, while rather superfluous and forced, does offer some substantial thrills and chills. So if you like your Agatha Christie with a dose of camp, if you prefer your P.D. James with a dash of the decadent, if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Ellery Queen would go better with a bit of post-modern miscreance, then The Cat and the Canary will truly tickle your temperament. Lovers of old fashioned murder mysteries may balk at the liberties taken with tone and intention, and Metzger does mess up certain parts of the premise to fit his own inner debauchery (what's up with that giallo-inspired prologue, like something straight out of Dario Argento's The Bad Seed?). But if you allow the story and the setting to have its way with you, The Cat and the Canary will certainly show you a jolly good time. Most people are perplexed over why the mystery no longer has a place in the mainstream media. The answer is quite simple. Something like The Cat and the Canary is not around to remind everyone of how amusing the genre once was.