Why this nifty little thriller is so forgotten and nowhere to be found today is a mystery. It's really a rather intriguing, if sometimes uneven, attempt at mixing Hitchcockian suspense with the kind of supernatural theater of the macabre one might associate with an old episode of Night Gallery. Prior to its release in theaters, Universal Studios generated considerable public interest with TV ads which prominently featured a scene depicting a little old lady in a runaway wheelchair careening helplessly towards traffic (backwards yet!) down a particularly precipitous slope of one of San Francisco's many hills. As a San Francisco resident at the time, these commercials made Eye of the Cat the must-see movie of the summer of '69 as far as I was concerned.
|This scene, which owes more than a little to Hitchcock, is enough to make Eye of the Cat a must-see.|
To clarify, said “little old lady” is three-time Oscar-nominee Eleanor Parker, who was just 46 at the time. Although unfamiliar to me then, Parker, this being just four years after her glamorous turn as the Baroness inThe Sound of Music, was another talented actress "of a certain age" (a la Jennifer Jones, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Bette Davis, and Tallulah Bankhead) who found herself prematurely relegated to “horror hag” roles in youth-centric '60s thrillers that took as a given audiences finding women over the age of 30 to be as grotesque as Hollywood apparently did.
Eye of the Cat, which has never had a DVD release and seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth, was one of the earliest films to exploit the subtle malevolence and flagrant creep-out factor of packs of animals. A trend that blossomed into a full-blown horror sub-genre in the '70s with films like Willard, Empire of the Ants, Kingdom of the Spiders, and the laughably non-threatening Night of the Lepus (giant bunnies!). I saw Eye of the Cat at San Francisco's Embassy Theater on Market Street, the first show of its first weekend in release. Not being much of a fan of cats (that has since changed) the movie fairly gave me the willies, and, in short, scared the hell out of me...but that didn't stop me from sitting through it three times.
|Gayle Hunnicutt as Kassia Lancaster|
"Just another beautiful girl with all the wrong values."
|Michael Sarrazin as Wylie|
"In good mirrors you can see that once I was disastrously beautiful."
|Eleanor Parker as Aunt Danielle (Aunt Danny)|
"Nowadays you can't depend on natural causes."
|Tim Henry as Luke|
"It's not a good idea to take cats lightly."
|In addition to this feline homage to Psycho, Eye of the Cat features a wonderful score by Lalo Schifrin (Cool Hand Luke) with obvious Bernard Herrmann overtones.|
|That's Mark Herron there in the mint green Nehru smock, Judy Garland's 4th husband (her 2nd gay husband). He has a small role as Belmondo (one name only, please), owner of an elite San Francisco spa.|
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Canines (the four-legged kind) can be scary in real life, but for a dog to scare me onscreen, it has to be either one of those dogs with a face like a fist (a Rottweiler or a Pit Bull) or one of those wolf-snout dogs like in Samuel Fuller's White Dog. Cats, on the other hand, merely have to be themselves. Cute or creepy, cats introduce an element of uncertainty just by showing up, and they always appear to be operating under their own mysterious, sinister agendas. This calls to mind a Night Gallery episode I once saw that made use of a quote from Samuel Butler’s novel, Erewhon: “Even a potato in a dark cellar has a certain low cunning about him which serves him in excellent stead.” If ever two words perfectly summed up my impression of cats, it’s the words “low cunning.”
The trainer for the armies of cats used in Eye of the Cat was the late Ray Berwick, who also served as bird trainer on Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. He shared his feline training techniques in a well-received book published in 1986.
My long-held distrust of cats played into the effectiveness of Eye of the Cat the same way a childhood spent in Catholic schools played into my enjoyment of Rosemary’s Baby the year before: it wasn't compulsory, but it helped. And what I like about both films is that in their basic structure, they work perfectly fine whether one buys into the supernatural angle or not.
Eye of the Cat generates genuine tension as a crime caper thriller, keeps you guessing as a psychological suspense flick, and works your nerves as a supernatural horror film about potentially pernicious pussycats. With so many plots to juggle, Eye of the Cat can perhaps be forgiven the mood-killing miscalculations of throwing in an obligatory '60s party scene and a lengthy “love montage.” (For some reason, the '70s was the era of the romantic montage. This cheap and economic go-to device for writers unable to plausibly convey a developing romance has ground many a promising film to a grinding halt. Perhaps the worse offender being Clint Eastwood’s 1971 directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, in which a pretty good suspense thriller takes a 20-minute nap while Clint gives us a Carmel, California travelogue and infomercial for The Monterey Jazz Festival.)
|What's New, Pussycat?|
As a longtime fan of glamorous tough broads in movies, it’s obvious why Gayle Hunnicutt’s Kassia Lancaster is my favorite character in the film. She states early on, “I’m not afraid of anything!” and spends the rest of the movie proving it. Dangerous, self-assured, authoritative, and without a doubt the strongest, smartest character in the film; female characters of her stripe would become extremely rare in the '70s as male-dominated “buddy films” grew in popularity. The fantastic-looking Gayle Hunnicutt gives an assured performance whose measured severity plays nicely off of Michael Sarrazin's more easygoing passivity.
|I love that the first time we see Kassia, she's shown licking her fingers and grooming herself like a cat.|
Eleanor Parker looks wonderful and is very good in an underwritten part which casts her unsympathetically with little foundation. Typed as a salacious older woman, Parker certainly doesn't embarrass herself as Jennifer Jones did in a similar role in Angel, Angel, Down We Go that same year, but in having already played a horny older woman on the make in 1965's The Oscar, one wishes the eternally classy actress had found something else to do if this was the only kind of role Hollywood was throwing her way.
|The loss of two-thirds of her lung tissue barely puts a crimp in Aunt Danielle's libidinous urges. Here she's seen languishing in the oxygen tent from Harlow in what is apparently the bed from Love, American Style.|
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
|A process shot, to be sure, but behind Sarrazin's head can be seen San Francisco's Paris Theater on Market Street.|
|At the top, the corner of Octavia and Washington in San Francisco as seen today. To the left is the exterior of Aunt Daniell's cat-filled mansion, to the right, the hill that features so prominently in the plot (below, the site in 1969).|
Eye of the Cat is no classic, but it's a dynamo of a thriller that doesn't deserve its obscurity. It certainly holds up for me after all these years and still packs a punch despite my having overcome my own youthful antipathy toward cats.
|"They do come back..."|
Copyright © Ken Anderson