Friday, December 21, 2012

EYE OF THE CAT 1969

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 that prominently featured footage of 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 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” in the film is three-time Oscar-nominee, Eleanor Parker, who was just 46 at the time. Although unfamiliar to me then, Parker, just four years after The 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 amassing 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."
Joseph Stefano, screenwriter of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, penned this original screenplay about feline seductress Kassia Lancaster (“It sounds like a cell door slamming shut.”) and her plot to secure the fortune of an ailing San Francisco matron (Parker) by returning to the lonely dowager her beloved derelict nephew, Wylie (Sarrazin), and arranging for her subsequent murder once her will has been altered in his favor. Danielle (or Aunt Danny as she's affectionately/derisively known) is a near-invalid suffering from acute emphysema and lives in a cavernous San Francisco mansion with Wylie’s younger brother, Luke (newcomer Tim Henry), who waits on her in apathetic servitude, and roughly a hundred overprotective cats, the sole benefactors of her will. Kassia's diabolical plan hits a major snag when it's discovered that Wylie, the linchpin of the whole operation, is plagued by crippling ailurophobia (a deathly fear of cats).
In addition to this feline homage to Psycho, Eye of the Cat features a wonderful score by Lalo Schifrin (Cool Hand Luke) with obvious Berrnard Hermann overtones.
Eye of the Cat is not really the “When Good Animals Go Bad” creature-features thriller its title would suggest (a plus, I might add) but rather an intriguing attempt to modernize those murder and passion crime thrillers that once typified film noir (Gayle Hunnicutt, with mounds of big, 60s hair, is a terrifically ruthless femme fatale) combined with the supernatural chill-thrill of say, classic horror of Val Lewton (Cat People). I’d like to report the experiment was wholly successful, but it kind of loses steam in the middle only to end just as it’s becoming the shuddery thrill ride it should have been all along. Perhaps in more resourceful hands than those of director David Lowell Rich (The Concord… Airport ’79, need I say more?), Stefano’s somewhat colorless script could have lived up to the promise of the film’s sensational (silent) pre-credits sequence.
Eye of the Cat gets off to a very winning start by way of a stylish expository pre-credits sequence that mirrors the multi-image / split-screen opening sequence of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), and effectively predates Brian De Palma's subsequent appropriation of the device.
The raw material is certainly there: an enigmatic villainess; the San Francisco setting (a wonderful city for thrillers—the picturesque angles of all those hills never fails to unsettle); the misleadingly simple murder scheme; the probable subterfuge and concealed motives behind virtually each action engaged in by every character at all times; and the fascination of cats and their inherent mystery. But it's precisely there being such a rich mine of chiller material to vein that makes one wish Joseph Stefano's script were more up to the task set forth by the premise. Luckily, Eye of the Cat's gratuitously cryptic dialog is delivered by a better-than-average cast, all of whom appear gleefully game for this kind of psyco-fright stuff; and the enjoyably peevish malevolence at the heart of the story greatly mitigates Mr. Stefano's penchant for trying to generate mystery by leaving his characters and their motivations underdeveloped and unexplored to a maddening degree.
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:
Any dog can be scary in real life, but for me to be made afraid of one onscreen, it has to be one of those ugly, aggressive breeds like a Rottweiler or a Pit Bull or at least a rabies-infected killing machine like Cujo (who was, on the whole still pretty cute,). 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.”)
Pussy Galore
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 (hee hee). 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 an infomercial for The Monterey Jazz Festival.)

What's New, Pussycat?
PERFORMANCES:
As a longtime fan of glamorous tough broads in movies, it’s unlikely Gayle Hunnicutt’s Kassia Lancaster wouldn't emerge my favorite character in the film. She states early on, “I’m not afraid of anything!” and spends the rest of the film 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 style.
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 that casts her unsympathetically with little foundation. Cast 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 in 1965's The Oscar, one wishes the eternally classy actress 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 an oxygen tent in what is apparently the bed from Love, American Style

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
I love a thriller that keeps me guessing, and Eye of the Cat is splendid at throwing so many red herrings and false clues into the pot that no matter where you think the film is headed, it veers elsewhere. But as good as a film as it is and as much as I found it scary and suitably creepy as a pre-teen, I'd be lying if I said that the prodigious amount of male flesh on display in Eye of the Cat didn't in part inspire those three viewings at the Embassy in 1969.
Perhaps in an effort to convey his character's freewheeling ways, Michael Sarrazin spends a great deal of the film shirtless or with nudity artfully concealed. Similarly, dreamboat material co-star Tim Henry (bottom pic with Eleanor Parker) adds a touch of homoerotic interest to a film that already overflowing with adultery, promiscuity and possible incest. Hooray for Hollywood in the 60s!

THE STUFF OF DREAMS: 
One of the reasons I wish Eye of the Cat would get a legitimate DVD release is so that I can relish the San Francisco locations, digitally enhanced. The film had lots of great location shots that establish a wonderful sense of time and place.
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

19 comments:

  1. KA: Thanks for this shout-out! EotC used to play a lot on local NYC TV in the late-1970s, then phhht! It disappeared. I remember enjoying it, but never remembering anything specific about it. Oh well, we may not yet find out either...

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  2. Hi Ivan
    I think that most of the people who know of this movie at all only know it from the TV version, which is very different from the feature version. I have a copy of the uncut feature edit, but the quality is not great. I hope this movie gets the "Made to order" DVD treatment soon so maybe your memory will be jogged a bit. Thanks so much for dropping in! I really enjoy your cinema site: Pinnland Empire.

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  3. I have been waiting, quite literally, since 1986 to see this film. It is NUMBER ONE on my Holy Grail wish list of movies to see. And I while I deeply appreciate this post, the captures, the info (and as always, the insight!), I must say that when I finally do see it, I want it to be in widescreen and with full color/contrast, etc... That day will be one of the happiest of my life! I mean, it was released by Universal Pictures... how hard can it be to get it out there?!?! But it gives me something to hope for. :-)

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    1. I've known two individuals who have worked in the DVD release and market departments of two different studios, and both were essentially business/marketing people with no love or affection for films. They base their decisions (understandably) exclusively on market potential. Neither really knew much about film history or cinema culture. I've always thought if a real film aficionado had a say in what films get a DVD release, we'd have a lot more interesting films out there. Warners seems to be doing pretty well in this (with their made to order DVD service) but Universal needs to dig this one up!

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  4. Incidentally, Night of the Lepus is what's playing on TV when Neo goes to see the Oracle.

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    1. Ha! I've never seen any of The Matrix films myself, but I knew someone with a near-religious fascination with the films who once told me this when we were speaking of bad 70s horror films. I'd forgotten that bit of trivia!

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  5. It's so frustrating about how DVDs are marketed/released. I've never seen this film and, unless it pops up on late-night cable or gets a lucky showing in a revival house, see little chance of ever seeing it. The late 60s seems to have been a time of the pseudo-Hitchcock thriller (I recall "Bird with the Crystal Plumage" being advertised as a Hitchcock-like shocker, without the real director's name ever being mentioned). My guess is that's due in part to the auteur theory beginning to take off in the U.S. at that time, along with the publication of the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews in 1965.

    On another note, I'm always amazed at how cats are portrayed in films as mysterious, devious, threatening, etc. As a lifelong cat lover who lives with two cats, I can confidently assert that cats are DIVAS through and through. Perhaps that's where the mystery comes in -- like real divas, their demands are always changing, and we are always trying to keep up with them!

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    1. Your comment about "Bird with the Crystal Plumage" reminds me of the days when there were a slew of films from the 70s that marketed themselves as "Hitchcockian" ("You'll Like My Mother", "Four Flies on Grey Velvet") as some kind of short cut classification.
      Regarding obscure films released to DVD, every film fan I know has expressed frustration at non-essential product like "Big Momma's House" and "Big Momma's House II" clogging the DVD shelves, and so many interesting and obscure film languishing I the vaults (I'm still waiting for Robert Altman's "Come Back to the Five and Dime"). It's crazy.
      By the way I LOVE that you nailed the true cat nature ...DIVA! My partner likes cats, and over the years my apprehension towards them has changed to this amusement born of watching an animal that always operates from its own demands first. I can watch them for hours!
      Always nice to hear from you...Thanks!

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  6. When I saw a picture in a book of Gayle Hunnicut in "the Eye of the Cat", with the mounds of 60's hair as you described, I just had to see it. It looked so great with the wide hair band in it!

    I finally found a copy at modcinema and got to see the film. I later found out that the version I saw was the one edited for TV. The earlier cut shown in movie theaters is supposed to have a scarier ending and I guess that version would be better. Have you seen both versions?

    Gayle Hunnicut was one of those gorgeous 60's movie starlets that I adore. I don't remember much else from the film. She and Michael Sarazzin were so good looking but they seemed to fade away from Hollywood by the late 70's.

    -Wille

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    1. Hello again Willie
      Yes. When Eye of the Cat was aired on TV in the 70s it was significantly re-edited and entire scenes jettisoned and replaced. This "edited for TV" version is the one that is most commonly known by most young people. I recall well the original theatrical version, so when I ordered a DVD copy of the film from Cinema De Bizarre, I was happy to find it to be the complete theatrical version. It seems to have been struck from perhaps a PAL vhs (if there is such a thing) so there is a slight speed up in pitch and the quality isn''t that great, but the film is complete. The full version keeps in the minor nudity and the a last half hour you'll find is almost completely reworked from how they softened it for TV. The ending is more gruesome and in keeping with the creep out mystery of it all. Worth hunting down if you liked the de-fanged TV version you saw (there's always hope that Universal will dig this one out of their vaults).
      I first saw Gayle Hunnicutt as this man-hating spy in an episode of TV's "Get Smart" and she was really a stunner. She and then hubby David Hemmings were quite the epitome of mod 60s glamour. Sarrazin was certainly poised for big-scale stardom with the kinds of roles he was given (and his own real-life association with Hunnicutt look-alike Jacqueline Bissett), but as you indicate, neither he nor Hunnicutt were able to extend their star momentum far into the 70s. Too bad, I think both are very charismatic. Thanks for stopping by again, Willie. With your appreciation of Hunnicutt and Julie Christie, I think you display great taste!),

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  7. Ms. Hunnicut gets quite ferocious in The Legend of Hell House; and had a bit part in Corman's The Wild Angels where she really stood out because she was more beautiful than any of the other women around her. It was like, what's she doing there? Is she a slumming model? But I don't even think her character has any dialog.

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    1. Hi Ivan
      I really loved your line: "What's she doing here? Is she a slumming model?"
      I've never seen "The Wild Angels" before, but had I seen Hunnicutt's glacial beauty among the usual cycle and leather set in this Roger Corman flick, those would have been my thoughts exactly!
      I had the pleasure of seeing "The Legend of Hell House" for the first time this year thanks to TCM. Roddy McDowall is always a chore, but I loved Hunnicutt and her hair. She has aged into a very striking older woman, but her look in the 60s/early 70s is very sensual. For some reason I had always assumed she was British. In researching this post, I was surprised to find she's a Texan, of all things.

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  8. Thank you Ken! I now want to see the theatrical version of the film after what you wrote about the "de-fanged" TV-version.

    I want to recommend two more Gayle Hunnicut movies. In both "P.J." and "Marlowe" she is gorgeous. I find myself often watching "Marlowe" as it is a very entertaining movie. I'm surprised that she didn't get more roles in Hollywood movies since she was pretty and could act, but I think the early 70's was a bad time for actresses generally.

    -Wille

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    1. Willie
      I'll take your recommendations to heart. I've not seen either film. Not too keen on either George Peppard or James Garner, but Hunnicutt is worth a look in anything. As you say, she was one of the few beauties of that time who could really act.
      A comment by a previous poster (Ivan) regarding just how distractingly beautiful she was may have played a part in the trajectory of her career. As 70's films became more naturalistic, her kind of lacquered good looks made her conspicuous in certain roles. (She does have a cute cameo in the so-bad-it's good, "The Love Machine").
      Thanks and good luck in seeking out the uncut "Eye of the Cat" you'll be surprised at the changes!

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  9. I've been checking out your reviews of obscurities from time to time, and always find them most informative and engaging. I believe it was you who inspired me to order THE COOL ONES from the Warner Archive. EYE OF THE CAT sounds like a hell of a lot of fun, so now I gotta order a copy Cinema De Bizarre! Incidentally, director David Lowell Rich helmed one of my fave childhood telefilms, the WWII action drama DEATH RACE (1973), with a powerhouse cast including Lloyd Bridges, Roy Thinnes, Doug McClure and Eric Braeden. This is the one with the crippled Allied plane that tries to evade and destroy a pursuing Nazi tank. That might be one for a future blog entry!

    I will say that I'm puzzled over your seeming general distaste for Roddy McDowall; I find him to be a highly underrated, intense, nearly always believable actor, and when he's slumming, he really livens up otherwise unwatchable stuff like IT! (1966). I absolutely love his turn as the psycho unemployed stage actor in the Naked City episode THE FAULT IN OUR STARS.

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    1. Hi WaverBoy
      Thank you very much for your kind words about my blog. I'm glad that you visit the site from time to time, and happier still that my highlighting of a particular obscure film inspired you to seek out a copy of your own. For they are obscurities, to be sure.
      I'm unfamiliar with the TV movie you mentioned. So few of those are released on DVD, but I know that somewhere out there someone has a copy of it (perhaps YouTube...I should check).
      And alas, yes...Roddy McDowall is not exactly high on my list of actors, although he seems to appear in quite a large number of the films I like. I really liked him in "Evil Under the Sun" but that's about it. It's purely a matter of personal taste for me. I'm glad to hear you enjoy him in so many films. If you happen to get "Eye of the Cat" please stop by and let me know what you think. Enjoy, and thanks!

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  10. Another one I NEED to see. Looks like it's right up my alley. I look forward to another Eleanor Parker performance (wasn't TCMs birthday roundup of Parker's films fun last week?), and I am also a big Michael Sarrazin fan. Are you familiar with The Reincarnation of Peter Proud?

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    1. Another one that needs a decent DVD transfer! Your instincts are tight, I'm positive you would enjoy this film. (By the way, I totally missed the TCM roundup of Eleanor Parker films...I didn't even know about it!)
      As for "The Reincarnation of Peter Proud" that is a big fave of mine. I really love it, although I don't think it's very good. It's one of those weak films that I nevertheless find to be highly! I hope to write about it sometime. If it's a fave of yours, maybe i'll read about it on your blog!

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    2. Ha! I don't like it well enough to write about it, or own it...but I like Michael Sarrazin, and the theme was spooky.

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