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Author Topic: The Cat and the Canary (1978, Radley Metzger)  (Read 2444 times)


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The Cat and the Canary (1978, Radley Metzger)
« on: 19 Jun 2009 - 11:59 »

In 1934, twenty years after the death of eccentric millionaire Cyrus West (an enjoyable Wilfred Hyde-White) his heirs gather for the "reading" of his will at the request of his lawyer Mrs. Crosby (an equally entertaining Wendy Hiller).  Among them are discharged doctor Harry (Daniel Massey), flyboy-turned-stuntman Charlie (Peter McEnery), sportswoman Susan (Honor Blackman) and her cousin/"roommate" Cecily (Olivia Hussey), American songwriter cousin Paul (Michael Callan), and fashion designer Annabelle (Carol Lynley).  With a cast of characters (and actors) like this, its going to be a bitchy night even before the lawyer announces the stipulation that there is a contingency heir named in case the first heir dies or is judged insane.  Cyrus West himself reads the will at dinner by way of a motion picture reel projected at the head of the table with synchronized sound (remember that the will itself was made in the silent era).  Annabelle is named the lucky heir and also given a clue as to the whereabouts of the famous West necklace.

During a fistfight between Annabelle's old romantic rivals Harry and Charlie, a cloaked man with a gun makes a dramatic entrance.  This is Hendricks (a scene-stealing Edward Fox), the director of an institution for the criminally insane ("We're just up the road." "Convenient.") who informs the group (while Annabelle is not present) that an escaped killer who thinks himself a cat has escaped and may be in the area.  Although they agree not to tell Annabelle so as not to worry her, their sequential visits to her room to check up on her raise her suspicions.  When Mrs. Crosby tries to warn Annabelle about her own suspicions regarding the other heir, she disappears behind a bookcase.  The others begin to question Annabelle's sanity since she was the last one to see Mrs. Crosby.  When Mrs. Crosby turns up dead and horribly mutilated behind another secret passage, it becomes apparent to everyone that The Cat has indeed made his way into the mansion but is a psychopathic killer all Annabelle has to worry about when a massive fortune is at stake?

Where's the love for this one?  Sure its directed by an American director from an American play which has had several official and unofficial adaptations before and the producer is also American but its got a great mostly British cast and crew.  Sure, the budget is a little low (the same folding chairs in the library are also used at the dinner table but the largely bare, sheet-covered rooms are creepy).  One off composer Steven Cagan provides an excellent melodramatic thriller score on par with Richard Rodney Bennett's work for MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (the lavish all-star cast Agatha Christie film that inspired a spate of all-star Christie adaptations - likely including Harry Alan Towers' second resurrection of TEN LITTLE INDIANS - and this offshoot based on John Willard's stage play).  The tart dialogue is entertaining and everyone gets a moment (when Charlie observes that Susan and Cecily are cousins as well as roommates, she comments "But don't worry, we're not planning to have children.")  Despite the grisly details of The Cat's killings related by Hendricks, there is little graphic violence on screen and (unusually for a Metzger film) little eroticism (despite the suggested nature of Susan and Cecily's relationship) but these aspects were likely tuned down to reach the same sort of audiences as the Christie adaptations (which were all PG in spite of some slightly more grisly onscreen content).  Callan and Lynely are charming as the lead couple and well-backed up by the rest of the cast (though Hussey isn't given much to do even though she was already put through the "killer in the house" ringer more spectacularly in BLACK CHRISTMAS).

The manner in which the will-reading is rendered in this film harkens back to Metzger's masterpiece THE LICKERISH QUARTET but goes it one better by having the housekeeper (Beatrix Lehman) disappearing behind the screen only to appear onscreen twenty years younger as her motions are perfectly synchronized with the film.  At the end of the film, Hyde-White's Cyrus West displays the text of his will again on large cards (in case of sound failure) which then - to the amusement of the survivors - become the first few end title cards.  The cast then get their onscreen credits over silent (save for the music) close ups of them in black and white concluding with Wilfred Hyde-White stepping out from behind the screen in color (with sound).

The film's US release through Quartet Films (and the subsequent RCA/Columbia tape) were slightly shorter than the versions on disc.  Missing were two scenes.  The first was a brief bit in the library scene where the clock chimes and the maid Mrs. Pleasant observes that clock hasn't struck since the night Cyrus West died.  The second was a longer bit during Hendricks' scene where he susses out the unflattering details of the various heirs' backgrounds (the scene strains credibility but is perfectly in keeping with the story's stage origins).  The OOP Image DVD featured these scenes but was derived from an old Audubon master that was widescreen but not the complete aspect ratio (the end titles were cut off on both sides) but showed more image than the old tape (which bisected several of the names in the opening credits at the bottom of the screen and could barley contain the title card).  First Run Features' reissue DVD is also likely sourced from this master (only THE FRIGHTENED WOMAN and THE LIBERTINE were improvements over their previous issues - although those were only issued on tape when Image had the rights to the Audubon library).

The UK DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment is said to be longer and features a commentary with producer Richard Gordon (TOWER OF EVIL, HORROR HOSPITAL, FIEND WITHOUT A FACE) but I have not seen it.  The disc is anamorphic but I'm told its not much of an improvement visually over the older transfers (the film was shot by Oscar winner Alex Thomson).  Can anyone comment?


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Re: The Cat and the Canary (1978, Radley Metzger)
« Reply #1 on: 19 Jun 2009 - 14:24 »

The father of a friend of mine was assosiate producer on this film. He told Tanzi and I that Metzger was a real character.
"Allow me to explain. Your mother is a whore, your father is a damn thief, and your grandfather is a notorious fag... and as for your sister..." - Yodlaf Peterson


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Re: The Cat and the Canary (1978, Radley Metzger)
« Reply #2 on: 19 Jun 2009 - 16:56 »

I had the pleasure of meeting Radley in London about 10 years ago. ;)
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