Written by: Sherman L. Lowe
Directed by: Lesley Selander
Starring: Carl Esmond, Lenore Aubert and Adele Mara
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Beware! A monster is loose!
Even a brief look back at the history of horror will reveal that each decade was defined by a certain style or genre, but, in most cases, it took a hodgepodge effort to set the mold. It took the combined efforts of an entire studio in Universal to set the course for the 30s, while a bunch of slashers and icons became the face of the 80s. The 40s, however, were pretty much presided over by one guy: producer Val Lewton, whose incredible run spawned hordes of imitators eager to cash-in on his shadowy, noir-tinged horror efforts at RKO. Iíve come to accept that nearly every review of a 40s horror film would be remiss to ignore Lewtonís presence, but The Catman of Paris probably makes that all the more obvious. A direct cash-in on Lewtonís Cat People (arguably his most seminal film), Catman is another low-rent Republic Pictures cheapie that does its best to replicate the famous producerís atmosphere to mixed results.
The Parisian tale mixes fantasy elements and political intrigue into a good old fashioned murder mystery. Author Charles Regnier (Carl Esmond) has recently found success with his latest book, but the homecoming ends up being a rough one when the police suspect that heís come into possession of some secret court documents that informed his novel. When a man with a connection to those documents is killed, Regnier comes under suspicion. Whatís more, the local inspector believes that Regnier takes the form of a cat to claim his victims.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Catman itself is the coolest thing this one has to offer. Thatís usually the case with these early creature features, but this one presents an especially weird and intricate mythology. The Catman isnít just some were-cat that gets afflicted by a bite or something--itís a mythological creature who has recurred throughout history during a certain planetary alignment. Itís a concept that really belongs in something that feels bigger than this quaint little murder mystery; in fact, Iím not quite sure why the Catman would deign to appear for the events in this film considering his previous appearances came during world-changing affairs (like wars and such). Maybe itís a case of a concept exceeding a studioís means, but this creature feels like it belongs in a different sort of movie; obviously, Iíll take it because the horror genre could always use interesting creatures (especially when theyíre riffing on familiar ones in the first place).
So of course the movieís biggest problem is that it needs more Catman; the creature only appears a handful of times before being fully revealed in the climax (where he looks more like a werewolf). His identity is also clouded all the while, of course, thus allowing Catman of Paris to proceed like a standard murder mystery fuelled by psychological ambiguity. Unlike Cat People, this film doesnít skirt around the supernatural aspects; that thereís an actual catman prowling around Paris is not only accepted but confirmed to audiences early on. The only thing left to confirm is his identity; youíd think a guy who turns into a giant cat each night would remember such episodes, but the screenplay gifts Regnier with a convenient amnesia that strikes whenever the catman claims another victim. Such clumsy plotting paints the film into a corner since it forces Regneir to be a tortured soul (and caught between two women to boot) out of the Larry Talbot mode. Of course, the split personality motif goes back beyond Lewton (who was likely only riffing on The Wolf Man anyway with Cat People), but this aspect has the rug pulled out from beneath it with a silly climax.
However, the filmís flavoring is very Lewton--like. Even in 1946, the sort of dainty, airy horror aesthetic introduced in Cat People was still very much in vogue, so Catman of Paris is full of shadow play and rich contrasts. It perhaps lacks the deep, haunting sublimity that Lewtonís films possessed, and the atmosphere isnít as thickly sustained, but thereís little doubt what inspired the aesthetic of the production. Further proof that studios werenít above doing this sort of thing even when Hollywood was practically in its infancy, The Catman of Paris is derivative but fine, possessing a really intriguing central concept thatís done little justice on a Poverty Row budget. Thereís a transition early in the film that features a giant cat prowling through the streets of Paris, and itís one of the few moments that proves to be striking and surreal before a quick pull-back reveals it to be a model of a city block tossed together by the inspector, who shoos away his cat for the intrusion.
Itís a moment that pretty much sums up The Catman of Paris, a film that wants to offer more grandeur than it can afford and more intrigue than it can deliver. Though itís delivered by a capable cast and crew, the film doesnít do much to rise above its familiarity. The genre was at its most threadbare during this era--perhaps the horrors of World War 2 were all too real, and Hollywoodís horror output reflected that, leaving it to cannibalize upon itself in greater numbers than usual. As such, this oneís something akin to a third generation photocopy thatís a little too far removed to leave an impression. Like a lot of its Republic brethren, it hasnít shown up on DVD but is available for streaming on Netflix, where its presentation looks and sounds good enough to be pressed to a disc if anyone wanted to do so. Olive Films recently acquired a bunch of the Republic library, and I think itíd be cool if they released a collection with all these quaint little numbers currently haunting Netflix. In the meantime, pop into the queue for curiosityís sake--itís what kills the cat, but, in this case, itíll just kill an hour of your time. Rent it!
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