If I hadn’t watched The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die (1965) I wouldn’t have been so well up on the intrigue of the modern film noir so I guessed where this was going pretty quickly but that did not detract from the enjoyment of watching it reach its stylish denouement. A perfect antidote to the cute cats as personified by Disney in The Three Lives of Thomasina (1963) and That Darn Cat! (1965).
Realizing that wealthy client Danny (Eleanor Parker), suffering from emphysema, might only need a nudge or two to hasten her death, hairdresser Kassia (Gayle Hunnicutt) enrolls the sick woman’s wayward nephew Wylie (Michael Sarrazin) in a plot to kill her off and inherit her money. There are two obstacles, possibly three. Danny has a houseful of cats, close to a hundred at the last count, and Wylie, after a childhood feline encounter, is terrified of the four-legged creatures. Upset at his previous behavior, Wylie has been cut out of the old lady’s will and needs reinstated pronto. The last element is that Wylie has a younger brother, Luke (Tim Henry) who acts as Danny’s gofer, who may take exception to the scheme.
Needless to say, the otherwise imperious Danny is so delighted at the return of the prodigal nephew that she demands her lawyer Bendetto (Linden Chiles) amend the will immediately. She sleeps in an oxygen tent and simply switching off her supply will be enough. But, of course, it would be foolhardy to murder her before the will is signed, sealed and delivered. Unfortunately, Wylie is a high-spirited selfish young man and comes close to offing her unintentionally.
While Wylie takes up residence in Danny’s vast house, Kassia is kept in the cellar and there is a suspicion that he will blackmail her into having sex with him since she sees their relationship as strictly business. Wylie has a whole string of abandoned girlfriends and seems to have capacity for preying on the most vulnerable if “Poor Dear” (Jennifer Leak), the nickname he assigns one is anything to go by.
Meanwhile, Wylie’s childhood fears return. He doesn’t need to see a cat, or even smell it, just sensing its presence is enough. His terrified reaction makes him want to abandon the scheme, despite the amount he might inherit. Desperate to prevent him from leaving, Danny agrees to get rid of her army of cats. Unfortunately, Luke is not as assiduous as he ought to be and a couple escape the round-up.
As the deadline for her demise nears, the tension is ratched up, seeds of suspicion sown among the conspirators, complications with the will and of course the cats hidden from Wylie’s view – but not ours. A fabulous scene with a runaway wheelchair nearly puts paid to the entire endeavor.
The under-rated Michael Sarrazin (In Search of Gregory, 1969), given a more complex character than before, switches through the gears of terror, charm and predation. Gayle Hunnicutt (P.J./New Face in Hell, 1968) is a less obvious femme fatale, relying far more on brain than obvious physical attributes. And what a delight to see 1950s box office queen Eleanor Parker (Warning Shot, 1967) handling a much larger role than was normal at this point in her career. Tim Henry made his movie debut. You might also spot Laurence Naismith (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963) and one of Judy Garland’s husbands Mark Herron (Girl in Gold Boots, 1968).
From the atmospheric credit sequence featuring silhouettes of cats through a rash of twists and turns director David Lowell Rich (A Lovely Way to Die, 1968) guides this unusual thriller with considerable expertise, knowing just when to add another layer to the suspense, and drawing excellent performances from the two principals. The original screenplay is by a master of the macabre Joseph Stefano of Psycho (1960) fame. Unlike me, who had a head start, this chiller will keep you guessing.