Eye of the Cat (1969) ***

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.

The Wild Angels (1966) ***

Riders stretched out across a sun-baked valley – you could be harking back to the heyday of the John Ford cavalry western instead of the biker picture, the first in the American International series, that sent shockwaves through society and laid the groundwork for the more philosophical Easy Rider (1969) a few years later. Long tracking shots are in abundance. You might wonder had director Roger Corman spent a bit more on the soundtrack, the bikers just worn beads instead of swastikas, and been the victims rather than the perpetrators of violence how this picture would have played out critics- and box office-wise.

The Wild Angels set up a template for biker pictures, one almost slavishly followed by Easy Rider, a good 15 per cent of the screen time allocated to shots of the Harley-Davidson riders and scenery, and a slim plot. Here Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda), trying to recover a stolen bike, leads his gang into a small town where they beat up a bunch of Mexican mechanics, are pursued by the cops, hang out and indulge in booze, drugs and sex, and then decide to rescue the badly-injured Joe (Bruce Dern) from a police station. This insane act doesn’t go well and after Joe dies they hijack a preacher for a funeral service that ends in a running battle with outraged locals and the police.

One of the weirdest posters of all time – at first sight it looks like Nancy Sinatra is holding the decapitated head of Peter Fonda in front of her.

There’s an odd subplot, given the lifestyle of freedom and independence, of Monkey (Nancy Sinatra) trying to get a romantic commitment out of Heavenly. Conversely, Heavenly, rejecting the traditional shackles of love, finds himself trapped by grief, eventually and quite rightly blaming himself for Joe’s death, and apparently turning his back on the Angels to mourn his buddy. The decline – or growing-up – of Heavenly provides a humane core to a movie that otherwise takes great pride in parading (and never questioning) excess, not just the alcohol and drugs, but rape of a nurse, gang-bang of Joe’s widow (Diane Ladd), violence, corpse abuse, and wanton destruction.

A ground-breaking film of the wrong, dangerous, kind according to censors worldwide and anyone representing traditional decency, but which appealed to a young audience desperate to find new heroes who stood against anything their parents stood for. In a decade that celebrated freedom, the bikers strangely enough represented repression, a world where women were commodities, passed from man to man, often taken without consent, and racism was prevalent.

Roger Corman (The Secret Invasion, 1964) was already moving away from the horror of his early oeuvre and directs here with some style, the story, though slim, kept moving along thanks to the obvious and latent tensions within the group. If he had set out to assault society’s sacred cows – the police, the church, funeral rites – as well as a loathing of everything Nazi, he certainly achieved those aims but still within the context of a group that epitomized some elements of the burgeoning counterculture.

In retrospect this appears an ideal fit for Peter Fonda, but that’s only if viewed through the prism of Easy Rider for, prior to this (see the “Hot Prospects” Blog yesterday) he was being groomed as a romantic leading man along the lines of The Young Lovers (1964). Bruce Dern (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, 1969) was better suited, his screen persona possessing more of the essential edginess while Michael J. Pollard (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967) was the eternal outsider.

Rather surprising additions to the cast, either in full-out rebel mode as with Nancy Sinatra (The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, 1966) or hoping appearance here would provide career stimulus as with movie virgins Diane Ladd (Chinatown, 1974) and Gayle Hunnicutt (P.J. / A New Face in Hell, 1968). Sinatra certainly received the bulk of the media attention, if only for the perceived outrage of papa Frank, but Hunnicutt easily stole the picture. Minus an attention-grabbing role, Hunnicutt, long hair in constant swirl, her vivid presence and especially her red top ensured she caught the camera’s attention.

Charles B. Griffiths (Creature from the Haunted Sea, 1961) is credited with a screenplay that was largely rewritten by an uncredited Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, 1971).

P.J. / New Face in Hell (1968) ****

Exceptional down-and-dirty thriller and throwback film noir woefully underrated on release but with a brilliant mystery (or two), a touch of satire, red herrings, some great lines, and believable characters. Private eye P.J. Detweiler (George Peppard) is so down on his luck he is willing to play the lover so an errant wife can be photographed in a motel room. What little he earns goes on paying is debts. So he can hardly reject the chance of serious money as bodyguard to Maureen (Gayle Hunnicutt), mistress of rich businessman William Orbison (Raymond Burr), never mind that she initially treats him as a servant.

Orbison has a legendary mean streak – to save on paper secretaries have to type closer to the edge of the sheet, he forces wife Betty (Colette Gray) to account for every dime of her allowance to the point of almost making her beg. Sadism is another character trait. He enjoys watching animals die. The childless millionaire adds his mistress to his will for the sole purpose of upsetting every other potential heir. In front of guests at a prestigious party he forces Betty to acknowledge Maureen’s existence.

The title was changed for British audiences and came from a line in the film.

This apparently wealthy world is riddled with seedy inhabitants, whose only motivation is  greed, all desperate to retain status or inheritance and enjoying Orbison’s largesse, which, despite his miserly nature, he nonetheless flaunts. As well as Betty enduring ritual humiliation to enjoy a gilded lifestyle, his executive assistant Jason (Jason Evers) accepts being treated as a gofer in order to keep his position and the perks that go with it, and Maureen makes no bones about prostituting herself for temporary and future gain. Everyone has to kowtow, even the occupants of a West Indian island dependent on Orbison for investment, not only a kids choir welcoming Orbison on arrival, but a calypso performer singing a song in his praise.

As various threats, including narrowly missing a bullet, are made against Maureen, making a classical entrance in a red dress and alternating between helpless victim and femme fatale, with her creepy manservant Quell (Severn Darden) reporting her every move, inevitably Detweiler grows closer to his client, unaware that Orbison is planning to have someone killed.

That someone turns out to be Jason, whom Orbison suspects of clandestine activity with his wife, and whom Detweiler innocently kills. As this takes place on the island, where the death is hushed up, Detweiler begins to wonder if he’s a patsy and, paid off by Orbison, undertakes his own investigation, quickly entering more dangerous waters, viciously beaten up at Quell’s behest in a gay bar, narrowly avoiding death in the subway and literally finding himself in the firing line.

Detweiler’s character undergoes transition, too. From begging for scraps and turning the other way so as not to jeopardize easy income, he rediscovers his suit of shining armor, walking down some pretty mean streets, a diligent private eye who can no longer be bought off, determined to get to the bottom of what turns out to be a complicated mystery. Detweiler is no Marlowe or even Tony Rome, but rather despicable at the outset, employing all sorts of dodges, his interest in Maureen not slackening even after he knows she indulges in a quickie with Orbison. He takes too much at face value.

The unfolding mystery is superbly handled, involving proper clues and investigation, shoot-outs and fisticuffs, the outcome not what you might initially imagine. Although primarily an old school private eye picture, it’s great fun, with some wonderful comedy involving a dog, gentle satire on the West Indian island where political whitewash is the order of the day, and some touching romantic foreplay.

Peppard (Tobruk, 1967) is outstanding as the dupe who rediscovers his moral compass and his Detweiler is an excellent addition to the ranks of the private eye.  Raymond Burr, a far cry from his Perry Mason (1957-1966) television persona,  is easily one of the worst screen millionaires in his contempt for humanity and with his silver hair and bulk and scheming proves a slick adversary. Gayle Hunnicutt (Eye of the Cat, 1969) is allure on legs, brilliantly playing every man in sight, eyes never diverted from the prize.

Brock Peters (The Pawnbroker, 1964) has a standout cameo as the island’s cynical police chief. Susan Saint James (The Name of the Game, 1968-1971) makes her movie debut as Orbison’s slinky sex-mad niece.  Also putting in an appearance are Wilfrid Hyde-white (The Liquidator, 1965) as the island’s sycophantic governor, Colleen Gray (Red River, 1948) as the humiliated wife, Severn Darden (The President’s Analyst, 1967) as the odious Quell and John Ford regular John Qualen (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962).

This was the second of director John Guillermin’s George Peppard trilogy following The Blue Max (1966) and prior to House of Cards (1968). Generally dismissed as a journeyman, Guillermin brings a sly eye to this picture, the send-up of British colonialism, the master-servant aspects, an over-the-shoulder shot of an unknown assassin, the scenes in a bar which doubles as Detweiler’s office, the brutal beating in the gay bar, and a brilliant subway sequence adding layers to the movie. He is bold in his use of close-ups with Hunnicutt, some compositions almost a homage to the Bogart-Bacall chemistry, and brings out a world-weary performance from the usually cocky Peppard.

Philip Reisman Jr. (All the Way Home, 1963) fashioned the screenplay, delivering one of cinema’s most memorable final lines.

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