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.

Behind the Scenes: “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They” (1969)

Dream Team Number One: Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. This was of course a good 30 years before the movie actually got made. The Horace McCoy novel was purchased in 1935 by MGM as a big-budget project teaming Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. This was despite Variety proclaiming it was “not screen material.” The premature death of Harlow put paid to the idea. Next, actor Wallace Ford (Freaks, 1932) bought it with Broadway in mind. A production was scheduled to open in 1939, but never did.  

Dream Team Number Two: Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe. When the comedian purchased the rights in the early 1950s he intended Marilyn Monroe to play the leading female. Although she was a mere starlet Chaplin had form in building up newcomers. Author McCoy had by that point become an accomplished screenwriter with over 30 credits including Gentleman Jim (1942), film noir Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950) and The Lusty Men (1952) That concept fell by the wayside when Chaplin was effectively banished from America while launching Limelight (1951) in Britain.

It was another 14 years before interest in the novel was revived by screenwriter James Poe, who purchased the rights from the McCoy estate. Although most famous within the trade for being accused of fraudulent behaviour in relation to his screenplay for Around the World in 80 Days (1956). Despite an Oscar for the film he was sued for $250,000. However, he had a sterling body of work including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Sanctuary (1960), Lilies of the Field (1963), The Bedford Incident (1965) and Riot (1969) and two other Oscar nominations.

In 1965 he had signed a multi-picture writer-director deal with Columbia. He was either going to make his directorial on The Gambler or They Shoot Horses, Don’t They. It turned out to be the latter. Failing to get the movie off the ground with Columbia or under his own steam, he turned to new studio Palomar, which was a production entity set up by the ABC television network, which bought over his rights as well as his script but kept Poe on as director.

Dream Team Number Three: Faye Dunaway. Yep, one big star, not two. Poe’s screenplay, while not eliminating the male lead, spun on a female star. Dunaway, hot after Bonnie and Clyde (1967), was offered $600,000 to play the role. Mia Farrow was also in contention, for $500,000. The only problem was, the budget could not remotely stretch to that. As helmed by Poe, it was to cost no more than $900,000. The film was scheduled to begin shooting in spring 1968 but a month later the start date shifted to June.

Two relative newcomers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler were brought in as producers to move the project along. Later they would be responsible for such classics as Rocky (1976), The Raging Bull (1980), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and The Irishman (2018), but at this point they had just three pictures under their belt, although that included Point Blank (1967), Their first task: persuade Poe to rewrite the script. They felt the third act needed work with restructuring elsewhere to make the pay-off work.

But Poe, believing his position was sacrosanct, refused to discuss a rewrite. He refused to discuss anything, period, treating the producers as his assistants rather than people with some power within the studio. According to Irwin Winkler, “Poe seemed unaware of the of the normal process of preparation, even though he’d been around movie sets for decades.”

Realising that getting a star on their budget was impossible, Chartoff and Winkler changed tack and talked to good actors, but even then few were interested. A less dramatic star than Jane Fonda you could not imagine, her resume filled with light comedies, French films that utilised her sexuality or the extravaganza that went by the name of Barbarella (1968). But the pregnant Fonda was keen on change. The film was delayed until after she had given birth. Michael Sarrazin should have been out of the equation. John Schlesinger had lined him up for the Jon Voigt role in Midnight Cowboy (1969) but Universal, to whom he was under contract, asked too much to send him out on loan.

With no sign of the rewrites, the producers became antsy about the director. However, they showed their true mettle as producers, convincing Palomar there was no way the original budget would cover the ballroom set, huge number of extras, live orchestra and salaries. It would need to at least triple.

In a picture of one predicament following another, there was one crisis the producers had not foreseen. They were going to be fired. Apart from anything else, they were only executives on the picture with any experience, it being not only Poe’s first movie but that of Chartoff and Winkler’s superiors at the studio. The outcome – the guy who had told the pair they were being fired was shown the door instead.

Susannah York was cast after the producers saw a sneak of The Killing of Sister George (1969) at the Robert Aldrich studios. She had committed to Peter O’Toole vehicle Country Dance/Brotherly Love (1970), written by her cousin James Kennaway (Tunes of Glory, 1960). After too many delays on They Shoot Horses she planned to pull out in favour of the other film. Although Sally Kellerman (Mash, 1970) was set as a last-minute replacement, the issue was resolved by asking MGM to delay the start on the rival picture.

Believing Poe was in no position to helm such a big-budget picture enterprise, Chartoff and Winkler began the process of removing him only for Jane Fonda to dig her heels in. She changed her mind after witnessing first-hand Poe’s directorial skills – or lack of them – when she took part in a screen test for Bonnie Bedelia. Winkler recollected, “On the set Jane asked Poe questions about the blocking of the scene, why she moves in one direction rather than another, why in front of a sofa rather than behind it etc. He couldn’t answer her questions and told her to talk to the cameraman.” Exit Poe.

In terms of a replacement, Chartoff and Winkler set their sights of Sydney Pollack (The Scalphunters, 1968) with whom they had previous dealings, and William Friedkin, then being hailed for The Homecoming (1968) – luckily The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968) had yet to be released. But studio executives had a third director in mind, Jack Smight (No Way to Treat a Lady, 1968). Friedkin should have been in pole position, having only received $75,000 for The Homecoming. His agent, sensing an opportunity, demanded $200,000. Jack Smight’s agent also got greedy and wanted $250,000. Pollack’s agent was happy with the $150,000 on offer.

When Poe was eased out, filming was announced as beginning on February 17, 1969, the budget having now increased to $3.2 million – including $400,000 for extras. However, acoustic issues – seawater had eaten away the bottom of the pier – prevented use of the old Aragon ballroom in Santa Monica. That set was constructed on the Warner lot.

Pollack then turned it down. He had reservations about the script, which had still never been rewritten. When Robert E. Thompson, a television writer but “a Horace McCoy expert,” was mooted, Pollack changed his mind. The new script contained the “flash forward” scenes that prepared audiences for the shock ending. However, the new scenes and delays in starting increased the budget which now ballooned to $4.7 million.

It turned out the director was the best actor of all. “I was impressed with Sydney Pollack’s ease on the set,” recalled Irwin Winkler. “He never seemed to be working hard and yet was able to get marvelous performances out of the actors. Everybody in the company adored him.” Asked by Winkler how he remained so calm dealing with the actors and all the extras and the complicated camera set-ups, he replied, “it was really quite easy.” That same afternoon he collapsed on set and was diagnosed with “nervousness.”

The studio, the stars, the producers, all seemed confident about the picture. All they had to do was convince the audience. But at the first preview in San Francisco the audience roared with laugher at the climactic scene. That shocked the studio to the core until the producers were able to reassure the head honchos that the “fast forwards” would smooth over that problem. Which they did.

It was nominated for nine Oscars – Best Director, Best Screenplay, nods for Jane Fonda, Gig Young and Susannah York among others. Only Gig Young won.  

SOURCES: Irwin Winkler, A Life in Movies, (Abrams Press, New York, 2019) p34-47;  “Tough Stuff,” Variety, August 7, 1935, p59; “Ford Buys for B’Way,” Variety, September 11, 1939, p42; “Dance Marathon Reprise,” Variety, August 3, 1966, p24;  “IT&T In No Way Slowing Down Theatrical Feature Program of ABC,” Variety, January 10, 1968, p4; “Crowded Slate for Palomar,” Variety, February 28, 1968, p18; “Bob Evans Chips-Service To Writers As Stars At Paramount,” Variety, May 1, 1969, p19; “Jane Fonda Gets Top Role in Palomar’s Horses,” Box Office, July 22, 1968, pW1; “Palomar Horses on W7 Space,” Variety, October 23, 1968, p3; “Jan 6 Filming Date for They Shoot Horses,” Box Office, December 16, 1968, pW5; “Cheery Side of Delay on Horses,” Variety, January 15, 1969, p21; “Winkler Wants Films With Social Comment,” Box Office, January 19, 1970, pW1.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969) *****

Fans of reality television shows will be only too aware how participants volunteer for ritual humiliation, but swallowing a few locusts and being stuck with a couple of snakes has nothing on the realities facing individuals during the Great Depression who would literally dance non-stop for days on end with a ten-minute break every two hours. It’s impossible to imagine that anybody could think of dreaming up such a degrading circus to take advantage of the desperate. But then this is America, land of opportunity and the MC Rocky  (Gig Young) continues to spout aphorisms and continues to promote the American Dream even as it disintegrates in front of him.

When the partner of Gloria (Jane Fonda), out-of-work actress and one of the more physical and cynical of the candidates hoping to scoop the $1,500 first prize (no prizes for coming second, of course), is ruled out through bronchitis – in case he passes it on to others rather than more any humane consideration – she pairs up with dreamer Robert who initially wanders in as spectator rather than participant. Glamorous platinum blonde aspiring actress Alice (Susannah York) is already coming apart. Sailor (Red Buttons) is a former war hero and James (Bruce Dern) drags his heavily pregnant wife (Bonnie Bedelia) around the dance floor.

There is not a great deal of story except to watch everyone grow mentally and physically incapacitated. There is betrayal and lust and survival instinct leads characters into sexual situations. When Alice seduces Robert, in retaliation Gloria dumps him and then has sex with Rocky, while attempting to retain control of that situation, but clearly needing at the very least consolation and confirmation of her attractiveness and at best some sign of favoritism.

As well as non-stop dancing, Rocky throws in stunts to keep the audience, who can sponsor a pair, interested. So there are 10-minute races, the last three to be eliminated. So determined are some of the competitors they will even lug their dead partner over the finishing line. Another of Rocky’s wheezes is to have Gloria and Robert marry, worth $200 in terms of the gifts they will receive from a sentimental audience, in the middle of the dance floor.

They are literally dancing for hours, over 1,000 in over 40 days so gradually the dance floor becomes less crowded as dancers collapse from exhaustion or cannot take it anymore. The spectators, we are reminded, are only there because “they want to see someone worse than them.” Just when you think nothing can shock you any more, it is revealed that the first prize is minus the cost of feeding, sheltering and looking after the winner.

Those who think they are tough find that the demands of mental and physical endurance are beyond them. This is a shocking film and there’s no doubt it will stay with you for a long time. I saw it first when it came out but not again until now and thank goodness for forgetfulness otherwise I doubt if I would have chosen to sit through it again.

It’s doubtful if any actress had achieved such a speedy transition from glamorous leading lady to serious actress as Jane Fonda. From stripping in space in Barbarella (1968) to stripping away the last vestiges of her humanity here. Suddenly, she appears in a brand-new screen persona with the grating voice, the chip on the shoulder, the feistiness and worthy inheritor of father Henry’s acting genes. It’s also a bold role for Susannah York, in an extension of the weak character she essayed in Sands of the Kalahari (1965) but far more delusional, believing in a rainbow that will never appear. Michael Sarrazin (In Search of Gregory, 1969) initially appears out of his league but his character calls for a gentle innocence that is well within his scope.

Gig Young steals the picture, offered the opportunity to bring alive a multi-faceted character, as big a spiel-merchant who ever crossed the screen, but engaging in a marathon of optimism, and at some points, such as when coaxing a demented Alice out of the shower, earning our sympathy.  Red Buttons (Stagecoach, 1966), Bruce Dern (Castle Keep, 1969) and Bonnie Bedelia (Die Hard, 1988) also put in sterling work.

The movie received nine Oscar nominations but was ignored in the Best Picture category. Only Gig Young won for Best Supporting Actor.  Jane Fonda and Susannah York both received their first Oscar nominations, for Fonda the first of many, for York the one and only. It was also a debut nomination for Pollack, a future winner.

Sydney Pollack directs with simplicity, concentrating on the indignities of the event and focusing mostly on the personalities draining away, and even the drama is undercut, most of those scenes directed in straightforward style. However, Pollack plays around with the innovative fast forward – flashes into scenes that have not yet taken place. James Poe (Lilies of the Field, 1963), at one time down to direct, and Robert E. Thompson, a television writer making his first venture on the big screen, wrote the screenplay from the Horace McCoy novel.

In Search of Gregory (1969) ****

Off-beat examination of the fantasy vs. reality conundrum with an ever-watchable Julie Christie as the woman on the titular hunt. One of the great lost pictures – the only film of acclaimed British theater director Peter Wood is a more whimsical cousin to the more deliberately obscure works of Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961) and Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow-Up, 1966) which pivoted upon the question of whether events presented actually occur or exist only in the head of the leading character.    

Catherine (Julie Christie) is enticed to Geneva by her father (Adolfo Celi) for his latest wedding on the basis that she will meet the impossibly handsome Gregory (Michael Sarrazin). On arrival she discovers the agoraphobia of younger brother Daniel (John Hurt) has been temporarily lifted by Gregory. Catherine appears set to meet Gregory on a number of occasions, but either he does not turn up (the wedding) or somehow they miss each other, even at one point occupying adjoining phone booths. And it would have been a pretty dull picture if that was all that was going on. But whether the result of reality or Catherine’s imagination, the Gregory we see is a vivid screen presence. The world the character inhabits is unusual to say the least, so unique that it is either obviously real or fake, but virtually impossible to determine which.

The best Gregory sequence, of which Steve McQueen would be proud, involves the character moving by means of the windscreen from one side to the other of a car driven at high speed. In another scene Gregory plays the equally perilous game of Autoball, a kind of polo with stock cars. As convincing is Gregory’s avant-garde orchestra consisting of two guitars, bottles, a bicycle wheel, a waste bin and coins in a glass. 

The detail is so extraordinary that it must be real. The brother seems real enough, too real if anything, close to enjoying (or pining for – the poster promises more than the picture delivers) an incestuous relationship with his sister. But for every moment that appears questionable – did she really witness Gregory making love to her future mother-in-law – there are others where doubts are immediately quelled (an address which appears non-existent is not). And long before anybody came up with the idea of selling bottled water, Gregory is apparently in the business of selling tinned Alpine air. Other moments she does not witness – Daniel riding a Lambretta/Vespa with feet on the handlebars – add to the prospect of genuine reality.

Catherine might even have met Gregory except that in going to bed with the man who looks very much like what we believe Gregory to look like she determines that he shall remain anonymous. So it’s anybody’s guess whether Gregory is a figment or phantom of her imagination. And why, of course, should such invention be necessary? Does it mean that her father and brother do not exist either? These days the unreliable narrator is a common literary device but that was not the case at the tail end of the 1960s, so in some senses this was way ahead of its time.

It’s interesting, of course, to attach logic to the idea that it all takes place in Catherine’s imagination. You can kind of understand that maybe she thinks her father’s latest bride is going to betray him at the slightest opportunity. But it’s some imagination that sends Gregory into devilry in the car with Daniel. And it begs the question if none of it is real why does she keep on missing Gregory all the time? Does that relate to an even deeper psychological feeling that she is always going to miss out?

It’s an entertaining mystery. There’s no great angst. Antonioni had the sense or cunning to ensure that consequence mattered in Blow-Up – a murderer escaping justice. But there’s no such tension here. While Catherine is tabbed a nympho by her brother (who never questions her father’s predilection for multiple marriages), the suggestion that she’d fly from Rome (where she lives with her boyfriend) to Geneva is the hope of a hook-up seems too far-fetched. Despite the presence of Julie Christie – who can certainly carry even as slight a picture as this – and a quixotic turn from John Hurt (Sinful Davy, 1969) it’s neither obscure enough to be arthouse nor sufficiently plot-driven to be mainstream and remains an oddity.

If you are going to be irritated beyond belief that will occur in the first fifteen minutes or so, but if you stay the course, you will find it a highly rewarding watch rather than a cinematic car crash.

Your best bet to catch this film is Ebay or other secondhand routes.

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