Friday, August 17, 2007

Movies: The Phantom Lady and Cat People

Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah. Fanfare, please, for my 100th post.

Now onto business. The NYC Noir fest drags on and I'm beginning to look forward to the end of August. I probably oughtn't have gone to the movies this night, but my esteemed movie-going buddy told me that Cat People was great; having seen it already, he failed to accompany me, and so I ended up suffering alone.

The Phantom Lady chronicles a young lady's search for the killer of her boss' wife. Why would she bother, you wonder? Because she is in love with her boss, and he's sitting on death row, wrongfully convicted of his wife's murder. Luckily, the D.A. (despite the fact that he put hubby on death row) believes that the murderer is still at large (he is), and he is helping the young lady to find him. Their only hope is to locate the "phantom lady;" the night that the murder occurred, our hero, having just been emasculated by his wife, went to a bar in a state of dejection. There, he met a strange woman wearing a dramatic feathered hat who refused to tell him her name or where she lived, but who had a drink with him, and we accompanied him to the theatre. Before his trial, he told the D.A. all about this woman, but none of the witnesses—the bartender, the taxi driver, the theatre performers—remember the woman; they all saw him, but no one saw this phantom lady. Now, our young miss moxie must track down these witnesses—the bartender, the theatre's drummer, and the theatre's singer—to find out the truth, and the truth is that they've all been bribed not to talk.

There is a smoky chase scene in which she first follows the bartender through the empty wet night, culminating in an argument after which he runs into the street and is killed by a moving car. Then, under the guise of fishnets and heavy lipstick, she goes to the theatre and easily seduces the lusty drummer (whom we had seen in earlier sequences trying to catch the eye of the phantom lady). The two of them go to a speakeasy for an excellent jazz sequence, and he then takes her home to his filthy one-room apartment, where he tries to put the moves on her. She cuddles up just close enough to find out that he was paid $500 not to talk about the woman in the big hat. Then, after a little skirmish, she skedaddles, and in comes a tall thin man with powerful hands, who strangles the drummer with a necktie—the very same way he strangled our hero's wife! Our young heroine has one more source: the Carmen Miranda-esque Broadway singer who had been wearing the exact same hat as the phantom lady, but she won't talk either. Luckily, though, our heroine has gumption, and she sees the performer's hat maker's insignia on a hatbox, and it's off to the next clue!

Meanwhile, our hero's best friend, a modernist sculptor who's been away since the day of the murder working on a project in South America, has returned, and is helping our young heroine and the D.A. in their search. Much to the audience's titillation, though, his is the same tall thin man whom we've seen strangle the drummer with his fine, strong hands, and it's clear that unless she stops snooping, our young heroine is next! At the hat maker's, they find out the name of the customer who has the matching hat, and they drive into the country to find her. It is the phantom lady! Unfortunately, she is extremely ill; her fiance died before they got married, and this is why she was in the bar that night, brimming with dejection. Her condition has worsened, but she produces the hat, and gives it to our young heroine. The tall thin man takes our unsuspecting miss and her new hat back to his studio, where they are to meet the D.A., but another one of his "dizzy spells" comes on, and he pulls off his necktie, preparing to strangle our young heroine. Luckily, the D.A. bursts in just in time to save her, although not in time to catch the murderer, who flings himself through the plate glass window to his death. Next thing you know, our hero is released from prison and back on the job, and his secretary is back at her desk as well. She's a bit disappointed that things are back to normal—that is, directions on the dictaphone without so much as a tender glance her way, until she turns on that morning's recording to hear his voice inviting her to dinner, that night, the next night, and the night after that, and all the nights thereafter. And then, "The End."

Cat People is as odd as as The Phantom Lady is typical, though not necessarily in a good way. This time, our young (anti-?) heroine is a pretty, petite Serbian, with a heavy kittenish accent, a beautiful brownstone apartment, and a strange obsession with the panther cage at the zoo. She's standing there, making sketches of the panther, when she meets a young man, a Joe America type, who is instantly fascinated by her. They have a few dates and then marry, without so much as exchanging a kiss. After the wedding, she locks herself in her room and refuses to spend the night with him, saying that she needs a bit of time. There seems to be some mystery relating to her home village involving evil "cat people," who, when embracing their lovers, turn into panthers and shred the unsuspecting limb from limb. Her husband sends her to a psychiatrist, who believes that he can treat her, but she doesn't show up for her second appointment.

Meanwhile, she becomes more and more obsessed with the panther cage, going there in the middle of the night, and one day stealing the key when the zookeeper isn't looking. All this time, too, her husband (probably because he isn't getting what he needs at home) begins spending more and more time at work, particularly with his female coworker, who knows all the details behind the sexless marriage. One night, she is followed home, and, when she gets there, is attacked in her swimming pool in the dark by what appears to be the shadow of a growling panther. When the lights are turned on, the only person there is the young Serbian, but after she leaves, we see that gal Friday's bathrobe has been "torn to ribbons," the way only a powerful set of paws n' claws could do. From here, the tension mounts, because we know that her psychiatrist is in the Serbian's apartment, waiting for her. She comes home and finds him, and he tries to seduce her. Taking her into his arms, we see their shadows on the wall and hear a good bit of growling and hissing. The shadow of a cat attacks the shadow of a man, and though he tries to defend himself with his cane, he is killed. Hubby and his new lover go to find the catty culprit at the zoo's panther cage—where else?—and find her there: a dead body, killed, it seems, by the escaped panther. It's a happy unhappy ending, though, because Joe America is now free to marry Jane America, and they can live their prosperous, hardworking, American lives together. As far as I'm concerned, it was a happy ending because it ended. Believe it or not, the movie then sprung not only a sequel two years later, but also a remake forty years later. That is the power of a good title.

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