Sacre Bleu! 10 Reasons to Watch The Catman of Paris

First thing’s first: I’m going to get my digression out of the way.

As a young girl training at conservatory, the future famous opera singer Maria Callas used to sit and listen to all of the other singing students, many of them mediocre, during their lessons. She said that you could learn something even from the mistakes and foibles of other voices.

I offer this anecdote in order to rationalize my love of endearingly crude or creaky movies.

Yeah, like I need an excuse. Because, c’mon, people, it’s not like human beings got a whole lot more discerning and sophisticated in the past 60 years. We, the smug spectators of the 2010s, may prefer to think that we can savor a silliness and “camp” factor that those naïve ancestors of the 1940s couldn’t, but I don’t believe it for a moment. Those cynical, hard-working citizens of another era probably reacted with the same amusement as we do to absurd plot holes and exaggerated acting. They might not have understood what “snark” and “camp” meant, but they would’ve experienced them, I am sure. And it’s condescending to them to pretend otherwise.

Yeah, even your Red Cross Girl grandma would’ve found this silly.

Which begs the question, why did people go to watch a movie like The Catman of Paris? What pleasure can we derive from watching it?

10. Because it’s so very French, non?

I have never, in all of my years of obsessing over Hollywood films, seen a movie in which the name Charles is consistently pronounced in the French manner, “Shaaaaah-le,” like this one.

Charles: “Mon Dieu! I seem to be souffring from some étrange maladie!”

Which is really funny, since the accents in The Catman of Paris range from the genuinely French to the vaguely European to dodgy Pépé-Le-Pewe approximations to not-even-trying. The Inspector, primarily, speaks most of his lines in a flat American drawl, but has to say the names all Frenchy-like. Just listen to him try to do the R-in-the-back-of-the-throat that frustrates every beginning French student.

“I am sorry, Monsieur. You’ll have to take that up with another fonctionnaire.”

At one point a character tries to convince another to hide out, saying, “If you fall into the hands of the bloodhound Sévéren…!” Every phrase is so flowery and blustery that there’s really a hidden “Sacre Bleu!” in each line. Oh, did I mention that there’s also a Can-Can dance and cafés? Vive la France!

9. Quite good special effects makeup.

Not, say, Jack Piece good, but Bob Mark, the makeup supervisor, did a fine job on this and many other films (one thinks of the soulful, heavy, fuzzed-out eyeliner look he brought to Maureen O’Hara in Rio Grande). Mark serves up an appropriately grotesque creature in the titular catman.

8. If you don’t have the time to read Penny Dreadfuls…

The picturesque quality of the mise-en-scene ensures that the whole movie resembles a Belle Époque engraving full of pointy-nosed maidens, idyllic gardens, and trim carriages. Only, every now and then, there’s a catman and a brutal murder.

           

This decorative frilliness combined with a monster on the loose recalls the “penny dreadfuls” of the 19th century. Like penny dreadfuls, Poverty Row horrors aren’t particularly well done, but they do sell thrills and a fussy, poor man’s Gothic ambiance that comforts as much as it scares.

7. Hey, didn’t I see him in…?

If you regularly watch Republic programmer pictures (I am Nitrate Diva and I am a Nexflix-aholic…) you start to feel like you’re going to an old repertory theater. The guy who was the murderer last week is the victim in the new production. The trampy girlfriend of the last picture plays the wife in the next one. In other words, there’s a whole extra-diegetic thrill of identifying the actor.

I admit that this sounds pretty film geeky, but even so, I would be surprised if people from the 1940s didn’t whisper to their companions, “Hey, didn’t I see him in…?”

The watching process includes a memory game—not unlike the license plate game, but with actors. Despite everything we learn in film class about absorption and identification, the classic Hollywood spectator would have discovered their own ways of playing with a movie. They would have, I hypothesize, enjoyed recognizing the same little-known actors just as much as we do today—if #TCMParty is any indicator.

Keep an eye out for Dourglass Dumbrille (what a name!) as Borchard. You’ll definitely recognize him from a much more prestigious (though not much better) film—The Ten Commandments. And you might also recognize faux-French Lenore Aubert, the lady in distress in Catman of Paris, as the would-be vampiress seducer of Bud Abbott in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein!

6. Because the plot is just too weird to pass up on.

 A reincarnated catman who’s existed since before the birth of Christ? Check.

A monster movie about—seriously—publishing? Uh-huh.

A secret trial overheard by a guy… in cat form? Yup, the plot hinges on it.

 This is whacky stuff. Don’t miss out on the sheer oddball joy of it all.

5. Nutty dialogue…

A sample: “Governments are like women. They weep and they pout and they threaten, but the more you scorn them, the more they respect you!”

“Charles, stop treating me like a government!” 

Hey, U.S. Gov—your crocodile tears don’t fool me one bit. I’m giving you the silent treatment for a while. How you like me now, Uncle Sam?

4. Because it was made by mega Western director Lesley Selander.

“Yeehaaah!” Wait, I mean, “Allez! Allez!”

Selander directed over 100 in his career, the majority of them programmer Westerns. He’d worked with John Ford and W.S. “One-Take Woody” Van Dyke. In other words, he was kind of a dyed-in-the-wool buckaroo guy.

Knowing this fact, The Catman of Paris comes across totally differently, because you can tell that the director is doing what works for him. That is to say, he includes a lot of Western-style action stuff. In 1896 Paris. Quite a combo there.

Really, there’s this great five-minute-long brawl between a whole bunch of unemployed artists and our main character—a novelist. They just drop their conversations about art and life and start knocking each other around! Leaping off of bars. Falling on top of tables. Throwing chairs. Um, French artists will scream at the top of their lungs in defense of their famous authors, but they’d be damned if they spilled a drop of café au lait while doing it, which is why this brawl is so very funny.

“How DARE you say that about Baudelaire?” 

It’s like if John Ford did a production of La Bohème.

Then there’s a carriage chase, which somebody copied and pasted from Selander’s last 40s Western. Hey, switch the stagecoaches for French fiacres—you’ve got a horror chase! I was still expecting the cavalry to show up, though.

Basically, what we’ve got here, is a horror with the tropes of a Western. How often do you get to say that?

3. Because this was the 1940s standard for violence?

As I’ve said, I don’t think our mid-century, War-Bond-buying forebears were immune to the kind of snide humor that continues to tickle us today. Nevertheless, I would argue that their tolerance for violence in film does not match our own. Even if you fought at the Battle of the Bulge, movie violence might shock you if you possess little experience with it. Movie violence often doesn’t look like real-life violence, it’s much bigger if it happens on a big screen, and we also have the hidden question in our minds: “Am I supposed to enjoy this?”

And, for 1946, Catman would’ve been considered quite bloody. In fact, I’ve read a review from the L.A. Times in which the critic has little to say about it except that it gives a few good chills and has “very violent effects.”

So, take a little vacation from blood spatter, and try to put yourself into a frame of mind to accept blood trailing down a woman’s décolleté as truly horrific. The gore you love will seem extra-gory when you return to it.

2. Because you’ll delight in a few clever stylistic touches…

Although they mostly involve cats or shadows.

1. Umm… am I the only one picking up on the serious homoerotic subtext here?

Do note that some spoilers lurk in this reason.

How often do you get to see a man slap another man in movies? Our main character, Charles, a best-selling writer, spends most of his time hanging out with his “patron,” Borchard.

We first see them both together as men about town, having dinner, just the two of them. Later, when Charles stops off at what appears to be his home, we hear Borchard call his name from off-screen and then see the patron cozily installed at a desk. So, they live together?

Things really get awkward when Charles falls in love. We get scenes of the amnesiac Charles, who thinks he might be the catman, depending on the advice and help of Borchard while Charles’ girlfriend remains on the fringes, an interloper in the relationship. When Charles grows hysterical Borchard bitchslaps him! There’s something not quite professional about that relationship.

Turns out, Borchard is the Catman (Yes, goo, goo, g’joob!) and has devised a scheme to kill off everyone who stands in the way of Charles’ path to literary immortality. In other words, Borchard kills for Charles. Psychotic love alert!

Two’s company—and three’s a foule!

In that case, The Catman of Paris is richer than it seems.  The idea of embedding a supernatural animal-man in the context of a homoerotic relationship adds a layer of interest to the story. It’s enjoyable for me, as a modern critic, to think about how the 1940s resorted to such elaborate means to represent psychological and sexual difference. I wonder, would the 40s audience have picked up on that? At the very least, I’m sure that they could intuit some of it—which makes even a silly movie like this one worth watching.

Heart of Darkness: The Vampire’s Ghost and Colonial Horror

Everything belonged to him—but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own. That was the reflection that made you creepy all over. It was impossible—it was not good for one either—trying to imagine. He had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land—I mean literally. 

                   — Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

The Vampire’s Ghost reeks of jungle rot, regrets, and that creeping evil that lives far beyond the gratification of its desires. Instead of the dark peacock virility of Lugosi’s Dracula, that lusty Deco reincarnation of European romanticism, this 1945 B-film offers up a bulbous-eyed, gaunt expat, Webb Fallon, as its parasitic antihero. Fallon is a vampire who is both moribund and mighty, weary yet insatiable. Ugly as gull, courtly as a prince, and efficient as a bureaucrat, he embodies the musty charm and banal wickedness of a decaying colonial empire.

In fact, running his shabby little casino and dive bar to keep afloat as he feeds on blood, Fallon (John Abbott) reminds me of what Conrad’s Mister Kurtz would have become if he had been doomed to eternal life. I suspect that Kurtz’ bravura would have mellowed into Fallon’s disillusionment if he had been forced to watch the downfall of his works and to observe for centuries “the horror, the horror” that he had only begun to conceive of on the brink of death.

Let’s take a look at how the movie, directed by Lesley Selander, begins. Rather like Casablanca, it begins with a map, the sound of drums, and an authoritative, cultured, newsreel-ish voice-over intoning, “Africa, the dark land where Voodoo drums beat in the night…”

In the context of 1940s cinema, we read this narrator not only as a nondiegetic element, but also as an element divorced from the story. In a way, the audience members think in the back of their minds, the movie hasn’t even started. This voice-over is here to situate the film with a few choice clichés, we assume. The camera focuses in on a specific town on the map as the voice continues to spout some vague scene-setting lines about “the mystic moon” and such. Now, dissolve to the village, the real thing, not a drawing, at night. The cluster of grass huts and a Christian mission squat bathed in moonlight as the camera pans ever so slowly around.

The drums beating constantly in the background may now be interpreted as diegetic, since they’re coming from the village. That subtle change forces us to readjust our assumptions as the narrator’s baritone keeps talking: “Africa… where men have not forgotten the evil they learnt in the dawn of time.” Okay, the narrator in Casablanca would never say that. Who the hell is this?

At this moment, the voice betrays itself. “I always come back to Africa… but even here there is no rest for me. The path of time is curved here like a sickle.” This mercurial shift from a relatively detached, conventional narrator to the narrator as an “I” hits home like a stealth attack. I felt as though the subjectivity of this character had been lying in wait, biding its time. Now the camera begins to really move in earnest, tracking towards a doorway and we understand that we’re in a point-of-view shot. Once again, we’ve been lulled into a false sense of a security and, in a way, what we see has suddenly been possessed by the intent of another. It’s quite a clever opening play and it only gets better.

This voice and this perspective stalk up to the door as the voice grows more emphatic, culminating in “I cannot die!” at the moment when a hand appears on a door handle, before trailing away with the hypnotic repetitions of “I cannot rest. I cannot rest. I cannot rest…”

Continuing from this perspective, there’s a cut to a little barking dog on the other side of the door. Cut to the hand opening the door. The dog cowers as the camera creeps towards a sleeping woman. She wakes. She looks terrified. The shadow falls over her. She screams. Fade to black.

We’re all used to the monster attack as an opener, a classic “curtain-raiser” in films, but here the unusual complicity with the vampire—a complicity that’s imposed upon us through a careful use of cinematic language and audience expectations—attracts me to this sequence. Not only do we experience the attack through the eyes of the predator, we also hear his plea for “rest” as he prepares to drain a human being of life. The viewer finds himself simultaneously drawn in and repelled.

The grave, sonorous voice of John Abbott certainly catalyzes this blend of fear and sympathy: he was a noted English actor of Shakespeare in the 1930s. My fondness for this film may be running away with me, but I’d say this opening speech recalls Richard III, who’s always trying evoke the pity and admiration of his audience—so that they become willing accomplices and victims. (This might be a good place to point out that the script was written in part by Ms. Leigh Brackett, based on her original story. You might know her from movies she went on to write for, including The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye.)

Fallon is not your ordinary vampire. Graf Orlock from Nosteratu definitely doesn’t tug at our heartstrings and Lugosi’s Dracula might make a single off-hand remark about “far worse things than death” but he never seeks to form a true of bond with the audience, to rest his head on the shoulder of our conscience and beg for a modicum of understanding. Not the Count.

In The Vampire’s Ghost, by contrast, we start with the vampire’s side of the story. And he doesn’t seem like such a soulless creature. Which is why he’s so very dangerous.

The Outsider

In case you’ve not seen this rare gem (so rare you can watch it on Netflix Instant, if you have 55 free minutes), here’s a quick synopsis: the wicked, undead nightclub-owner Fallon goes for Roy (Charles Gordon) the Good Guy’s innocent girl Julie (Peggy Stewart) and gets killed with help of silver spear-wielding natives and a Catholic priest.

That plot, minus a few specifics, could summarize almost all of the 1930s and early 1940s horror films, but this entry into the vampire cannon intrigues me because it takes Fallon quite a long time to do anything evil after that opening night sequence. In fact, he saves Roy’s life from a native jungle trap! Honestly, not many vampires come across as such consummate gentlemen. Even Julie tells him that he’s the nicest man she’s ever met.

In other words, chivalry is not dead. It’s undead.

We don’t learn very much about Fallon, but we do know that he’s actually over 400 years old and received the box in which he keeps his sacred earth from Queen Elizabeth, which hints that he was probably one of the early European explorers to colonize and enslave Africa.

So, in the midst of the thick, machete-impenetrable jungle, Fallon remains a throwback to the heart and heyday of Western civilization in all of its sin and glory. He’s part of the hegemony, a son of the British Empire. And yet, the white community doesn’t fully accept him. When Roy and Julie invite Fallon over for dinner with the other whites, the priest immediately gets judgmental, asking why “a man of your intelligence” spends his time running a saloon.

I just adore this shot, with the priest looking all… well, priestly, while Fallon lights his cigarette with a little lick of flame that reminds us of where he truly belongs in the Church’s eyes: Hell. However, the usual good-bad, white-black color iconography is reversed: the vampire wears white and the priest, the holy father, wears black. Morality seems clear-cut in The Vampire’s Ghost, but if you look harder, another layer of complexity arises.

To get back to Fallon’s saloon, it comes across as a subversive, transitional space, with the lithe, brown-skinned Leeza (Adele Mara) swirling around as a native temptress for drooling white workers and sailors.

I suppose that my point is, Fallon represents an unholy thing because he can be at once the familiar and the Other. Although he is rational and civilized, his existence defies rationality and his appetites are indeed savage.

The Return of the Repressed

By rising from his grave, Fallon disinterred that part of colonial history which many people would rather forget. His hunger and his need for conquest parallel a larger pattern of callous global vampirism: colonization. Which brings us back to Joseph Conrad and Heart of Darkness.

Mister Kurtz, the unconscionably evil ivory trader from Conrad’s novella, has also projected himself into the field of the Other. He embodies the pinnacle of European talents and European cruelty—and uses these traits to set himself up as a tyrant god to the natives. The narrator of the novella, Marlowe, recoils from Kurtz’ atrocities and yet he cannot deny the personal magnetism of this human monster who brought the logical extension of “civilization” to fruition in pure savagery.

In a famous scene from the book, Kurtz, dying of a jungle sickness, tries to crawl away from camp rather than leave the heart of the Congo where he rules supreme:

“He rose, unsteady, long, pale, indistinct, like a vapour exhaled by the earth, and swayed slightly, misty and silent before me; while at my back the fires loomed between the trees, and the murmur of many voices issued from the forest…

‘I was on the threshold of great things,’ he pleaded, in a voice of longing, with a wistfulness of tone that made my blood run cold.

I tried to break the spell—the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness—that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions.”

This passage has much of the visuality of horror about it and makes me think particularly of the scene in The Vampire’s Ghost where Fallon reveals his vampirism.

So, in Fallon’s tent, Roy realizes what his “friend” is and first stuns him with the image of the cross, then tries to kill him with a silver-tipped spear. However, Fallon fixes his staring eyes on Roy and the weak-willed juvenile leading man caves under their force.

The low-key chiaroscuro, the Christian iconography, and the dramatic poses, reminiscent of Renaissance paintings or of the tapestry in Fallon’s bedroom, enhance the feeling of a regression to an older time, as though Fallon has suddenly reached the point where his primal hunger and his refined European wickedness intersect.

For most of The Vampire’s Ghost, Fallon appears as a declining power, which makes his force seem all the more diabolical when he finally pushes aside all of his compunction and world-weariness. He unleashes the single-minded imperialist he once was, the conqueror who lives only by the law of might. He tells Roy point-blank that he’ll do as he pleases because he is beyond humanity. “You’re seeing a creature that doesn’t exist. You’re looking at a legend… You can’t fight me. I have walked the earth for 400 years. I’ve learned things that no human being can ever know.”

This speech rings frighteningly close to Kurtz’ delusions  of grandeur. Both of them, no doubt, recognize the pain they cause—as the priest points out, in his own sanctimonious way, they’re intelligent enough to be self-aware. Even so, both Kurtz and Fallon would rather kill to feed their appetites than die: a choice that makes them perfect imperialists and perfect animals, predators who belong in the jungle.

It’s fitting, then, that Fallon rejuvenates in the forest, where he makes Roy carry him, just as Kurtz knows that, once separated from the jungle, he’ll die. Fallon bathes in the moonlight, where he can truly dismiss all his pretenses, and thus provides the focus for one of the most lyrical moments of the film.

The Fallen Idol

Fallon’s uncanniness resides in the fact that we identify him with the Other while he also strikes us as human in so many ways. However, like Kurtz, he becomes truly godlike at the conclusion when he resolves to bestow eternal life (or eternal death—ah! I’m having a Mummy flashback from my last blog post here!) upon Julie.

Fallon leads the compliant maiden into the heart of the jungle to an old pagan temple. The scene begins with a shot of the “savage” large-breasted goddess statue, an image that melds the erotic with the exotic, then the camera pans pans to reveal Fallon locked in a reciprocal gaze with this statue.

Again, the lanky, pale Fallon visually comes across as the polar opposite of this sensual indigenous idol (and yes, it is a very ersatz Hindu-African hybrid idol, but let’s take it at face value). Yet, like Kurtz, who joins the pantheon of capricious, wrathful native deities, Fallon has much more in common with a morbid god than with the stiff cast of Europeans that dominate the plot. And, like a decaying culture or a dismembered empire (Were you ever bitten by a dead bee?), Fallon draws us in with his tragic need to expire—which will always be trumped by the consumption necessary to survive.

Ruthlessness, as Nietzsche (surely Kurtz’ favorite author!) tells us, requires a lot of strength and a surprising amount of self-control.  Fallon the tempter is himself tempted by death, but keeps killing to stay alive. Throughout the film we wonder why, and it boils down to an addiction. A behavior pattern of exploitation that perpetuates itself. Every “memory of gratification and monstrous passions” lures Fallon back to that same desire for power. He’s too strong to let himself die.

He’s not without a conscience, like Dracula seemingly is, but, having largely mastered his conscience, Fallon can stomach destroying a few lives to preserve his own intoxicating authority over others. We catch a glimpse of that side of Fallon when he sadistically gloats by Roy’s bedside, giving Julie his shoulder to cry on and then, when alone with the poor boy, gloating over his imminent victory.

The complexity of Fallon’s character as a sort of fallen idol imbues the film with added depth. He doesn’t put everyone in his thrall but once he does, as with Roy, he goes all-out, gleefully making them his slaves. He doesn’t like the fact that he hurts people, but he certainly enjoys doing it. We, as an audience, also enjoy it, I’d point out, since his most sinister scenes stand out as the best in the film.

But back to the grand finale. As he prepares to treat Julie to The Fate Worse Than Death, Fallon repeats his line from the opening monologue, “the path of time is curved like a sickle…” but this time he ends his speech by saying that a man need not walk that time alone and that he wants Julie to be his companion for all eternity. He seduced the audience with this line. Now he tries it on a new victim and it seems to be working. The repetition also reinforces the idea of vampirism as an addiction, as a compulsive behavior pattern which, like imperialism, once set into swing, cannot easily be halted.

That is, until Roy, the priest, and his native friend show up with crucifixes, silver-tipped spears, and torches, as we knew they would.

I can’t help but find it amusing that that the hardcore Catholic priest teams up with the much-maligned “superstitious” native leader, to roast the vampire. But, then again, the indigenous people understandably hate Fallon for exploiting them (literally sucking their blood) and hypocritical whites hate Fallon for giving away their much more subtle vampirism (Who’s tapping the rubber out of those trees?) as well as for “luring” away their pure young girl (You can’t make the whites into your slaves!). It’s only right that they should band together to forever destroy this blasphemous creature who’s neither us nor them.

Nevertheless, just as it’s difficult to forget our twisted admiration for Kurtz, who was, to his credit, honest about his barbaric methods, Fallon similarly invites the viewer to sympathize with him while he never hides what he does. He may be homely, corrupted, and poisonous, but his superhuman insight and his ability to cling onto life—even when part of him tragically craves death—these qualities hold us spellbound.

As Marlowe laments the loss of Kurtz’ originality in Heart of Darkness, “Ah! but it was something to have at least a choice of nightmares.”

Fallon acknowledged his own status as something better off dead, but we respect his fierce implacability in getting what he wants. Isn’t that the same ineffable motive that drives all of us to keep on living, even as other things—perhaps better things—die? Vampirism. Imperialism. Both warped versions of the same survival instinct. And both really human to the core.

Heaven knows what devils we might all aspire to be if plunged into the heart of darkness.