Catman of Paris, The (1946)

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Was he a vicious killer or just a harmless shapeshifter?
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US / 64 minutes / bw / Republic Dir: Lesley Selander Assoc Pr: Marek M. Libkov Scr: Sherman L. Lowe Cine: Reggie Lanning Cast: Carl Esmond, Lenore Aubert, Adele Mara, Douglass Dumbrille, Gerald Mohr, Fritz Feld, Francis Pierlot, Georges Renavent, Francis McDonald, Maurice Cass, Alphonse Martell, Paul Marion, John Dehner, Anthony Caruso, Carl Neubert, Elaine Lange, Tanis Chandler, George Davis.

In the closing years of the 19th century, bestselling author Charles Regnier (Esmond) is back in Paris after having spent a couple of years traveling in the Orient. His latest novel, Fraudulent Justice, is selling like hotcakes—in fact, his publisher, Paul Audet (Pierlot), declares that “Not since Balzac, not since Victor Hugo himself, has an author gained such popularity!” (What, no mention of Dumas?) All very atypical for publishers, who’re these days more likely to spend upwards of an hour telling you that the market’s tough, really tough, which is why you’ve yet again accrued no royalties . . . and then asking you to go dutch on the lunch they invited you to.

Charles’s patron and best friend Henri (Douglass Dumbrille).

But then Audet does indeed segue into what we might call Publisher Chagrin Mode. Although Fraudulent Justice is a huge bestseller, the book may destroy him. The cops are very suspicious of it, and may confiscate all copies, because it bears far too close a resemblance to the facts in the 1871 trial of one Louis Chambrais (sp?), a trial so scandalous and shocking that the records were stipulated to be kept under wraps for the next fifty years . . . and yet, a mere twenty-five years later, everything is being revealed in Charles’s so-called novel!

Lenore Aubert as publisher’s daughter Marie, whom Charles discovers he loves.

Charles is having a meal at his favorite nosherie, the Café du Bois, with his generous patron Henri Borchard (Dumbrille) when he’s suddenly smitten by yet another of the migraine-style headaches he has intermittently suffered ever since that nasty fever attack he suffered while abroad, and decides to cut the dinner short and walk home through the fresh air of the Parisian streets. (Fresh air? Parisian streets? At the end of the 19th century? Hm.)

He doesn’t get home until morning, by which time a librarian in the Archives section of the Ministère de la Justice, Devereaux (McDonald), has been ’ideously murdered while walking home late at night with a valise containing the papers relating to that very same long-ago trial of Louis Chambrais. We see a man-shaped shadow drop from a tree onto the luckless Devereaux, then a mannish arm grab the portfolio. Yet, as we’re later told, Devereaux has been shredded as if by a giant cat.

Archivist Devereaux (Francis McDonald) gets spooked.

L’inspecteur Severen (Mohr) of the Yard of the Sûreté reckons that Charles is the culprit, reasoning that Devereaux might have been leaking him the lowdown on the Chambrais case and that Charles might have wanted to silence him in case the archivist blabbed. This idea seems a bit outside the box until we learn how far outside the notions of Severen’s boss, le Préfet de Police (Feld), are: the Préfet believes there’s a werecat—kind of like a werewolf but more feline—on the loose. The exchanges between the two cops are quite amusing. Severen rolls his eyes at his boss’s credulity concerning supernatural creatures even though Severen’s own conclusions about Charles’s guilt, despite eschewing the supernatural, are equally ungrounded in any available evidence and largely rely on hand-waving.

Gerald Mohr as l’Inspecteur Severen.

Fritz Feld as le Préfet de Police.

The two cops pull Charles in for questioning, and he requests clarification of his position:

“In other words, you suspect me of turning myself into a cat merely to kill a harmless old man?”

Charles (Carl Esmond) can hardly believe his ears as le Préfet accuses him.

Charles is engaged to rich heiress Marguerite Duval (Mara), but realizes that he doesn’t love her. In fact, he loves Marie Audet (Aubert), daughter of his publisher, whom up to this moment he has thought of as merely a jolly good chum—an honorary boy, sort of thing. He tries to break off his engagement to Marguerite, telling her that, for his creativity to flourish, he needs to roam the world rather than be stuck in Paris, doomed to a life of stuffy parties and lots of money. But she explains sweetly that she’s the heiress to one of the most prominent families in Paris, so that if he thinks he’s going to dump her just like that he can think again, buster.

Marguerite (Adele Mara) can hardly believe her ears as Charles (Carl Esmond) tries to dump her.

Leaving her at the party in their honor they’ve been attending, Charles sets off on a walk to clear his head. This time, in his search for fresh air, he chooses the Duval estate rather than the Paris streets, which is sensible of him. Henri, still at the party, tells Marguerite that Charles is a troubled man, and that she’d do well to offer him a bit of TLC rather than place him under additional stress. So off Marguerite sets in a fiacre in search of her swain. Finding him in the park, she calls him to join her in her carriage and, oops, next we know there goes Victim #2 for the Catman.

The murder of Marguerite (Adele Mara).

This is the weakest sequence in the movie. It’s patently obvious that the person who boards Marguerite’s vehicle is keeping his face turned away from the camera. Similarly, in a very artificial fashion Marguerite does not actually look at the man who’s joined her in the carriage. There could hardly be a clearer signal that, whoever the Catman is, he’s not Charles.

On second thoughts, there’s another sequence of similar weakness. The Préfet insists that Severen go with him to consult Paul de Roche (Cass), grandson of the astrologer Guy de Roche. Paul, in affectedly pompous tones, reads to Severen and the Préfet an extract from Guy’s magnum opus, Astrological Prognostications. I don’t often feel much sympathy for any self-styled astrologers in the audience, but I did as I listened to Paul’s recitation, because it’s sort of second-order-of-magnitude bollox: not only does it not make any sense, it doesn’t make sense even in terms of the astrology.

Astrologer’s grandson and aristocratic loon Paul de Roche (Maurice Cass).

The idea is that Catmen emerge whenever Jupiter is in conjunction with a particular constellation, but (a) the named constellation doesn’t exist and (b) planets can be in conjunction with other planets, but not with constellations.

Paul de Roche, reading from his grandfather’s book, adds that “this phenomenon has occurred only eight times in the history of the world.” The current instance is the ninth, which of course matches up with the nine lives of a cat—now why didn’t I think of that!

Severen, man of rationality that he is, agrees with this observer that the astrological connection is obvious tosh, and indulges in further eye-rolling to indicate his opinion, but his boss, the Préfet, is an eager believer. On the other hand, as noted, Severen has an unsubstantiated idée fixe that the Catman is Charles, so he’s not himself as rational as he thinks he is.

Charles is rather of the same mind as Severen: he’s becoming increasingly certain that he’s the killer. During the period when each of the murders was committed, Charles was in a fugue state, preceded by a little sequence involving lightning bolts, stormy seas and a rather cute little black pussy cat. (The moviemakers didn’t bother varying this fugue sequence; they just repeated it as necessary.) He has no memory of what he was doing during the lost hours, and he can’t escape the fact that there’s circumstantial evidence pointing in his direction.

Charles (Carl Esmond) feels a fugue state coming on . . . and he has the visions of lightning to prove it.

By the time we get into the third reel it has become pretty plain who the Catman must be, although we haven’t a clue as to the killer’s motivation. By then we’ve had all the excitement of a horse-and-carriage chase, which is much the same as a car chase except that, instead of the pursuing cop car merely slewing out of control and off the road, it loses a wheel. We have, too, the inevitable climactic scene where Marie finds herself at the mercy of the Catman . . .

A horse-and-carriage chase.

The script makes quite a lot of effort to hint at a link between this tale and the legend at the heart of RKO’s similarly borderline-noirish (and very much better) CAT PEOPLE (1942), as for example:

Severen: “Incredible.”
Préfet: “Not at all. I told you there are cat people.”

Yet that connection doesn’t quite gel—for the obvious reason that here we’re being given a completely different legend, the one involving the nine astrologically driven incarnations of the Catman. The reason the Jacques Tourneur/Val Lewton offering, Cat People, works so much better is that, while clearly its underpinning is a piece of fantasy, that fantasy is left fairly vague. In The Catman of Paris the fantasticated underpinning is laboriously constructed and spelled out heavy-handedly, so that we feel as if we’re watching what should have been a pas de deux except that the dancers are wearing wellington boots.

And really it’s the story as a whole that lets things down. The denouement, when it comes, feels like a cop-out—not just because by then we’ve already deduced who the Catman is but because the script has opted for the easy option. The only potential surprise along the way is that Marguerite, introduced as a major element of the plot and portrayed by a very popular actor, Adele Mara, should be bumped off so promptly, but, as noted, the handling of that incident is clumsy to the point that the surprise is diluted to nothingness.

At last revealed! — the face of the Catman!

It’s all a bit of a pity because, while the direction and cinematography might be pedestrian, they’re not actually poor, and the performances seem committed, from Mohr, Dumbrille and Aubert in particular, with good chemistry between Aubert and Esmond. It’s just that the actors have been given the thankless task of trying to make the best they can out of a rats’ nest of silliness, one that can be exemplified by a line pontificated by astrologer’s grandson Paul de Roche:

“Legend which is handed down through successive generations becomes history.”

Sounds good, but . . . huh? Maybe we should think this one through a little further, M. de Roche . . .

Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.

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