It’s always interesting to see a filmmaker depart from their modus operandi. I have always felt that The Alley Cats (1966) was Radley Metzger’s best film, not because it adhere’s to what he’s always done best, but because it combines a freer camera style with campy melodrama all in the service of his signature soft-core spectacles (for a solid overview of Metzger’s works I’d recommend Pauline Edwards’ documentary Girls Who Like Girls). The Alley Cats is entirely emblematic of the silver sixties; it feels young, daring, it’s sexy, it is melodramatic, it drips with cool jazz sounds, and stands as a testament to Mod fashion and taste. Metzger’s gift was to bring a splash of class and a bit of humor to his erotic fantasies that enabled them to straddle the line between pornography and art in a culture just beginning to shed its Puritan inhibitions.
Perhaps it was silly of me, but I went into The Cat & The Canary (1978) expecting Metzger to have fused his erotic interests into the narrative landscape of something like Ten Little Indians (1965). I mean, Wilfrid Hyde-White does appear in both films after all. But Metzger never even dabbles in his signature soft-core reveries, nor does he play up the campier aspects of the stage play. On the contrary, Metzger does full service by John Willard’s work, photographing and directing the film very seriously so that the humor lives almost entirely in the dialogue (with the exception of just a few visual gags). There is something classy about Metzger’s The Cat & The Canary. It feels as if it were yanked out of the fifties and thrust into the seventies. Aside from some foul language, little in the film would have been censored had it been made twenty years earlier.
On a superficial level what has always been one of the great draws of this particular sub-genre of thriller is the enormous ensemble cast. Kenneth Branagh has been exploiting this quite well in recent years with his Poirot films. One of the best parts of The Cat & The Canary are the scenes between the queer cousins, Susan (the ever incredible Honor Blackman) and Cicily (Olivia Hussey), who live openly as lovers. Metzger directs these tiny gestures that speak volumes about the relationship between Susan and Cicily that’s quite surprising given his restraint when compared to the choices Metzger made in his earlier works. Overall, the entire cast seems to be enjoying the work so much that it’s almost like really good dinner theatre.
The Cat & The Canary will most likely appeal the most to those who are already fans of this niche genre. I suppose Metzger completists, such as myself, will also find some points of interest but I doubt they’ll enjoy the film as much as devotees to Agatha Christie and her ilk. In the end, The Cat & The Canary really could have used some Fabian.