Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I raise a glass to Adele Mara and watch “The Catman of Paris” and “The Inner Circle”

I've never really been a great one for oaters. But I instantly recognised the name Adele Mara, and her pretty little chipmunk face, when I read the sad news over at Ivan's that she has passed through the screen and into the silver nitrate, at the age of eighty-seven.

Where had I seen her, though?
I confess it took a while to place her. Certainly not high in the saddle with the Duke, or the adorable Roy Rogers, in any of her long list of movies with words like 'range' and 'trail' and 'creek' in their titles. (How do I know Roy Rogers is adorable if I've never seen any of his films? Because I've seen his This Is Your Life, and boy, what a totally great guy.)
Not in Sands of Iwo Jima, a film I'd always assumed was strictly stag. And not in Wake of the Red Witch, either, familiar to me only for marking the screen debut of the octopus prop that went on to star in Bride of the Monster. I don't even know what the red witch of the title is. A boat? The Communist menace? Presumably not an actual witch.

But Adele Mara I knew for sure. So it was off to Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion in search of an answer. (Note to younger readers: Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion is what we had before the imdb - and it smells nicer.) Turns out I have two of her movies: The Catman of Paris - of course! - which I've seen many, many times, and something called The Inner Circle (both 1946), which I'd never got around to seeing at all. A shocking oversight, to be remedied immediately in the form of a tribute double-bill.
So let's meet back here in two hours and ten minutes...

Okay, everybody present? Good. I trust we all enjoyed ourselves.

Catman is one of those 'below the radar' films that nobody seems to have heard of, and by nobody I of course mean nobody I might have expected to have heard of it. (Most people these days haven't heard of Casablanca, so the chances of my being able to chew the fat with them over a couple of jars about The Catman of Paris are on the scanty side, but even most fans of The Ape Man seem to have missed out on this one.) It is a strange little forties horror film, decidedly minor - I make no wild claims for it - but it's very unusual, which always counts, and eminently watchable, which counts still more. Its indebtedness to Tourneur and Lewton's much better known Cat People should in itself earn the film at least footnote status in overviews of the genre, but no such luck. But it's really weird, and by no means unspooky. I love it.
Part of the problem, perhaps, is that it was made by Republic, a studio not known for its horror movies and not overly familiar with the genre's conventions. (Writer Tom Weaver notes the preponderance of bar-room brawls and horse-drawn carriage chases in the studio's few horrors, a case of sticking with what you know.) The other snag is that it has a nice idea but a ridiculous plot, by which I mean not simply the basic, a priori ridiculousness of a film about a werecat, but the kind of looney tunes bonkersness we associate with the Monogram and PRC scenario writers, where nothing makes any kind of sense even by the idea's own lights. That doesn't mean it's not entertaining, but it puts it a rung or two or three below a film as well-conceived as Cat People.
The cast is a nice assortment of B-level familiars: Douglas Dumbrille, born shifty, is obviously up to something, though it's a surprise when he actually turns out to be the catman (perhaps needless to say, however, it's not Doug leaping about in the cat make-up). Lenore Aubert is the heroine here, a nice contrast for those of us who know her mainly as Dracula's co-conspirator in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. And Carl Esmond, the charming Austrian actor here enjoying a rare lead, is the hero. (Anyone remember The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Meet Dracula?)
Adele is second female lead, and she only has three scenes, though they're three good ones, and acting-wise hers is actually a meatier role than Lenore's. As Esmond's pouty, bitchy former fiancee she has a couple of good, sulky confrontation scenes (in a patterned dress that has obviously come from the saloon queen section of Republic's yeehaw cupboard, though we are supposedly in fin de siècle gay Paree) and then a well-photographed exeunt when what she thinks is Esmond in the darkened cab turns out to be Tiddles. It's a very nicely done little scene, and Adele makes a real impression in her limited screen time and tinyish role.

Adele and Lenore cower in abject terror from a Republic stills photographer

Republic made few horror movies, as I said, though another one of the few is The Vampire's Ghost (1945) and Adele's in that one too. I've not seen it, and I say that with much regret, as according to Tom Weaver, her "suggestive dance earned the film a Legion of Decency 'B'."

What she was made for was the fast-talking dame in screwball or crime pictures. Republic didn't make a hell of a lot of those either, but at least when The Inner Circle came around they gave her the lead role (and top billing - not necessarily the same thing). It's strictly a supporter, and clocks in at about fifty-six (and I don't mean hours), a private eye murder mystery based on a radio show, with sassy one-liners and a great ending where all the suspects are obliged to re-enact the crime for a live broadcast.
That we have it at our fingertips today is thanks to the miracle of cheapo public domain DVD box-sets, where it is to be found filling out the track listing in more than a few all-time greats and thriller classic combos. Until then it had disappeared entirely from consciousness: it's not in Halliwell's (not even the seventh edition with the extra 1940's films) or in Leonard Maltin's Classic Guide. It's a reminder of just how high a plane bog-standard time-fillers operated on back in the day, and makes you wonder just what else is hiding out there, waiting to enchant afresh. As Variety might have said, this is socko entertainment all right, except they wouldn't have, because people used to take fun like this for granted back then.
It's also a fine demonstration of Adele's truly assured and vivacious screen personality. She's terrific.
Starts with a girl's gloved hand hovering over a small ad for private eye Johnny Strange, before the camera pulls out to show a discarded revolver and a dead guy. Then we cut to Strange in his office, trying to mend a hole in his socks while placing an ad over the telephone for an assistant ("Must be blonde, beautiful, between 22 and 28, unmarried, with a skin you love to touch and a heart you can't"). While he's still talking Adele saunters in, gives herself the job and darns his sock before he has a chance to even register an opinion. Though obviously it's the same as ours. She's got the job.
She has a nice way with a one-liner, but obviously there's something mysterious about her, and as the light mystery unfolds we wonder if she's the top-flight dame she would have us believe she is, or something more sinister. Is she the Spanish mystery woman with a veil that Johnny can't see because she's always in the shadows? Is she the murderess? Course she isn't. She's top-billed. Keep up, do.

Never such innocence again. Watch it and weep. Just another nothing special night at the movies, 1946-style. There's not a thing about it that's great, any more than there is about Catman. It's just wonderfully, captivatingly ordinary. And that Adele Mara: she's one to watch for sure. Expect big things of her.
Oh, sorry. I forgot it wasn't 1946 anymore. I forgot these birds have flown.
I forgot it was two thousand and effing ten there, for a moment.

Well, so long, Adele: as per damned usual I waited to say hello until it was time to say goodbye, but I'm a fan now.