Though it is credited as a BHP Film, The Shadow of the Cat is a Hammer production; their name absent because of contractual reasons. And while Hammer alumni like John Gilling, André Morell and Barbara Shelley are involved, it’s not surprising this caused some debate as to whether it was truly a Hammer production. It is rather a bit different from the usual Hammer fare. A horror-thriller with Gothic roots by Hammer Film Productions would usually be shot in lush colour, but The Shadow of the Cat is captured in stark black and white, looking more like something from their stable of gritty contemporary thrillers. Unusual as it may be, it is still a very rewarding viewing.
THE SHADOW OF THE CAT
UK, 1961, John Gilling
Tabitha makes the lives of the greedy murderers hell, attacking them at any given opportunity. The butler tries to capture the cat, but to no avail. Tabitha is quick to hide in the swamps. The maid attempts to poison the cat, but Tabitha refuses her food. The only person Tabitha doesn’t run from is the innocent Beth. Beth appears at the estate to comfort Uncle Walter after the strange disappearance of Aunt Ella, which is being investigated by a suspicious Inspector Rowles (Alan Wheatley) and newspaper man, Michael Latimer (Conrad Phillips). Driven to madness and desperation, Walter calls on his horrible brother (Richard Warner) and nephew (William Lucas), fresh out of prison for fraud, to capture and slaughter the vengeful feline.
The Shadow of the Cat is a tightly scripted tale of family greed, full of deliciously evil characters, and even a few complex ones. Walter, for instance, conveys a genuine sense of guilt over the death of his wife. I think this is perhaps more a credit to the incredible acting abilities of André Morell rather than George Baxt’s script.
Morell is the definite standout, but he is surrounded by capable thespians. Barbara Shelley is lovely in what could have been a sickly sweet role. Vanda Godsell is a lot of fun as the frustrated wife of Walter’s scheming nephew. Alan Wheatley – who played my favourite rendition of the Sheriff of Nottingham in ITV’s The Adventures of Robin Hood – also deserves a special mention in his small but enjoyable role as the police inspector.
And then there’s Tabitha the cat. Tabitha is a truly excellent animal performer. Director John Gilling has his feline star feature in difficult scenes of action in what would appear to be troublesome shooting locations. Tabitha skips along floating logs in swamps, walks along building rooftops, and swipes at everyone in sight.
It must be said that Gilling does not succeed in presenting Tabitha as a physical threat. I truly believe to make a cat appear scary is an impossible task. (Take Strays for instance.) No matter how much hissing or face-scratching Tabitha does, she is still a nonthreatening house cat. An early scene where Morell is sent into a panic while being stalked in the basement by the cat is, quite frankly, hysterical.
But, in a way, Tabitha’s absence of intimidation works in the film’s favour. Tabitha is, after all, the hero of the film. We want to see the cat take down Ella’s murderers one by one. And that she does. With style, I might add.
While the cat is not exactly frightening, I enjoyed the way Tabitha’s presence looms over the estate. There are several shots of the cat peeking in through curtained windows, often with glowing eyes, and her silhouette sometimes lurks in the background of the frame. Other times, we do not see her and only hear her grumbling meow.
The Shadow of the Cat is a breezy seventy minutes. While it’s not going to change your life, it’s competently made, well-acted, and very satisfying. It’s nothing more than a slice of entertaining nonsense, but that’s what I exactly wanted from it.
After decades of obscurity, The Shadow of the Cat has finally received a DVD release! I’m yet to see it, but I’m sure it will look better than any previous TV screenings. The release comes from Final Cut Entertainment, who received a poor reaction to their release of Brides of Dracula due to a cropping of the aspect ratio. Hopefully, the troubles that plagued that release are not repeated here.