Monday, January 24, 2011

The Moon, Cat Women, and Thou: CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON (1953)

Kip (Victor Jory) is clearly the real leader of the group, ("Every man a tiger, let's go!") He and navigaror Helen (Marie Windsor) alone seem to be complex people. She seems spaced out but it's part of her character as she's being controlled by the telepathic cat women (they only have that power with women)

"This is a scientific expedition, and not a stunt!" blares Laird Nitrate pictate acid: secure!" 

Doug Smith, naive radio operator of course stares at everything like it's the equally callow Lambda (Susan Morrow) or the wheat fields back home in bumfuck.

Engineer Walt (Douglas Fowley) instantly tries to turn everything into commercials for his personal gain  !" he says over their fo-broadcast transmission)

It starts fittingly with the crew waking up in their weird chaisse lounge chairs, wearing just normal military fatigues, the walls of the ship are corrugated metal, ala a woodshed. The effect is like some backyard man-cave set up by a teenage son, him and his friends laying around tripping on hash and too stoned to move. Rather than seem like a professional space crew they seem a bunch of goons at a bar who went to bed in the rooms at home, woke up here, and just figured they must have blacked out and so pretend like they know where they are. Sonny Tufts, their commander, nervously barks orders ("We do more than hope! We Work with confidence!")

CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON (1953) begs little but indulgence. It doesn't ask for respect, forgiveness or love, it's crankier about its own existence than you are, so if you want to come along, remember, it's going to be "by the book." This is a space expedition," rants Lair, their commander, "not some stunt!" Even so, the crew couldn't be more unprofessional, as if the rocket was a kind of co-ed hang-out where everyone got fell asleep around the pool (except it started to rain so they brought the chaisse lounges into the shed - as the walls of their rocket are corrugated aluminum. And what a gang - there's Doug, a moony, callow radio operator; Walt, the capitalist hustler engineer, whose every line of dialogue is related to turning this expedition into a chance to rake in some side cash via promotions, bottled moon mist, letters from the moon, and so on, which no one seems to think is unprofessional; hypnotized navigator Helen (the always nicotine-alluring Marie Windsor), Laird, their cranky commander and Helen's boyfriend (Sonny Tufts who shouts every line as if across a crowded room"); and Victory Jory, the natural leader who sulks all the while for one reason or the other, passive-aggressively one-upping the commander, refusing to leave his .45 automatic in the ship, and generally taking the reins in a buzzkill kind of way while coming onto Helen every chance he gets. And he's our hero! 

The result: something like a terrible play put on by your children in the basement you watch during cocktails with the neighbors, but they cast some once-famous vagrant who thought he was going to star in a major production, and at any rate was promised a fifth of Old Turkey, and still hasn't gotten it. The great thing about, say, PLAN NINE, was that Ed Wood really believed in his bullshit - he never missed a chance to convey his adoration of angora, but this, oh man.... Shot in 3-D in the middle of the night on cheap sets by the most depth-perception-challenged director in history (Arthur Hilton), CWOTM features cat dancing; spacesuit donning and doffing; a giant spider; mystic trances; plotting; hypnosis; and lots of sleeping and literal arm-pulling, and a great Elmer Bernstein score (he was just starting out). Take it or leave it.

I'll take it, because there is no 'late' sleeping on the dark side of the moon. There is no sunshine day for your mom to complain you're wasting. There are just stars, and those B-list actors starring the Z-list square in the face with stout discombobulation. See how they doze on lounge chairs in their aluminum siding-walled space ship! See how they doze amidst the columns and splendor of the secret cat lair! Shhhh! They waken and overhear a conversation. Shhhh... The two alpha human males fight over Helen... if you can call it fighting, aside from a few climactic fists. It's the closest thing we get as the main action occurs off screen -- an afterthought. Shhh! I just saw something new - this zillionth viewing - the giant spider has a huge horn on its head!! I can see numerous eyes too.

Helen, wakes up, screaming!
"Helen what's the matter!?" Lair shouts.
"Nothing," Helen says. "I just opened my eyes and missed you!" 

That's Cat Women all over - open your eyes and you miss it, but let the lids hang and find it - paradise. There, on the moon, with the crazy black leotard-clad cat women (too cool to even have fake ears).

The problem is of course we don't like Jory's stick-in-the-mud dickhead or Fowley's greedheaded capitalist or the greaser rube Doug, at lest at first. They're all comically broad, but you can't deny it's an effective metaphor for colonialism: Walt as the East India Trading Company ("You're too smart, baby -- I like 'em stupid"); Jory as the sweaty military strategists ever finding reasons to increase the strength of the outpost there to protect it); Laird as the stick-upper-lapsed Colonel Blimp, Marie Windsor as the future generations hearts and minds, Phipps as--well--the canon fodder. He'd like to take one of the cat girls, Lambda, to the beach and have, what do you call it? A Coke. That's what she likes best, somehow. 

Irresistible in its graceless charm and missing--thankfully--any sense of self-awareness or wit, MOON manages to forget more about male-female relationships than the entire rom-com genre will ever remember. Whether you're convulsing in alcohol withdrawal, or fuzzily fading in and out of stoned consciousness, CAT WOMEN is like some strange oxygen-enriched air magically adhering to the dark side of the moon for only you and your asleep, annoyed lover next to you to breathe. If someone else enters the room, its magic vanishes. It can't even hold up in a review like this. I don't know why I always defend it, except that I love it. I mean I love Lambda, and I love the dreamy flute passages by Elmer Bernstein. My favorite Bernstein? Ya, because I'll cry to his brother Leonard's work WEST SIDE but I'd much rather watch this and just let myself be lulled. 

CAT WOMEN, a movie so cheap that half its action scenes occur off-camera, described secondhand by actors who've just entered the room, whichever room the action's not in. The presence of a giant spider on strings pops up to wake you with Helen's screams if you were about to fall asleep. You could laugh at the spider's strings, but why? There's something poetic in the film that comes from somewhere far deeper. Kip is so beside himself with love over Marie Windsor he reacts with the news the cat women are bad like a surly schoolboy. Then he remembers at the last minute that literally twisting her arm breaks gets her to confess. Far more important (to him) than any news about Alpha's (Carol Brewster) grand plan to kill them all is that Helen really loves him and not Laird- that her being with Laird was Alpha's ESP-programmed wish, since (though this is never obvious) Laird knew more about ship operations. When she admits it thanks to his hurting her (which she loves - macho domination breaks the sisterhood qua-lesbian spell -- I can only imagine the excited spit-takes if this film is ever shown in a feminist film studies class), he uses the opportunity to make out with Helen passionately right in front of Laird, as if determined to make his humiliation complete. Even Bunuel, or Vons Stroheim or Sternberg would never be so cruel! Taunting him into a fight - the cat girls making a dash for the ship with the suits now relegated to an off-camera 'Bang! Bang! They're dead!' ending. 

The heterosexual hierarchy is restored, like even flames couldn't make it in THE FUGITIVE KIND.

Simple. Poverty-stricken. Beautiful. Faces on the wall that only eventually turn into flowers. A psychic palm reading (they mark Helen as one of them with a glowing moon orb palm stamp) in some terrible alternate reality, here no one washes their hair and the future is unwritten, just improvised off the back of the screenwriter's cocktail napkins. And UFO enthusiasts should dig that thing on the wall in the upper left. It looks just like a primitive sculpture of the face of a reptilian grey. An accident? Intentional? Just some weird trinket rummaged from the discarded prop bin in the alley behind the sound stage? Are those eyes just fronds, leaves on a forehead rose? Baby, there are no accidents in bad 1950s science fiction. I can imagine that face being added in the dead of the night by covert military disinformation specialists. To consider the seams of the simulacrum as the message, the glue on the aluminum siding spaceship is the meta link that breaks narrative hypnosis (the lounge chair beds right by the instrument panels a genius kind of sketch shorthand) is to consider myth at its most basic reptilian cortex-convex subterranean. Saving it for special occasions (after travel-related trauma), I sink into it with the cozy feeling as if space is a giant slumber party where someone is always awake and someone is always asleep, keeping the crew rooted in a place neither unconscious nor conscious. 

Cinema and viewing, especially late night semi-conscious viewing, is just like that.

And in watching the characters throw themselves into the limited circumference of the spider's range, positioning themselves so they can struggle gamely with it (since it clearly can't move on its own, save vertically) you feel unmoored from the limits of narrative and hurled into the fourth wall freedom of post-modern awareness. 

This is true freedom.  Normal sleep is just dull dream of soggy claws in contrast to such shallow depth, such groundless giddy hysteria. 

Above is another cool shot of some people sleeping. Doesn't it just make you want to sack out on a cold night like this? And of course, Helen. She sleeps like a champ:

I'm picky when it comes to my 4 AM favorites. I like that there's no exterior footage in CAT WOMEN. Not one daytime exterior establishing shot, no mismatched day-for-night driving scenes, no sense of grass or earthy values. It's soothing to my Swedish blood to imagine a world where the sun never comes up and the planet is populated only by cat girls who--for all their guile--are much more sympathetic than the brain-dead Tufts or the reptilian Jory. Sure, Jory never doubts his own moral rightness as he punches out women right and left (he'd be a great candidate for Summers' Isle) bug I love sweet Lambda (Susan Morrow), and the hypnotic dancing. The general cool and superior wit of the cat women. 

In case you can't tell, I first got into this movie while drunk in Seattle living with a girlfriend who was beautiful and already fed up with my sloth and debauchery after three months of unemployed cohabitation. Lambda could have been her sister, same kind of deer-in-the-headlights sweet clueless brunette cool and aquiline profile, and soft vaguely clueless voice. Man oh man. I was so in love (once we were apart) and all I could do was treat her mean and contemptuous until she left me, because god she was dumb. I didn't know then just how often beautiful people get away with never developing wit or acumen. Then for years afterwards I watched CAT WOMEN constantly to remind me of her.... "Lambda...." Seattle may as well have been the moon now that I was an east-coaster forever. It was the perfect metaphor. Like the 'Emerald City,' CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON is free of sunshine and sense of its own absurdity but it is rich with mist, garage sale decor, a beatnik coffee house aesthetic gone wrong, and a sense of smug sanctimony clouding its once-beautiful blankness. Yet it also carries the realization that paradise exists only in memory.  Even now long sober, older and no longer ever even thinking of her, or Seattle, or that lovely air (good god I loved that air). Cat Women still has an allure -- it alone survives the times. It alone is accessible. It needs not memory of paradise but offers it, if only an hour. An hour that's endlessly repeatable (followed immediately by Mesa of the Lost Women and Spider Baby, at least on my tape)

As Laird says with the ultimate Lacanian resolution: "Comes a time when you can't fight it... I know that now." 


1 comment:

  1. Nothing in particular to add, but what an astounding review - thanks as ever for writing it!

    For some reason, I've never seen this one (actually BUYING a movie like this rather than randomly catching on TV would seem weird and wrong to me, and I guess they never show it on TV in this country, so there ya go). But it sounds like my kinda thing and then some, so I think I should make the effort.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...