Monday, January 24, 2011

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

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, as per the captain: "this is a space expedition --not some stunt!" 

It starts fittingly with some shots of a ship model being lifted past a picture of space, which must have been hilarious in 3D (it's theatrical format). the crew waking up in their weird chaise lounge beach chairs and navy hammocks, wearing just normal military fatigues, the walls of their ship corrugated metal, ala a woodshed. They seem more like a bunch of cranky kids squabbling in a big cardboard box with stars drawn on it. And the crew bear that out, despite the cranky leadership of Laird (Sonny Tufts), who wants to keep things always technical and "by the book."  Rather than seem like a professional space crew they seem a bunch of goons at a bar who went to bed in their rooms at home, woke up here, and just figured they must have blacked out and so pretend like they know where they are. Laird grips command like its a rope over a spiked pit, nervously barking orders and shouting things like "We do more than hope! We Work with confidence!"

Even so, the crew of this first rocket to the moon couldn't be more unprofessional,  There's Doug, a callow radio operator; Walt (Doglas Fowley), the capitalist hustler engineer, whose every line of dialogue is related to monetizing his situation -- thinking of bottling moon mist, plugging motor oil on spec, stamping letters from the moon, and so on, all of which Laird seems to not care about, compared to being colloquial over the radio; and navigator Helen (liner-eyed Marie Windsor), and her boyfriend Laird, their cranky commander and Helen's boyfriend; and--sulking peevishly for one reason or the other, Kip (Victor Jory) 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! And Jory RULEZ. 

The result: something like a wondrous albeit terrible play put on by the combined children of a bunch of cocktail sipping young Jaycees, which they then perform for the tipsy parents who are delighted. 
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, he swooned over the joy of filmmaking, no matter how impoverished, but this, oh man.... it's in a class by itself. 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; giant spiders; mystic trances; hypnosis; feminist (coded lesbian) cabals and lots of sleeping, girlfriend stealing, arm-twisting, 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 watching films like this over and over. There are just B-list actors starring the C-list square in the face with stout discombobulation. See how they doze amidst the columns and splendor of the secret cat lair, and on the ship, like it's all a big slumber party! 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!?" Laird 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. It's right 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 Tuft's cranky leadership, or Kip's petulant cockiness or Fowley's greedy hustle, or Dough's naive dopiness, at least 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 detachment left to safeguard the importers and traders from their land); Laird as the stick-upper-lapsed Colonel Blimp; Marie Windsor as the envoy/liason with their government contacts; Doug as--well--the naive young officer not aware that his parents will never accept him marrying a native girl. To scandalous... Son, she's you know, a cat!

Mix, serve, repeat and if the locals give you any trouble, a volley of cannon from your moored ship calms 'em right down. 

Irresistible in its graceless charm and missing--thankfully--any sense of self-awareness or winky camp, 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 trapped inside vast caverns under the surface of the moon for only you and your asleep-but-still-annoyed lover. 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 beyond the petty cares of working class Manhattan. 

CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON: 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 out to kill them like a sarcastic school boy. 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. When she admits it thanks to his hurting her (which she loves - macho domination breaks the sisterhood qua-lesbian spell -- ain't a damn thing changed). Then he uses the opportunity to make out with Helen passionately right in front of poor Laird, as if determined to make his humiliation complete, and making that far more important than stopping the cat women from taking off in their ship. In the end, we only see Lambda dead, and the other two are blasted off camera. (supposedly they ran out of money so just half-assed the resolution) - it's somehow fits even as it's disappointing. Then again, that's life isn't it, even on the moon,

So many things are so sublime: The exotica thrift shop direction for the cat women's reception lair (a big Shiva statue is pretty cool though, as are the big flaming braziers (which they snuff out with a wave of their hands to save oxygen. The oscillating psychic powers of the Cat Women -- their ability to vanish at will (or cloud men's minds so they cannot see them), and telepathically control Helen, and to stamp her palm with their symbol to mark her as one of them (so she can get back in later if she goes outside to smoke one of her "silly cigarettes"?). Their intensely greasy black hair glistening in the light (were they trying to conjure cat ears out of their hair, but it didn't work?).  The way actors throw themselves into the limited circumference of the giant spiders kill zone, positioning themselves so they can struggle gamely with it but take care not to get tangled in the strings. Ancient Alien theorists and pareidolia enthusiasts (I'm both) should quickly notice the alien face on that the wall hanging on the far left (mainstream scientists would say it's meant to be a flower). Intentional? Just some weird trinket rummaged from the discarded prop bin in the alley behind the sound stage?  There are no accidents in primitivist 1950s science fiction, because there's no budget for 'art' or conceptualizing, which is, let's face it, the first step on the road to forgettability. 

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. Whose to say what magic is, but I do know where it can be found -- and it's right there... in the space between.

That's why 4 AM is always the best time to watch Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, Ed Wood-ish 'bad' masterpieces like this.

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 daytime in CAT WOMEN, no sense of a days elapsing (it all seems to go down in real time)--and that there's not a single stock footage exterior establishing shot, no mismatched day-for-night driving scenes, no sense of grass or earthy values. We never see Earth, or daylight, at all. We may never come back! 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 women who wear their black hair in lots of gel (obviously a failed attempt by to make subliminal cat ears), do narcotizing dances to hypnotic, mellow flute music by a young, just-starting-out Elmer Bernstein. Sure, Jory never doubts his own moral rightness with his bristling (he'd be a great candidate for Summers' Isle) but 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 looked and sounded so much like Lambda they could be sisters--same jet black-haired, pale-skinned, and aquiline profile, and soft vaguely clueless voice. But she was beautiful and already fed up with my sloth and debauchery after three months of unemployed cohabitation. Man oh man. I was so in love, once we were apart. 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, Louise Bourgeoise spiders and beatnik coffee house aesthetic gone terribly right. It carries the realization that paradise exists only in memory, never in the moment. So why try to find the moon for real? Just wait until everyone else is asleep and slip down into the sweet miasma for hour that's endlessly repeatable, until the night takes you...

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

Me, too, Laird. After 9 years of therapy... and two trips up the 12 Steps, me too. 

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.


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