Release Date(s)1946 (May 31, 2023)
Studio(s)Republic Pictures (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: D
- Video Grade: B-
- Audio Grade: D
- Extras Grade: A-
The Catman of Paris (1946) is one of those unusual titles that’s highly desirable mainly because it’s been nearly impossible to see. And, yet, once seen, you’ll never, ever want to watch it again because it’s so terrible. Nevertheless, hardcore genre fans are grateful for this opportunity, however disappointing.
Fans of the classic horror film cycles of 1931-36 and 1939-1946 know these movies inside-out and backwards. The majority were made by Universal, but other studios also dabbled in the genre: RKO, MGM, Warner Bros., etc. Virtually all of these pictures were released in every conceivable home video format, including multiple times on Blu-ray, and fans reliably (if begrudgingly) buy them again and again.
However, a few obscure titles such as The Catman of Paris, were long elusive. Catman was produced by Republic Pictures, known primarily for their B-Westerns and action-packed serials. Occasionally, the studio attempted an A-class movie, after 1940 these often starred John Wayne, whom Republic had under long-term contract. But Wayne was usually better served in loan-outs to other companies, as Republic’s attempts an A-picture were usually clumsy, if gussied-up costume melodramas.
Dipping their toes in the horror genre, Republic would have been better off sticking closer to their strengths. Had they attempted, for instance, a story about a wolf man terrorizing a rural southwestern town in the present day, a kind of ‘40s version of the later The Werewolf (1956), they might have pulled it off. Instead, while some story elements are similar to Universal’s WereWolf of London (1935), primarily they looked to Val Lewton’s delicately atmospheric and ambiguous thrillers for RKO like Cat People (1942) for inspiration, further complicating matters by setting the film in 19th century Paris. Delicate, atmospheric, and ambiguous are not adjectives one would normally apply to a studio like Republic.
Returning from the Orient, writer Charles Regnier (Carl Esmond)’s new book Fraudulent Justice is hailed by Paris’s literati, but Regnier himself feels unwell, suffering from headaches, blackouts, and memory loss. Each blackout is preceded by an abstract montage of Arctic ice, a bobbing buoy (printed as a negative image), and a black cat darting toward the camera. The first use of this is moderately effective, but it’s repeated endlessly.
Gradually he comes to believe that he is the “Catman” terrorizing Paris, the shadowy assailant first brutally murdering librarian Devereaux (Francis McDonald), who has incriminating evidence against the writer; and later Marguerite (Adele Mara), Regnier’s fiancée, though he no longer loves the possessive woman. All evidence points to Regnier being the Catman, though his friend Henry Borchard (Douglass Dumbrille) and Marie Audet (Lenore Aubert), the new love of his life, insist he must be hallucinating.
The Catman of Paris has virtually nothing to recommend it. Though only 63 minutes long, the picture is endlessly talky and seems much longer than it is. The screenplay by Sherman L. Lowe, a journeymen writer of B-pictures of every genre, is almost awesomely unimaginative. Most of its running time consists of Regnier agonizing over his certainty that he’s the Catman, occasionally blacking out, followed by an attack by the murderous though well-dressed monster. Rinse and repeat. Until the film’s final moments, there are no revelations, no efforts by Regnier, Borchard, and Marie to search for the truth—just a lot of Larry Talbot-like hands-wringing by Regnier, and Carl Esmond is no Lon Chaney. Further, the motives of the Catman—which I won’t reveal here—are so contradictory they literally make no sense at all.
In monster form, the Catman is played by Robert J. Wilke, future Western heavy of such classics as High Noon, The Magnificent Seven and scores of TV Westerns. Later in his career Wilke had a plum role as the farm foreman in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) and he was widely regarded as the best golfer within the Hollywood acting community. (He claimed to have earned more money as a golfer than as an actor.) As the Catman, Wilke looks pretty good in still photographs but is comically stiff on film. Dressed to the nines (top hat, cane, flowing cape), instead of projecting a graceful menace in his movements, Wilke just sort of waddles. And, as writer Tom Weaver points out in his indispensable Poverty Row Horrors, the Catman “looks more like an overdressed hobo than a hobgoblin.”
The period Parisian setting was a mistake. Some in the cast are French and speak with French accents, others aren’t but attempt ones, some speak with flat American accents, and everyone tosses in a “Oui” or “mon ami” now and then. Except for the Catman murders, everything is lit in the standard bright-and-flat Republic manner, and the period costumes and set generate little atmosphere or believability. Carl Esmond is colorless and dull, though longtime character actor Dumbrille is good and Mara and Aubert aren’t bad.
The great noir cinematographer John Alton was first assigned to Catman but was replaced by Reggie Landing, a DP more at home with Republic fodder like Sheriff of Redwood Valley and Rainbow Over Texas, the movies he shot before and after this. Visually, the film looks more like a typical Republic offering than a Lewton or Universal title.
Imprint’s Blu-ray (black-and-white and 1.37:1 standard frame) is derived from a 4K mastering by current owner Paramount Pictures. However, Paramount clearly was stuck with composite film elements, unlike most of the pristine Republic titles released some years back by Olive Films. In the case of The Catman of Paris, sometimes the image is razor-sharp, but much of the time the image seems derived from second- and third-generation sources that exhibit damage and wear. In other words, an excellent transfer of less than ideal film elements. The LPCM 2.0 mono (English only) is fine and supported by optional English subtitles, and the disc is Region-Free.
The most significant of the extra features is The Republic Pictures Story (1991), a feature-length (111 minutes) documentary packed to the gills with film clips, as well as some interviews. It’s upscaled from standard definition, and the film clips are a little murky (as was the case with virtually all Republic titles until the advent of Blu-ray), but this a very worthwhile show.
Also included is a new audio commentary on the film with critics Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, as well as a new, 18-minute video essay, Mark of the Beast: Myth-Making and Masculinity in The Catman of Paris (!) by writer Kat Ellinger.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you. The Catman of Paris ranks near the very bottom of 1930s-‘40s horror titles. It’s tame, talky, lacking in atmosphere and suspense, and profoundly illogical. Of course, that will not dissuade classic horror fans and, at last report, the title has already sold out.
- Stuart Galbraith IV