Film noirs have their stock characters: the dangerous double crossing dame with a gat strapped on her thigh and poison in her heart. There is the flawed hero, the male sap seduced into committing felonious misdeeds. There are crooked cops, squealers or weasels and other down and out losers. And there are felines. I’m not talking about the feline like femme fatales, like say Laruen Bacall, but the four legged felines. Like their human counterparts, cats walk those dark mean streets, they’re always on the hunt. They have attitude and they live on the edge.
If you think about it, it’s natural that cats have had a prominent place in many film noirs. They are as illusive to define as is the question what is a film noir? Cats have traits that are independent, sly , sultry, hypnotic and jealous. Like many of noirs’ femme fatales they want what they want and don’t care how they get it. Only with cats the fatale can be male or female, it doesn’t matter, either way they are mysterious and seductive.
Below are five film noirs with feline fatales in prominent or supporting roles. Either way, they left their mark.
This Gun for Hire (1942)
Raven, Alan Ladd’s hired killer is not all bad. His has a soft spot for a tuxedo cat who lures him into taking it in. Raven quickly becomes protective of the cat. When the cleaning lady enters his apartment, the cat spills a can of condensed milk. She has a fit and begins to shoo the cat away. Ladd hears the commotion and grabs the cleaning lady, smacking her in the process. Alan Ladd manages nicely to play a cold-blooded killer with a heart, at least for cats.
My Name is Julia Ross (1945)
Julia Ross’ (Nina Foch) only security is a black cat she holds in her arms for comfort. Julia took a job as a in-house personal secretary to an a elderly woman (Dame May Whitty) only to soon find her life is spiraling out of control in a world where everyone surrounding her claims she is not Julia Ross but the wife of the elderly woman’s crazed son (George Mcacready). The first of the cat’s two appearances happens early in the film. Julia hears a noise in her room. When she spots a pair of eyes glowing in the dark of the night, she throws a nearby object at it which breaks. The shattering noise brings others into Julia’s room, only to discover it’s was a black cat, sitting by the fireplace, who did the deed. Later in the film, the cat has a short but important scene when its noisy maneuvering helps Julia discover a secret passageway.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
In John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, Sterling Hayden’s Dix ditches a gun at a diner run by his old pal Gus (James Whitmore) while being chased by the police. When he comes back to retrieve the gun, Gus is at the counter along with his feline pal whose eating from a dish. Further down the counter, a truck driver is reading the paper and at one point says something about the cat. Like Alan Ladd’s hired killer in This Gun For Hire, Gus is a cat lover. He doesn’t need or want to be bothered with customers who don’t like cats. He tosses the guy out of his joint.
The Third Man (1949)
The Third Man is one of feline noirs most important films. Technically, there is only one feline role in the film, but to many it seems at least two or three cats were used. This classic Carol Reed film is filled with twist and turns. One of the mysteries is of the feline kind. How many cats were really used for the one cat role. At least two for sure. Check out the different facial markings between images one and two.
The Long Goodbye (1973)Feline Noir did not end with the classic period of Film Noir. We get a taste of Neo Feline Noir in Robert Altman’s under appreciated The Long Goodbye. Based on Raymond Chandler’s classic pulp fiction novel, the film is naturally given the great director’s own subversive take on Marlowe and the private eye genre. Most classic film lovers are very familiar with Bogart’s Marlowe, a man with a moral code along with a sharp dry or deadpan sense of humor. Altman’s Marlowe, portrayed by Elliot Gould, is a 1940’s guy in a 1970’s world. It’s like Marlowe fell asleep in 1948 and woke up in 1972. He’s the same, but different. He learns to adapt. For example, the dry wit has turn to a more 1970’s smart-ass, hip humor.
The cat in the film is only in the early scenes. we meet Marlowe in bed sleeping. It’s the middle of the night and his orange tabby decides its time to eat. Marlowe, decides the only way he is going to get anymore sleep is if he feeds the cat. Only problem is he has no food in his apartment. He attempts to mix some other food together, but the cat turns his nose up. Marlowe’s only other choice to go to a local twenty four hour food market and buy a can of the cat’s favorite food. Only problem is the store is out of it. Marlowe buys another brand and brings it home. In an attempt to fool the cat once again, he takes the new food and dumps it into the old foods can thinking this will fool the cat. Naturally, it doesn’t work. The disgusted cat leaves the apartment through his own special door. The no-name cat is never seen again in the film, however we do hear about him a couple of time throughout the film.
Below is a link to an article I wrote a while back on The Long Goodbye.