Dusty Reels of Terror is a new monthly series of classic horror film reviews by Mike Justman.
Paris is being terrorized by horrific murders in which victims appear to have been clawed to death by a giant cat. The only thing connecting the victims is that each of them is in a position to make life hard for best-selling author Charles Renier, who is plagued by blackouts during which he can’t remember where he’s been. Is he the catman? I wouldn’t dream of telling.
BEWARE! A MONSTER IS LOOSE!
Carl Esmond, Lenore Aubert, Adele Mara, Douglas Dumbrille, Gerald Mohr
Released: 1946 | Director: Lesley Selander | Runtime: 1h 5m | Rating: 3.5/5 reels
The Catman of Paris Review
Celebrity author Charles Renier (Carl Esmond) returns to Paris from years adventuring abroad. He’s written a new book that just happens to be an exact transcription of a real trial during which the French government railroaded some poor sap—shades of Émile Zola and the Dreyfus Affair. If it’s nonfiction, and Charles somehow had access to sealed records, the police are going to toss him in jail and throw away the key, but he insists that the book came to him in a dream. And he has some crazy dreams.
Because of a tropical disease he caught on his adventures, he’s prone to nightmares, headaches, fever, and blackouts, and once he arrives in Paris these spells have the unfortunate tendency to coincide with attacks by a shadowy murderer that kills its victims with catlike claws. Not only that, but the first two victims have the unfortunate tendency to be people who are in Charles’s way: a government employee with evidence that might convict him of treason, and Charles’s fiancée Marguerite (Adele Mara), who refuses to let Charles out of their engagement. Things are not looking good for M. Renier, especially when hardnosed cop Severen (Gerald Mohr) decides he’s the killer.
There’s a lot to enjoy here, starting with the cast, which is made up of random Europeans approximating French accents and random Americans who can’t be arsed to bother. It gives a couple of actors who usually played crooks (you’ll recognize them if you watch films from the 1940s) a chance to shine as good guys: Douglas Dumbrille plays Renier’s protector Borchard, who whisks him out of town when the cops get too close, and Gerald Mohr is great as the tough cop who refuses to believe in the supernatural despite the series of white-haired superiors who try to convince him with lines like “human beings have been known to take the form of certain animals… There have been cat people! It is a matter of record!”
This is a Republic Pictures programmer, one of six films that director Lesley Selander helmed in 1946 for a studio best known for cheapie cowboy films (and there’s a Western-style carriage chase through what looks more like Wyoming than Paris). Republic wasn’t exactly Poverty Row, but you could see it from there, and given its proletarian origin, it’s a pleasant surprise that The Catman of Paris looks as classy as it does. I was especially impressed by the lavish interiors in which much of the action takes place.
The Catman of Paris is a horror film, and you’re probably wondering whether it’s scary. It’s more atmospheric than terrifying, but few films of the era would still count as terrifying today. It’s not going to give anyone nightmares, but there are some stylishly spooky touches, such as a shot of a cat emerging from what turns out to be a scale model of one of the murder scenes. The murder scenes themselves are incredibly well shot, especially the attack on Renier’s fiancée, which happens behind the closed doors of a horse-drawn carriage. There’s also a genuine feeling for the supernatural here, lessons they perhaps learned from across town at RKO where Val Lewton’s team was churning out high-quality shocks on super-low budgets (including other films about cat people). This isn’t up to that high standard, of course, but it’s still an engaging chiller.