The Cat and the Canary
Directed by: Paul Leni
Starring: Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale, Tully Marshall
There are many versions to this story on film, but the first one is this 1927 silent classic, produced by Carl Laemmle ar Universal Pictures and directed by Paul Leni. A rich old man dies and leaves a will that shall only be read twenty years after his death. So, twenty years later, all remaining members of his family return to his mansion to see who will inherit everything. Needless to say, they will spend the night there, where they will have to deal with the old man's creepy servant, his ghost, an escaped lunatic and a plot to steal the inheritance from the rightful owner.
Paul Leni's short lived career as a director (he died two years after the making of this film, aged only 44), started during the years of the German Expressionism and continued in Hollywood. He is probably best known for the German silent "Der Wachsfigurenkabinett" ("Waxworks"), which he co-directed with Leo Birinsky and which had an impressive cast, assembling Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, Emil Janning and William Dieterle, but also for his 1928 film, "The Man Who Laughs", also starring Conrad Veidt, along with Mary Philbin. To his version of "The Cat and the Canary", he brought a distinctively Expressionist visual style, involving ample camera movements, shot filmed from the point-of-view of a character (mosty the bad guy), large shadows hanging over the characters, abstract shots, menacing-looking sets and a masked villain.
However, despite beginning as an almost fantastic tale and evolving as a whodunit mystery story, the movie gradually becomes more and more of a comedy. The creepiness and evil ambitions of certain characters are ridiculed, while others are just plain cowardly. One of the funniest scenes has one of the young men who aspire to the inheritance hide under a bed, afraid of ghost. Before he regains his courage, his distant cousin and her aunt come into the room and undress (it was actually their bedroom), only to increase his anxiety.
Far from being an historic curiosity (like so many of classic mystery movies are), "The Cat and the Canary" is an engaging, suspenseful and often amusing picture, with clever visuals and a great atmosphere.