KITTEN WITH A WHIP: CAT ON A COOL TIN ROOF
Essay/Review By Will Viharo
|Poster by R. Black for Tease-o-Rama/Thrillville screening of "Kitten with a Whip," 2008|
“Now cool it, you creep, and coexist!” pretentious beatnik Ron admonishes fellow college-aged delinquent Buck (Skip Ward) when he flips out during a “party” at the affluent San Diego home of prominent, pussy-whipped politician David Stratton (John Forsythe), who is unwillingly (?) harboring a fugitive 17-year-old vixen named Jody (Ann-Margret) after she escapes from a local reform school, critically wounding a matron in the process. Jazz and jive talk abound in the 1964 “thriller” Kitten With a Whip, which primarily existed as a vehicle for the vivacious Ann-Margret, who kicked up her heels with The King that same year in Viva Las Vegas. Already a star due to the success of the previous year’s hit adaptation of the Elvis-inspired Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie, the awesome A-M cemented her sizzling sex symbol status with this raunchy role, and she remains the sole reason to see it, other than the recycled soundtrack cues from Touch of Evil (1958). It is definitely a fun flick, with a pretty damn dark (if not wholly surprising) denouement that makes it a bona fide J.D./Beat noir, coming at the very tail end of the classic era (some would say several years too late, marking the aforementioned Orson Welles’ malevolent masterpiece as classic noir’s true swan song), along with Brainstorm(1965), The Money Trap (1965), and Sam Fuller’s double dose of decadent depravity, Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964). Even boobie baron Russ Meyer was contributing to this late period boon with his “naughty nudie noir” quartet, Lorna (1964), Mudhoney (1965), Motor Psycho (1965) and of course, that ferocious feline fist-fest, Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (1965). These pulpy genre-bending “noir hybrids,” screaming sensationalized sin, aimed straight at a drive-in/grindhouse audience, would extend all the way till today, dovetailing with the dawn of the “neo-noir” renaissance arguably beginning with John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), starring Lee Marvin at his hardest-boiled, kicking off what has proven to be a timeless trend. Kitten With a Whip exudes both a tawdry twilit tinge and a tantalizing taste of tomorrowville, released in tandem with the British Invasion, pushing the sexual envelope, but stylistically still squarely stuck in its own recent past.
The thin plot thread weaves through a melodramatic mosaic of mounting mayhem. The trio of teenaged/twentysomething trouble-makers drag poor dumb David from the safe sanctuary of San Diego down to the exotic, erotic environs of Mexico, making the reuse of Henry Mancini’s famous Touch of Evil score all the more ironic. A-M’s prematurely world weary, organically seductive Jody - jaw-dropping jailbait who comes off like a tigress-temptress compared with today’s prefab/rehab sex kittens - makes mental mincemeat out of the morally conflicted (is there any other kind?) politician, full of sweaty self-righteousness, justifying his compliance as mature concern rather than raw fear. On the menu is a small slice of popcorn psychology sprinkled liberally with cheese, and it all goes down the palate nice ‘n’ easy, even if it makes your stomach a bit queasy. But the hedonistic hipster hijinks on delirious display in Kitten, both less lascivious and less loquacious than Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Lolita (1962), aren’t bogged down with heavy sociological baggage, despite Jody’s references to incestuous rape supposedly contributing to her amoral attitudes towards life and the world generally. This flick was sold and excels mostly as a salacious tale of forbidden lust not quite satiated, only teased to taunt the titillated audience into dropping their cash at the box office. Kitten was a big studio B flick (Universal), so obviously it was deemed more “sophisticated” and “respectable” than the lowbrow David Friedman/Doris Wishman school of smut ‘n’ sleaze cinema simultaneously sliming screens from 42nd Street to the Deep South, even as it similarly reflects a schizo society coming to terms with its own restless desires, justifying popular prurient preoccupations by contextualizing them within the acceptable confines of punitive morality. All that is to it’s okay if you wanna take an illicit roll in the hay, as long you realize you’re gonna suffer a fatal case of cat scratch fever as a result, so enjoy your dirty detours into decadence while you can.
These themes still resonate within our contemporary culture, as current headlines commonly sell cyber-ads with torrid true tales of hypocritical, self-humiliating politicos, celebrated for publicly espousing “family values,” being professionally destroyed by their own private dalliances with debauchery (John Ensign, John Edwards, Arnold Schwarzenegger and “Weinergate” being just a few recent examples). What makes Kitten such a kick in the crotch is its mid-century milieu, from the cars to the furniture to the fashions, everybody all dressed up with no place to come. Repression is a common source of rage and regret in many classic noir films, which also relate recognizable tales of self-destruction, but with superior sartorial style. These seemingly superficial features seduce modern audiences into popping these increasingly ancient time capsules like Xanax, both relaxing us with foreknowledge of our collective past while helping us to escape our aesthetically bankrupt present.
Ultimately, Kitten is all fluff with little bite, purring when it should be snarling, pawing when it should be clawing, barely scratching the surface of the deeply conflicted mores it portends to expose and exploit. The Swinger (1966), a colorful comedy starring A-M as a journalist reporting on the Sexual Revolution for a girlie mag, at least features one of her most infamous scenes of sensuality as she rolls around semi-nude on a canvas of psychedelic paints. Carnal Knowledge (1971), boasting A-M’s single celluloid appearance topless, was a much more honest exploration of our national orgiastic obsessions during those tumultuous times. Still, Ann-Margret’s performance in Kitten, one of her most popular roles, and justifiably so, is so sultry, sassy and smart that you’ll hardly notice its flirtatious flimsiness, or care if you do. Sex still sells those damaged goods, suckers. Originally published in altered form, with editorial revisions and rewrites beyond my consent, in Noir City.