The year is 1934, and Lawyer Crosby (Wendy Hiller) drives up to the mansion of the deceased Cyrus West (Wilfrid Hyde-White) for the reading of his will to his potential heirs. However, she won't be reading the will herself, as it will be read by Cyrus instead, via a canister of film, with sound recorded on a cylinder, made twenty years before. The film has been kept refrigerated in a special cabinet to preserve it, unopened for all these years, but when Crosby and the housekeeper (Beatrix Lehmann) lift the lid, they find a living moth in there. Someone has already investigated the will, and as the guests arrive, tensions are apparent between them. The clock chimes seven, and there are eight present - the housekeeper believes this is a sign there will be a murder tonight, and she's right...
Based on the classic play by John Willard, this version of the by then hackneyed story was written by the director, Radley Metzger. He seemed an unlikely choice to oversee an old dark house horror, considering his career of classy, sex-themed melodramas and hardcore pornography, but he brings a sheen of lower-budget sophistication to the proceedings, helped by a willing cast. The film is set in an actual mansion, as the echoing voices and footsteps of the actors attest, but somehow the location isn't quite as creepy as it should be (it's too bright), and neither is the action particularly thrilling: maybe a little more than a straight adaptation was needed.
Nevertheless, there are a few clever innovations, most notably the reading of the will scene. Hyde-White appears only as an image projected onto a screen at the head of the dinner table, where he introduces the occasion by telling the assembled that they are all "leeches" and "bastards". In a nice touch, the housekeeper serves Cyrus his meal and wine at the same time as the others, twenty years later, simply by walking behind the screen and appearing as an image there. More of these moments would have made this version more worthwhile, but as it is, Annabel (Carol Lynley) is named as heir, and we go through the customary explanation that if she doesn't survive the night in the house, or goes mad (it runs in the family), the fortune will be passed onto the next in line.
Naturally, it's not long before Annabel is under threat. Well, I say not long, but by the time Edward Fox shows up to tell everyone that a lunatic has escaped from his asylum, and may be in the mansion, almost half the film has passed by. They certainly make a meal of things, and the presence of this cat-obsessed killer doesn't provide any more tension as it's the guests who are centre of attention here. Reminiscent of Murder on the Orient Express or any other starry Agatha Christie adaptation of the period, we're pretty convinced that the real danger is from any of the potential inheritors except the wide-eyed Annabel.
This Cat and the Canary doesn't even remind you of Murder by Death, because the laughs of the previous stagings are pretty scarce here. The standout performance is courtesy of Honor Blackman, as the acerbic and suspicious Susan, and she gets the only good joke when she matter of factly informs Annabel about the killer after everyone else has agreed to keep it from her so as not to frighten her. The others have various skeletons in their closets to provide those red herrings - Cicily (Olivia Hussey) once killed someone in self defence (or was it?), doctor Harry (Daniel Massey) caused the death of a patient - so you could enjoy this film as a familiar stroll over old ground. However, maybe it's overfamiliarity is its problem, and it doesn't have the saving grace of sharp humour to lift it above the average. Lynley's English accent is very good, mind you. Music by Steven Cagan.
[Anchor Bay's Region 2 DVD features a very informative commentary from producer Richard Gordon, interviewed by Tom Weaver, which is occasionally more interesting than the film. Also included are a trailer, stills gallery, biographies, and various sound options. The menus are excellent, incidentally.]