We’re letting the cats out of the blog. Eight of our writers present a catalogue of some of the most memorable movie moggies.
Jonesy, the Nostromo cat – Alien
Cats were a fairly permanent fixture on ships: they kept the rodent population in check and supplied semi-grudging companionship in return for all the fish and rats they could handle. Cats in space are another matter. Maybe there was a bountiful supply of astro-rats for Jonesy to chase around the Nostromo, but life couldn’t have been that much fun for a handsome red tabby, even if he did get to sleep with Sigourney Weaver.
Like all cats everywhere, Jonesy only appears when he wants you to see him. He appears at the first meal, munching his breakfast on the table like any other crew member, and being markedly more civilised about it. Now that worried me, did Weyland supply Jonesy with his own stasis pod and cat nappy, or did he roam the bowels of the Nostromo for however many years it took to get halfway across the galaxy? He then disappears from view until it’s time to go into his cat box and get the hell out of there. He is the silent witness to the second death, giving Harry Dean Stanton an ‘I said to look behind you, loser’ look as the alien chomps on his hat.
There is only one actual confrontation between Jonesy and the alien. Abandoned in his cat box in a corridor, the cat glares at the stupid bitey thing through the glass, and the alien looks rather taken aback. But he survives, and he finally gets his own sleep pod.
Buttercup – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
I know I’m not the only one who sees similarities between Jones of the Nostromo and Buttercup, the cat from Mockingjay- Part 1. They’re even both ginger-colored animals (if you discount the first movie in the Hunger Games suite. For some reason, they had a black and white thing playing a cat called Buttercup. I guess Buttercup wasn’t even considered enough of a feature to disrupt the grey palette of the films until the author asked for the switch).
Mockingjay is a film about revolution, about seizing back power from the state. But Buttercup is no Loukanikos, the Greek stray dog and anarchist protest stalwart, or even Cormac the Yes sheep, known to headbutt the fuzz. Buttercup hasn’t joined the rebellion, Buttercup doesn’t give a damn about the Capitol. While not quite as shady as the cat from Animal Farm, Buttercup is still a cat. Cats generally don’t go in for that social-justice-warrior shit. Cats look after themselves.
Buttercup is not a character so much as a counterpoint. The cat has a place in the film to allegorise human interactions, in all their illogical flaws. Buttercup exists to give Katniss a moment of analogical self-reflection, when, while teasing the cat with a torch, she understands her own reactions to Peeta’s worsening condition are just as manic and ineffectual as Buttercup’s are to the dancing torchlight. Buttercup exists to put Prim in danger when District 13 is being evacuated, so Katniss has to risk everything to find her. Like Jones, Buttercup helps us tell the good guys from the bad guys, when characters in survival situations still take risks for silly reasons like love. Buttercup’s idle wanderings serve to prove that human love is, or should be, the basis of political action.
Sometimes I feel a bit sorry for Buttercup and other cat-characters, who don’t get a voice, whose personality is standard-issue, whose influence on plot and narrative lacks intentionality. But then I remember, they are cats. Cats just don’t fucking care.
Shere Khan – The Jungle Book
You can keep your Thomas O’Malleys, your Garfields and your Pusses in Bootses – when it comes to animated felines, there’s only one cat at the top of the list and his name is Shere Khan (which translates, sort of, as Tiger King).
Created by Rudyard Kipling, Shere Khan’s most famous incarnation is in Disney’s 1967 version of The Jungle Book, where some genius decided he should be voiced by George Sanders. With his deep, velvety English voice, Sanders proved the perfect choice for the malevolent, man-hating tiger – there’s a world-weariness in his tone (common to Sanders’ live-action screen performances) that works perfectly. And his coldly intelligent, deliciously evil performance seems to encompass every cad and bounder the actor had previously played on screen, from All About Eve‘s acerbic critic Addison DeWitt to Wildean sensualist Lord Henry Wooton in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Even the way Shere Khan moves has a loucheness about it befitting the actor, while his long chin was apparently modelled on Sanders’ own.
Khan’s best scene occurs when he tries to get information about Mowgli out of Kaa the Snake, casually strangling him and dismissing Kaa’s attempts at hypnotism with the line ‘Oh no, I can’t be bothered with that, I’ve no time for that sort of nonsense’. Benedict Cumberbatch and Idris Elba are both due to voice Shere Khan in upcoming Jungle Book productions, but they’ll never come close to Sanders’ sheer perfection.
Philip Marlowe’s cat – The Long Goodbye
The most popular book on Hollywood screenwriting these days is called Save the Cat, and during the opening titles of Robert Altman’s 1973 film of Raymond Chandler’s greatest novel, Philip Marlowe goes shopping for Coury brand cat food at 3am because it’s the only thing his cat will eat.
When my cat, accustomed to better fare, turns her nose up at the Tesco cat biscuits I buy her, I say to her: tough, it’s what we have, you better eat it. Clearly, Marlowe is a better movie protagonist and a better person than I am. Kinder, more unselfish, prepared to save that cat if the story calls for it, ready to step into the breach for a friend, if you can call a cat a friend. His kindness shows itself in many ways. His lazy chivalry towards the naked stoner girls next door, his unquestioning readiness to provide an alibi for his friend Terry Lennox, his ability to take a beating for that same friend to preserve that alibi, and, later, in the search for his murderer.
Marlowe’s a good man but not a perfect knight, as we see during the opening title sequence. He lies to his cat. Re-canning an inferior brand of cat food, he tries to pass it off as Coury brand, the preferred brand, and instantly pays the price. The cat, tougher and smarter than Marlowe, smells deceit and leaves via the door (marked El Porto del Gato) and that’s the last we see of it.
The cat’s decision to abandon Marlowe resonates through the film, as Marlowe doggedly proves himself loyal, not easily put off, everything the cat wasn’t. But Marlowe could do with being more, not less, like his cat. The cat smelled what he was long before Terry Lennox, rich, alive, tanned and hiding out in Mexico with Nina van Pallandt, told him, ‘Marlowe, you’re a born loser.’ The cat could’ve told him the same thing. Anyway, he already knows. ‘I even lost my cat,’ he agrees.
Under that romantic guise, the loyalty, the chivalry, the dogged refusal to quit, Marlowe always knew what he was. Owning a cat was just a way to kid himself that life made sense. But cats and Coke bottles are neutral, we don’t own them, and they can be used to hurt us. The world is irredeemable, without decency or chivalry or hope and your best friend can offer you a bribe to forget he killed his wife. If you can call Terry Lennox a friend. Well, Marlowe did.
Suddenly this isn’t the marijuana-scented screwball comedy it seemed to be. We’re deep in the cocaine-bleached white logic of Warren Zevon’s Los Angeles now, where a woman’s face, when the lights go up at two, can look like something Death brought with him in his suitcase. No room for kindness or decency here. I don’t think Warren Zevon owned a cat.
So in the end Marlowe gives in. Unable finally to beat ’em, he joins ’em, meting out dimly felt justice with his gun, then walks away, feeling lighter for the realisation that nothing means anything, really. You can’t always save the cat. Hooray for Hollywood.
Harry Lime’s kitten – The Third Man
It’s because of the cat that Holly Martins (and the audience) finally realises that his old friend Harry Lime is not really dead. We’ve first seen the tabby-and-white kitten a couple of scenes back, refusing to respond to Martins’ playful attentions. ‘Not very sociable, is he,’ observes Martins. ‘He only liked Harry,’ says Lime’s girlfriend Anna, by way of explanation. But of course, it’s not just an explanation, it’s Chekhov’s gun. So, in one of the most fun and satisfying reveals in movies, when we see the kitty purring, mewing and rubbing itself up against a man’s shoes as he shelters in a doorway, we know who it is before the light goes on.
The cat appears only briefly, his master’s herald, and, like a witch and her familiar, the two are linked. Harry Lime displays certain catlike traits; he’s stealthy, cunning. elusive but also charming, cheeky and playful. ‘Not very sociable’ is an observation that be applied to Lime, who spends much of the film in hiding, off screen, as much as to his cat. The protagonist to his antagonist is Holly Martins and martins, of course, are birds, prey and playthings for cats.
Cat eaten by shark – The Dove
Kids never really watch anything by accident any more, do they? I mean, with all the dedicated channels and the youtubes and the netflixes and the electric interwebs and that. Today’s kids will never be stuck in a living room on a rainy Sunday afternoon with only three / four / five (delete according to the exact level of your clips’n’cunts style nostalgia) channels to choose from, and with two of those showing horse racing. So they’ll never have to sit through The Dove and have the scene where the cat gets eaten by the shark seared into their memory for ever.
I spent literally ten minutes searching for the name of that film, and that is a digital eternity. I began to question whether it really existed; after all, the only bit I could remember was that a cat got eaten by a shark. According to the IMDB the film tells the story of a young man’s attempt to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe in a boat called The Dove. Along the way he meets a girl and yadda yadda yadda. I never said it was good. In fact, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t. It might be responsible for my adult disdain for people that do that sort of thing – I might be the only Englishman alive to shout ‘get a job!’ whenever Ellen Macarthur appears on TV, for example.
Anyway, the sailor-boy has a cat with him. It sleeps in the loose, hammocky bit of the sail when the wind is low, and at one point the mast swings round and throws the cat into the sea, where, despite gamely swimming towards the calling sailor-boy, it is eaten by a passing shark. I’ve forgotten the rest of the film entirely, but the shark-cat interface sticks with me. I can still summon up the memory of its little face moving towards the boat as the menacing fin slices through the water behind it, and the blonde sailor yells in increasingly desperate tones. God, I wanted that cat to be OK.
I’ve forgotten hundreds, probably thousands of films, in my time, many of them bona fide classics. I once had the unlikely experience of realizing, halfway through Resnais’ L’annee derniere a Marienbad that I’d seen it before. Truly, my memory is spectacularly awful. Had Resnais included a scene where a tiger ate a guinea pig, possibly in a hedge maze, then I have no doubt it would have stuck more tenaciously in my mind.
Angus – Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging
Angus is the half Scottish wildcat / half bad-tempered domestic mog who belongs to snogging and thong- fixated teenager, Georgia Nicholson.
In the transition from book to film, poor Angus rather loses out. He doesn’t get nearly as much of a starring role in Gurinder Chadha’s film as he does in the original stories by Louise Rennison. He fares better than poor (human) Dave the Laugh though. Ah, Tommy Bastow. If only they’d carried on making the films, he could have been Georgia’s happily ever after. As it is he has to be content with ‘The other one from those annoying BT adverts’ as the most significant thing on his acting CV.
A few significant bits of Angus-related bits of plot remain. Georgia and the object of her affection, Robbie, bond over their shared love of cats and Georgia devises a scheme in which she stages Angus’s disappearance and conspires to have Robbie find him. It doesn’t quite work out that way because Angus, a spitting, mad bad-arse of a cat, is not about to be told what to do.
Throughout the film we see Angus hanging out with Georgia’s little sister, Libby, usually sporting some kind of outfit – cowboy outfit, baby clothes, wedding dress – that sort of thing. ‘Stop putting Angus in drag!’ admonishes an exasperated Georgia.
When Georgia is lying on her bed sobbing in the midst of heartbreak and best friend problems, Angus is by her side. Anyone who has ever owned a cat and ever been a teenage girl can probably relate. The cats of adolescent girls everywhere get very used to being used as tear-soaked pillows at times of crisis.
Angus may not have been the most significant character in the film, but does have an honour that rarely gets bestowed on film cats. That of having his name is right there at the beginning of the film title. Is there a film called Jonesy and the Alien? Or Mr Bigglesworth and the Spy Who Shagged me? No, there isn’t. Angus wins.
Ulysses – Inside Llewyn Davis
A couple of months ago, when I was talking about film editing with my students, I asked if anyone had seen Inside Llewyn Davis. After a pause, one hesitantly raised his hand. ‘Was that the one with the cat?’
Why yes, it was the one with the cat, or actually two cats, possibly even three. Rarely has a cat been so visible in a recent movie, placed front and centre in the poster and the publicity material in all its ginger glory. The human Llewyn may be the title character, but the story of his bad week is intricately linked with those of his feline co-star(s).
The first thing we see at the beginning of the flashback which forms the bulk of the film is the back end of the Gorfein’s cat as he walks down their corridor, leading the camera, and us, to Llewyn, who has crashed in their spare room. It is Llewyn’s accidentally letting the cat out of the Gorfein’s apparment which kicks off the action. Llewyn doesn’t really know cats; if he did, he would just leave the animal where it is, close to home, and let the cat take care of the rest. As it is, he decides to take the animal with him. Bad move.
Llewyn’s problems in general are cristallized in his treatment of his feline co-stars. He screws up, repeatedly. In terms of the cats, he lets one escape twice, kidnaps the second, fails to let this one out of a car at an opportune moment, and hits either the second or a completely different cat with a car. All the time, Llewyn keeps trying to put things right, but his decision-making vis à vis felines – and in general – is constantly hampered by his sense of well-meaning but utterly misplaced responsibility. He doesn’t know that cats are generally resilient enough to be left to their own devices. He doesn’t see that, by trying to put things right, he’s actually making them worse. Llewyn has to learn to let go, and nowhere is this made clearer to him than in his dealings with cats.
The moment when Llewyn hits a cat with car he’s driving forms a key point in the film. For once, faced by an difficult turn of events, he can’t actually do anything, even the wrong thing. In the dark and driving snow, unable to find or reach the animal that he has injured, he is forced to watch it limp off into the bushes and take care of itself. He returns to New York to find that the Gorfein’s cat, the one he thought he had lost, has also taken care of itself and returned home, quite without his help.
There is even an case to be made that the film’s central ‘journey’ is not Llewyn’s but the one Ulysses (as we finally learn the Gorfein’s cat is called) undertakes. The film itself points to this, obliquely, when Llewyn sees a poster for the Disney movie The Incredible Journey – an anachronism, as the film itself wasn’t released until two years after the events of Llewyn Davis take place (so presumably it must have been important to the filmmakers to include it). And of course the cat’s name refers not only to the ultimate wanderer but also to another Coen Brothers character, Ulysses Everett McGill from O Brother Where Art Thou?.
As for Llewyn Davis, after the worst week of his life – at any rate, let’s hope they don’t come much worse – at least he proves that he has learned not to let the cat out.
In the Making Of for the movie, the Ethan Coen explains with a big smile: ‘The cat was a nightmare. The cat trainer warned us, and she was right, she said: “Dogs like to please you, the cat only likes to please itself.” A cat basically is impossible to train. We have a lot of footage of cats doing things we don’t want them to do, if anyone’s interested. I don’t know if there’s a market for that….’ A market for cat-based media on the Internet….? Go for it, Ethan, set up a youtube channel and get the financing for a couple of movies. But maybe put a dog in the next one.
5 thoughts on “Meowstly Film”
Why to filmmakers like ginger cats so much? Apart from Blofeld’s white cat and Mr Wrigglesworth (Mexican hairless), I’m struggling to think of a film cat that isn’t ginger.
I think it could just be because ginger cats photograph well, or better than black and white cats anyway.
Either that or the filmmakers all read “Orlando the Marmalade Cat” at an impressionable age, like I did.
Re: Inside Llewyn Davis
Fiona, it made me very happy to read your piece, because I’ve made that exact same argument about Inside Llewyn Davis – that, if he’s learned nothing else, at least Llewyn has learned not to let the cat out, meaning that he is indeed capable of change, I’m curious as to your reading of the differences between the beginning / ending though…
That’s a Siamese. They don’t count.