If you've ever had a Siamese cat, you will know that they are the wise guys of the cat world.
In the history of the movies, there haven't been too many significant cat performances. Cats do not take direction well. On the movie set, they probably spend a lot of time arguing with directors over how to play a scene. If the studio would let them, cats would probably want to direct the movie themselves.
"That Darn Cat!" features the best movie performance ever by a cat. The leading man -- or cat, in this case -- is a crafty Siamese named D.C. (Darn Cat). He is the star of the movie, the one who carries the story. And he does it with suave feline sophistication. (Never mind that several cats played the role of D.C. in making the film. They were *all* good.)
D.C. is a smooth operator. Like Bogart, he prowls the back streets of his suburban L.A. neighborhood, the king of his territory, his blue eyes observing everything, his nose to the wind, his mind working out all the angles.
Throughout the movie, D.C. is performing tricks and stunts that would make Lassie or Rin-Tin-Tin envious. Take the movie's opening scene. D.C. hops up on a backyard fence, attracting the neighbor's dog, a Scottie, who jumps up and down at the fence, barking furiously, trying to get the cat. Then, D.C. hops down and slips into the yard through a crack in the fence. He strolls casually past the barking, leaping dog, and helps himself to the dog's supper dish. Eventually, the dog turns around. He does a double-take and runs at D.C., who calmly slips out through another crack in the fence.
It's a classic Siamese trick! I have *owned* Siamese cats who would pull tricks like that on the neighborhood dogs.
One night, when he is out for a stroll, D.C. stumbles into the hideout of two bumbling bank robbers (Frank Gorshin; Neville Brand) who took a female bank teller (Grayson Hall) as a hostage in their last robbery. The bank teller puts her wristwatch around D.C.'s neck with a message for "help" on the back, and tosses D.C. out the door.
When D.C. returns home, his young owner, Patti Randall (Hayley Mills), finds the watch and the message. Patti is smart enough to figure out what has happened, and contacts F.B.I. agent Zeke Kelso (Dean Jones). The following night, the F.B.I. sets up a unique operation to track D.C. through the neighborhood, hoping the cat will lead them back to the bank robbers' hideout.
The movie has a genuinely funny script, co-written by Bill Walsh (screenwriter on "Mary Poppins") and Gordon and Mildred Gordon, authors of the novel, "Undercover Cat," on which the movie was based. I've read the novel, and the Gordons really knew their cats, and how cats relate (or don't relate) to humans.
A lot of the humor in the movie comes from D.C. having to deal with "non-cat people," especially Agent Kelso, who is allergic to cats. One of the funniest scenes in the movie comes when Kelso has to take D.C.'s paw print, and can't figure out how to fit D.C.'s prints onto the standard FBI fingerprint card. Needless to say, D.C. does not like having his paw printed.
Hayley Mills does well in her last role for Disney. As Patti, she projects a kind of eager, Nancy Drew-like enthusiasm when she finds herself embroiled in a mystery. Even when the FBI starts to doubt her theory that D.C. has found the bank robbers, she still persists in her investigation. She knows she is right! Perhaps that's why she is the only human in the film that D.C. puts up with -- he finds her to be of equal intelligence to himself.
There are small but ingenious supporting performances in the movie, little gems of character acting. Dorothy Provine plays Patti's older sister, Ingrid, who can't believe the fuss that occurs. Roddy McDowell is Ingrid's snobbish boyfriend. Elsa Lanchester and William Demarest are a pair of squabbling neighbors who know that something is going on next door. And Tom Lowell plays Patti's dopey boyfriend, Canoe, who is obsessed with surfing movies.
(Some of the funniest gags in the movie occur late in the film, when Canoe accidentally gets involved in the FBI's trailing of D.C. through the neighborhood.)
There are some funny cameos. Ed Wynn plays a nervous shop owner that Patti cons into helping her with the investigation. Iris Adrian has a great scene as a landlady who bullies the two bank robbers. And Richard Deacon has a funny role as a drive-in manager.
But again, it is D.C. the cat who really carries the picture. It is the cat who outwits both the FBI and the bad guys, and saves the day at the end of the film. He probably wouldn't even care that Hayley Mills got star billing in the movie. For D.C., the greatest joy would be in the giving of his performance -- for what greater joy is there for a cat than simply the joy of...being a cat?
P.S. The sly opening song, written by the Sherman Brothers, and sung by Bobby Darin, sets the tone of D.C.'s character perfectly. It is the most accurate song ever written about the character of a cat.