Fool a person once, shame on you. Fool a person multiple times, and maybe there’s some shared responsibility. David (John Forsythe) could certainly afford to be a better judge of character in Douglas Heyes’ Kitten with a Whip. Starring Ann-Margaret as the “kitten” in question, David is a politician and would-be senator. Jody (Ann-Margaret) is the young woman he finds in his daughter’s bedroom one morning. The question is whether Jody belongs in that bedroom, and its one Heyes has fun stringing out over the film’s opening minutes.
The moment the opening credits finish Jody runs on screen. Dressed in a nightgown and looking like she’s about to fall off the edge of a cliff, Jody manages to catch her balance and run through a railway yard instead, but while it all adds to the impression that she’s being chased, no one is shown in pursuit. There’s a night watchman and a dog on a lease, but it’s all suggestion. Heyes’ direction and Ann-Margaret performance might make it seem like they’re a threat but they’re just doing their jobs – providing security.
From there Jody winds up in the suburbs and, more specifically, inside the house where David and his family live, but while Heyes could’ve made Jody’s break-in obvious, by including a shot of her smashing a window or picking a lock, Jody is just walking through the house – upset, but no more upset than a daughter would be if she had snuck out and was hoping to make it to her bedroom undetected.
Because Ann-Margaret plays these scenes so coolly, her character’s identity is able to remain uncertain, leaving it up to viewers to try and fill in the pieces. Every interaction becomes loaded with meaning, like David backtracking to close the door to his daughter’s room. It makes it seem like he might know someone’s inside (even though he was just heard telling an acquaintance that his daughter wasn’t home).
The only thing that doesn’t let up in these scenes is the tension – even a stuffed animal is made to feel menacing, thanks to a close-up on its glass eyes, and while David slowly catches on to the truth (that Jody recently escaped from juvenile detention), he’s just as quick to fall for another one of her many lies.
It’s this gullibility that starts to feel like a contrivance after a while, as David never learns from his mistakes. The film also attempts to pull off a redemption arc for Jody (though, for those familiar with how the production code works, the ending of the film won’t come as a surprise). Despite becoming more and more far-fetched, though, with David seemingly unable to avoid crossing paths with Jody and her associates, Kitten with a Whip never stops being entertaining, which is why it’s easy to forgive the film its excesses, like including a car chase and an extremely well-choreographed fight. Cinematographer, Joseph F. Biroc, deserves kudos for moving the camera so beautifully in reaction to the punches.
Imprint’s Blu-Ray comes with a commentary by film critics, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson, who concentrate on Ann-Margaret and how Kitten with a Whip affected her career, both negatively (in terms of it leading to a career slump and challenging her good girl image) and positively (Mike Nichols would cast her in Carnal Knowledge after seeing Kitten with a Whip). Heller-Nicholas and Nelson also touch on Ann-Margaret’s lack of formal training, and how much John Waters and Joe Bob Briggs have been advocates for the film.
There are also two video essays. “She Reached for Evil: Dissecting Kitten with a Whip” gets its name from a tagline that was used for the cover of Wade Miller’s book. As Andrew Nette explains, though, Wade Miller was actually a pseudonym for Robert Wade and Bill Miller. Along with pointing out some of the ways Kitten with a Whip digresses from the book, Nette also brings up that Bridget Bardot and Nancy Kwan were originally considered to play Jody, and that parts of Henry Mancini’s score from Touch of Evil can be heard in the film.
The second video essay is by film historian, Kat Ellinger. Called “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! The Rise of Delinquent Girls in Film,” Ellinger tracks the emergence of the term “teenager” and relates it to the postwar period, which saw businesses try and market their products to teens for the first time. Juvenile delinquent films were just such a product, though Ellinger also talks about how Kitten with A Whips differs from some of the bigger examples (like Rebel without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle) by featuring a female protagonist. Not that there haven’t been other female-led gang movies (and Ellinger names a few of those, too), but there’s a real, natural progression to the topics in this essay as Ellinger thinks of every angle.
Kitten with a Whip is available on Blu-Ray from Imprint Films. While the company’s based in Australia, I had no problem playing the disc on a Region 1 player and it was shipped well overseas.