The White Cat is probably the darkest and cruellest film Ekman ever made, and it still has the potential to shock and disturb. The opening sequence, which is almost without dialogue, shows a man (Alf Kjellin) arriving by train at the central station in Stockholm. He just sits there, staring blankly in front of him, after the train has stopped and all the other passengers have got off. Eventually, he gets up and starts walking around the station, and at one point he tries to leave, but when he sees two policemen he returns and walks up to a café and sits down to have a coffee. He overhears two women reading a newspaper article about an escaped convict, a rapist, and the description seems to be his. The convict is said to have a scar on his face, and the man goes to a mirror to check whether he has one. He does not, and he returns to the café. (In [Jean] Anouilh’s play The Traveller without Luggage (...) there is a similar incident, except that the man finds out that he does have a scar when he looks in the mirror.)
This is Ekman’s most striking opening sequence, and it is shot by [cinematographer] Göran Strindberg in an impressive style with great depth of field and almost expressionistic lighting. Like Girl with Hyacinths , the visual style of the film as a whole recalls aspects of film noir, but film noir spiked with surrealism. The White Cat has a distinct Freudian theme and is filled with dream imagery, nightmares of often violent and/or sexual content. The man, whose name remains a mystery throughout the film, has lost his memory and is haunted by those nightmares. Unusually for Ekman, the film has several extreme close-ups of faces, deep in fear and full of sweat. The themes of guilt and disorientation also recall American film noir – films such as The Blue Dahlia (George Marshall, 1946).
The waitress at the station café (Eva Henning) takes an interest in the man, and when her shift is over they walk together through town to her apartment. She wants them to work together to try to find the key to his mind, memory and identity. He is wary of discovering the truth, since whatever it is, it is not going to be pretty. Maybe his amnesia is ‘an escape from a reality that is unbearable’, as he says. Eventually, however, he gets to the bottom of his story. It turns out that he was once married but that he found out that his wife had an affair with a painter, and that they had both become drug addicts while he, the husband, was away on a journey. Due to circumstances that are never revealed, the wife dies in a fire, together with another man, who strangely enough is not the painter with whom she had the affair, and nor is he of course her husband. In many ways The White Cat can be seen as the usual Ekman story but inverted. In almost all of Ekman’s films there is a constant wish to escape the boredom of the mundane bourgeois life; to go abroad or become an artist or actor. That is also the case in The White Cat. However, this leads here to death and despair. In a confrontation between the husband, before he developed amnesia, and the painter, beautifully played by Sture Lagerwall, the painter says that he only wanted to be free, to be able to live life to its fullest potential, to be as creative as possible, and that he does not regret a thing. He then asks the husband if his life, the safe and secure one, was really worth living. The husband struggles to respond.
The film can be seen as taking place in the hidden corners, in the subconscious, of Ekman’s characteristic dreamer. It is a subconscious filled with violence, sexual repression and neurosis, with the white cat a recurring symbol of a torn psyche. In one striking shot a white cat is seen crucified and in another scene a white cat is shot dead. Or is it another cat? It might be the same, like some kind of mystical creature. It keeps coming back, prowling the alleys, basements and attics, and haunting the characters’ dreams. This is Ekman making a film in the style and with the ideas of [the group of Swedish writers called] ‘Generation 40’, which he had so many times criticised. This fact did not escape him. At one moment, the painter says to the husband that the situation he is describing is ‘even worse than Generation 40...’. It could be argued that this does not really fit Ekman, and he struggles with the ending, trying to smooth over what has happened, in a sense introducing a ray of light into the prevailing darkness. During the title sequence the white cat is seen approaching the camera in an alley, but in the last shot the cat is seen running away from the characters and the audience along the same alley. Yet again, this is an example of Ekman’s habit of beginning and ending the film in the same space, with an almost identical scene, but with a slight variation.
The critics were on the whole sceptical and felt that Ekman had failed to make a strong and coherent film, several critics suggesting that Ekman had tried to make a ‘Bergman film’ but since his heart was not really in it, and since he did not have the necessary depth, the end result suffered. There is a sense in which the critics were to some extent allowing their prejudice against Ekman to shape their responses, and [the prominent critic] Robin Hood felt the need to come to Ekman’s defence. He wrote in a column that it was wrong to say that Ekman was a lightweight maker of comedies who now had tried and failed to make a serious film: ‘He has within him more than just the spirited amiableness; he has also experienced life’s unpleasant and dark sides. This foundation is what he wants to set free through his films. Has he not been at his most serious, most truthful as an artist exactly in those tough scenes in The Banquet , Girl with Hyacinths, The White Cat?’ (Hood 1951, trans.).
What Robin Hood suggests here is that there has been a misreading, a misperception that Ekman is primarily a maker of comedies. The irony, however, is that even if Hood in this instance tried to set the record straight, the year before, in 1950, Hood had himself said that: ‘Ekman began with light, shallow, graceful comedies, well made, and then changed his mind and became serious and realistic’ (Hood 1950, trans.). But as has been made clear here, Ekman had always had this serious side, evidenced as early as his second film. Where this idea that Ekman was primarily a maker of comedies stems from is something of a conundrum; and it is still prevalent today. It might be due to Ekman’s public appearances. Ekman was sometimes seen as a playboy, driving around in a yellow sports car and often seen with beautiful women, and maybe when critics thought about him as a filmmaker they had this image in their heads. This image might then have skewed their memories of his films towards the funny and cheerful, much like a playboy. When he was asked in an interview if he considered himself a playboy the answer was that he certainly did not: ‘No, I’m everything but a playboy. Work has taken up all my time. I wanted to work. Surely no playboy wants to do that?’ (Frankl 1967, trans.).
Henning and Kjellin
The above was from the book. I want to add that the question as to why people were convinced Ekman primarily made light comedies, and why many persist in believing this, is a curious one. A peer reviewer once faulted an article I wrote because I said Ekman primarily made dramas and the reviewer responded that this is not true and wanted me to change that. That reviewer was a fool but also part of a tradition.
Psychology rather than film history might provide the answers.
I have written a lot about Ekman before on the blog. Here for example:
https://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.com/2012/07/ekman-bergman-thesis.html (a general introduction)
And the book is available from online book stores and assorted libraries and such.