Times Staff Writer

When you consider that it’s been more than 60 years since Harold Lloyd exploited our fear of heights in “Safety Last”--and nearly 30 since Alfred Hitchcock did the same in “Vertigo”--it’s amazing that it can still be done on the screen at all. Yet Stephen King’s “Cat’s Eye” (citywide) contains a man on-the-ledge sequence that’s an edge-of-the-seat classic.

Atlantic City casino tycoon Kenneth McMillan has got the goods on his wife’s lover Robert Hays and framed him so neatly that he forces Hays to accept a bet that requires him to inch his way around the narrow ledges and crevices at the top of a tall Beaux Arts building. We may have seen it all before, but the ingenuity of director Lewis Teague and that past master of the camera, Jack Cardiff, make it seem as if we’re experiencing it for the first time--the near-slips, the gleeful trickery of McMillan, the dizzying downward glances. It all adds up to a sly, suspenseful exercise in pure cinema.

This tale, which has an amusingly gratifying payoff, is the second and best of three episodes loosely linked by the wanderings of an exceptionally intelligent and intrepid alley cat. (The cat is motivated by a mysterious plea for help from Drew Barrymore at the very beginning of the film.)


In the first, James Woods is a successful New York businessman who, in his struggle to quit smoking, turns to expert Alan King who gives new and hideous dimensions to the process of aversion therapy. Shrewdly, this, the tale with the slenderest premise, comes first, although there’s no slighting on characterizations here or in any of the other sequences.

Stephen King adapted the first and second vignettes from his short stories “Quitters, Inc.” and “The Ledge,” but he wrote the third especially for Barrymore, that irrepressible enchantress. She plays a bright little girl eager to adopt the cat, a seeming stray, but her mother Candy Clark, despite her husband James Naughton’s skepticism, believes there’s credence in the old wives’ tale that cats can kill sleeping children by stealing their breath away. There is a creature actually trying to do that very thing to Barrymore, but he’s one of Carlo Rambaldi’s creations, a troll who’s as whimsically sinister as one of Steven Spielberg’s gremlins. It’s in this episode that the cat, heretofore peripheral, comes into its own.

Because of King’s phenomenal popularity as a master of the comically macabre, executive producer Dino De Laurentiis has stinted on nothing to bring these tales alive. This means that the special effects are impeccable and Giorgio Postiglione’s production design meticulous and inspired. Yet it’s the well-drawn characters, plus the brisk, stylish direction of Teague and superb camerawork of Cardiff, that make it work.

As the key heavies of the piece, King and especially McMillan are a joy; everyone else is fine too. But nobody upstages the uncredited cat (or cats) trained by Karl Lewis Miller. In its unpretentious way “Cat’s Eye” (rated PG-13 because it may be too intense for the very young) represents a triumph of form over content.

‘CAT’S EYE’ A MGM/UA release of an IFC production presented by Dino De Laurentiis. Producer Martha J. Schumacher. Co-producer Milton Subotsky. Director Lewis Teague. Screenplay Stephen King. Camera Jack Cardiff. Production designer Clifford Capone. Creatures created by Carlo Rambaldi. Music Alan Silvestri. 2nd unit director/stunt coordinator Glen Randall Jr. Art director Jeffrey Ginn. Set designer E.C. Chen. Special effects coordinator Jeff Jarvis. Special visual effects Barry Nolan. Film editor Scott Conrad. With Drew Barrymore, James Woods, Alan King, Kenneth McMillan, Robert Hays, Candy Clark, James Naughton.

Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parental guidance advised, especially for pre-teens).