There are theories a-plenty as to why, most of them implicit value judgments about the disposition of the species: they’re vaguely evil killers of mice and birds, they have an air of superiority that jibes well with madmen, and so on. But this writer (and, fine, cat owner) contends that it’s less a matter of intentions than logistics.
Many, many years ago, when I was in high school, I acted in a play where a minor bit of action centered the introduction of a cat. Our directors volunteered their own fluffy white feline for the scene, and in order to prevent said cat from freaking out under the lights of the stage and the gaze of hundreds (okay, dozens) or theatre-goers, it was administered a rather powerful sedative. As a result, the animal was basically like a big bag of socks. But it could be easily carried, handed from person to person, and deposited in a lap.
That experience was instructive in understanding how pets have been deployed in staged entertainment. Dogs are easily trainable — a good animal instructor, working with an inventive director and cinematographer, can create the warning barks, rescuing gallops, and other miscellaneous action of a dog hero. It doesn’t make them better or more honorable animals; it just means they’re more easily manipulated. Cats, on the other hand, can be most reliably knocked out and used as props, and thus, the villain’s lap cat was born.
But in the years since You Only Live Twice, the logistical practicalities of cats have been usurped by unfortunate notions of their own intentions and attitudes. The tail, if you’ll pardon the malapropism, now wags the cat. It wasn’t always thus; one of the most famous cats in all of movies is the kitty on Don Corleone’s lap in the opening scenes of The Godfather. He wasn’t placed there to establish Don Corleone as a figure of the underworld — he wasn’t even in the script (or Mario Puzo’s novel). No, director Francis Ford Coppola found him on the Paramount lot, and Marlon Brando liked the visual contrast of his warmth and playfulness with the cat to his ruthlessness as a crime figure. The cat didn’t signify his evil; it was contrary to it. And here’s the best part: Brando had to go back and loop most of his lines in the scene, because the cat was purring so loudly, he drowned out the dialogue. That cat wasn’t a villainous adornment. In fact, quite the contrary — he was just a very good boy.