From the DVD case: The studio gave Val Lewton small budgets and lurid pre-tested film titles. Lewton, working with rising filmmakers and emphasizing fear of the unseen, turned meager resources into momentous works of psychological terror. Directed by Jacques Tourneur, Cat People is the trailblazing first of Lewton’s nine horror classics. Simone Simon portrays a bride who fears an ancient hex will turn her into a deadly panther when she’s in passion’s grip. (1942,b&w)
Mark says: Cat People is such an intelligently crafted film that it is easy to forget its low budget origins. RKO, in an attempt to recoup its losses from the highly regarded, but financially disappointing, Orson Welles masterpiece, Citizen Cane, hired Val Lewton (The Leopard Man, Isle of the Dead) to produce cheap films with exploitative titles. With Cat People, Lewton not only delivered a money-making hit, but redefined the horror film genre in the process.
Simone Simon (The Devil and Daniel Webster, Curse of the Cat People) plays Irena Dubrovna, an enigmatic young dress designer obsessed with the legends of Cat People from her Serbian past. Irena believes she is a descendant of a tribe cursed to become ferocious cat-beasts when in the throes of passion, ultimately killing their lovers. This is disturbing news for her new American boyfriend, Oliver Reed, a young ship designer played by Kent Smith (The Night Stalker, Die Sister, Die!).
Oliver quickly dismisses the stories of the Cat People as fairy tales, and convinces Irena to marry him. However, Oliver learns that Irena still harbors her fears when she refuses to consummate the marriage. Eventually, he suspects Irena suffers from a psychological disorder and sends her to a psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway, The Atomic Submarine). Dr. Judd proves to be a rather unscrupulous fellow and constantly attempts to woo Irena during his “treatment” of her.
Meanwhile, Oliver, disillusioned by his sexless marriage, takes comfort in his co-worker, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). When Irena finally decides it is safe to consummate her marriage, Oliver states that it is too late; he is in love with Alice. Irena, now bitterly jealous and angry, begins to stalk Alice. This is where the real fun begins.
What is so striking about Cat People (and other Val Lewton’s films) is how ambiguity is used to create suspense. There are no overt transformation scenes in Cat People; we’re not even sure if Irena’s fears are justified as genuine supernatural phenomenon or simply a psychological impairment derived from her own sexual hang-ups. The stalking scenes are just as ambiguous. We are never absolutely sure if Irena is tracking Alice in the form of a panther or a human. In fact, at times, we’re not sure if Alice is being stalked at all.
Lewton’s approach to the stalking scenes was certainly innovative for the time. As described in VideoHound’s Cult Flicks & Trash Pics, edited by Carol Schwartz:
While using many conventions of the form, Lewton is credited with creating (or at least defining) at least two new ones with this film: “The Walk,” in which a protagonist walks down a dark alley/hallway/path, while something may or may not be stalking in the shadows; and “The Bus,” a false scare which often acts in combination with “The Walk,” named for the loudly hissing blast from a bus’s air brakes that startles Jane Randolph (and audiences for over 50 years).
All of the primary characters are equivocal. Oliver, though seemingly true blue, is willing to take Alice as a lover when his wife’s problems become too much for him. Alice, in the guise of a good friend, announces her love for Oliver while he is in an obviously vulnerable state. Likewise, Dr. Judd is more than willing to take advantage of his position of trust to satisfy his own lascivious desires. Irena is not only a sensitive, lonely woman, but possibly a raging, homicidal beast. These complexities of plot and character only add to the tense and dark atmosphere.
On re-watching Cat People recently, I was struck by the overt sexual themes of the film. For 1942, such themes must have been regarded as risque. Sexual problems within marriage, adultery, and even the use of psychiatry certainly were not subjects encountered often in films of the era. There is little doubt that these issues enhanced the already uneasy, almost subliminal, undertones of the movie.
My favorite scene is when Alice takes a swim in a basement pool. As Alice swims (ironically, dog-paddling) we get a sense of foreboding. The water’s reflection from the pool is cast eerily on the walls and ceiling, which are already richly bathed in shadows. We hear a vague growling, and glimpse a feline shadow descending the staircase. As the tension mounts, Alice lets out one of the most sincere and truly frightening screams I have ever heard in a film. Suddenly, a light is flicked on, and there stands Irena, in her fur coat, looking innocent and asking what could be the matter. Truly a cinematic work of art.
Cat People reminds us that low budget films don’t have to mean shoddy workmanship. Using leftover sets and a belief that what is left unseen is more frightening than what is seen, Producer Val Lewton and Director Jacques Tourneur (Curse of the Demon, I Walked with a Zombie) were able to deliver a film that not only won audience approval and critical acclaim, but changed the way horror films were approached for years to come.
Look for Elizabeth Russell (Bedlam, The Corpse Vanishes) as the Cat Woman at the restaurant, and Alan Napier (more readily known to my generation as Alfred the butler from the old Batman TV series) as Doc Carver.
Scene to watch for: In a tense moment, Irena catches Oliver sharing details of their marriage with Alice. Oliver explains that Alice is a “good egg” and can understand anything. Irena responds, “There are some things a woman doesn’t want other women to understand,” and tersely walks off.
Line to listen for: “Oliver’s bride seems to be a very nice girl, and a very pretty one too. Carver tells me she’s a bit odd.”
Trivia: It is said that Val Lewton had two phobias: the fear of being touched (he even dreaded handshakes) and a fear of cats. Both phobias were utilized in the plot of Cat People.
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! ½ out of 5.