Jacques Tourneur, 1942
Starring: Simone Simon, Tom Conway, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph
A truly wonderful horror-noir hybrid that comes highly recommended, Cat People is a collaboration between director Tourneur and famed writer/producer Val Lewton and is one of the best American horror films to come out of the '40s.
Irena, a Serbian fashion designer, has a chance meeting with Oliver when she is at the Central Park Zoo drawing the black panther. They strike up a close bond and begin to fall in love. Irena explains her heritage to Oliver. She is believed to be descended from Serbian witches who could transform into cats. They were killed by the Christian King John, who drove them from the villages to live in the mountains. Oliver thinks she is merely suffering from a combination of paranoia and superstition, but Irena makes it clear that she is afraid sexual passion is the inciting element that will make her transform into a murderous beast.
They marry anyway, but Irena refuses to consummate the marriage. At first Oliver is patient, but encourages her to see a psychiatrist. Meanwhile, Oliver and his assistant Alice are growing closer and Alice admits that she loves Oliver. Irena becomes jealous of Alice and follows her home one night. Irena refuses to let go of her delusions. The situation worsens when Oliver tells Irena he loves Alice and wants a divorce. Can Irena let Oliver and Alice go? Is she psychologically disturbed or is she really a satanic feline?
I can't say enough good things about The Cat People. It is sad, subtle, scary and compelling and I am loathe to give away the ending of the film. It was Lewton's first production in a long line of classic '40s and '50s horror films for RKO and is a perfect blend of his writing talent and Tourneur's noir-influenced visual style. The Freudian and even post-Freudian interpretations of sexual repression and an intense blend of desire and fear comes across powerfully through Simone Simon's Irena. She is sinister, yet sympathetic and we spend most of the film hoping she can overcome the power of belief and suggestion -- yet she cannot. Simon gives a hypnotic performance, despite the parlor-room acting usually exhibited in '40s cinema.
Please watch this film at the first opportunity you get. It's available as part of a two-film single-disc DVD from Turner with its loose sequel, The Curse of the Cat People. I recommend the entire Val Lewton box set, which comes with a number of other great films. Keep in mind there are two versions of this and the more recent edition has an extra disc with a Scorcese-produced documentary on Lewton.