Jacques Tourneur, 1942
Starring: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph
“But black sin hath betrayed to endless night
My world, both parts, and both parts must die.”
– John Donne
My world, both parts, and both parts must die.”
– John Donne
Auteur producer Val Lewton’s first horror film heading up RKO Studios’ horror section was the restrained, psychological horror film Cat People. Irena, a young artist and fashion designer who has emigrated from Serbia, meets Oliver, an American marine engineer, at the Central Park Zoo in New York. She is there sketching a black leopard, but allows Oliver to walk her home and invites him in for tea. They strike up a relationship and Oliver soon proposes marriage, though Irena expresses her concerns. She never intended to be in a relationship and is afraid to consummate their marriage due to some superstitious beliefs from her homeland. Allegedly her village was home to a number of devil worshipping female witches who would transform into giant, murderous cats when they were aroused or enraged. Irena believes that if she has sex with Oliver - or even kisses him - that this will be her fate too.
Irena’s paranoias are complicated by a series of events. Oliver buys her a kitten that is terrified of her and they exchange it for a canary who dies of fright when she tries to play with it. At their wedding, a strange, cat-like woman greets her as “my sister” in Serbian. Her anxieties result in marital problems and Oliver convinces her to go see a psychiatrist, who shrugs off her beliefs as silly childhood traumas and makes sexual advances towards her. The only thing that makes her feel better is visiting the leopard at the zoo. Meanwhile Oliver is beginning to fall for his assistant Alice, which arouses murderous feelings in Irena. Alice is followed home from work one night by something unseen and is later stalked in a swimming pool. Oliver finally asks for a divorce and Irena begins to spiral out of control. Will things erupt in human violence or supernatural?
Though Cat People received mixed reviews upon its release, it was a financial success and ensured that Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur would go on making films together for RKO. Tourneur’s talented direction and noirish style is used here in abundance and his work with Lewton is his finest. One of the most celebrated noir films of all time, Tourneur's Out of the Past, shares this style. Tourneur worked with cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca on both Cat People and Out of the Past and their stylish collaborations helped to define the American noir genre. The nighttime scenes, shadowy visuals with specific use of light, and suggested, rather than literal horrors make Cat People an incredible and influential debut film. Though it is traditionally seen as a horror film, it has many noir elements, particularly its nihilistic tone, sexual subtext, and an almost accidental femme fatale as the leading lady.
Written by DeWitt Bodeen, who would work with Lewton on a few other films, Cat People was based on Lewton’s own short story, “The Bagheeta.” This is also an early example of Lewton using a group of trusted people to make multiple films. He would work with Tourneur on three more films and editor Mark Robson would soon be promoted to director to work on other horror films with Lewton. Much of the principle cast all reappeared in the loose sequel, The Curse of the Cat People, including the uncredited Elizabeth Russell, who has a cameo here as Irena’s Serbian “sister.” Tom Conway, who plays the lascivious psychiatrist, would oddly reprise the same role in a later, unconnected Lewton film, The Seventh Victim.
Cat People came at the tail end of French ingenue Simone Simon’s career. She was one of the most popular actresses in France by the early ‘30s, but was unable to make any real headway in Hollywood despite her role in this film and in the earlier horror effort The Devil and Daniel Webster. She is wonderful as Irena, and though she gives a somewhat understated performance, she exudes frustration and paranoia. Kent Smith (The Spiral Staircase, Nora Prentiss) is fittingly boring as her husband Oliver, but the wholesome, thoroughly American Jane Randolph is the perfect foil for Simon’s quiet, exotic, and foreign Irena. Elizabeth Russell (The Corpse Vanishes, The Seventh Victim) is wonderful in a bit part as a Serbian woman and it’s a shame we don’t see more of her.
Lewton made this low budget film as beautiful as possible. In addition to the imaginative, noirish cinematography and expressive lighting, he reused sets from other RKO productions, including Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. Separate crews worked on the film during the day (with the actors) and at night (with the animals) to finish the film on schedule. Lewton introduced a number of influential techniques with Cat People, including the “Lewton Bus,” where a genuine scare is misdirected with a benign surprise. In the scene where Alice is being chased home from Central Park by some unseen creature, which we believe to be Irena in panther form, instead of the attack we know is coming is replaced by the sudden arrival of a city bus that takes Alice to safety. Lewton and Tourneur also used shadow and suggestion in this film in lieu of showing the monster, murderer, or source of evil. This is supported by some carefully used, symbolic dialogue and intentional set pieces.
This incredibly stylized film is also a meditation on the difficulties of relationships - it is one of the few works in the early ‘40s to openly discuss divorce and infidelity - and the dangers of sexual repression. The real beast in this film is not a were-panther (though it remains unclear whether or not the creature exists), but Irena’s unbridled sexuality, which she fears will consume and destroy her and the man she loves. Keep in mind that this is from the ‘40s, so it will probably seem dated to horror fans not used the period. It is also very carefully paced and relies on a building sense of dread and doom, the crushing weight of Irena’s mortality bearing down upon her - and us.
Cat People is available as a single disc split DVD with Curse of the Cat People or in the wonderful Val Lewton Horror Collection box set, which contains all 9 of Lewton’s horror films and a documentary about his life and work. Curse of the Cat People (1944), which contains most of the same cast, is a loose sequel, but is really an exploration of the potentially threatening imaginative reveries of childhood. Cat People was remade in 1982 as a much less subtle film starring Nastassja Kinski. Only watch that one if you want to see Kinski naked, though for that you could also check out To the Devil a Daughter.