Cat People (1942)

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Cat People featured image. Detail from original movie poster.

Cat People (1942). 73 minutes.  Directed by Jacques Tourneur.  Starring Simone Simon (as Irena Dubrovna Reed), Kent Smith (as Oliver Reed), Jane Randolph (as Alice Moore), and Tom Conway (as Dr. Louis Judd).  Produced by Val Lewton.

For a B-grade horror movie about a woman who can transform into an animal, Cat People is a surprisingly sensitive and human story.  This film achieves much more than we would expect from a typical B picture.  In fact, it offers a mixture of subtlety, sophistication, and inventiveness that would be difficult for any movie to achieve.  All throughout we hear the mysterious, part-feline protagonist Irena Dubrovna Reed articulate her loneliness, her need for warmth, and her fear that something evil resides within her.  As she puzzles over her true nature, we watch her marriage to her newlywed husband Oliver deteriorate and see how its demise fuels her longing and isolation.  It would appear that her relationship with Oliver is the only substantial one she has, and even it is deficient, in part because of her reluctance to open up to him fully.  And what an internal world she must possess: we see her preoccupied and alone at the film’s beginning, obsessively sketching and resketching the same image of a cat at the zoo as she tries to capture its significance and to perfect an understanding of something she cannot escape.  As we soon learn, she is tormented by the thought that she may be descended from evil stock, witches who fled into the Serbian mountains many years ago and sired a race of humans who can turn into predatory cats.

At the movie’s core lies a strange and restrained love story that mostly takes place in Irena’s large, open apartment, with its old-fashioned furniture and tall windows that usher in the sounds of cats at the nearby zoo .  There is a large couch in front of a fireplace, and it is there that Irena and Oliver fall in love during their speedy romance.  Although Oliver wants to kiss her, she is reluctant.  Irena needs time, she says, and she continues to say this after they are married—even on their wedding night.  But what the time is needed for is a bit of a mystery.  It could be for her to adjust to sexual life.  Accordingly, there is a lovely scene that shows her self-imposed frustration as Oliver calls goodnight to her from one side of a closed door, and she slides down the other side in anguish; it is not apparent that she and Oliver ever consummate their marriage.  The movie implies that Irena believes that sexual activation will in some way bring out her cat side, but this belief is never made explicit.  By the end of the film, it is at least clear that Irena turns into a cat when she becomes sexually jealous.

Irena’s reluctance to be physically and fully emotionally available to Oliver takes a toll on their relationship.  He attempts to connect her with a psychiatrist, Dr. Judd, but she attends only one therapy session. Dr. Judd reappears later and, as it turns out, is predatory.  Oliver, in contrast, remains a gentle and lovely person throughout the film, even as his relationship with his coworker Alice deepens.  Alice herself does not seem to be a bad person.  In fact, in some ways, she seems to be a good person for Oliver—both decent and compassionate.  In this way, although Oliver and Alice betray Irena, it is hard to think of them as evil characters.  Even when they meet late in the movie to discuss the terms of Oliver’s divorce, Oliver and Alice’s primary concern is for Irena and what will happen to her if Oliver’s marriage is dissolved.  It is an unusual treat to watch a movie and see two people (Alice and Oliver) doing something wrong but to like them very much, and to watch another person (Irena) who can also be virtuous behave in a frightening and malevolent way.  If Irena is in fact evil, it is hard to dislike her human form, but if Alice and Oliver betray Irena, it is difficult to come down on them too hard.  By the end of the movie, when Irena meets her fate at the zoo, Oliver says over her body to Alice, “She never lied to us.” At first that seems like a minor thing to say about anybody, but the sentiment is complex: Irena has always been true, unlike Oliver, and he implicitly seems to acknowledge this contrast.  But when Oliver says this, he is also releasing himself from his never quite completely intimate relationship with Irena.  He is pitting Irena against the “us” of Alice and himself, indeed against the rest of the world.  Oliver and Alice are some of the lucky ones—their relationship seems both close and easy.  In death, Irena is alone, as she was for most of her life.  She will never know what they have as they turn and walk away from her body lying dead on the cement in front of the animal cages.

On a certain level, as marvelously sensitive as the movie is, it is still a horror story designed to thrill us.  When it becomes clear to Irena that her marriage is falling apart and that Oliver is spending more time with Alice, Irena stalks her rival while she walks outside along a stone wall.  As the camera repeatedly cuts from Irena to Alice, we suddenly lose site of Irena and no longer hear the sound of her shoes on the pavement.  In its place, there is a strange and ominous silence.  Frightened, Alice jumps onto a passing bus and as the bus door closes, we hear a panther’s growl.  Immediately afterward, the camera reveals that some sheep in a nearby field have been killed, and when we later see Irena, her coat is muddy.  In another scene, Irena, inflamed with jealousy, shows up at Alice’s apartment building as the latter prepares to go for a swim in the basement pool.  Alice, alone and vulnerable in her bathing suit, hears strange sounds and dives into the water.  We watch her treading water frantically as the shadows play menacingly against the wall and the sounds, discernibly cat growls, amplify.  Finally Alice’s screams bring the staff to her rescue, and Irena is there in human form to issue a taunting hello.  Suddenly, Irena does not seem so sweet.  When she leaves, the staff finds Alice’s gym robe slashed as if by an animal.

Both sequences, the walk by the wall and the scene at the pool, are tense and expertly cut, but their horror works purely by suggestion.  We do not see anything directly menacing at all.  To a certain extent, we may be tempted to believe the horror of both scenes resides in Alice’s mind, except that the sheep really are killed and the robe really has been slashed.  The suggestive techniques of the film were both inexpensive to execute (Cat People was made for only $134,000) and probably much more powerful than a more direct mode of storytelling would be.

Although this movie cost very little to make, it earned almost $4 million at the time of its release (1942), becoming RKO’s most profitable film in a year that included the (RKO) release of Citizen Kane and other high-profile movies.  Cat People spawned a bevy of 1940s B-grade horror films produced by Val Lewton.  His projects are known for their ultra stylishness and shoestring budgets, proof that movies do not have to be expensive to be beautiful and that horror movies can be evocative, rich, and deeply moving.  Lewton’s star burned intensely before he died of a heart attack at the age of 46 in 1951, and by the time he was dead, he was one of the few producers who was more closely identified with a body of work than his directors,  as Roger Ebert has noted.

In this admittedly unique position, Lewton became one of the inspirations for the fictional producer Jonathan Shields, played by Kirk Douglas in the Oscar-winning movie The Bad and the Beautiful (1952).  I recommend a recent documentary on Lewton narrated by director Martin Scorsese, Val Lewton—The Man in the Shadows (2007), for those who would like to know more about his life, movies, and characteristic style.

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