Cat People (1942)

Reviewed By Doug Bentin
Posted 09/09/05 13:38:13

"This is the first subtle masterpiece from Val Lewton."
5 stars (Awesome)

To begin his brief tenure heading the horror movie unit at RKO, producer Val Lewton couldn’t have chosen a director more simpatico with his philosophy of ambiguity than Jacques Tourneur. Of Lewton’s nine thrillers at RKO, Tourneur would direct three of them—see my review of “I Walked With a Zombie,” and “The Leopard Man” was the third. All are triumphs of suggestion, of shadow over light.

“Cat People” opens in the zoo. A hurdy-man is cranking out a melody from Flowtow’s little-heard opera “Martha” as a lovely young woman (Simone Simon) sketches the caged panther. Dissatisfied with each drawing, she rips sheets of paper out of her pad, crumples them, and tosses them toward a trash can. Since she keeps missing, an amiable young man (Kent Smith) retrieves them and throws them away for her. They exchange smiles, then he crosses to her and when she leaves, he follows her. She hasn’t invited his attentions, but neither has she definitively snubbed him.

As they walk along, she finally finds him attractive enough to ask him to her flat for tea. Perhaps we’re to think that she intends coming on to him once inside, but if that’s Tourneur’s plan it is only there to mislead us.

They quickly become so comfortable with each other that she feels she can explain an odd sculpted figure she has on display. It is of King John of Serbia, her homeland, sitting astride a horse and holding a sword impaling a cat. We have learned that her name is Irena and there is a legend from the city of her birth that King John placed a curse on its citizens and whenever their passions are aroused, they will turn into some form of cat. Her visitor, Oliver Reed, laughs the tale off, but we find it harder to dismiss as the apartment is packed with artistic representations of cats large and small.

As evening falls, Reed makes a dinner date for the next night and leaves. Tourneur shoots him from Irena’s point of view as he descends a curved staircase so elaborate it seems out of place when contrasted with the relative simplicity of her flat. Just what, we wonder, is he really descending into?

During the early years of Irena’s and Reed’s courtship and marriage, everyone in the film but Irena pooh-poohs the young woman’s belief in the curse of the cat people, but the film itself seems ambiguous about her fears. Reed presents her with a Siamese kitten as a gift, and the instant the cat senses Irena, it arches its back and hisses at her. When the two of them return the animal to the pet store, wanting to exchange it for a bird, every beast in the shop reacts in fear to Irena’s presence.

And always, Irena is drawn to the panther in the zoo.

But the young lovers marry and at their wedding party a feline-looking woman approaches the bride and breaths a single word to her, and then repeats it in a husky whisper. Irena tells us it is “sister” in Serbian. This unsettling woman is not the only time the film gives us a human/cat hybrid. Frequently when the characters are in public places, women in the background, viewed in silhouette, can be seen as cats.

Irena tells Reed, on their wedding night, that she still fears that if her emotions are excited too highly by wedding night activity, she will change and do something to harm him. “There is something evil in me,” she tells him. Here the script hints at the same kind of subtle commentary on abrupt changes of innocence to sexual maturity found so often in classic fairy tales. Reed, perhaps unbelievably patient, agrees to sleep on the couch until she is ready to trust her emotions.

From this point on, her actions become more and more suspicious. When she tries to capture her caged bird in her hands, the tiny creature panics and dies of fright. She carries the carcass to the panther in the zoo and flings it into the animal’s cage. At Reed’s suggestion, she begins seeing a psychiatrist (the ever suave Tom Conway), who also dismisses her fears as superstitious fancy. His Freudian approach to her problem is no help, and he hinders her search for normalcy in another way as he obviously begins to fall in love with her.

At this point, the film turns more sinister. Reed lets it slip that his female colleague at work and good friend Alice (Jane Randolph) knows all about the problems he and his wife are having. Irena has always felt that cat people act badly from passion, jealousy or evil, and all are brought out by the revelation of Alice’s insider knowledge. The final piece of the tragedy is put in place when Alice tells Reed that she is in love with him and always has been.

Dr. Judd begins stalking Irena, following her to the zoo—where she always retreats to commune with her true nature. He still refuses to admit that she might be under a curse, but adds that for some people “there is a psychic need to loose evil on the world.” Later, at home, Reed, who for an intelligent guy can be remarkably dense, mentions Alice’s name and Irena flares up and becomes convinced that the two co-workers are having an affair.

Later that night, Irena follows Alice from work. This leads into one of the film’s two celebrated scenes. Alice walks along the darkened streets alone, her heels clicking along the sidewalk. Tourneur cuts to Irena behind her, her heels also making a noise. The soundtrack remains quiet save for the taps of the women’s shoes. Tension builds as Alice realizes someone is trailing her. She speeds up, glancing over her shoulder for a look at her pursuer. Both women move in and out of shots, passing under street lights, then into shadows. The suspense is built from dark and light, sound and silence, until we hear the growl of the panther immediately changing into the sound of brakes as a city bus rolls into the frame and stops to offer Alice a ride.

Soundman John L. Cass, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, and editor Mark Robson (who would direct four of Lewton’s subsequent thrillers and such mainstream pictures as “Valley of the Dolls” and “Von Ryan’s Express”) create with Tourneur one of the horror genre’s great moments.

After Irena has accompanied Reed and Alice to a museum where the colleagues have lingered over a display of ship models (their job is designing boats), Irena again follows the hated Alice, this time to an athletic club where, after hours, Alice wants to have a swim. (Note that one of the model ships in the display has added to the cat theme by having a feline figure head. You have to look quick, but it’s there.)

In the locker room, Alice hears the padding of panther feet and the almost human-like growls. She flings herself into the pool and swims to the center, spinning around in a circle in an attempt to see every side of the pool at once. She becomes terrified of images seen only in shadow and of harrowing noises. Her screams for help finally attract the clerk at the desk, who finds Alice’s robe ripped to shreds. Alice emerges from the pool by the word “DEEP” painted on the edge.

Finally, Reed admits to his wife that he returns Alice’s affection. That night, in his office, a panther—and this is the first time we’ve actually seen one outside the zoo—stalks Reed and Alice. The animal flees without doing any harm. Although we have seen the real cat, we didn’t see Irena so there is still room to suspect that she is letting the beast out of its cage (we know she has stolen the key) and is somehow controlling its actions.

From this point the film hastens to its end, with the fates of the four central characters (plus the panther) tied up—if loosely, as ambiguity remains the name of the game.

We feel about 90% certain that Irena has been right all along, that she was the victim of an ancient curse, and that she had no hope of controlling her true nature. Since the danger was supernatural in origin, and since the supernatural isn’t real, we in the audience don’t have to worry that any such thing can happen to us. But then there’s that damned, lingering 10%, the suggestion that Irena was actually a victim of her own perverse mania and, that being the case, any attractive young person of the opposite sex we meet could be showing an interest in us for all the wrong reasons.

It’s likely that Lewton was drawing on the success of Universal’s “The Wolf Man,” released almost exactly one year earlier, and wanted another human-into-animal horror thriller. But I also suspect that he and Tourneur were too slyly devilish to play their subject absolutely straight. “Cat People” is sophisticated in just about every way a classic horror film can be.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.