Warning: This review contains potential spoilers. If you have not seen the film yet, I suggest you read no further.
In a desperate attempt to recoup from the back-to-back costly failures recently brought on by legendary director Orson Welles twin masterpieces of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, newly hired RKO Pictures executive Vice President Charles Koerner (read here) appointed former novelist Val Lewton as head producer for a series of B horror films that would give the hugely popular Universal monster movies a run for their money. Directorial duties would be individually assigned to Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson and Robert Wise respectively. Cat People (directed by Tourneur) was the first of the nine entries Lewton produced for that genre and today, it is generally (If quietly) recognized (and rightfully so) as one of the most influential horror films ever made.
Fascinated by her sketches of black panthers at a New York City zoo, marine engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) befriends a Serbian-born fashion sketch artist named Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) and not too long afterwards, the two of them begin a semi-romantic relationship. Back at her apartment, Oliver is equally intrigued by her figurine of a knight impaling a cat and we learn from Irena that he is King John of Serbia (a.k.a. Jovan Nenad). According to Irena, the cat represents evil as she tells him a historical tale involving Satanism and witchery, but Oliver dismisses it as pure nonsense. When Oliver tries to buy a kitten for Irena, the animal just hisses at her and when they go together to the pet store to exchange it, all of the animals freak out over her presence. Suddenly, Irena thinks that she may be cursed as one of the cat people that was spreading chaos in that aforementioned story she told Oliver. Unfazed by all of this, Oliver proposes to Irena and she reluctantly accepts. While celebrating her wedding dinner at a small restaurant, a mysterious lady comes up to Irena and calls her “moya sestra” (translation: “my sister”), which only confirms her realization that she is indeed a member of the cat tribe.
Predictably, Oliver’s marital relationship with Irena proves to be a troubled one from the start. Terrified that feeling even the slightest bit of intimacy for him will transform herself into a vicious panther, Irena thinks that it would be best for both she and Oliver to sleep in separate rooms. Worried that their marriage is hitting rock bottom, Oliver advises Irena to see local Psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway) so she can talk freely about this phobia to someone within the medical profession. After going to Dr. Judd, who believes that her concerns are little more than fears rooted in childhood, Irena stops attending most (If not all) of her sessions with him. Upon discovering that Oliver’s colleague Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) was the one who recommended Dr. Judd for her, Irena gets upset at Oliver for sharing her personal problems (especially without her consent) to those whom she views as complete strangers. Disillusioned with the seemingly deteriorating status of his married life, Oliver grows more intimate with Alice, who shares similar feelings for him. Shortly afterwards, a mysterious chain of events break out involving dead sheep and three failed attempts on Alice’s life involving one with Oliver as a target.
Allegedly adopting the motto of “showmanship in place of genius” or “showmanship instead of genius” (read here and here) coined by the studio’s then executive Vice President Charles Koerner, everybody at RKO Pictures must have been under the impression that Cat People was just going to a profitable low-budget horror film and nothing more. While it’s commercial success can most certainly be credited for significantly improving RKO’s then notorious financial status, one must not overlook some of the surprising artistic qualities that shape Cat People as a whole.
Despite being shot on a shoestring budget of $134,000 (even lower today by Hollywood standards), Cat People overcomes that limitation in a rather creative way. Unable to show viewers a convincing looking monster obviously due to budgetary restraints, producer Val Lewton slyly places the emphasis on atmosphere alone; suggesting that our deepest darkest fears are scarier when left to the imagination. Visually, Lewton achieves this with his use of lighting to generate a true feeling of dread on the part of the audience. As with any great horror film, this one contains a fair share of standout set pieces. The first one comes in the form of Irena carefully stalking Alice at nighttime; the camera cuts back and forth from Alice’s footsteps to Irena’s and back again to build suspense. Suddenly, a bus arrives scaring Alice out of her mind before ending with her going on it. Next up is the renowned swimming pool scene, which starts off on a lighthearted note with Alice noticing a rascally kitten, but after running off, the inevitable terror begins. When Alice hears the roar of the panther, she makes a run for it and then dives into the swimming pool while remaining terrified of both the panther’s roars and where the animal may be hiding. Eventually, the lights in the pool room are turned on by a calm Irena, who wants to know where Oliver is. Soon enough, Alice gets out of the pool to grab her robe; only to discover that it has been “torn to ribbons” as said by the receptionist of the club/gym. Other notable scenes involve slaughtered sheep, Oliver and Alice fending off the shadowy panther with a Christian cross and later on, the offscreen mauling of a victim by the aforementioned unseen creature. To top it all off, we get brief surrealistic imagery courtesy of a dream sequence involving panthers.
Undoubtedly, all of the cinematic trademarks on display in Cat People belong to it’s producer Val Lewton, but credit should also be given to it’s director Jacques Tourneur for bringing his intended vision to life. Following in the footsteps of his then prestigious (If now similarly overlooked) father Maurice Tourneur (read here), Jacques Tourneur began his career as a filmmaker three years earlier in 1939 with They All Come Out, a socially conscious crime drama. I have not seen that one, nor have I seen the three films of his that followed, which include: Nick Carter, Master Detective, Phantom Raiders and Doctors Don’t Tell. Roughly a year and (almost) three months after that last title, Tourneur would finally hit pay dirt in 1942 with his fifth feature-length film (i.e. Cat People). Courtesy of Nicholas Musuraca’s black-and-white cinematography, Tourneur utilizes lighting and shadows to further emphasize the visual elements that are now officially rooted in the film noir genre (or sub-genre). At the same time, the script allows Tourneur to briefly explore some of the themes that he would expand upon in some of his later works including but not limited to Christianity as a force of good (Stars in My Crown) and Satan worship (Night of the Demon).
Contrary to it’s schlocky title, there is actually much more going on in Cat People than viewers might realize at first. For starters, producer Val Lewton had a phobia of cats (read here) and it is possible that his screenwriter Dewitt Bodeen may have picked up on this aspect while writing the script. The character of Irena Dubrovna obviously symbolizes these fears of his, which in turn, drives the horror elements of this film. As it slowly unfolds behind it’s disguise as a crowd pleasing horror thriller, Cat People ultimately reveals itself as an insightful yet tragic social commentary on sexual repression. Irena’s fear of sexual arousal confirms this, which distances herself more and more from Oliver. Irena loves him dearly, but at the same time, she does not want to accidentally kill him given that those kinds of thoughts can transform her into a vicious black panther. When Oliver starts seeing Alice more frequently, Irena’s feelings of resentment turn her into a panther, who stalks Alice with the intention of murdering her. Along the way, the panther inadvertently kills a bunch of sheep. Later on, Irena comes home and locks herself in the bathroom and shortly after, she is seen crying in a bathtub. Irena’s sadness may be due to Oliver’s betrayal of her and her guilt for either genuinely emoting for the first time or for expressing those forbidden emotions. After having a weird dream with a voice exclaiming “the key”, Irena goes to the zoo and steals the key to the panther’s cage. Irena’s action represents the unleashing of her sexual freedom and the elimination of some of her insecurities. Even though Irena (in panther form) still fails in her attempts to kill Alice, she feels more confident about herself as a human. This feeling of happiness does not last long however when Oliver announces that he is divorcing her. Outraged, Irena (as a panther) now tries but backfires in killing both Oliver and Alice. After transforming into a panther for one last time and leaving a casualty behind, Irena stumbles over to the zoo to place the stolen key in the hole to unlock the panther’s cage resulting in her death by the zoo panther, who is run over by Oliver’s car shortly afterwards. I do not know about everyone else, but I see Irena’s death as a sacrifice. In other words, it serves as her way of dying for her sins. No doubt, Irena was not totally at fault for all of her actions, but even when she got some form of revenge, she always seemed to carry around a moral compass at the same time. If Cat People has one performance that can be singled out for praise, it would easily be it’s leading French actress Simone Simon, who perfectly balances sexiness with childlike playfulness in her role of Irena. Regardless of whether or not readers will echo my sentiments here, their is no denying that it does stand as one of many interesting ways to look at it.
Even If it still (annoyingly) remains a little known fact to this day, producer Val Lewton (not the equally masterful director Alfred Hitchcock) stands as the real grandfather of psychological horror and Cat People serves as the perfect entry for unfamiliar viewers to begin their journey with. Similar to how it concluded in 1946 with Bedlam, Cat People began Lewton’s cycle of RKO horror films with a bang. Also worth checking out is the 1944 sequel entitled The Curse of the Cat People directed by Robert Wise instead of Jacques Tourneur and despite it’s differences (that one plays out more like a supernatural drama), I personally feel that it is every bit as spellbinding as this one is.
* * * * (Out of * * * *)