by Allan Fish
(USA 1942 73m) DVD1/2 (France only)
Moya sestra, moya sestra!
p Val Lewton d Jacques Tourneur w De Witt Bodeen ph Nicholas Musuraca ed Mark Robson m Roy Webb art Walter E.Keller, Albert S.d’Agostino
Simone Simon (Irina Dubrovna), Kent Smith (Oliver Reed), Tom Conway (Dr Judd), Jane Randolph (Alice Moore), Jack Holt (Commodore), Alan Napier (Carver), Elizabeth Dunne (Miss Plunkett), Elizabeth Russell (the cat woman),
Situated exactly at the crossroads between horror and film noir, Cat People was the first of Val Lewton’s memorable series of forties thrillers made at RKO. Cheap, often on recycled sets (this one utilising the memorable Amberson mansion staircase) and with often B movie casts, they were a wonderfully experimental series in horror movie history, though in actual fact it can be argued that they were noirs in all but their subject matter. Visually, they are very much akin to the hardnosed thrillers that characterised that genre. If I had to pick one I’d say I Walked With a Zombie would be the masterpiece of the strain, but Cat People remains a bona fide classic for horror aficionados.
Irina Dubrovna is a Serbian immigrant sketch artist who meets up with American architect Oliver Reed (gotta love the name) at the zoo, from which they fall in love and get married. Irina refuses to consummate the marriage, however, because she is convinced she will turn into a panther during intercourse and kill her lover. Unable to cope, Oliver talks to his friend and colleague, Alice, though Irina grows jealous and that, too, brings out the feline instinct in her and effects a transformation.
What is perhaps most shocking about the film today is the undercurrent of sexuality, and how Lewton and Tourneur managed to circumvent the stifling atmosphere of the production code. Everything in the film, though, is under the surface, hinted at, so that any form of censorship would rather be on the back of an assumption rather than a cast iron fact. The audience knows that Irina cannot let her husband have sex with her because she thinks she’ll kill him in the act. They also might see the psychological links to the very notion of frigidity and sexual frustration, as felt by the rejected husband. There’s something slightly disturbing about her even before the marriage, as the animals in a pet store go mental when she enters, she has a statue of King John of Serbia skewering a cat on her desk, and she likes to listen to the cries of the lions at the nearby zoo at night. Certainly they could have got no-one more mysterious and feline than Simone Simon for the role. Though of course of Gallic origin, there’s something in her broken English and physiognomy that hints at a mysterious Eastern European ancestry. One recalls her line in All That Money Can Buy when she’s asked where she came from and replies “from over the mountain.”
The real heart of the film, however, lies in its use of light and dark. Jacques Tourneur and DP Nick Musuraca were cinema’s greatest masters of shadow, as they would go on to prove in not only later Lewton chillers but Out of the Past. He and Lewton ingeniously refuse to show their monster in any form until fleeting glimpses in the final few minutes. One is reminded of Hitchcock’s knowing comment that there was “no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it.” His film is filled with an inexplicable, invisible menace, a menace most potently seen in the film’s most famous sequence of Jane Randolph being pursued by Simon’s Irina. There’s a very eerie portion where Randolph is walking down a street pavement under bridges and past lamp posts, where she is adamant she is being followed. When a bus pulls up one can imagine the contemporary audiences being scared out of their wits, but that was nothing compared to the sequence in the swimming pool, with its reflected water rippling as shadows on the wall, Randolph defenceless in the pool and the noise of the ferocious cat all around her. Followed by a memorable sequel of sorts, The Curse of the Cat People, in 1944, the original was remade with no subtlety in 1982, and is only of note to the three remaining people on planet earth yet to see Nastassja Kinski naked on screen.