(Jacques Tourneur, 1942)
(essay by Troy)
Val Lewton’s legacy all starts here, the first of his RKO B-horror films and his first collaboration with Jacques Tourneur. With Cat People, the two remove the gothic trappings of the then-popular Universal horror movies and bring things into a complex, adult world full of neurosis, psychological hang-ups, and repressions. Like the other two Lewton films that have preceded it in this countdown (I Walked With A Zombie and The Seventh Victim)*), there’s a somber lyricism at the core along with a fatalistic melancholy creeping beneath the surface. The films are also marked by their astute ability to delve into such subjects as a distressing obsession with death, the dissection of human duality, unspoken sexual conflicts all done with literate allusions, noir-ish atmosphere, and an impending sense of doom. Lewton not only made sure these were intelligent affairs, but employed a simple formula to keep their short run times interesting, “a love story, three scenes of suggested horror, and one of actual violence.”
Serbian immigrant Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) is drawing charcoal sketches of impaled panthers at the zoo wherein she has a meet cute with milquetoast Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). Irena eventually explains to Oliver that she is obsessed with cats, believing she is the descendent of a race of evil cat people that will transform into a panther when emotionally (and by implication, sexually) aroused, returning to human form only after unleashing her animal rage. Apparently, Oliver is not bothered by this “minor” issue, as he and Irena are soon married. However, Irena’s fear that intimacy will culminate in her killing Oliver in her cat-like form leads to her not wishing to consummate the marriage. Taking this all in stride, good old Ollie convinces her to see psychiatrist Dr. Judd (Tom Conway). Judd unscrupulously uses his knowledge of Irena’s fears in an attempt to seduce her, while Oliver suddenly realizes his love for his co-worker, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), as he confides his marital issues to her. Thus dual love triangles (or perhaps, a love square/rhombus/parallelogram) are setup between Irena/Oliver/Alice and Irena/Oliver/Dr. Judd. The conflux of this melodrama results in Irena becoming jealous and enraged at Alice and Oliver, while Dr. Judd’s advances finalize her transformation (figuratively, for sure, literally…well, that’s open to interpretation**) into her true self.
Before diving in further, I should point out that this may be the best acting Lewton would get in any of this films, with the Simon and Randolph stealing the show. Simon’s features appear very cat like — nose, cheeks, hair, outfits — just look at the final shot of her on the ground of the zoo, mirroring the panther that was run over. Randolph plays the “other woman” fantastically too (and how many films of the 40’s have the woman instigating infidelity as the “good girl”?) playing her scenes of tension with an understatement and sophistication that you don’t often expect in horror films. Meanwhile, Conway is able to pull off being both lecherous and humane, while Smith is the prototypical 40’s/50’s horror film milquetoast protagonist as the metaphorically impotent husband.
This plot recap skips over the best moments of the film, where Tourneur and Lewton’s skill in creating unnerving and tense frissions is most on display. Two of these moments stand out, beginning with Alice’s solo nighttime walk through a park. As she makes her way through the park, she hears high heels on pavement behind her. The viewer sees Irena following her close behind (in human form). Alice, continues walking faster and faster, nervously glancing over her shoulder, her fear peaking even more due to the guilt she has over her feelings towards Oliver and in perhaps beginning to believe what Irena is capable of. Tourneur (it’s sometimes hard to determine who to give the credit to with Lewton’s films, but I’m confident in Lewton being the narrative voice and Tourneur being the visual one in this case) then puts us inside Alice’s shoes with a POV shot as she turns around to see if anyone is following here. Nothing. Suddenly, the footsteps disappear, before suddenly turning into what seems like a cat’s growl and from the left side of the screen we fully expect a Irena in panther form to jump out at Alice. While our eye is trained on that, we immediately find out that the jarring sound was perhaps not a cat, but the sound of a bus as it comes charging into the scene from our right and creating the first(?) shock scare in horror movies. The scene ends with Irena, in human form, getting into a taxi, followed by a shot of paw prints being found the next day amidst some dead animals. Everything here leads us to believe that Irena did turn into a panther, but it’s all via inference and it’s still up in the air if it really happened. The entire scene is a perfect use of suggestion, cross-cutting, and sound to infer something that may or may not be happening.
Later, this same purposeful sense of confusion is employed in the iconic swimming pool scene where Tourneur again shows off his ability to display the menace of an unseen creature through mere implication. As Alice takes a swim in an indoor pool, she is ambiguously stalked by what she believes to be Irena, morphed into a panther. Tourneur uses barely seen shadows on the walls and ceiling that look like they could be a panther, yet they are distorted by the shimmering light that comes off the ripples of the water. Eerie sounds emanate from the enclosed area, but we aren’t entirely sure if these are just odd-sounding echoes or an actual feline roar. The vulnerability of Alice, trapped in a pool with no escape, adds to the fear built in this amazing scene.
The symbolism of a dark swimming pool is ripe with Freudian readings of the unconscious mind and that’s probably no accident, as the film is full of similar analytical themes both subtle and overt***. These add to the depth of the film, speaking to Irena’s internal conflict and seemingly imminent and impending doom. This conflict can be read as sexual (whether in the fear the emotions that sexual contact may bring out of her or, as some have suggested, a repression of lesbian feelings) or one of identity and self-hatred (she obviously feels she herself is a cat person, yet she is also obsessed with King John, who according to myth is the person who slays the cat people and her drawing of the impaled panther shows us her true desires,).
Her dream she shares with Judd, shows this dichotomy, with the images of a key and sword blending together, the two objects that will eventually lead to her self-realization and her death. Similarly, the image of Dr. Judd as King John creates an interesting conflict as he is the one that both unleashes and slays her cat-side. The image of the key is pivotal to the story, leading to the three final moments in Irena’s progression — Dr. Judd unlocking her apartment door, her locking Oliver and Alice in the office, and her finally unlocking the panther from its cage.
It all ends with a stirring image of Irena in all black, lying on the ground dead as a quote by John Donne is placed on the screen (another similarity to The Seventh Victim),
But black sin hath betrayed to endless night / My world, both parts, and both parts must dies.
This dour coda typifies the Lewton worldview as Irena, irreparably divided, only finds her peace in death.
* I should note that all three films made my top 16 and I consider all three masterpieces. While rewatching each of them in preparation for writing these pieces, I would have staked the claim that the one I was currently watching was the best of the three. So, even if Cat People came out on top of the three the day I made my list, I could change my mind on that depending on the day.
** Tourneur apparently did NOT want the shot of the panther in the scene in Irena’s apartment near the end, wanting to keep the ambiguity alive. The studio insisted, and as with Curse of the Demon, Tourneur was not happy.
*** It’s interesting when you consider that the 1982 remake is devoid of any subtlety at all, making the explicit connection between sexuality and violence both thematically and visually, and in the process being less impactful.
(See more screencaps at Troy’s blog, here)
(this film appeared on Troy’s list at #6, Jamie’s at #71, Robert at #42, and Kevin’s at #39)