Posts Tagged ‘Cat People’

It strikes me that there are very many worse job titles to have than ‘head of horror unit’. Holding this post was the fortunate position that the writer and producer Val Lewton found himself in in the early 1940s, when he was working for the American film studio RKO. The job only came with three provisos: all the films Lewton oversaw had to be no longer than 75 minutes, they had to cost less than $150,000, and they had to use titles provided to Lewton by his bosses. Call those strictures? That just sounds like fun to me.

The films Lewton ended up producing may not have packed quite the same cultural wallop as the horror cycle which Universal was midway through at the same time, but they do have a certain style and class which most of the later Universal movies are really lacking in. They are, in general, artier and more subtle, with less reliance on special effects and make-up to do their thing. In some ways, though, Lewton’s work has been just as influential as those other movies, name recognition or not.

The first fruit of the horror unit under Lewton was the 1942 movie Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur. Cats are, not surprisingly, something of a motif in this film, which opens at the zoo. (This is one of those odd American films from the early 1940s which stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the fact it was made in the middle of a global war.) Just outside the panther cage, we are witness to a meet-cute between well-to-do marine designer Oliver Reed (a name which is a little more snigger-worthy now than it was at the time), who is played by Kent Smith, and illustrator Irena Dubrovna, played by Simone Simon. Irena is supposedly Serbian, which the French Simon opts to indicate by doing a sort of generic European accent.

Well, Reed and Irena hit it off, and sure enough she is soon telling him stories of her charming homeland, much of which seems to have been inhabited by devil-worshipping witches with the power to turn into savage big cats when they got riled (perfectly ordinary first date conversation fodder, if you ask me). The romance proceeds swimmingly, possibly because Oliver seems permanently distracted and doesn’t notice things like the entire population of a pet shop going into a terrified frenzy the moment Irena walks through the door. Soon enough (because, after all, the whole movie has to be finished in under 75 minutes) they are engaged, which is a heavy blow for Oliver’s assistant Alice (Jane Randolph), who bears a not-especially-secret torch for him.

The only problem is that Irena is convinced that the blood of the ancient cat-women flows through her own veins, and if her darker side is roused – by, say, her new husband kissing her or doing something even more intimate – she will turn into a cat and rip his head off. I think it is fair to say that few marriages would prosper under such conditions. At Alice’s suggestion, Irena is sent to frankly dubious psychiatrist Dr Judd (Tom Conway) – but can this really do any good? And how will Irena’s growing jealousy of Oliver and Alice’s obvious closeness manifest itself?

Cat People did well enough to earn a sequel (1945’s Curse of the Cat People) and a remake (made by Paul Schrader in 1982, with Nastassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell), and it is usually assured of at least a mention in any serious discussion of the development of the craft of the horror movie. (This is due to the fact it introduced a couple of tropes to the genre – ‘The Walk’, represented by the scene in which Randolph is stalked through a park by something unseen but malevolent, and ‘The Bus’, in which tension is suddenly defused by a ‘false alarm’ moment (the air brakes of said vehicle sound momentarily like the hiss of a cat).) So you would expect this to be a superior and classy horror film.

Superior and classy it certainly is, but I’m just not sure if it really works as a horror movie for a modern audience. Parts of Cat People have not aged well, if we’re honest, and it is if anything too refined and ambiguous to really meet the standards of the genre. The briefness of the movie results in it only having four significant characters. Irena is an interesting attempt at creating a genuinely ambiguous character – she is initially quite sympathetic, an impression which is gradually dispelled as the story progresses. However, Judd turns out to be an arrogant tool, and unprofessional to the point of complete sleaziness as well. I’m still not sure if he’s less sympathetic than Oliver himself, who comes across as bland and self-satisfied. He obviously has a good job, women are falling all over him, and at one point Kent Smith is required to bewail the fact that never in his life has he ever really felt unhappy before. This sort of thing is not guaranteed to get the audience on-side with a character. Only Alice comes across as someone you’d generally want to spend time with – she’s the kind of plucky character who’d get called a brick in a British film – and you do wonder what she’s doing falling uselessly in love with someone like Oliver.

Still, coming across dodgy handling of female characters is par for the course with this kind of old movie, and it does not take a psychology graduate to recognise that this is a film with a somewhat dubious subtext. Lurking within some women, it seems to be suggesting, is a savage, out of control beast, prone to vicious fits of jealousy. Irena isn’t afflicted with her curse in the course of the story in the way that Lon Chaney Jr is in The Wolf Man; she was born with it, intrinsically compromised. You could argue it is about the male fear of female desire, a very characteristic psycho-sexual undertone for this kind of film, and one which is handled reasonably subtly.

All this has to build up to something, though, and it’s here that the film may fall down for modern audiences. Jane Randolph’s initial encounters with something unseen but hostile are well-mounted, but – with some justification – you are expectating some kind of money shot before the end of the film. Imagine a werewolf movie where you not only never got to see the transformation, you barely got to see the beastie – many viewers would be crying foul, I think. And that is essentially what happens here.

You can certainly understand Lewton and Tourneur’s preference for subtlety and implication over hiring one of the Westmore family to glue cat ears onto Simone Simon, but the end of the film still slightly feels like it isn’t delivering in terms of solid scares and dramatic resolution. There are clearly significant and symbolically important things going on, but it still feels like it is being just a bit too subtle and understated for its own good. Nevertheless, Cat People is a very competently-made movie with an unusual degree of psychological depth for the early forties; it may not much look like the modern definition of a horror movie, but you can see why it is still remembered today.

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