Cat People (1942)

Cat People (1942), produced by Val Lewton, directed by Jacques Tourneur.

First review

A low-budget psychological thriller with hints of the supernatural and wonderful use of light and shadows. Intimations of awful revelations lurking just off screen.

A young bride cannot be intimate with her husband for fear of an old world curse that will turn her into a black panther. She believes it so much that others begin to believe it too, and then when she becomes jealous...

In The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) the eager film-makers, assigned a dumb no-budget "cat people" project, salvage it by realizing that not showing the creature is scarier than showing it, a clear reference to this film.

The 1982 remake retains one fine scene, where Irena stalks Alice at the swimming pool.

Valuable commentary track on the DVD.

I've just discovered Val Lewton and now have to see all of his films. He did not live long enough to make more than a few. I think he may be the patron saint of those who produce works of art for bosses who don't give a damn. The studio execs hated it when they saw the final product: too sophisticated, too arty. As it turned out, Cat People was enormously profitable for RKO, which needed a hit after taking a big loss on Citizen Kane (1941).

Second review

At first the execution of the film does not seem that promising: Simone Simon has rough English, Kent Smith is handsome but dull, we have a meet-cute opening when she is sketching panthers at the zoo.

And yet it starts going places almost at once. She takes him back to her place at their first meeting. She seems to live in the dark by firelight and begins giving hints of an ancestral curse from medieval Serbia. We never actually hear the story of women who turn into murderous panthers in moments of passion, but we see that the characters understand the tale.

On their wedding night she is approached by a strange feline woman (hints of sexual attraction) and she asks to beg off from sex with her husband for a while. Should she be "kissed" terrible things might happen.

With such a troubled marriage he spends more time with gal-pal Alice. (The two will return in The Curse of the Cat People (1944), which will have them married and with a little girl, trying to forget doomed Irena). The bride becomes jealous; you won't like her when she's angry. She has blackouts at times like this.

This leads to the best scenes: Irena stalking Alice in the park at night. The footsteps go silent and we imagine large cat paws. We can almost see a giant creature on the top of the wall, brushing the tree branches. The bus driver asks frightened Alice: "You look like you've seen a ghost!" She: "Did you see it, too?"

Cut to the zoo where sheep have been killed. Cat paw prints change into shoe prints and we see Irena wiping her mouth.

In one of the few sequences copied by Cat People (1982) she corners a terrified Alice in a darkened swimming pool, with masterful use of concealing shadows.

Convinced by her shrink (the dapper Tom Conway, the "nice" Sanders brother) to make an effort -- or perhaps aroused by her stalking of Alice -- she tells her husband she's ready for sex. He spurns her, having fallen in love with Alice. What do you think happens then?

And now I have to reevaluate the opening. What seemed like bland stiffness in the leading man is more like naive American optimism ("I've never been unhappy", he claims) contrasted with Old World tragedy, the inability to escape history. What might have been a tale a sexual fear or repressed sexual desire seems more like a will to power, to accept the animal within and free it.

Notes:

Roy Webb score. Photographed by Nicholas Musuraca. 73m long.

Criterion Blu-ray with a busy and informative commentary track copied from the DVD. Includes the documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows (2007).

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