Cat People (1942) [31 Days of American Horror Review]

If it’s a month with 31 days in it, you can be sure that Jules will be firing out the horror movie reviews.

So, following on from his on “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and May, and his  his “31 Days of American  Horror” in August, Jules is once travelling across the pond this October with… you guessed it… 31 MORE Days of American Horror!

Director: Jacques Tourneur
Starring:  Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph

There’s few more perfect examples of a synergy of creative talents than Cat People.

The 1942 film saw the first collaboration between first-time producer Val Newton (upon who’s 1930 short story The Bagheeta writer DeWitt Bodheen based his screenplay) with both director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who between them would go on to make some of the most important and influential films of the coming decades.

This is where it all began though, a straight-up horror film that’s as chilling, tense and as flat-out frightening as anything that had cane before, but one in which it’s pretty much left to the viewer’s imagination to fill in the blanks. There’s no overt horror here, no expected transformation scenes or monsters leaping out at you, just remarkable use of shadows, sleight of hand and imaginative sound design, all of which somehow combine to keep you in a constant state of unease. Made for a paltry $135,000 (but bringing in a remarkable $4 million in return) and using only eight or nine sets, Cat People is a masterclass in mimimalism, a film that takes the idea of less being more almost as far as it can go with the most spectacular of results.

When marine engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) meets Serbian fashion designer Irina Dubrovna (Simone Simon) the pair quickly fall in love and as are married but the newly wed bride is convinced she is the victim of an ancient curse, as she believes her ancestors were witches who turn into large, predatory cats in the heat of passion.

Fearful of the consequences of that action, Irina never consummates her marriage with Oliver, leading her to begin seeing a psychiatrist, Dr Judd (Tom Conway) and him to confide in his attractive co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph) who makes no secret of her own love for him.

With her fears not being taken seriously by either Oliver or Judd, Irina feels the pull of her animalistic nature, stalking Alice and even acting out on her predatory instincts, but is it too late for her to come to terms who she is? Is she a woman or an animal? Or is she both?

What a beautiful film Cat People is. It’s not just the way it looks, the subtle symbolism and the way it’s much less ambiguous than it appears due to its sheer inventiveness. It’s not just in the rich cast of characters who live and breathe, have real lives and jobs, characters that feel like they exist when the camera isn’t upon them and it’s not just that this film pretty much sets the bar for the idea that you can terrify an audience without ever once showing them anything. It’s all of this and so much more.

At its heart, is a magnetic performance by Simone Simon as the troubled Irina. She’s at once vulnerable, but mysterious and sexual too. The French actress is wonderfully layered in her approach, as the repression of her predatory instincts makes her often an intense and edgy screen presence, that in lesser hands would have been cold and unsympathetic, but Simonovas imbues it with no small amount of pain. She wants nothing more than to be physically close to the man she loves, but the implications of what that would mean terrify her.

Their wedding night is particularly painful to watch. Irina asks for time to get over feeling evil within in her and Oliver being the perfect gentleman, patiently sleeps in a different room, leaning the tragic new bride wracked with guilt, desire and fear all at the same time, collapsed on her knees, with her face pressed against the adjoining door between their rooms.

As tragic as her situation is though, she’s too much of a predator to feel like a victim. There’s the little things like every animal in the pet shop screaming as she walks in (“the last time this happened was when an alley cat got in and ate the canaries!”) and when she just can’t stop herself from playing with her own bird until it dies that hint at her nature, but it’s when she really begins to let her inner feline flex it’s claws that Cat People truly astonishes.

The two occasions where she stalks Oliver’s co-worker Alice are a masterclass in tension and cinematography. Initially following her along the street we can only hear the click of her heels as Alice becomes aware she is being followed, but when they stop (a wonderfully subtle way of letting us know she’s transformed) the atmosphere only gets even more taut, with the release coming not with an attack but with a low growl that turns out to herald the loud, sudden arrival of a bus. It’s a fake out, but massively effective and influential, so much that the technique is now known as a “Lewton bus”.

Likewise, her second intimidation of her rival as she swims in the secluded YMCA basement pool shows absolutely nothing and is still almost unbearably chilling. Using just the shimmering light reflected from the pool, the shadows in the corners and the unsettling echoes of the room, Lewton delivers one of the most effective horror scenes of the era. Out of nothing. It’s remarkable stuff.

Irina’s gradual giving in to her feral nature when she feels she’s losing her husband anyway is brilliantly realised too, her amusement at Alice’s swimming robe being ripped to shreds offers the first glimmer, but it’s the way she looks almost happy when Dr Judd tried to force her to kiss him that really hits home. She’s tried so hard, but she can’t overcome the animal inside her and the relief that she’s finally letting it loose is there for all to see. She’s not evil as she feared, but she’s an apex predator and is doomed from the off.

There’s a lovely moment when Irina is stopped by an older woman in a restaurant who calls her “sister” in their old language. She’s clearly one of the people too (and the bow in her hair making a pair of cat ears makes this even more obvious), but it’s the sadness in the older woman’s eyes that really packs a powerful punch. She knows what a hard life (if any) Irina has ahead of her and all she can offer is an acknowledgment of kinship.

Cat People is a strange film in a way, as it’s heroine is more of a vamp than the appealing co-worker who helps break up her marriage, but it’s a testament to how strong the script is that you never feel anyone is in the wrong. It’s only natural that Oliver would feel pushed away, natural that he and Alice would be drawn together and more than anything, natural that poor Irina would never be able to keep the beast inside her forever.

No matter how you approach Cat People it’s a flawless piece of work. Sparse and minimal it may be, but that just gives it all the more depth to play around in. A masterpiece.

Rating: 5/5.

JULESAVThe Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. 31 More Days of American Horrror – Bedlam (1946) – BIG COMIC PAGE
  2. Bedlam (1946) [31 Days of American Horror Review] – BIG COMIC PAGE
  3. Cult of the Cobra (1955) [31 Days of American Horror Review] – BIG COMIC PAGE

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