Horror movies have always had champions over the years. In the 1960s small-time filmmakers like Roman Polanski and George A. Romero changed the discourse on the possibilities of the horror film. In the 1980 and 90s, all the taboos were shattered and the realm of post-modernism was opened up. In the 1920s, the makers of German Expressionism broke the mold but in the 1940s, horror had one innovator, one man who refused to make every other kind of ghost story or monster flick. Val Lewton and his division at RKO Radio Pictures turned American horror, which had already started to get stale by 1941, into something imaginative and artistic, akin to the work of Robert Weine and F.W. Murnau. With his protégés Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise and Mark Robson, he crafted some of the most compelling fright films the world had ever seen. The first of his nine horror films is his best and remains one of the most daring and beautifully told stories we have.
by Jacques Tourneur
Irena Dubrovna is a Serbian expatriate living on her own in New York City. She sketches a panther in the zoo but isn’t happy with the end result. When she throws her scraps away but misses the trashcan she hits the shoes of Oliver Reed. Oliver, a lonely young ship designer, approaches her and sweet-talks his way into an invitation back to her brown stone; Irena for her part seems more than happy to entertain the handsome Reed. She doesn’t have many friends in the city, in fact she insists on that isolation but Reed is different. He doesn’t demand anything from her is more than courteous and seems genuinely interested in spending time with the beautiful young Irena. A little time passes and Oliver and Irena are in love, but as Oliver is want to point out, they’ve never become intimate, they’ve never even kissed. Irena is grateful for the space Oliver has given her, but she insists she has her reasons. In fact the first time they met she outlined her fears in the abstract. Irena comes from a village that was raided long ago by King John, who threw out the Mameluks. The people in her village resisted Christianity and embraced devil worship so that when John showed up, he engaged in full-scale slaughter. Irena, though she’s reticent at first to talk about it, believes that she’s been cursed by her homeland, that she’s descended from said devil worshipers and that grave things await her should she succumb to her urges. The history is patently false but it’s exoticism was enough for audiences at the time to believe her inherited evil, and I surmise the story had more to do with Lewton and Tourneur’s own exile from Europe than anything else.
Oliver thinks its nonsense but he loves his wife dearly and a month of sleeping in different rooms after his marriage notwithstanding he’s going to help his beloved. His closest friend and co-worker Alice Moore suggests a psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd, to help Irena work out her beliefs and feelings. Irena only goes to one session before she starts questioning whether she wants the curse lifted or not. Judd thinks she ought to seek professional help following the revelation that Irena seriously believes that she’ll turn into a predatory cat if she’s aroused, Oliver is worried sick about his bride, and Alice is brought to tears when her friend confesses how sad he is. When Alice lets slip one day that she has more than friendly feelings for Oliver, things take an ugly turn. Oliver, conflicted about his feelings and the state of his marriage, does not tell Irena, but instead spends more platonic time with Alice. Irena stops working altogether and begins following her husband around growing more suspicious and paranoid by the day. Soon it seems the only thing that brings her comfort is visiting the panther in the zoo. It comes as little shock when Alice begins having run-ins with what appears to be a large jungle cat that always disappears before light can find it.
Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton were kindred spirits. Both were expatriates, like Irena and Tourneur did his best work for Lewton as both saw the dramatic potential of shadow, light and insinuation. The first thing to notice about Cat People, before you’ve sided with anybody or got wind of the direction the plot will move is how deliciously stylized it is, but Lewton and Tourneur worked in an era before a fuss was made over these sorts of things. Lewton had very little money and the film is full of budget-conscious trickery that squeezes the most from its design. There’s the decision to make Reed a designer to make way for an endgame strategy (which, of course, relies on shadows). Tourneur and Lewton loaded every frame with feline likenesses and other strange objects. Then there’s the way the two men play with light. Take the first session between Irena and Judd; the way in which Tourneur frames her face is brilliant, if a bit unrealistic. Irena’s hair always sparkles with fill light and her face is never less than beautiful. Though she, like the audience, infers things that may or may not be true, she is still the victim and we must be able to sympathize with her. Enter the stalking scenes. A woman walks alone on a sidewalk at night. Suddenly, something horrifying lurking in the shadows jumps out at her…or does it. The scenes with Alice and Irena aptly playing a cat-and-mouse game set the standard for horror films for a half-century. When Alice starts suspecting that something is watching her, Tourneur works wonders by relying on the viewer’s imagination. Through expert sound design and, of course, those bold shadows some giddily frightening cinema results. The stalking scenes were copied by Mario Bava and Dario Argento, who then inspired hundreds of other filmmakers like Bob Clark and John Carpenter, who are still being copied today. Argento even ‘pioneered’ having a female antagonist in gialli, the genre he worked in at the start of his career. Lewton’s films, with their contrasting light and dark and heavy echoing footsteps, can also seen as brothers to American film noir (I’ve taken to calling them ‘noirror films’), except that they prefigure the majority of those films by a number of years. Tourneur himself would go on to contribute one of the best of the kind, Out of the Past in 1947 (he knew that the sight of a lot of swishing overcoats just made things more gripping). Cat People pre-dates the best-known examples of the genre making its creators all the more innovative.
It would be one thing if the horror and stylistic presentation were all that worked but Cat People is more than ominous sound effects. Dewitt Bodeen’s screenplay is even-handed and resists many of the temptations of horror films of the period. The dialogue is nicely downplayed so that the horrific moments really do come as a jolt. Though Cat People could be seen as an inversion of Curt Siodmak’s script for The Wolfman (the movie started as a title, after all, and there’s even a sly silver bullet joke in there), it also uses those elements it cribs in a much smarter fashion. Lawrence Talbot’s curse is always out in the open for us to see; Irena’s is, until more than two thirds of the way through the movie, uncertain. She also has emotion on her side. Simone Simon gives the performance of her life as Irena; if she weren’t so absolutely appealing, her descent into homicidal jealousy would not be nearly the blow to our expectations that it is. Cat People is one of the only films I’ve seen with the nerve to make their villain so patently adorable, but Simone Simon is so masterfully understated that everything she does works. She has a terrifically expressive face that expresses quiet menace or deep emotional wounds equally well. If she were not someone you wanted to take care of, this film would have fallen flat. Imagine if they’d used Jane Randolph in the lead instead of relegating her to the straight woman.
Then there are the other players. As leading men go, Kent Smith as Reed is actually quite impressive. As a doggedly patient husband, conflicted friend and cowering victim, he does great things. When he and Jane Randolph’s Alice are cornered in their office by a black panther, the fear in his voice is real. And then there’s Tom Conway. Conway is one of my favorite character actors and Louis Judd is easily his best role. He sinks his teeth into the part of sleazy confessor and sells it with everything he has; his elegant voice, his devilish facial features and finally his feline physicality; he leers like a housecat when probing Irena about the nature of her condition. Incidentally, Bodeen’s decision to make psychiatry just as large an evil as old religious beliefs is characteristic of both Lewton and Tourneur films, but consider that these are the days of the Hays Code and Bodeen’s script seems a trifle more scandalous. Similarly shocking is that bare shoulder when Irena cries in the bath after her first transformation and that our heroes are in love out of, in fact in direct opposition to, wedlock. That scene in the bathtub, that moment of vulnerability is rare in portraits of villains (especially in the 40s), but Cat People is about transformation and defying expectations. Irena may be the villain but she has tradition and new-age approaches to wellbeing to blame for her undoing. She has first her fears of a curse to contend with, then her husband’s abandonment and finally the rapacious lust of her psychiatrist. She is a victim as much as the people she terrorizes and I don’t mind admitting that I find her easier to sympathize with than the people she terrorizes. I think maybe it’s the combined effect of Lewton’s design, the acting and the set design. Knowing that sets were re-used from The Magnificent Ambersons and that the team working here would work together nearly a dozen more times, makes the whole thing feel like the work of a family (the lighting in the film also reminds me very much of my own home, or at least the one in my memory – this wonderful movie has a way of making itself a part of your unconscious). The thing about Cat People is that it has the look and feel of familiarity. The lighting and Nicholas Musuraca's camera remind us of noir and so the film already feels lived-in, though crucially not tired - after all, what other horror film could lay claim to such a clear-headed narrative and such style at the time? Lewton was a master stylist and the effect is that you feel you've known the film a lot longer than you have. I know that this film has worked it's way into my brain and is now as comforting to me as Christmas; it's a memory you never made but has always been there. Cat People is not average by any standards; its semi-gothic design, grim sweetness, subtle yet poignant style, believably ordinary (and lovable) protagonists, unique approach to horror and villainy, and story wrought with preternaturally complex emotional underpinnings are all the sort of thing that horror films as a genre never receive the proper recognition for. Between you and me, sometimes it’s fun to be one of the few people in the know.