Old Hat for Cat People on Criterion
By Tony Williams.
Cat People has long enjoyed a high reputation amongst discriminating members of the critical fraternity for its deserved status as well as its close links to film noir. Did it not emerge from the studio that produced Citizen Kane (1941), a film which, if not the first major American film noir, contained components that influenced the developing style as Robert Porfirio pointed out long ago in his magisterial doctoral dissertation on Welles’s film? Thus its inclusion in the Criterion DVD series and its re-mastering initially appears another welcome addition to this series. The quality of the restoration needs no further comment since the Criterion technical standard is as high as one can expect. However, the additional material is problematic since the film needed better supplementary sources than what is provided here.
This two DVD set contains the film and audio-commentary by Gregory Mank on the first disc. The commentary was originally recorded on 2005 and one wonders why Criterion did not select another critic such as Edward G. Bansak, Chris Fujiwara, Tim Lucas or J.P. Telotte (who have all published in this area) to deliver something that matched the excellent nature of the reproduction. Mank’s commentary tends to be anecdotal and often stating the obvious, full of material that needed better integration into the film by more expert delivery. With audio-commentaries today approaching high critical standards as opposed to past, stumbling experiments, many who purchase DVDs (especially reissues with new material) expect more compelling and distinctive supplementary features that justify buying another version of what they already have, either in DVD or VHS. Although it may be interesting to know which RKO set the opening scene was filmed on or the fact that the staircase from The Magnificent Ambersons appears in two key sequences (as it will in The Curse of the Cat People, 1944), the commentary lacks the important critical contribution of not just where the set came from but deeper reasons of how and why it is re-employed in this particular film. Mank offers the occasional cracker-barrel joke with extracts from a phone conversation he once had with the late Simone Simon. Fascinating though these extracts are, they lack the necessary professional integration into the visual moments of the film and often appear distracting. Although Ms. Simon expresses her admiration for both Lewton and Tourneur in a film that she regarded as having the most important leading role in her career, elicitation of her feelings about playing the alienated foreign heroine and how she viewed her role in what was commonly regarded as a poverty-row production at the time are missing, and will now never be discovered. This would have been much more important than the gossip about her subdued verbal behavioral “cat fight” with supporting actress Jane Randolph. Some key details in the film are given recognition but Criterion needed a better audio-commentary than the one supplied here that may have been tolerable for standards a decade ago but have long been superseded in an era that has seen better achievements by commentators such as Joseph McBride and Tim Lucas.
The second disc contains an informative 2008 documentary Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows but one wonders why the Criterion team did not shoot another one common to their practice of filming new material for each restored DVD release. Man in the Shadows is competent enough but also suffers from using “celebrities” who may or may not be experts on the material. This is a familiar practice now in DVD supplements in getting “big names” to talk about the subject rather than using established critics and scholars who have already written pioneering work on the subject. The lack of a contribution by Italian critic Marco Chiani, whose 2013 Profondo Rosso book Val Lewton: il giardino delle ombre with preface by Dario Argento represents another lost opportunity for Criterion. Despite some interesting remarks offered by Geoffrey O’Brien and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, one looks in vain for more illuminating perspectives that could have been made by someone of the stature of Chris Fujiwara. This “superstar commentator” syndrome blights most DVD supplements and it is a shame to see Criterion falling into this pattern.
Fortunately, one exception to this major flaw appears on disc 2 – an interview with cinematographer John Bailey who worked on the Paul Schrader re-make. Bailey not only contributes valuable information from his long experience and professional accomplishments as a Hollywood cinematographer but also hails the neglected role of the original film’s cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca whom he rightfully feels has been cast into the critical shadows by emphasis on the celebrated work of another noir cinematographer, John Alton. Another supplement on this disc is the last interview with director Jacques Tourneur conducted some seven weeks before his death in 1977. This modest but justly celebrated talent speaks of his pragmatic approach on the set that complemented the idealism represented by producer Val Lewton.
Finally, comment is necessary on the mediocre art work characterizing recent Criterion DVDs that not only raise issues of quality and evaluation but also suspicion that the company may be using these designs to avoid paying copyright fees for stills and other materials. The cover of this DVD has an ugly reproduction of the film’s tragic heroine that does an injustice to the screen persona of the beautiful and very talented actress selected to play Irena. Also, in place of the usual Criterion booklet containing critical information, one now has a two sided sheet reminiscent of Treasure Island or Space Station Maps given away free with certain breakfast cereal packets. Before one can articulate one Robert Newton’s Long John Silver impersonation, “Pieces of Eight,” any reader now has the “pleasure” of unfolding the miserable item to find that it contains eight spaces for text and illustration! One side contains a relatively brief “Darkness Betrayed” essay by Geoffrey O’Brien containing information already familiar from articles and books dealing with the film by critics such as Edward Bansak, Alexander Nemerov, Telotte, and Robin Wood. The other side is devoted to yet another ugly illustration Criterion appears fascinated by these days. A booklet also containing extracts from material written by Telotte, Joel Siegel and Wood would have been much better than this miserable sheet. From the Criterion DVDs I’ve reviewed so far this one appears the exception to the rule of supplementary material complementing the high standards of a new restored print.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. A contributing editor to Film international, he has recently written James Jones: The Limits of Eternity and co-edited with Esther Yau Hong Kong Neo Noir (forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press). A chapter on the Val Lewton films also appears in Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film. Second Edition. University of Mississippi Press, 2014.
For more on Cat People, see Jeremy Carr’s review here.