Cat People: Horror, Necessity, and Creative Collaboration
By Jeremy Carr.
Who gets the credit for Cat People (1942)? Is it first-time producer Val Lewton, who though generally overlooked in his day has since received considerable reappraisal for his innovative, low-budget ingenuity? Or is it director Jacques Tourneur, the French emigre who would bring a shadowy visual flair to most of his films, particularly those following this 1942 horror classic? Or would it be the ace team of collaborators these two had to work with, contributors like director of photography Nicholas Musuraca and editor Mark Robson, both of whom provide essential technical and aesthetic value to the film? More accurately, the reason why Cat People is the film that it is, is because of all the above. It is a film that flies in the face of sweeping auteurial individual guidance and testifies to the effectiveness of a collective studio system, even RKO’s B-movie hub.
The lofty quote that opens Cat People, about “ancient sin,” gives the film a serious, resounding, and rather impressively consistent suggestion of primordial evil, a malice that has been passed down, is unavoidable, indeed inevitable, and is somehow tied in with similarly natural and innate desires. It also, wisely, imbues in the film a sense of scope beyond what it actually presents, amplifying errant themes and dreadful suggestiveness without necessarily enhancing the actual extent of the narrative; there appears to be much more at play than what the brisk 73 minutes literally puts on screen. Similarly, such foreboding sentiment is coupled with biblical declarations espoused by certain characters—a zookeeper quoting Revelations, for example—infusing the picture with a parallel of almost sacred terror. Further connected to this emphasis on historic-horrific lore, then, are the hints of witches and devil worshiping, elements of evil sprinkled in the accounts of protagonist Irena Dubrovna’s (Simone Simon) heritage. These are stories dismissed as fairy tales by her newfound suitor, draughtsman Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), but they nevertheless point to the film’s emphasis on one’s immigrant past, where, according to narrator Martin Scorsese in the documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, included on the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray of Cat People, “the old world [is] eclipsed by the new.” Though it is never fully dismissed.
Irena, a recently-immigrated Serbian fashion designer, is first seen at a zoo, sketching a panther. This is just the beginning of a nearly absurd recurrence of feline association present in the film. (Even before production commenced, Simone was thought to exhibit cat-like features, while Lewton was himself afraid of cats.) From her apartment, Irena and Oliver can hear the lions roar at the zoo, while cat statues and cat paintings adorn the interiors of her home. Tourneur and his team of art directors and set designers (Albert S. D’Agostino and Walter E. Keller, A. Roland Fields and Darrell Silvera) do an exceptional job inserting these visual and aural cues, signifiers that, while obvious, somehow still benefit the otherwise discriminating tenor of the film, again reinforcing specific themes nearly to the point of crowding the picture to its capacity, yet riding the fine line that remains reasonable.
Despite this omnipresent feline motif, Irena is not well-received by actual cats, and other animals react strongly to her presence as well. Oliver has to return the kitten purchased for Irena after it bristles in her company—“You can’t fool a cat,” says the pet shop owner—only to then have the new pet, a canary, die of apparent fright when Irena comes near. The reappearing panther, which Irena seems to fear but is also drawn to in a perverse, kindred bond, is but one instance in Cat People where the quintessential horror notion of conjoined attraction and revulsion is most plainly evident: what Irena fears, she accepts and even revels in. But horror isn’t the only sensation at play in this twofold response. It is equally alarming sex that ultimately compels Irena. Though she and Oliver have yet to even kiss, they are soon married. And still they sleep separately, exchanging “good nights” behind closed doors, an apt symbolic indication of their restrained passions, passions soon given primal—not, crucially, sexual—release. The mild Oliver, who is played by Smith with perfectly contrasting blandness to Simon’s enigmatic sensuality, says he has never been unhappy, but he is soon seeking solace (of one sort of another) in coworker Alice Moore (Jane Randolph). Irena’s jealousy unleashes a fury of resentment and ensuing aggression. As their marriage unravels, Oliver discovers there may be something to Irena’s supernatural stories after all, and her anxieties may very well be founded. Some critics have taken the sexual connotations of Irena’s conduct even further, pointing to the supposed lesbian implications derived from her encounter with another cat-like woman who startlingly greets Irena as “sister.” Perhaps in this instance the interpretation is something of a stretch, given the limited material to work with in this particular sequence, but there can be little doubt that generally, Cat People is indeed what Gregory Mank calls a “sex melodrama in horror movie clothing.”
Horror is where Lewton excelled most, though, with later films like I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man, both released in 1943 and also directed by Tourneur, The Ghost Ship (1943), with Robson stepping into the director role, and the Cat People semi-sequel The Curse of the Cat People (1944), directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise. Still, it was, and is, Cat People that deservedly receives the bulk of the critical attention when it comes to his brief but noteworthy career. This praise is largely due to the film’s cleverly low-key integration of horror conventions, how Lewton and Tourneur craft such an inedible aesthetic with limited means. Where one sees this cinematic marriage become so fruitful is in Cat People’s imagery, boiled down to a brilliant interplay of lightness and darkness, two persistently vital ingredients of the horror film no matter the budget, year of production, or nationality. At times, it would appear Cat People goes beyond the realities of lighting, as when Irena and Oliver sit curiously in the dark (she says she didn’t realize night had fallen, and besides, she likes the dark anyway, contending it is “friendly”), or when there is a similarly strange enveloping shade in the psychiatrist’s office, where Irena is shrouded in an exaggerated cover save for a single circle of light on her face. The forced obscurity pays off, however, when moments of darkness become natural and the resulting shadow play produces effective (and economical) means to fright.
Often bolstered by an equally keen use of sound, Tourneur and his team create one scene after another that depends on shrewdly a concocted audio-visual chemistry: Irena’s sidewalk stalking of Alice, with only insinuating movements and the tap-tap-tap of footsteps to suggest menace; the prowling poolside shadows and indistinctly located growling; a final fight sequence seen via struggling silhouettes cast on the wall and heard in off-screen panic. Made from the mind’s-eye more than that which is truly seen, Tourneur stresses the power of suggestion, commenting on the “poetic” quality of his work with Lewton, a term reprised by cinematographer John Bailey as he, also on the Criterion disc, discusses the technical specifications that produce these subtle effects, as well as the dazzling sequences (the table-lit construction office) where Tourneur and Musuraca call explicit attention to their illuminating virtuosity.
Made by RKO in creative contrast to the Universal monster movies of the period, Cat People grew under Lewton’s assiduous supervision. With an appreciation for detail and the importance of side characters, supplementing features that augment the otherwise restricted capacity of his movies, Lewton, in a sense, “pre-directed his pictures on paper,” at least according to Kent Jones, who wrote and directed the Man in the Shadows documentary. While this may diminish the influence of Tourneur and the others involved, the preparedness paid off. Cat People was shot in a mere 18 days, costing by Tourneur’s estimate $130,000, and making more than $1 million. The film is a psychological thriller that genuinely resides, functions, and succeeds in the interpretive viewer’s imagination. It is a case-study in creativity born from budgetary restraint. To put it modestly, as the director does, Cat People is a “poor, simple, lucky little film.”
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film
and Fandor’s Keyframe.
Cat People was released on Blu-ray for The Criterion Collection.
For more on Cat People, see Tony Williams’ review here.