DVD Review Of Cat People
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/27/07
Every so often there comes an artist who works in a disrespected genre, yet who has enough talent and vision to almost make that whole genre seem respectable; at least in his own takes on it. And, when two such artists get together, their synergy is even greater. Such was the fortuitous pairing of film producer Val Lewton (née Vladimir Leventin) and film director Jacques Tourneur, who double-handedly resurrected the RKO Radio Pictures film studio after the financial losses of the two artistically great but financially disastrous Orson Welles films they made: Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. They did so by collaborating on a series of horror films that, while intended to rival the box office of the Universal monster film series, starring Frankenstein’s monster, Count Dracula, the Wolfman, and others, were several cuts above those films in terms of maturity, sexuality, artistry, and depth.
Their first film together was 1942’s psychosexual film noir/horror classic Cat People, which became a critical and box office smash. Forty years later it was remade by Paul Schrader as a bad, silly, and sex-filled campy sendup starring Nastassia Kinski and Malcolm McDowell; but the original is still far superior, and one of the best horror films ever made, despite being made on a shoestring budget, with B film talent, in less than a month, with spare sets from leftover A films the studio was making.
The tale is rather interesting, and more believable than other such horror films of the day, for the characters are all real people, who work and have real lives. They just don’t take off on adventures at the drop of a hat. Also, Lewton and Tourneur were masters of suggesting horror, rather than showing it, for both knew that black and white photography was perfect for the netherworld they were to depict, and that the human mind could dredge up all sorts of horrors at the slightest prod, and even big budget films today cannot equal those monsters.
The tale opens with a gorgeous, young brunet Serbian sketch artist, Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), who lives in Manhattan and is obsessed with cats, and with the myth of cat people from her village. They were supposedly possessed women called mamalukes, and were purged by a Serbian King named John. One day, at a zoo, drawing a panther, she meets and falls in love with Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), a nautical engineer and ship designer, who works for a big Manhattan firm. But, she is frigid, for she fears that if a man kisses her, she will turn into a cat and kill him. Thus, when the couple marry, their marriage is unconsummated for months. Oliver is bizarrely good natured and understanding, as he declares that he’s led a carefree life, when he confides to a female co-worker, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), that Irena has problems. She passive/aggressively suggests that Irena go see a psychiatrist friend of theirs, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway), whom she knows is a sexual predator. The doctor dismisses her superstitions, yet has the hots for the sexy Irena, and tries to manipulate her, and the others. Alice and Oliver fall in love, as the sexless marriage of the Reeds deteriorates, and Conway intimates that Irena should be hospitalized, so that Oliver can annul their marriage, and he can have her all for himself.
Yet, despite rejecting Oliver’s love, when Irena grows wise to Alice’s feelings, she three times stalks her, in the film’s most memorable scenes. The first time is at night, in Central Park, and the sounds of high heels clicking, and shadows on the wall, and in the trees, is unnerving. Alice escapes when a bus pulls up, with a hissing sound. This is memorable, because she’s looking to the left, the bus comes from the right, and its hiss sounds like a big cat’s, which is what it would be in the hands of a lesser director than Tourneur, and which has, indeed, been copied hundreds of times since. The technique has become so popular that anytime a film, in any genre, raises expectations, then dissipates with a subversion, the technique is called ‘a bus.’ We then see a dead lamb at the zoo and cat prints that morph into high heels. One might wonder if Irena’s clothes morph into a cat, as well. When she gets home, she freezes Oliver out of her room, and takes a bath, to cleanse herself of guilt, and possibly lamb’s blood. The second stalking takes place in a pool, where Irena follows Alice at night, and where Alice’s robe ends up ripped. The final stalking is the least effective, dramatically and visually, for Irena stalks both Alice and Oliver at their office, and is warded off with a slide rule that looks like a crucifix, and Oliver’s pleas to God. We also get to actually see a panther, which, given its relatively small size, decreases the fear factor, and makes the film a definitive supernatural thriller, whereas the earlier suggestiveness left the film open to being all in the minds of its characters. This manifesting of the supernatural element was forced upon Tourneur and Lewton by studio heads.
In the end, Oliver tells Irena he loves Alice, and wants a divorce. Dr. Judd manipulates all the others so he can get Irena alone, kisses her (as Irena seems to welcome it, for she wants to assail him), and then she seemingly turns into a panther- again, which is shown, instead of just shadows, and mauls him in Oliver’s and her apartment. Many of the scenes in this film were also obvious templates for the transformation scenes in Ken Russell’s 1980 film Altered States. She then flees to the Central Park Zoo, opens the panther cage- after having earlier stolen an absentminded zookeeper’s key, which has obsessed her throughout the film, and the cat lunges at and mauls her. When Alice and Oliver arrive they find her dead, with part of Judd’s cane sword in her, and he laments that Irena, at least, never lied to them. It’s hard to tell, from a distance, whether she is in human or cat form. The zoo panther, however, has been run over by a car in its escape.
The film was among the first to embody the idea that, in horror, less is more. And while the film is credited as one of the earliest films noir, few critics have ever traced its lineage back to the German Expressionism of the 1920s, in films like Nosferatu, Symphony of Horror, by F.W. Murnau, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, by Robert Wiene, or Metropolis, by Fritz Lang. Yet, the film could easily be camp, itself, were it not for the superb acting of all involved, especially Simon. At times vacant, passionate, disinterested, hurt, she embodies a naïf sexuality that few men can resist. Kent Smith is stiff, but in the best sort of way- as the affably satisfied Oliver, who seems so boring that it’s hard to believe two beautiful women would desire such a bore and wimp. Jane Randolph is very good, as well, as a subtle manipulator of events, such as telling Oliver she loves him is a seductive voice, when he confides in her of Irena’s problems. But, the film’s real scene stealer is Tom Conway, as the lascivious Dr. Judd. He’s believable as the parasitic doctor who gets his comeuppance. He was also the real life brother of actor George Sanders, who played a similarly smarmy role, as Jack Favell, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. The rest of the minor characters are also rounded out into believability; a rarity, even for A films of any era. Most notable are Alex Craig as the fearful zookeeper, Jack Holt as The Commodore, and Alan Napier (who would later play Alfred the butler on the 1960s tv show Batman) as Carver- a coworker of Oliver’s and Alice’s. Even a black female coffer server at the coffee shop is shown wearing a headwrap, but she’s shown as a real person, not a mammy.
There are also many memorable scenes, such as the reaction of animals to Irena- like a kitten Oliver buys her, then all the animals at the pet shop when they return it. They get a canary, but it dies of fright when Irena sticks her hand in the cage, as if a cat’s paw, and the look of sadistic glee on her face is priceless, as is the change to depression when she realizes what she has done. She then tosses the dead bird to the panther at the zoo, which is not far from her apartment- where she listens to the big cats howl at night, which makes one wonder how a foreign sketch artist could afford to live in such luxurious digs, as her Manhattan apartment is huge, and in one of the priciest areas in town. Another well wrought scene, and also famous is when, at her wedding reception, at a local eatery, a nameless cat-woman, (Elizabeth Russell) approaches Irena and addresses her, in Simon’s dubbed vocals, as ‘my sister,’ in Serbian. Another great scene is Irena’s nightmare with cartoon panthers and Dr. Judd as King John.
But, there are some bad scenes and dialogue that prevent the film from outright greatness, even if it can still be called a great horror film. Yet, the film’s import, in its time and genre, is indisputable, and that difference, and recognition of it, is important. The dialogue, by screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, veers between B film cheese and real depth, yet contains many great lines and moments, such as Oliver’s claim that Irena’s perfume is ‘warm and living.’ Alice also gets a number of great lines, that suggest double entendre is her native tongue, and display her duplicity and sexual skills in snaring the man she loves. The exchanges between Dr. Judd and Irena is also quite strong, and realistic of some of the Freudian nonsense of the era. Lewton, a man who wrote poetry and pulp novels, reputedly spiced up some of the dialogue, and was noted for having dissed his former boss, film producer extraordinaire David O. Selznick’s love of the film Gone With The Wind, as being trash. Cat People is aided by the fact that it runs a brisk 72 minutes, and this is because Tourneur wisely employs many ellipses of scenes that we can figure out, such as Oliver’s and Irena’s courtship, long before such a technique became fashionable in European art films, and shots to establish the definity of the connection of Irena to the panther. Cinematographer Musuraca and the film’s typically upbeat 1940s score, by Roy Webb, also make the film memorable. The former in its superb embodiment of film noir, and the former in its ironic undercutting of what is seen.
The film was so popular that it made over $4 million, after being produced for about $140,000- a nearly thirtyfold profit. Imagine a routine Hollywood horror film, with a budget of $40 million, and it would have to gross over a billion dollars to be as successful an investment. Two years later a sequel, The Curse Of the Cat People, was released. That film was the first directorial feature for Robert Wise, who would direct future classics like The Day The Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, The Sound Of Music, and The Andromeda Strain. It is also included on the Warner Brothers DVD of Cat People, along with its own commentary and features. The two films are part of a five disk, nine film (including one documentary on the works of Lewton) package called The Val Lewton Horror Collection, which has all the classics made between 1942 and 1946. The features for Cat People are a theatrical trailer and a commentary by horror film maven and historian Greg Mank. Mank gives a sterling commentary. Although scripted, it is concise, ebullient, informative, and punctuated with several interludes from a recorded phone conversation with Simon. Were all commentaries as good as this even the worst films would be enjoyable DVD experiences. The DVD print of the film, however, is solid, at best. There are several instances where spots and scratches are abundant.
Of course, success breeds all sorts of ridiculous claims, such as bad critics who see Irena as a lesbian- thus her frigidity, the approach of the other cat woman at her wedding, and the stalking of Alice. Of course, the film’s every frame undercuts such claims. But, the film is so good at letting people imbue scarier things into it than are seen- for Tourneur and Lewton know that the average viewer can scare themselves better than they could, that it’s only natural that bad critics will read much more into it than is seen, as well.
Cat People is a great treatise on human loneliness, for few film characters have ever been aloner than Irena Dubrovna; only Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle- another transplanted New Yorker with a violent streak and sexual problems, may surpass her. It also starts and ends with epigraphs, something that European arts films only picked up on later. The film’s opening has a fictive quote from a supposed book by Dr. Judd, who apparently survived his seemingly fatal encounter with Irena (for the character- still played by Conway, shows up in the later Lewton film The Seventh Victim), and the film ends with a quote from John Donne’s Holy Sonnet V. Yet, at its center is loneliness, and Simone Simon’s eyes, vaguely feline as they are, are the perfect receptacles for that lack, and why the film can be watched over and again, and seen anew each time. With that fact in mind, it may have enough going for it that greatness as a pure film can be claimed, even outside of genre. I, for one, will watch it again to see if it does. So should you.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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