Cat People (1942)

*. Cat People is famous today mainly for two scenes where Irena (Simone Simon) is stalking Alice (Jane Randolph): the first following her through Central Park before Alice catches a bus and the second in a basement swimming pool. It is also a movie that has become a byword for horror that scares us by not revealing its monsters or just relying on jump scares and shock effects.
*. I mention this first just to get it out of the way. Yes those two scenes are good (though I think perhaps a bit overrated), and yes the film gets a lot of mileage out of being suggestive rather than explicit. But on my re-viewings — and I watch this movie a lot — I tend not to notice the building of suspense as much. What interests me are more pedestrian things.

*. For example, I wonder what the “good, plain Americano” boy Ollie sees in Irena anyway. She seems so insipid with her cutie-pie face and lilting little-girl voice that makes even her most dramatic lines sound like baby talk. Was she using some kind of cat magic to seduce him? Or did he just see her as a stray that he wanted to take in? At one point he seems to think he’ll be able to normalize her by marrying her, which is as deluded as those women who think they’ll be able to change a man by getting him to settle down. But I guess we all fool ourselves in the same way when we’re in love.
*. Obviously Alice is the girl for Oliver. They’re made for each other: the all-American couple. She has an outstanding collection of hats but doesn’t have any exotic (read: foreign) vibe going on. Indeed, Jane Randolph wasn’t just made for Kent Smith (his real name!), but made for the part of the good girl playing opposite the vamp. She’d be doing it again in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, where she’s the foil to Lenore Aubert.

*. Given the obvious mismatch, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Irena. We get the sense she’s really trying, but this marriage is going nowhere and Ollie is a heel. He betrays her right away when he goes through Alice to find a psychiatrist, and utterly humiliates her at the museum when he sends her off to go look at something modern while he and Alice share their common passion for model ships. The dialogue here is cruel: “Don’t send me away.” “We’re not sending you away. We just don’t want you to be bored.” After a moment like that, it’s hard not to think Ollie gets let off easy at the end.
*. Speaking of the end, that final line is another kick at Irena isn’t it? “She never lied to us.” It was “us” (Ollie and Alice) all along. And not lying? How good and plain Americano is that? As though, in the face of this revelation of authentic supernatural horror, such common decency not only matters, but is the only thing that matters.
*. A final note on our sympathy for Irena: how sad is her little attempt at a wave good-bye to Oliver on the grand staircase after she takes her final leave of him? She’s just killed Dr. Judd, which was a kind of act of loyalty. And she knows now that Alice is taking her place. But I guess she still has feelings for Oliver, even if he has moved on.

*. Cat People came out a year after Citizen Kane, and RKO was looking to recover its fortunes with cheap, commercial, horror movies. It also came out a year after The Wolf Man and it very much plays to the same archetype, and makes a clear nod to the werewolf mythology when Dr. Judd jokes about needing a gun with a silver bullet to face Irena. Irena the werecat even frightens cats in her human form, just as dogs will lunge and bark at Lawrence Talbot.
*. So we go from dogs to cats, men to women. It was actually pretty daring at the time to have a female “monster.” There weren’t many of them in early horror films.

*. I’m not sure where Tom Conway’s Dr. Judd fits in the history of screen psychiatrists. The movies really didn’t know what to make of psychiatry yet, and while later they would become heroic healers able to unlock the secrets of the mind, here we’re presented with someone who is just a seemingly dignified (but secretly lecherous) hypnotist. And yet, he is not without a heroic dimension too, finally being cast in the role of a latter-day King John ridding New York of an Old World evil.
*. The script by DeWitt Bodeen is kind of hammy and obvious, but I think a lot of that came with the territory. Overall, I was impressed at its structure and economy.
*. Animals are notoriously difficult to work with, so let’s give a special wet treat to the hissing kitties in this film and, most of all, the black panther Dynamite. Get a load of that look he gives Irena when he sees her stealing the key to his cage. You (obviously) can’t teach acting chops like that!

*. The scene with Irena and Ollie on either side of the closed door is well known, but I’m not sure how all that plays to a contemporary audience. Of course back in the 1940s you couldn’t show married couples sleeping in the same bed, but the idea that even months after being married Irena and Ollie can’t even sleep in the same room seems ridiculous. Nevertheless, was this scene being slyly parodied in The Wicker Man when Britt Ekland does her mating dance on the other side of the door from the repressed Sgt. Howie? I think it must have been in someone’s mind.

*. What a beautiful looking film, especially with the lighting. I like the use of the light tables in Ollie’s office in particular. You know cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca’s eyes must have widened at the possibilities there. Also terrific is the play of light off the water that makes shifting liquid patterns on the walls of the swimming pool. That’s what makes that scene work.
*. I think this is a truly great B-picture, but I’m not sure it transcends that label. Pauline Kael: “Lewton pictures aren’t really very good, but they’re so much more imaginative than most of the horror films that other producers were grinding out at the time that his ingenuity seemed practically revolutionary.” I think this is maybe a bit harsh. There are real moments of excellence in the production here, and the frank, if allegorized, portrayal of sexual jealousy and betrayal stands up very well. As I’ve said, it’s a movie I find myself re-watching quite a bit, and I’m almost always being struck with something new about it. That’s pretty special for a B.

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