CAT PEOPLE (1942)

  • Director: Jacques Tourneur
  • Writer: DeWitt Bodeen
  • Starring: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph, and Jack Holt
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on AMC Plus, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Cat People sounds extremely silly when you just describe what happens in it, but surprisingly it is not campy at all and takes itself entirely seriously. More than that, it somehow works extremely well as an actually suspenseful movie. Perhaps the key insight here is to not actually show pretty much any of the actual scary stuff on screen, and instead mostly imply it with elaborate shadow work. There’s a scene in this movie in an indoor swimming pool that has some of the most effective use of lighting in any movie you’ll ever see. One might chalk these choices up to budget, but in fact director Jacques Tourneur apparently argued with his producer (the famous Val Lewton) to show even less than the movie does. He wanted to cut out the panther in the few scenes where we actually see it. It isn’t necessarily that Cat People is restrained, it’s more that it retains a sense of mystery. The movie’s most effective and most famous jump scare involves the sudden and unexpected arrival of a bus.

The central monster of Cat People is an unassuming, almost mousy (in a Hollywood sort of way) immigrant from Serbia, Irena (French actress Simone Simon, whose slight, unplaceable accent adds to the air that something is off about Irena) who, it eventually becomes clear, is a member of an ancient tribe of were-panthers and turns into a large, murderous cat when she gets too excited. There is, particularly in the movie’s presentation of Irena’s affliction, weird sexual undertones to the whole thing. Irena, seemingly never wanting to lose control, never kisses or, you know, does anything else with her significant other Oliver (Kent Smith), even after the two of them are married, occasionally telling him that she wishes she could be more open but she just can’t. He is extremely patient with this but is eventually attracted to Alice (Jane Randolph), his co-worker in an extremely nondescript office, who presumably has no such compunctions regarding kissing, et al. Irena figuring this out is what finally sets her off, leading to Alice repeatedly being stalked by shadows from off-screen. 

In a metaphorical sense, Irena is so sexually pent up that when she can no longer hold it in people get brutally mauled in the face. Or, alternatively, are there lesbian notes here in Irena? She refuses to let a man kiss her, but goes after another potential mate of his with animal fury, and in one of the movie’s key scenes a woman comes up to her at the couple’s wedding reception and calls her “sister” in Serbian, causing Irena to seem very disturbed. This woman is never seen again, but it’s another weird detail added to this movie, which is so much about the build-up of details.

Cat People ended up being the first of a series of low budget horror B-movies produced at RKO Pictures that are still much-respected today. Lewton eventually produced 11 of these movies on low budgets between 1942 and 1946 (at which point the studio head who had brought him died suddenly and the new regime pushed Lewton out). Lewton received offers from several other studios but his health worsened and he died in 1951 at the age of 48. His movies are the rare case of a producer being considered the “auteur” rather than a particular director. On a budget of approximately $120,000, Cat People is estimated to have made around $8 million at the box office (in 1942 money). For context, Citizen Kane’s box office (for the same studio, RKO, the year before) is estimated at approximately $500,000. Again, this is a were-panther movie. Among those 11 movies is an ostensible sequel, The Curse of the Cat People, which has the same core cast (including Irena, who, spoilers, is dead at the end of this movie) but is somewhat bizarrely entirely unrelated to were-panthers and basically seemed to be a (pretty decent) ghost story that Lewton justified by saying it was a sequel to his prior, highly successful movie. The story goes that Lewton’s bosses were displeased when they figured this out and made him add scenes involving a black house cat, so at least the movie would have a cat in it.

There is one scene that has become known in film circles entirely outside of the context of this movie, in which Alice figures out that someone is stalking her, freaks out, and starts running. If we watch closely, you can see she’s running past the same stretch of wall again and again, in order to draw out the tension. Then, suddenly, there’s a loud noise, which just for a moment we think is a big cat hissing, but then we realize the sound is the loud air brakes on a bus that suddenly pulls into frame. Alice gets on and escapes, the viewer never seeing what chased her. This basic trick, in which tension is built up over an extended period to a jump scare that has nothing to do with what we were supposed to be afraid, was commonly referred to Hollywood for many years as “the Lewton Bus,” and even still is, occasionally. Ironically, the most common and cliched version of this over the years has literally become having a cat jump into frame instead of, say, a serial killer, often seeming to have literally been thrown at the actors. I am not a particular fan of this trope, but the original version of it, I have to say, is far more effective than most.

The scene that I always remember is the one I mentioned before, in which Alice decides to go for a swim in her apartment building’s basement pool at night (wearing what I have to say is a more modern swimsuit than I was expecting in a 1942 movie). She again gets the feeling that there’s something in there with her, and jumps into the water. There she treads water, eyes wide, for what seems like forever, while we hear growls and yowls from an indefinite source. There are vague shadows, which are made diffuse and seem to dance by the reflection of the water on the walls. It is a super tense scene from a horror movie constructed entirely with lighting and sound design and basically nothing else. I love it.

So you should know going in that Cat People’s impact on the viewer is mainly psychological. It’s a lot of tension with very little release, and as I said very little is actually shown on screen. One guy gets killed, and as he screams we cut to the shadows on the wall. But if you’re in that headspace going in, I really think Cat People is about as good of a version of this movie that one could possibly make. You should also know that, when you google it, you’re just as likely to get information about the 1982 remake, directed by, of all people, Paul Schrader, which is higher-budgeted, gorier, and much more up-front about the sexual aspects of the premise, with Irena played by Nastassja Kinski. It received decent reviews at the time but is mostly forgotten today. I do sort of recall seeing it once on cable many years ago, and all I really remember is that it has a very similar scene set in a swimming pool. Cat People also bears no relation whatsoever to another anticipated movie currently in production, Cat Person, which is based on a short story that went viral on the internet in 2017.

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