July 13, 2007
Cat People (1942)
It was during the shooting of David O. Selznick's production of Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" in 1935, when two young assistants named Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur met while working on several sequences of the celebrated film. In those years, Lewton was working as a jack-of-all-trades with Selznick, while Tourneur was a young assistant director still trying to make himself a name by directing short films for MGM. However, destiny had something better reserved for them, as when in 1942 Lewton became head of the horror unit at RKO studios, the first person he hired as a director was Jacques Tourneur. Together, they would revolutionize the horror genre with the subtle and highly atmospheric style of their movies, based more on suggestion than in direct shock. The first of the three movies Tourneur would do for Lewton, was also his debut on feature length films: the now classic 1942 film, "Cat People".
"Cat People" is the story of Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a Serbian fashion designer who has moved to New York and spends her free time watching the animals at the zoo. And it is at the zoo where she meets Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), a naval architect who gets fascinated by Irena's beauty and charm, and soon they fall in love with each other. But one element seems to be an obstacle for their happiness: Irena believes on an ancient curse placed on her town, which dictates that she'll transform into a murderous panther if she gets emotionally aroused. Oliver tries to help her, thinking it's just a psychological problem, and eventually marries her, hoping she'll get better. However, Irena's obsession with the curse makes her unable to be happy, and eventually this leads Oliver to fall in love with his coworker, Alice (Jane Randolph). This will have disastrous consequences once Irena discovers she is losing him.
As every movie Lewton produced, "Cat People" was based on an idea he had and further developed by one of his writers. In this case, it was DeWitt Bodeen's job to develop a screenplay out of the "Cat People" concept, and he truly created one of the most amazing horror stories ever put on film. Given their budgetary limitations, Lewton and Bodeen wisely chose to focus in suspense and mystery, adding a touch of psychology to their horror and putting a bigger emphasis on the melodrama and in the development of the characters. In the person of Irena, they have created one of the most complex and interesting characters in the history of the genre, one that certainly started the exploration of psycho-sexual themes in movies. And this is because "Cat People" is more than a tale of horror and suspense, it is a subtle metaphor about sexual repression and mainly, the fear of losing control over the passions of the body.
If the script is worth of praise, the directing by French filmmaker Jacques Tourneur is simply outstanding. Working in Lewton's unit, Tourneur found severe budgetary limitations, but also an enormous creative freedom that allowed him to develop in "Cat People" a style that later would be identified as "RKO's horror" and inspire other Lewton's protégés like Robert Wise and Mark Robson. This style would be highly influenced by the films noir that had began to appear in 1939, and in many ways, the RKO horror films done by Tourneur could be considered hybrids of horror and film noir (Tourneur himself would direct a classic of film noir in 1947, "Out of the Past"). With a high emphasis on mood and atmosphere, Tourneur plays with sensuality and subtlety in ways no other director had done before in a horror film, employing the power of suggestion to create fear instead of direct graphic horror.
Now, as written above, Irena Dubrovna is probably one of the best written characters in the horror genre, but it wouldn't had the impact it had without the remarkable performance by the beautiful French actress Simone Simon. As Irena, Simone really captures that mix of mystery and innocence that makes her character not only attractive and sympathetic, but also highly erotic without losing her class (effectively becoming both a Femme Fatale and damsel in distress at the same time). Her descent into madness as her obsession grows allows Simone to show off her enormous talent as an actress in one of the best portrayals of paranoia ever put on screen. While nobody else in the cast reaches her level of talent (Kent Smith is particularly weak), they are all very effective in their roles, with Tom Conway being remarkably good as Irena's psychiatrist, Dr. Judd.
While personally I consider "I Walked With a Zombie" as Tourneur's horror masterpiece, "Cat People" is probably the most influential film that came out of RKO studios during Val Lewton's years. Not only it is a beautifully crafted film (thanks in part to Nicholas Musuraca's cinematography) that successfully added Noir influences to horror, but also it changed the way thrillers were made with its inclusion of psychological tension and eroticism that, thanks to subtle touch of Tourneur, managed to pass through Production Code censors without problem. In a time when B-movies were often synonym of mediocrity, "Cat People" appeared to prove that the only thing a movie needed to be good was talent and dedication. While as written above, Kent Smith makes up a weak counterpart for Simone Simon, it is only a small and unimportant flaw in what is otherwise a perfect film.
In the end, Lewton's bet worked for the best and "Cat People" became the most successful film of RKO in the year of its release, saving the studio and consolidating Lewton as the head of its horror unit, effectively starting the age of what is now know as "Lewton horror". As one of the most influential horror films in history, Jacques Tourneur's "Cat People" is a definitive must-see.
Buy "Cat People" (1942)