Cat People

US (1942) Dir. Jacques Tourneur

They say you are either a cat person or a dog person. As an owner of a pug, it is obvious where I stand, but I am capable of finding kittens cute as well as being partial to the majesty of bigger cats like lions and tigers. And anime girls with cat ears. This classic horror convinces me to stay where I am and not cross over to the feline side.

Whilst visiting a New York zoo, marine engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) meets a young woman sketching a black panther, Serbian fashion artist Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon). They date and later marry but Irena’s fear and obsession with an old wives tale from her village about cats representing evil becomes a barrier between them.

At Oliver’s request, Irena sees psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway) but the session doesn’t go well and Irena remains convinced she is a descendant of the evil cat people. This and her jealousy towards Oliver’s co-worker Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) furthers the divide between Irena and Oliver, culminating in the mysterious stalking of Alice which has Oliver convinced maybe Irena is telling the truth.

Cat People was the first collaboration between producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur that spawned a run of successful B-movie horrors, including I Walked With A Zombie. There are shared facets in the presentation such as the heavy use of shadows and the horror being more implied than graphic, that give these films a distinctive veneer in the same way Hammer horrors are instantly recognisable.

Based on Lewton’s own short story The Bangheeta from 1930, this 68-minute sprint is a wonderfully atmospheric and tightly crafted tale of paranoia and psychological horror that plays on everything from traditional ethnic folklore to cosmopolitan jealousy. Adapted by DeWitt Bodeen this is Hitchcockian in its gradual reveal of the facts and mounting terror, including one particular scene which has since become part of the horror film lexicon.

Setting the origin of the ancient curse bothering Irena in central Europe might be a predictable and overused staple in horror but there is credence the romanticised gothic imagery these locations evoke, especially for Americans. Like The Wolf Man before it, hearing a legend like this from someone with a European accent adds to its cachet of credibility.

Irena explains that King John of Serbia, of whom she has a statue impaling a cat, drove the Mameluks from her village who had turned all the Christians into devil worshippers, the smart and evil ones fleeing to the mountains and taking the form of the cat. Religious doctrine is a powerful thing so if the stories in the Bible are accepted as gospel then why not this one?

Even with Irena being such a compelling raconteur Oliver laughs it off and vows to Irena he’ll keep her safe. But when a kitten Oliver buys for Irena (carried around in a shoebox!) violently rejects here as does every other animal in the pet shop (spoofed in the Family Guy skit with Death in the pet shop), all signs point to there being something about Irena that isn’t quite right.

At their wedding reception in a Serbian restaurant, Irena is approached by a strange woman (Elizabeth Russell) calling her “my sister” in their native tongue before promptly leaving. Prior to this, the single men in the party (including a young Alan Napier aka Alfred to Adam West’s Batman) eye the woman up, only to dismiss her as “looking like a cat”.

Like a Hitchcock film there are plenty of McGuffins and red herrings but the cleverness of the ambiguity keeps us guessing which is which until the closing moments reveal everything. Before then the evidence is stacked up against Irena, some damning some purely circumstantial, but she is never blameless. That Alice has confessed her love for Oliver and is always hanging round is cause enough for Irena to feel threatened by her, feeling railroaded when she learns Dr. Judd was Alice’s recommendation.  

But while this love triangle is heating up, things happen in the shadows whenever Alice is alone and the film is at its best in delineating the danger she may be in. Perhaps the most memorable moment is Alice’s walk home at night with streetlights found at various points along the street. In between them is darkness and the sound of a second pair of footsteps echoing Alice’s, which suddenly stop.

I won’t spoil what happens next but this is a powerful example of “less is more” and how lighting, editing, and performance are effective manipulators of our expectations, holding our nerves by a thread until they decide to let go and not before. This is applied later to other scenarios to extend the scope of the threat creeping towards Alice, which by rights should put her off doing anything alone in the dark.  

For a low budget B-Movie Tourneur and Lewton show no signs of letting this hinder their vision, achieving more with suggestion and chiaroscuro than most graphic horror films do, even if this is tame by modern standards. It also helps to have a story that is fully realised with enough gaps for the viewer to work out what is happening rather than be spoon fed, thus the mystery keeps us gripped throughout.

Simone Simon was an inspired choice for Irena despite being French and not Serbian but I doubt anyone in Hollywood knew what a Serbian accent was anyway. At first her delivery is awkward with an uneven rhythm and cadence but this only makes the fear in Irena’s words legit, plus Simon was a little bundle of cute, making it easy to feel for her although her fiery Gallic side would show when she needed to act sinister.

Cat People rises above its kooky premise to deliver a tense and engaging psychodrama whilst offering unique filming techniques to be admired. A sequel appeared two years later which I hope is just as good.