Like other fantasy films of the era (King Kong springs to mind, with its “And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty…”), 1942’s Cat People opens with a made-up quote, this time from a fictional psychiatrist instead of a made-up prophet: “Even as fog continues to lie in the valleys, so does ancient sin cling to the low places, the depressions in the world consciousness.” Almost immediately, this is followed by another, and far more appropriate, quote, this time a sign above a zoo litter bin: “Let no one say, and it to your shame, That all was beauty here, until you came.” Because, in a way, this is Irena’s fate: that she, with her dark, Serbian-witch-village ways of difficult passions and were-cattery, comes to this placid, modern, American paradise and ruins the lives of Ollie and Alice, a rather lukewarm not-yet couple wholly unprepared to deal with the psychological complexities of foreigners with hereditary supernatural curses. Kitten-faced Irena’s first action in the film is to mar the “beauty” of the zoo’s fake-tree-stump bin (like the rest of the zoo, a highly sanitised version of the true wilds of nature) by tossing a torn-up sketch at it and missing; her last act is to die in pretty much the same spot, littering the place with her mangled pantherine corpse.
Cat People is generally known nowadays as a horror film that worked through restraint rather than excess, a triumph of spookiness and moody lighting over the lurid horrors of the era’s Universal creature features. But I like it as much for its subtleties of character — it’s far more about a troubled human soul than it is simply about a woman who turns into a panther. But, all the same, it is about a woman who turns into a panther, so, you know, you get two films in one.
The basic story is that Irena (Simone Simon), working as a sketch artist for the fashion industry, attracts the attention of ship designer Ollie (Kent Smith), who very soon asks her to marry him. And they do marry, but Irena, it turns out, has a pathological fear of intimacy. She asks him to be patient. Ollie complies, but soon starts to worry it’s Irena’s odd upbringing that’s at fault — she comes from a village in Serbia where certain women, her mother included, had a reputation for turning into panthers when their passions were roused. Conspiring with his healthy-minded pal and co-worker Alice, Ollie gets Irena to see a psychiatrist, the rather too suave Dr Judd (Tom Conway). But Irena knows he can’t help her — Dr Judd thinks it’s all in her pretty little mind, but actually it’s a sickness of the soul. And when Ollie starts spending more and more time with pally Alice, Irena gives in to her atavistic side. She may not know how to fully love her new American husband, but she can scare off a rival like nobody else…
But the most affecting aspect of Cat People is Irena’s struggles to, first of all, be normal — which she initially achieves only by living and working in New York while making no friends, and avoiding anything like romantic entanglements — then her battles with her deep, inner wildness.
Set against this is the utter incomprehension of her frankly shallow, if well-meaning, husband. Ollie’s is a world of “normal, happy lives”, where to say to someone, “Oh, you crazy kid,” is to make a light joke, not get dangerously close to the mark. “I’ve never been unhappy before,” he tells his girl-pal Alice, whose own definition of love includes “no self-torture, no doubt” and, oddly, “no change”. Irena, though, is all self-torture and doubt. And quite literal change. America, civilisation and modernity are too much for her. When she finally lets the cat loose she first of all seems to feel shame (wiping her mouth with a handkerchief after mauling some local sheep, half-turned away from the camera), then triumph (having menaced Alice in an ill-lit swimming pool). It’s only at this point that Dr Judd proves to be a blessing. A smugly self-satisfied character who finds everything so “charming” — Irena’s story, Alice’s dawning belief in it, but most of all the love triangle he sees as providing him with a rather unprofessional in with the troubled Irena — yet he carries a sword-cane around with him (as a psychiatrist, he must be aware of the Freudian implications of that), and when he forces himself on Irena (perhaps this is just his attempt to “break the will of the patient”, as he says must sometimes be done, but his manner is rather too oily for that to be true), she at last has a legitimate outlet, someone to turn into a panther for and kill without ruining the “beauty” of Ollie and Alice’s “normal, happy lives”.
And “She never lied to us” is about the most those two can say, as though, in the face of the revelation that a woman really can turn into a panther, they still have to find a platitude to say about her now she’s dead.
As much as it’s a horror film, Cat People is a tragedy. Irena battles bravely against the darkness within — her breakthroughs and lapses are awful to see — but she’s stuck in a land, RKO film-set New York, where everyone else seems entirely prepared to live life as if it were a light comedy-romance. Yet here is she, a three-dimensional character amidst the two dimensional (the lecherous Dr Judd) and the one (poor old Ollie, who’s “never been unhappy before”, and doesn’t seem to have learned much by the end of the picture).
Cat People is the sort of horror film I like — one that is less about horror than it is about darkness, particularly the darkness of the human soul. Its producer, Val Lewton, went on to make a few more good films of a similar type, and I’ll be reviewing two more over the next couple of Mewsings: Curse of the Cat People (a rather unusual sequel to Cat People), and I Walked with a Zombie (made with Cat People‘s director, Jacques Tourneur).