Cat People (1942)
In 1942, RKO needed to recoup its losses from the financial headaches surrounding Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. They contracted Val Lewton, a Jack-of-all-Trades in Hollywood, to produce a series of B-horror movies with predetermined, audience-tested titles. The plan may have been cheap quickies, but the result was far different: nine complex, modern, and shocking films. Jacques Tourneur's Cat People is the first in this series, and set the standard of quality to which the rest adhered.
Irena (Simone Simon) and Oliver (Kent Smith) "meet cute" at the zoo. They are immediately taken with one another and quickly fall in love and marry. However, all is not well. Irena gives herself emotionally to her new husband, but she withdraws from physical sensuality. She believes herself to be cursed by the dark deeds of her evil witch ancestors -- cursed to become a cat when sexually aroused.
Cat People runs on imagination and some twisted Freudian relationships. For most of the film, Irena's true nature is obscure. Surely, there's something wrong -- Tourneur ladles on scenes that are obviously clues, but what they reveal is ambiguous. For instance, animals don't react well to Irena, but that doesn't necessarily indicate anything supernatural; certain people are just unlucky with pets.
However, it is Irena herself who provides the greatest mystery. Even without the feline transfiguration context, the character is a complicated portrait of sexual repression. The statuette in her apartment (as well as a drawing she does at the beginning of the film) depicts a phallic sword impaling a black cat -- the mythological representation of the wicked women of Irena's village.
Furthermore, Irena seems most comfortable with herself when she's being playful, almost malevolently so. It could be that there is evil in her heart, or perhaps the evil only exists in her head -- a horrendous fear of the sins of the mother being visited upon the daughter. Were it not for a rather explicit shot late in the film (done at the studio's insistence and over the protestations of both Lewton and Tourneur), the film's beautiful ambiguity regarding Irena's animalistic tendencies might have stood to the tragic finale.
Of course, all of that mystery might have added to the confusion of Irena's husband, Oliver. The screenplay (by DeWitt Bodeen and an uncredited Lewton) adds another notch to the complexity of the film by refusing to reduce the fellow to a boorish caricature. Oliver is the kind of nice guy that happens when there aren't any hard choices to make or real feelings to hurt. Thrust into a situation where the wife he loves suffers from some kind of inexplicable sexual paranoia and refuses help for it, he tries to be the good spouse at the expense of his own needs. When he finally cracks and falls for his best friend, Alice (Jane Randolph), Irena still weighs heavily on his mind.
Thanks to some careful direction by Tourneur, we see Oliver's defection long before he realizes it. Whenever Alice is in the room, she's always near Oliver -- and Irena's always just off to the side, the third wheel in her own marriage. It's no wonder why her claws (be they figurative or literal) finally come out.
In the midst of this modern domestic drama, Cat People is still a horror film. Neither Lewton or Tourneur ever forget this. The pacing prowls with the lazy grace of the cat on the hunt. When it pounces, it's hard not jump back for fear of being clawed to death. Moreso than its contemporaries at Universal, Cat People has maintained its ability to scare.Take the classic scene of Alice walking down a dark street, with Irena tailing her. Irena's heels make a distinctive "clack" as they hit the pavement. We follow Irena (clack), then Alice, then Irena (clack), then Alice, and then... still Alice. The clack is gone, and suddenly the scene takes an eerie silence, the perfect set-up for... well, I wouldn't want to give it away. Let's just say that this film (and many of the other Lewton horrors) has a knack for using its modern setting for drumming up primordial fears.
Chilling, thought-provoking, and surprisingly erotic for its time, Cat People underlines all the things that makes psycho-sexual supernatural horror work, and all before there was such a subgenre. Played as a reaction to Universal's fairy tale Gothic approach or as its own entity, Lewton's first contribution to the cinema of terror shouldn't be missed. For fun, watch it in conjunction with Paul Schrader's 1982 version to see how utterly a remake can miss the point.