The Val Lewton-produced shadowy horror classic gets a radiant new release from Criterion.
‘I’ve lived in dread of this moment, I’ve never wanted to love you. I’ve stayed away from people, I lived alone… I’ve fled from the past, some things you could never know, or understand… evil things, evil.’
In the early 1940s, a horror movie was supposed to be something hairy and melodramatic like Universal’s hit The Wolf Man – a werewolf movie that made a horror star out of human sequel Lon Chaney Jr. It might not have been art, but The Wolf Man set the box-offices afire in the days immediately prior to the US entry into World War Two. Naturally, other studios wanted to cut themselves in on the action.
In 1942, RKO Pictures, reeling from a feud with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst over their backing of Orson Welles’s veiled Heart biopic Citizen Kane, were further inconvenienced by the financial dead loss of Welles’s follow-up The Magnificent Ambersons. Executives were fired and a new regime instituted a policy of ‘showmanship, not genius’. Val Lewton – formerly a sidekick to arch-tyrant David O. Selznick – was hired to run a brisk, efficient unit whose ostensible job was to turn out horrors like they made over at Universal. There were left-over sets and costumes from Welles movies, which featured old dark houses as suitable for prowling Karloffs and Lugosis as Kanes and Ambersons. Studio head Charles Koerner tested a jim-dandy title for the first of Lewton’s supposedly unambitious quickies, Cat People. If the public went for guys who turned into wolves, then it stood to reason that they’d be even happier with girls who turned into cats. It was the kind of slam-dunk project that had the publicity department turning out a fang-and-claw poster even before there was a film to go with it.
However, Lewton was secretly ambitious. His background was schizoid, torn between the pulp of Weird Tales magazine (for which he had once written a cat-werewolf story) and the Reader’s Digest classiness of the pompous Selznick (who once had Lewton read Dickens to him as he sat on the toilet). If he had to make a film about a woman who turned into a cat, then Lewton would make the best possible cat person movie. To top off the whole thing, he would go all out to be scary in a way The Wolf Man, for all its growling, couldn’t manage. Assessing the sorry state of the genre, mired in fairy tale European settings and third-hand plots, Lewton opted for a subtle, innovative movie that brings the monster home, literally to a contemporary New York setting (Cat People is among the first supernatural horror films set in a world its audiences were familiar with) and figuratively in its unusual attempt at psychological depth. Having guided DeWitt Bodeen through a solid script, Lewton hired young French director Jacques Tourneur, at the beginning of a career that would stretch to a later horror classic, Night of the Demon (1958), and set about putting together an unusual cast.
Kittenish Simone Simon stars as frigid Serbian refugee Irena Dubrovna, unable to consummate her marriage to ‘plain Americano’ Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) because she fears orgasm will transform her into a giant panther. When her frustrated husband is tempted into an affair and her creepy psychoanalyst Dr Judd (Tom Conway) starts groping, her fingernails sharpen (in an unforgettable shot, she strokes a sofa and leaves parallel scratches in the material) and some sort of change comes over her. Is she a were-panther or just disturbed? The answer doesn’t come until the last scene, and is all the more unsettling because of it. The stalking sequences – as ‘other woman’ Jane Randolph is pursued through Central Park or menaced in a swimming pool by an almost-unseen force – are chilly, but the power of the film is in Simon’s queerly appealing performance. In an ominous little vignette in a Serbian restaurant, she is struck silent by the sight of a mysterious beauty (Elizabeth Russell), who seems to be another passing cat woman. The character is on screen for only seconds, but trails her own unknown and untold story – giving an impression of life carrying on outside what we see, which is unusual for Hollywood cinema. Lewton wanted every character to be distinctive – so even a washerwoman and a cheery waitress have bits of business, while a zoo-keeper seems to know secrets he hints about.
The Criterion Blu-ray is luminous – this is a film I’ve watched often (I wrote the BFI Film Classic book about it) but the new transfer brings out fresh detail of art direction and performance. Extras run to a commentary by historian Gregory William Mank, a fine feature-length documentary on Lewton (Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows), a French television interview with Tourneur and an appreciation of Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography by John Bailey (who shot Paul Schrader’s eccentric remake of Cat People).