Cat People haunts you from its charismatic central performance to atmospheric visuals that are imitated but seldom equaled.
I originally saw the 1942 thriller Cat People in a college class and instantly fell in love. I loved the subtle horror elements that director Jacques Tourneur came up with, particularly the famous stalking scenes. Rewatching the film opened up my eyes to its subtext: the fear of foreign intermarriage as well as the hostile feminine competition that invades the psyche of our heroine Irena (Simone Simon). Like most of the films produced by horror impresario Val Lewton, the movie is far more complex than its lurid title implies.
Irena (Simon) is a beautiful Serbian fashion artist who meets and falls in love with average American Oliver (Kent Smith). After they get married, Irena fears that she has fallen victim to a Serbian curse that condemns anyone who succumbs to feelings of arousal; if she were to consummate her marriage she would turn into a cat person. As the couple drifts apart, Oliver is drawn to sweet co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph), and Irena’s transformative curse is released by a different arousal. Or is it?
Cat People is much more than a movie about a woman who turns into a cat. The horror builds and manifests in different ways. Tourneur pits shadows against light and uses restrained horror and sound effects, and his characters are broadly different, like the lecherous doctor played by Tom Conway. You can watch this film in the dark and be on edge without being out-and-out terrified.
The film would be nothing without the alluring power of French actress Simone Simon. She’s the first character you meet, and she strikes you with her exotic features and accent. Her features are in fact feline, and throughout the movie, even when she’s doing something “evil” there’s a look of amusement on her face (just look at her when she goes after the canary). Cat images pervade her life, from the outfits she wears to how she decorates her home. The way her fur coat changes throughout the film indicates an increasing embrace of her cat persona. She starts to wear it after marrying Oliver, and when she attacks others, it turns into a disheveled mess, like an animal pelt. Irena isn’t just a woman who believes an ancient curse has been passed on to her, but a bride struggling to understand the sexual politics of marriage. The film’s portrayal of matrimonial sexuality has only become more interesting over the decades; the idea that if Irena were to be sexually aroused, it would unleash an uncontrollable, animal. Irena loves her husband and wants to make him happy, but is afraid of hurting him, both emotionally and physically.
Irena is a foreign woman trying to shape her own American Dream (or condemn it, depending on your view). She comes to this country with old world ideals and wisdom and is unable to reconcile those with the views of her husband. Oliver is a poster child for America, right down to ordering apple pie at the diner, and his new paramour, Alice is seen as the “right” woman for him, not just because she’s a friend who shares similar interests but because she’s American as well. With this emphasis on America, it’s easy to root for Irena to overcome. Oliver doesn’t do anything to prevent Irena from feeling pushed aside in favor of Alice. Once it becomes apparent that Oliver and Irena won’t be sleeping together he suggests his bride see a psychiatrist. Irena goes but discovers that Alice has recommended the doctor, and that Oliver has told his co-worker everything about their relationship!
As the story progresses, Oliver discovers he’s no longer in love with Irena and finds he’s “never been unhappy” in his life until he got married. He and Alice fall in love with the full knowledge of Irena being caught in the middle. Oliver is blunt about stating that Irena’s exotic nature is what attracted and bewitched him (possibly implying some crazy sexual streak he expected to find in her?). At one point, Oliver sends his wife away so he and Alice can go on a date! By the end Alice, Oliver and the lecherous Dr. Judd work together to have Irena committed and the marriage annulled! Just who are we meant to be afraid of? I’m terrified more of the regular people than the cat person!
Irena’s cat persona of a panther is obvious, but Alice cites herself as the most dangerous type of other woman, like a new species of predator. Still, it’s when Irena stalks Alice that the film comes into its most defining, influential moments. One of these scenes inspired the term “Lewton bus”: as the audience waits anxiously for the panther Irena to attack, a startling noise bursts out – that turns out to be a bus. Yet it is the nightmarishly photographed scene in the swimming pool when everything comes together, and Irena’s bemused face embodies the glee of a cat playing with her food.
Paul Schrader remade the movie in 1982, with Nastassia Kinski an apt successor to Simone Simon, but the film’s explicit sex and gore failed to surpass the original’s restrained horror and eroticism. Fascinating and richly layered, the 1942 Cat People haunts you from its charismatic central performance to atmospheric visuals that are imitated but seldom equaled.