Cat People (1942)

Dir. Jacques Tourneur. Starring Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph

In a movie which does not shy away from meaningful monologues, the most telling and troubling monologue of all belongs to Oliver Reed (Kent Smith, not the actual Oliver Reed, who was like, four when this movie came out). I’ve always been happy, he tells his coworker, Alice (Randolph). My childhood, my schooling, my professional life have all been pretty stress-free and fun. And now that my wife is struggling, I have no idea how to help or fix the problem. This is the essence of hunted people in horror movies, although few of them say so as directly as Oliver does. Somehow, despite the Great Depression and early years of World War II, Oliver has had a pretty charmed life. His wife, Irena (Simon), begins to succumb to personal demons that she neither fully understands nor controls, and Oliver’s first reaction is to run to Alice, a woman who is obviously in love with Oliver. Towards the end of the movie, Oliver tells Irena that he’s going to give her a divorce she hasn’t asked him for. He’s in love with Alice. Cat People is about several things, but the horror in this old horror movies has little to do with the witches that John of Serbia couldn’t stamp out and far more to do with the weakness of men like Oliver. Perhaps you’ll come into your marriage and discover that your wife turns into a panther when aroused or irate; perhaps you’ll come into your marriage and discover that your husband has the emotional maturity and forbearance of a child.

Like most affairs, Cat People uses intimation and broad hints to set its mood. A lit swimming pool and a screaming woman reverberate in a concrete room where the growling of a panther had been the moment before. An unseen bus squeals to a stop on rusty brakes, and the door opens to admit a woman who knew she was being stalked by a predator, visible only in the shaking of a bush. Irena has feline artwork everywhere in her apartment, including a really off-putting statue of a man on a horse who’s raising his cat-impaling sword to the heavens. But there’s also a painting in which three little cats, each with the giant eyes of Renaissance animals, hungrily looking down at their bowl of milk. When she stands underneath it, their eyes stop following the milk and start following her instead. She goes to a psychiatrist who puts her under hypnosis and her face alone under a white light, like she is some royal tomb in an old cathedral. Frequently her hands coil into paws, and while it’s never quite naturalistic, it’s still effective. The psychiatrist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), tells her that to become well she must cease immersing herself in the art and images of her past; even if he doesn’t see her clawing at things, doubtless removing herself from the obsession would carry even to physical gestures. Even a throwaway line about not minding the dark – overshadowed, mostly, by the way she thinks of the roars of big cats as a soothing noise like the sound of waves hitting the beach are for average folks – is a nod to her catlike preferences. Simon’s performance, even if they had named the movie My Husband Wants to Leave Me for His Co-worker, would still aptly be called “kittenish.” Her small features, cute outfits, blithe smile, and accented speech win Oliver over quickly; she seems deeply innocent, yet she is obviously capable of a profound mischief. Even her perfume causes a little foreboding. Ollie, who presumably has some experience with women’s perfume, expects a floral scent but gets something “warm” and “living” instead. It’s a remark which doesn’t seem to faze Irina any.

And then there are the shadows. Such shadows.

Tourneur and his cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca, would team up again for the likewise fantastically shadowy Out of the Past. And like Out of the Past, Cat People lets our imagination consider, first and foremost, what might be hiding in those shadows. In that last shot, where Irena makes her love of the growling sounds from the zoo known to Oliver, it is stunningly dark. It’s difficult to know what Oliver is thinking as he sits there in the growing darkness, listening to this pleasantly exotic (Serbian) woman purr about how relaxed she is. Perhaps he is as caught up in her fantasy as she is. And in the first picture, we see a common motif; both characters are lit almost aggressively so that their heads will show up in shadow behind them, like other visitors in the house. As the Reeds’ marriage gets more crowded, so do the profile penumbras seem to grow larger and more intrusive. One almost expects them to chime into the conversations their bodies have.

Irena Dubrovna is a great movie monster, even if we rarely get much of a chance to see her in action and even if the little we see is fairly realistic. (The panther that does double for her is clearly a juvenile. It’s a misstep by the movie; not only does the cat look less threatening than it should, it was always more effective as a hidden wraith.) Her pawprints turn into muddy tracks left by high heels. Sheep are killed. A bathrobe is shredded. And, alas, in a few scenes the panther is there, indistinguishable from the beast in the zoo. More important – much more important, and effective – than Irena’s power is what drives a perfectly nice woman to a criminal state. One way or another, Ollie brings out the worst in Irina’s cursed body. Either he is capable of arousing her to such a point that she will involuntarily turn into a big cat and kill her husband, or he is responsible for driving her to mad lengths by so clearly choosing another woman over her. (The film does not say much about how Irina and Oliver must, more or less, abstain from sex even after marriage. The two sleep in separate rooms, which is not unheard of for ’40s movies, but surely this element must drive ol’ Ollie to the brink. It also does not force us to consider, for example, how quickly Irena would transform if turned on, which is a tremendous mercy.) Irina’s reasons for making such a rash decision are never revealed – perhaps she genuinely loves Ollie – but there’s a strangeness in the way that she is actively aware of the curse on her family while simultaneously rushing into it now that she’s in America.

As said before, though, Oliver Reed is the movie’s great villain, a man who undoes things because he is decent and civilized and dumb. He fails to see that Alice is in love with him for the entire stretch of the movie and then cannot wrest the idea from his mind once he’s heard it. He goes to Alice for a recommendation for a shrink for Irena, which even a husband in the 1940s would know better than to talk about. (Alice brings it up to Irena, which is amazing, but it stands to reason that she’s playing a long game which would destabilize the marriage that, if she’s honest, she does not have serious qualms about breaking up.) The movie’s last words, “She never lied to us,” are an especially sad reminder of Oliver’s conduct. His wife bore her soul to her husband, trying to express as clearly as she could the troubles she was facing and the fears that consumed her. And for his part, he conceals an affair (of the heart, certainly) with Alice while doing the “right thing” by deciding not to divorce her before he schedules her to go into an insane asylum. Whether or not Ollie lies depends on the eye of the beholder, but there’s no doubt who the truly forthright one is in that ill-fated marriage, and who has to take the fall for it.

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