Cat People (1942): The Criterion Collection Review
Val Lewton produced nine b-movie horror films in the 1940s, all with wonderfully evocative, if occasionally misleading titles. RKO were looking to distance themselves from wonderboy directors like Orson Welles and instead produce more lucrative, low-budget b-movies. In Lewton at least, they just got a different kind of genius.
In the spirit of low-budget studio driven filmmaking, he was often simply given a title and expected to build a film around it. This would often stress the premise; 1943’s Ghost Ship, for instance, features no actual ghosts. Disappointing? Perhaps I Walked With a Zombie! is the 1940s clickbait headline of cinema? On the contrary, the results were extraordinary, devilishly clever and revolutionary. So much so, we see his legacy in film to this day.
The horror genre belonged to Universal in the 1930s. Frankenstein, Dracula and all their monster friends had built the rules as rigidly as the scary gothic castles they often took place in. Maybe audiences were tiring of the formula, but somehow Lewton and RKO perfectly timed a new, more sophisticated style. Not so much breaking those monster movie rules, but bending them to exploit expectation. Now the shadows would be scarier than whatever was casting them.
Cat People from 1942 is a perfect example, and Val Lewton’s crowning achievement has been given a superb release from Criterion. A play on the werewolf legend, the title is somewhat stretched by a contrived tribal legend, but supported by giving the thriller an undercurrent of sexuality; one it embraces, while yet using strong female characters despite the restrictive times in which it was made.
Simone Simon is unforgettable as Irena, a fragile, troubled woman haunted by her Serbian heritage. She believes that she will turn into a cat if she falls in love. Intentions are declared from the get go, with a quote about depression and an evocative opening scene as Irena tries to draw a caged panther. She catches the attention of Oliver Reed (no, not that one), played by Kent Smith. He thinks her warnings of curses are ridiculous and they marry. But her fears push him away, and closer to his stronger willed friend Alice (Jane Randolph). Irena starts to unravel with jealousy, afraid of Alice’s intelligence and dominance. In several incredible sequences, Alice believes some kind of animal is stalking her.
The mischievous screenplay bats along economically, with subtle ties to religion, gender and psychology fitting into the lean 73 minutes. We can subscribe fully to the idea of a woman turning into a cat or be sceptical and let the film offer another explanation, such as manifested jealousy. Meanwhile the monsters stay to the shadows so you can never be quite sure. Either way, keep telling yourself it’s only a 74 year-old movie, even while your knuckles turn white.
Kent Smith is great, as is Tom Conway as the doctor that tries to help Irena, but the film belongs to the women. Simone Simon is naturally feline-like anyway, while Jane Randolph plays a foxy, modern American woman. Even if it would fail miserably at the Bechdel test today (after all the girls are still simpering over Smith), Cat People has to count for an exemplary early effort to give women a stronger voice. Lewton had several memorable female characters throughout his oeuvre.
Hold on though, wasn’t Lewton just the producer? Well, yes, but the best kind of course. Still, the heavy lifting on set was done by frequent Lewton collaborator, French director Jacques Tourneur, and Italian cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. Cat People is a sublime and occasionally breathtakingly beautiful masterpiece of composition and lighting, especially the latter; you can’t have shadows without light and this film understands that duality. Perhaps one of Lewton’s tricks to revolutionising the American flavoured genre was in surrounding himself with European artists (include Simone in this case).
The playful composition of even the simplest of scenes is striking and always in service to the narrative, and there’s even a brief, well placed animation. Don’t be surprised if the enduring image you take away from this horror movie is but a simple one of a domesticated cat washing itself atop a light table, while Alice and Oliver merely talk, stepping in and out of shadows. No threat, just drama, perfectly presented. Actually the tabloid-titled sequel Curse of the Cat People is brilliantly odd and audacious, eschewing horror and thriller tropes almost entirely, despite using the same characters.
The original Cat People though is very much a thriller first and foremost, backed up by the cat people myth, which may be without foundation, but Irena believes it fully and so it adds to the intrigue. And this was perhaps the first film to pull off the genuinely scary bluff; making the audience jump out of its skin at the sight of a bus of all things! Everyone talks about that moment when they talk about Cat People, and with good reason. The atmosphere, a sense of a veil between worlds, is as good as the gag. Plus, that is just one of several stand out moments and the swimming pool scene in particular is a wonderful use of shadow play. Paul Schrader’s 1980s remake is worth seeking out if only for the way it employs similar methods with a modern approach.
This fantastic film didn’t need a remake though and feels fresh even today, retaining its power to disturb. Using shadow and suggestion rather than effects and monster suits to shred your nerves, it has dated little, backed up by real demons most people can identify with (jealousy, self-doubt, loneliness) as we follow a descent into insanity and an ambiguous ending. Is Irena a cat woman? Doesn't really matter when those themes are already causing enough trouble. Add in a guy lacking the willpower to stay the course and help his bonkers girlfriend, and you have a complex, modern psychological puzzle, challenging for the time it was released. This was typical of Val Lewton.
His mark can still be felt in modern twists on thriller and horror, like The Babadook (if overrated) or Let The Right One In. Martin Scorcese’s Shutter Island was pretty much a direct tribute. Meanwhile, cinema is always happy to repeat itself; Universal are raiding their archives for new versions of the old reliable monsters, which will be great fun. And then we can look forward to a new Val Lewton too, just as we get bored again.
The 2K mono transfer is phenomenal and the best release of the 74 year old film I’ve seen yet. It’s soft, with contrast less harsh than you might expect, but as striking as it should be. It brings the film to life and accentuates Nicholas Musuraca’s wonderful lighting. That famous nighttime walking scene is stunning, with glistening stone and the street lights creating a pulse.
Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows (77m) - Brilliant documentary, hosted by Martin Scorcese and previously released elsewhere, but a welcome addition here. It explores Lewton and his legacy in detail.
Cine Regard - Interview with Jacques Tourneur (27m) - French interview from an episode of Cine Regard giving a good overview of the man behind the shadows, as it were.
John Bailey on Cat People (17m) - John photographed Paul Schrader’s remake of Cat People in 1982. His insight and appreciation of the original cinematography is wonderful, in particular a techy focus on scenes you might otherwise take for granted. He speaks of using the light as a rhythm.
Audio commentary by Gregory Mank - from 2005, featuring film historian Gregory Mank, with excerpts from an audio interview with Simone Simon. Gregory peels back the layers of the film with an insight into the sexuality of the narrative.