Available on Blu-Ray
Cat People was a hugely significant film influencing the likes of David Lynch, Kenneth Anger, Brian de Palma, Hitchcock and many more. Paul Schrader made a slick, sexy 1980s remake that was not nearly as interesting as the original. The 1942 version was brought to the screen by celebrated producer Val Lewton. Through skilled lighting and borrowing of existing sets (those of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons), Cat People doesn’t look like the B picture its budget would suggest. It rather defies categorization too – it’s not quite noir, yet not really a horror movie either. It’s more a brooding, psychological thriller with overtones of unease allowing the viewer to read whatever they want into its true meaning. It’s subtle and allows space for audiences to speculate on the true problems of ‘the girl’ – frigidity, jealousy, predation (or is this just that old chestnut that bold women have to be put firmly in their place?).
Irena (Simone Simon) is an illustrator and artist who meets Oliver (the underrated Kent Smith) in the zoo where she’s sketching the panther. The sketch, and a statute she has in her apartment, feature a cat run through with a dagger. Irena and Oliver share graphic design type jobs and get friendly. She is Serbian and the statue represents the Mamelukes versus the Serbs and the chasing of Satanists out of the country. Does the wily Irena retain something of the evil cat people? In her apartment she can hear the grumbling of the big-cat zoo enclosure next door and says, troublingly, of the noise, ‘it’s friendly’. There is an almost imperceptible purring of big cats throughout the film, it seems. Oliver buys Irena a kitten but it recoils from her, seeming to sense that she’s just not right somehow. And who is the slinky woman in black sequins who disrupts Irena and Oliver’s wedding party?
Psychiatry seems to hold the answer (as it does in a host of movies from the same period – think of Spellbound or Now, Voyager) and Irena goes and has her head examined, hoping to unlock the sickness in her mind. The whole movie is put together with much skill and wit by director Jacques Tourneur. There’s all manner of shadowy goings-on with the lighting; notably an extraordinary sequence in an indoor swimming pool at night. Cat People is a Halloween chiller (albeit a pretty camp one) to curl up on the sofa with, and its creepiness is emphasized by a singsong tick-tock in the musical score (Roy Webb) which seems to echo the panther in its cage forever pacing, pacing.