Filmsite Movie Review
Cat People (1942)
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Background

Cat People (1942) is a low-budget horror classic from RKO Radio Pictures, Inc. - the haunting, low-key story of the difficulties of a foreign-born immigrant sketch artist and young bride (Simon) in an unconsummated marriage, especially her victimization and torment by menacing fears of the supernatural and unknown. It is often hinted that she is sexually frigid and according to legend, she may be stained through heredity by being a descendant of a certain Serbian tribe. Emotional arousal or jealousy may literally (and metaphorically) turn her into a lethal, animalistic killing force that may devour its male prey.

The atmospheric, suspenseful B-film tale with expressionistic, film noirish photography (by Nicholas Musuraca) was effectively directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced by Russian-born Val Lewton - it was the first in a series of chillingly suggestive films in which Lewton would play upon unseen horrors and draw upon viewers' imaginations. (In two scenes toward the film's climax, the studio almost destroyed the mood established by the entire film by insisting that the actual creature be shown.) Neither Tourneur or Lewton ever received an Academy Award nomination for their evocative works.

The moody, early 1940s film, with a screenplay by DeWitt Bodeen, was one of the first to make an explicit link between horror and female sexuality, something that has since become a staple of modern-day horror films. An unsubtle, erotically-sexualized and violent remake-sequel of the same name by screenwriter/director Paul Schrader in 1982 starred Nastassja Kinski as the bewildered woman who is metamorphosized into a black panther when sexually aroused.

The main character, superbly portrayed by kittenish Simone Simon, takes on obvious feline appearances and cat-like mannerisms, and there are numerous references and allusions to cats (in various forms of artwork and statuary). [She reprised her role in the follow-up film The Curse of the Cat People (1944), featuring Robert Wise's directorial debut.] Propagandistic posters with a black panther slinking in the background and a clock reaching midnight luridly announced:

SHE WAS MARKED WITH THE CURSE OF THOSE
WHO SLINK AND COURT AND KILL BY NIGHT!


A KISS COULD CHANGE HER INTO A
MONSTROUS FANG-AND-CLAW KILLER!


SHE KNEW STRANGE, FIERCE PLEASURES THAT
NO OTHER WOMAN COULD EVER FEEL!

Although most of the film was shot at RKO/Radio Pictures studios in Hollywood on a shoestring budget ($134,000) in less than a month, the famous swimming pool scene was shot at a hotel in the Alvarado district of Los Angeles, the apartment stairway was part of the set for Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and the Central Park Zoo settings were left-overs from Astaire-Rogers musicals.

The Story

The film's opening titles appear over a background of an art deco painting of a black cat prowling through the jungle. A quotation is viewed above a black figurine of a horse-mounted knight holding his sword-bearing left arm into the air - the lance has speared a cat. [The pretentious quotation and its statuette are attributed to and associated with psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd, one of the major characters in the film]:

Even as fog continues to lie in the valleys, so does ancient sin cling to the low places, the depressions in the world consciousness.
(The Anatomy of Atavism - Dr. Louis Judd)

Accompanied by organ-grinding music, a black panther restlessly prowls within its cage in Central Park Zoo on an autumn afternoon. The camera moves to the right (and also tracks backward) to reveal a dark-haired woman (with a sparkly cat brooch pinned to the left side of her trim suit) who stands on the perimeter of the caged-in area and idly sketches the pacing animal on her large sketchpad. Dissatisfied with her artistic attempt, she tears off a sheet of paper, crumples it, and tosses it into a nearby hollowed-out tree stump that serves as a trash receptacle. Her aim falls short and the round ball of trash lands at the feet of a well-dressed, handsome gentleman (with a coat slung over his shoulder) sipping from a soda bottle through a straw. [The woman with her back to the camera next to him is another of the film's major characters, Alice, although she isn't formally introduced or clearly identified.] The man points to a sign that cautions against littering: "Let no one say, and say it to your shame. That all was beauty here, until you came."

He casually strolls over to the pretty artist to meet her and get acquainted, leaving two unfinished bottles of soda on the refreshment stand. [The other woman inexplicably disappears or is abandoned. Was she symbolically dumped or replaced?] He discards her second rejected page of artwork [it's not a fashion drawing, although that's how she identifies it] with an accurate toss into the receptacle and then opens the conversation by asking to see her drawing [he fibs about never knowing any artists - he is a naval draftsman/architect for a maritime design office]:

Man: You won't believe this. You've probably heard it a dozen times before, but I've never known any artists.
Woman: I'm not an artist...I do sketches for fashion drawings.
Man: Oh. May I see it?
Woman: (coyly but flirtatiously) Oh no, it's not good. If I let you see it, you might not want to know any artists, ever. (She rips up her third drawing.)

When they leave together and he helps he pack up, her third drawing blows into a pile of autumn leaves and turns over. It depicts a sketch of a snarling panther pierced by a heavy sword - reminiscent of the film's opening statue. They stroll down the sidewalk to her nearby New York City apartment while exchanging each other's names: Serbian-born Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) and Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). After asking her to spell her name so that he can write her a letter, he gladly accepts her brazenly-open invitation for tea:

Irena: Perhaps, Mr. Reed, you would like to have tea in my apartment?
Oliver: Oh, ho, Miss Dubrovna, you make life so simple.

Inside the building at the foot of the ornate staircase, he remarks: "You know, I never cease to marvel at what lies behind a brownstone front." At her door, she hesitates after unlocking her door, since she hasn't had other visitors, especially male, into her place before:

Oliver: You looked at me in such a funny way.
Irena: I've never had anyone here. You're the first friend I met in America...You might be my first real friend.

When she opens the door, he notices the heavy perfumed scent of the interior, and she admits to using it excessively:

Irena: That's Lalage...the perfume I use. I like it, perhaps too well. Maybe I use too much of it, living alone like this.
Oliver: It's hard to describe. It's not like flowers exactly. It's - it's like something warm and living.

The scene dissolves/fades to black, and then reappears much later in the afternoon with a silhouetted view of the horse-back riding knight with the impaled cat - within her apartment. Humming a lullaby, she stands by the windows in a dreamy pose, overlooking the zoo where they first met. Oliver is seated on the sofa, smitten by the adorable young woman and observing her while smoking a cigarette. They both hear the distant roar of the zoo animals:

Irena: That's the lions in the zoo. One can hear them here often. Many people in this building complain. The roaring keeps them awake.
Oliver: And you don't mind it?
Irena: No. To me, it's the way the sound of the sea is to others - natural and soothing. I like it. Some nights, there is another sound, the panther. It screams like a woman. I don't like that. Oh, I hadn't realized how dark it was getting. (She turns on a lamp.) I like the dark. It's friendly.

As she removes the tea cups on a tray, she walks to her kitchen and passes the painting of the panther, a three-sectioned, folding room divider or screen [the same one seen under the opening credits]. Oliver comments on the statuette of the knight and learns its historical meaning, as she stands by the fireplace mantle under the well-known, 1788 portrait by Spanish master Francisco De Goya titled Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga [it portrays a child in a red costume with a pet black and white magpie (that holds the painter's calling card in its beak), a cage full of finches, and three wide-eyed cats]. She explains that the statue depicts King John of Serbia - who in medieval times executed witches of his kingdom who often took the form of cats. The legend of the evil 'cat people' ("the wisest and the most wicked") that worshipped Satan visibly affects her:

Oliver: Who's it supposed to be?
Irena: King John.
Oliver: Oh - King John, the Magna Carta and all that stuff.
Irena: No, King John of Serbia. He was a fine king. He drove the Marmalukes out of Serbia and freed the people.
Oliver: Well, why have this around?
Irena: Well, perhaps you have in your room a picture of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.
Oliver: Well, what does it mean?...Why is he spearing that cat?
Irena: Oh, it's not really a cat. It's meant to represent the evil ways into which my village had once fallen. You see, the Marmalukes came to Serbia long ago, and they made the people slaves. Well, at first, the people were good and worshipped God in a true Christian way. But little by little, the people changed. When King John drove out the Marmalukes and came to our village, he found dreadful things. People bowed down to Satan and said their masses to him. They had become witches and were evil, but King John put some of them to the sword and some, the wisest and the most wicked, escaped into the mountains...Those who escaped, the wicked ones, their legend haunts the village where I was born. (The clock behind her chimes - signalling her to stop revealing any more of her frightening history.)

Oliver, now her metaphoric 'King John" - a savior knight, is cued to leave by the chime of the time instrument and by Irena's glance at her own wristwatch: "Boys who come to tea can't expect to stay to dinner." They agree to meet for dinner the next evening. She smiles at him from her stairway balcony as he descends, smiling after her newfound "first real friend."

The next scene, the following day, opens with the face plate of Oliver's place of employment: C.R. COOPER SHIP AND BARGE CONSTRUCTION CO. His blonde, hard-working, perky, fellow-American colleague and 'modern' career woman, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) directs workmen on ladders next to a giant white wall where architect's plans for a ship are displayed. Other draftsmen are bent over their drawing boards around where Oliver is stationed - with a cardboard shoebox and a meowing Siamese kitten inside on his desk. Various other characters, besides Alice, are introduced by their first words:

Oliver confesses to his workmate pal Alice, who has an eye for him, that he has a new romantic interest and that the cat is a present for "a friend" - and she takes the news in stride:

Alice: A girlfriend?
Oliver: A girl.
Alice: Anybody I know?
Oliver: Not yet, but I know you'll like her.
Alice: Well, if you like her, she's okay with me.

That evening, Oliver delivers the kitten to Irena at her door, but the kitten hisses, snarls, and arches its back at her. (Instrumental tones on the soundtrack emphasize the rejection.) She explains that domestic cats often are strangely antagonistic toward her:

Oliver: Why, you little devil. (He picks up the animal.)
Irena: (resigned) Oh, it's all right. It's just that cats don't seem to like me.

Oliver suggests that something is unusual when he mentions that earlier, Alice ("that's the girl who works in our department") played peacefully with the kitten. Irena quickly suggests returning it to the pet shop and exchanging it for some other animal.

In a heavy rainstorm, the couple enter the jam-packed pet store crammed to the ceiling with cages. [A similar pet-store scene was reprised in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963).] Irena's mere entrance causes a cacophony of noise: a parrot, a monkey, birds, and other agitated cats react with chattering fear and loud shrieks of horror. The proprietress of the store cannot hear Oliver's request over the pandemonium, so they retreat to the outside doorway to talk:

I can't imagine what got into them. All that caterwauling. The last time they did that was when an alley cat got in and ate up one of my nice white finches.

The store returns to its peaceful state ("as peaceful as my dream of heaven") when only Oliver and the owner step back inside, leaving Irena on the outside, to exchange the kitten for a canary (a "little lemon-colored fellow with top notes like Caruso"). Once inside, the store-owner exclaims that there are supernatural, psychic powers possessed by animals:

Animals are ever so psychic. There are some people who just can't come in here...The cats particularly, they seem to know. You can fool everybody, but landy dearie me, you can't fool a cat. They seem to know who's not right, if you know what I mean.

The caged bird ("ducky little angel") is half-wrapped in a plain newspaper and presented to Irena, who sincerely thanks Oliver for the gift:

Oh, he is sweet. He will like me very much, you will see. I like to be liked.

They return to Irena's darkened apartment (lit only by a fire) where Oliver has fallen asleep on her sofa after dinner, with Irena cuddling next to him on the floor. He apologizes after awakening and then they mutually profess their platonic love for each other. Irena reacts with ominous undertones when questioned about her non-amorous behavior, and expresses her doubts about marriage to him. She admits that she left her native village under mysterious circumstances to come to New York and live a solitary, lonely life:

Oliver: Couldn't have been very entertaining for you.
Irena: I was watching you.
Oliver: That was fun?
Irena: Hmm-hmm.
Oliver: Do you love me, Irena? (She nods positively.) You know I love you, don't you? I've never kissed you. Do you know, that's funny.
Irena: Why?
Oliver: When people in America are in love, or even think they're in love, they've usually kissed long ago. (She gulps and looks down.) Well? (She bites her lip.) Irena, what's wrong?
Irena: 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 didn't want this to happen.
Oliver: But you just told me you loved me.
Irena: I do. I do! I've fled from the past. Some things you could never know, or understand, evil things, evil.

Using logic and rationality, Oliver tries to convince her that her fears are groundless, and that her past (and her heritage of the Satanistic Cat People) has no hold upon her. He dismisses her concerns and laughs them away, arguing that she is only torturing herself. He abruptly announces that they will be married - without hardly a formal proposal:

Now, you've told me something of the past, about King John and the witches in the village and the Cat People who descended from them. They're fairy-tales, Irena, fairy tales heard in your childhood, nothing more than that. They have nothing to do with you, really. You're Irena, you're here in America. You're so normal you're even in love with me, Oliver Reed, a good plain Americano. You're so normal you're gonna marry me, and those fairy-tales, you can tell 'em to our children. They'll love 'em.

He barely brushes the top of her head with a kiss - and the next scene dissolves into view.


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