US | 1942 | Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Logline: A man marries a foreign woman who fears the curse of her ancestors, that she will turn into a panther if she kisses her husband.
Producer Val Lewton made several low-budget “horrors” for studio RKO. With Cat People he employed French ex-pat Jacques Turner at the helm, who eschewed the usual horror trappings and went for a more atmospheric look and feel, and an ambiguous tone in dealing with the movie’s themes and plot devices. It makes for a sublimely affecting drama; a tragedy torn by the talons of horror.
Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), a naval construction engineer, meets Eastern European fashion designer Irena Dubrovna (the perfectly cast Simone Simon) at the zoo, where she discards a strangely macabre sketch she has made of the black panther. Reed flirts with her and before you can say “Meeeeeow!” they’ve fallen in love and married each other. However, Irena is afraid of an ancient Serbian curse that spells that a woman can not be kissed by a man; otherwise she will transform into a panther and kill.
Due to Irena’s intense emotional anxiety the couple does not consummate their marriage. Reed instead becomes closer to his work colleague Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) whom admits to being in love with him. Reed arranges for Irena to be treated by his friend psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway), but it becomes apparent Dr. Judd has an unprofessional agenda. When Irena discovers she is losing Oliver to Alice she becomes jealous and hateful. She schemes and stalks, her stealth inexorably leading her into the lion’s den.
Oliver Reed admits to Alice that he is strangely drawn to Irena, that he has to look at her when she’s in the room, has to touch her when she’s near, yet as soon as Alice admits to her desire to be in a relationship with Reed he makes the decision that he is no longer in love with Irena; the pressing desire for sexual companionship has quashed his patience. Then when Irena becomes fully aware of Alice’s intent on Reed she unleashes her dark inner beast. It is this carnal creature that she so desperately wants not to be her nemesis, so she can enjoy what any normal woman does.
Dr. Judd, however, sees this repressed sexuality as an untapped elixir that needs to be released. “What should I tell my husband? Naturally he’s anxious to have some word,” Irena ask him after their session. “What does one tell one’s husband? One tells him nothing,” Dr. Judd replies with quiet authority.
Cat People is a unique study of repressed sexual desire and deep-rooted emotional upheaval. It also deals with sly deception and moral corruption. The horror of the movie is not so much the actual killing, but the fear of being consumed by something that should be so pleasurable, yet is a plague upon the senses.
Tourneur plays brilliantly with light and shadow, the sound and editing. There are several stand-out scenes, most notably when Alice is stalked by Irena along a road at night, with just the sound of their stilettos clacking on the pavement, then quiet, then the roar of a panther is drowned out by the loud swish of a bus pulling into shot beside Alice at the roadside. The wedding reception scene in a restaurant has a great moment when another striking Eastern European woman (credited as The Cat Woman) seems to recognise Irena and says to her “Mia sestra.” Irena looks frightened and quickly makes the sign of the cross.
My favourite scene, and one that has become a classic of suspense, has Alice being stalked again as she takes a swim in an indoor public baths. Irena as a silhouetted panther growls and circles the pool while the dappled light dances feverishly across the walls and ceiling.
Tourneur went on to direct the haunting I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and my favourite classic film noir, Out of the Past (1947), but he nailed those elements first in Cat People. It’s a classic noir-esque horror-drama, and like Don Siegel’s classic of dread and paranoia Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), it belies its meek origins, transcends the genre, and resonates with the chilling sensuality of a strange and troubling dream.