For me, Cat People (RKO, 1942) is the embodiment of a horror film for the thinking people. It’s not high-brow, but it prompts me to dig just a little deeper than I normally would for your garden variety Universal horror. The prologue “Even as fog continues to lie in the valleys, so does ancient sin cling to the low places, the depression in the world consciousness” sets the tone with a reference to a fictitious work The Anatomy of Atavism, by Dr. Louis Judd (played in the film by Tom Conway).
Atavism is the inclination of an organism or being to revert to an ancestral state. It’s also used as a noun in describing a throwback attribute or characteristic. In film, examples include William Hurt regressing into a cave man and protoplasmic ooze in Altered States (1980), Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney becoming lycanthropes in Universal’s The Wolf Man (1941)(also a literate film), and Grant Williams shrinking into an atomic existence in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Atavism is also a biological principle and examples include vestigial spurs (remnant limbs) on pythons, and pharyngeal arches in developing embryos and primitive chordates (and the new Shin Godzilla).
In Cat People, we are introduced to a chance meeting of two lonely but dissimilar people. They are Serbian-born fashion artist Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) and draftsman Ollie Reed (Kent Smith). They strike up a romance, sans kissing, and Irena confides in Ollie about an ancient family curse —an atavism where women, of the ancestral village, when aroused, turn into cats. Naturally, Ollie falls in love with this woman who won’t kiss him and clearly doesn’t have both oars in the water, and marries her. Along the way we meet Ollie’s co-workers Alice Moore (Jane Randolph, A&C Meet Franky), Doc (6’5 Alan Napier), The Commodore (Jack Holt, on borrow from Columbia Studios) and John Paul Jones the cat.
While celebrating the marriage, a statuesque woman (Elizabeth Russell) (Doc: She looks like a cat) greets Irena “Moja sestra?” who panics and regresses darkly while remembering the curse of the cat people. Ollie and Irena sleep in separate beds and the marriage isn’t consummated. As the story progresses, Ollie grows more interested in co-worker Alice, Irena gets catty, and psychiatrist Louis Judd (Tom Conway) begins his hypno-analysis and pursuit of Irena Reed. Is Irena cursed?
In Cat People everything gels: the story by Val Lewton, script by DeWitt Bodeen, direction by Jacques Tourneur, editing by Mark Robson, and especially the shadowy cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca (which really shines in this new Criterion 2K HD restoration). The score by Roy Webb is superb and available on-line HERE.
This was the first of producer Val Lewton’s low-budget thrillers designed to capitalize on the renewed interest in horror film and the first of three in collaboration with Jacques Tourneur (b. 1904, d. 1977). The other Lewton-Tourneur films are I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and the underrated The Leopard Man (1943), which are definitely worth a peek. Also check out Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon (1957)(one of the finest films ever made about witchcraft —period) and the exquisite film noir Out of the Past (1947).
As you watch this film, count how may manifestations of cats you see. They are everywhere —in drawings, as paintings, in sculpture, as logos, in shadow, in sound, animated, and real cats. I counted 31 unique references and perhaps 60 or more shots showing duplicated images (the statue of Anubis doesn’t count as that is a Jackal). The animated dream sequence has always intrigued me. Visual effects artist Linwood Dunn (The Thing, 1951; 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968) usually garners credit for the cat animation, but I wonder if the fluid animation was actually done by someone at Disney, which is consistent with RKO-Disney’s distribution relationship from 1937-1954. I’m only speculating.
A lot has been written about Irena’s frigidity as being a portrayal of repressed lesbianism. Proponents of the theory cite Irena and Alice’s relationship (I see nothing) and the older Cat Lady (Russell) calling out to Irena as a sister (even producer Val Lewton was questioned about it). For those interested in diving deeper, I recommend Chris Fujiwara’s Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, available HERE. Also take time to listen to director William Friedkin’s fascinating commentary on the Val Lewton DVD Horror Collection The Leopard Man (2011 Pressing, Turner-WB).
This new Blu-ray duplicates some previous supplemental material available elsewhere. The interview and documentary with cinematographer John Bailey (Cat People, 1982) is new and a gem. He basically notes that the pool sequence of the original is so flawless that he basically reshot it the same way except Annette O’Toole is topless.
The new 2K print is exquisite and the finest example of the film I have seen to date.