Synopsis: Nautical engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) meets a young Serbian woman, Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) one afternoon at the zoo. Irena is sketching a black panther as it paces in its cage. The two hit it off in a meet-cute sort of way, and Irena allows Oliver to walk her home.
Irena, it turns out, lives alone in a large and tastefully-furnished apartment nearby, and seems grateful for Oliver’s company. She tells him that she hasn’t made any friends since moving to the city. Oliver ends up staying well past dark, and as he leaves he asks to see her again the next day and she agrees.
Feeling she needs a companion, Oliver buys a kitten for her at a local pet shop, but when he gives it to her the kitten spits and backs away fearfully. Irena tells him that cats don’t like her. He trades the kitten in for a bird, and this seems to please her, but when she reaches inside the cage the bird panics and quickly dies.
Before long, Oliver and Irena are engaged. On their wedding day they have dinner at a local restaurant with Oliver’s co-workers, including Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) who acts like one of the guys in spite of being young, pretty and apparently available. The general mood is quite jovial, but a strange woman approaches their table and speaks to Irena briefly in Serbian, calling her “sister”. Irena is shaken by this encounter.
Returning home that night, she confides to Oliver that she isn’t able to consummate the marriage right away — she speaks vaguely of being frightened by an old family curse and asks him to be patient. Oliver, who has “nice guy” written all over him, agrees.
But weeks pass and nothing changes. Oliver gently suggests that Irena see a psychiatrist, and she agrees; but after only one session with the oily Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway) she stops going. When Oliver finds out that she’s abandoned her sessions he is angry. Irena is angry in turn at all the time Oliver is spending with Alice, and angrier still when she learns that Oliver has revealed to her Irena’s reluctance to consummate the marriage. What she doesn’t know is that Alice has also confessed to Oliver that she has always carried a torch for him.
Irena reluctantly goes back to see Dr. Judd, and the nature of her affliction becomes clear: she believes that if she becomes sexually aroused, she will turn into a deadly panther. Judd decides he’s going to dissuade the beautiful Irena of this notion by seducing her, not knowing that the curse is real….
Comments: Cat People was producer Val Lewton’s first horror film, and it was a huge hit when it was released in 1942. It spawned any number of imitators, some of which we’ve already seen on Horror Incorporated.
The Lewton style emphasized spooky atmospherics over out-and-out shocks. There were no wolf men jumping out of the trees, no Frankenstein’s monster lumbering around in graveyards. Instead, the menace is always creeping somewhere off-screen, just as psychological and spiritual as it is physical. It is fascinating to watch how much suspense Lewton wrings out of scenes that end in nothing much happening at all: Alice scared and vulnerable in the swimming pool, first panicking and then feeling foolish when everyone rushes in to her rescue; and the scene in which she is stalked by Irena on along a nighttime street, finding refuge on a city bus.
The film is quite unusual for its time, with a very heavy dose of pop psychology overlaying it. Early in the film Irena’s malady is realistically depicted as a delusion built up around her own sexual anxieties, and the relationship between Irena and Oliver is also quite convincing; in spite of Oliver’s best intentions his patience with Irena wears thin and he begins to pivot toward Alice; as a result, fearing she will lose him, Irena returns to Dr. Judd against her better judgment, setting the stage for the mayhem that follows.
While the Freudian tropes seem a little obvious by today’s standards, there is still a certain elegance in the panther at the zoo being the symbol of Irena’s repressed libido. It paces ceaselessly in its cage, while Irena spends much of the day sketching it. From her apartment she can hear the panther’s screams and growls. At night she has dreams of stealing the key from the zookeeper and releasing the animal from its cage. All the Victorian fears of female sexuality are on display here, and it’s handled quite deftly. These themes are helped rather than hindered by the censorship rules at the time, because Irena’s malady operates largely on the subconscious level and Lewton is an unusually subtle and intelligent filmmaker. By contrast, the 1982 remake was loud and lurid and about as subtle as you’d expect a Paul Schrader film to be. The nudity and blunt dialogue ultimately wound up sinking that picture, though it does have its defenders — mostly people who have never seen the original.
Simone Simon projects both a playful sexiness and a touching vulnerability as Irena, and Jane Randolph is quite winning as Alice; this is a rare movie of the time where the female leads get a little more to do than look pretty and get rescued. Kent Smith is quite convincing as the decent but somewhat unimaginative Oliver. But the most interesting performance might be from Tom Conway as the unprincipled Dr. Judd. Conway starred as debonair crime-fighter The Falcon in a series of programmers from RKO, taking over the role from his real-life brother George Sanders (the two were depicted on-screen as brothers as well, appearing together in The Falcon’s Brother (1942)). Conway reprised his role of Dr. Louis Judd — oddly without explanation — in a later Lewton film, The 7th Victim (1943).