Friday, April 14, 1972: Cat People (1942)

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. Alice has picked this Serbian restaurant in Irena’s honor, and Irena finds it delightful.  The 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. They begin sleeping in separate rooms.

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 confided 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:  I don’t know what kind of ratings Horror Incorporated  enjoyed during its run, or indeed if any such records (which I have to assume would have been gathered for the KSTP sales team, even for a show that aired so late at night) still exist. But we can safely assume that the show was a success, and bested its competition in that less-than-vital midnight to 3am timeslot.

We can assume this not only because of the show’s longevity (it ran for a good decade), or because it still has a following after 40+ years (unlike, say, KSTP’s contemporaneous late-night staple The Henry Wolf Show) but also because it spun itself off to other day-parts, popping up in the months between football and baseball season as a noontime Saturday show and on rare occasions (as it does tonight) on Friday night.  On this particular Friday we have one feature, and it’s a good one: Val Lewton’s Cat People.

Cat People is an eerie and delicious film, and captures perfectly not only Lewton’s unusual style but also the dark thematic freight in which he traffics. Irena’s world of magic and ancient curses is quite naturally seen, by everyone from Oliver to Alice to Dr. Judd, as a foolish superstition, and it is deemed important by everyone that she be convinced it’s simply a delusion.  Once this is accomplished, it is assumed, the problem will go away.

But as is often the case in horror films, you mock the Devil at your own risk. Everyone who dismisses the curse ends up endangered by it; and even Irena, who wishes wholeheartedly that her curse is simple nonsense just as Oliver and Judd keep telling her, ultimately pays a price for turning her back on her true nature. In a way the “cat woman” who speaks to her in the restaurant has sealed her fate; Irena knows the woman has overheard her and her friends celebrating her wedding, and her look of dread after the woman calls her “sister” is palpable.  Irena knows that she has no business getting married, not with the curse that hangs over her head. But like many people in horror films she is seduced by the rational world and its promise of a universe safely under our control.

When Dr. Judd meets Irena at the zoo he tells her that her obsession with the panther in its cage is related to a very human attraction to chaos and self-destruction.  He talks about the innate human desire for death — a Freudian belief which seems to peg him as a practitioner of psychotherapy, a discipline that is rare today but which was fairly common in the 1940s.

Psychotherapy was rooted in the Victorian era and its curiously repressed attitudes toward sexuality. Sex — to the Victorian mind — was closely related to death, an idea this film takes quite literally.

Dr. Judd assumes that everything Irena says is shorthand for something else. He takes nothing she says seriously. At one point Irena points out to Judd that he doesn’t see any difference between the mind and the soul, and he doesn’t disagree with this.  But we can’t blame Dr. Judd for misinterpreting her malady because we come from the same rational world he does. We too view Irena’s curse as palpably, painfully Freudian in nature: her sexual desires are so strong that she is afraid of them,  and believes that unleashing them will destroy not only her, but everyone around her.

Lots of filmmakers have tried to imitate Lewton’s particular style, but no one has come close to succeeding. A lot of painful ripoffs followed the success of Cat People, among them the Horror Incorporated staples She-Wolf of London and The Beast With 5 Fingers  — but the clumsiness of these imitators only underscores Lewton’s singular talent.

Lewton always made the most from the acting talent he had at hand, and this film is no exception.  Simone Simon is beautiful and appropriately mysterious as the troubled Irena; Kent Smith’s performance isn’t showy but his squeaky-clean, all-American manner is exactly right for the part.  Jane Randolph’s Alice is good-hearted and funny, a bit like the lead actress’ best friend in a screwball comedy.  And Tom Conway is pitch-perfect as the oily and immoral Dr. Judd.  I can’t think of a picture where I’ve been happier to see a character get killed by a leopard.

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3 comments

  1. It's been ages since I've seen CAT PEOPLE, never warming to Val Lewton, though I'm partial to two of his three Karloffs. Guess the Universal in me growls at the competition. Lewton admirers continue to scoff, as Mark Robson once put it: “Universal's idea of horror was a werewolf chasing a girl in a nightgown up a tree.” Were it not for THE WOLF MAN however, CAT PEOPLE and its brethren would never have been made.

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  2. I get where you're coming from, but I feel it's a big world and there's room for both the Universal and Lewton brands of horror. And I don't think Robson speaks for most Lewton admirers anyway (what's wrong with a werewolf chasing a girl in a nightgown up a tree?). Anyone who dislikes the horror genre generally but makes an exception for Val Lewton is likely to be the kind of person who doesn't care much for movies to begin with.

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