“Cat People” is a fantasy/horror B movie, directed by Jacques Tourneur. It is one of the films of the period produced by Val Lewton, who has become well-known for his production of these types of films that are a cut above the quality of this sort of film. While “Cat People” has many flaws, it is an entertaining film with some excellent moments.
One of the most compelling aspects of this film is the way so much is suggested with light and shadow, sound, and the actors’ own reactions to things we, the audience, cannot see. There is an early example of a false jumpscare in this film, where a woman is walking along the street at night and believes she is being followed. There is dead silence except for the echoes of high-heeled shoes on pavement, as she looks around and starts to hurry, culminating in a sound almost like a cat hiss, but which turns out to be the brakes of a bus pulling up. This technique became known as a ‘Lewton bus’ after the producer. Later, the woman goes to a swimming pool, where again she feels as if she is being stalked. There is a brilliant scene of her diving into the pool and swimming into the centre, where she treads water while looking around wildly at the shadows. The low lights are reflecting off the water, but the shimmering reflections impede clear vision rather than helping it. Something seems to be growling, but she can’t quite see it and neither can we. When the lights suddenly turn on we all jump. Everything seems okay, until the woman finds her robe torn to shreds in the locker room. Was there anything there, or was the woman letting her imagination run away with her? The main character Irina, who this woman fears, was definitely there, so could have slashed her robe in a fit of jealousy without any magical cat transformation. We just don’t know.
Irina (played by Simone Simon) is from Serbia, and believes she is the victim of a legendary curse, which will turn her into a giant cat if she so much as kisses a man. This can be explained as a psychological fear of her own sexuality, which has led her to take on this legend of her country as something real that she must watch out for. This is how those around her see it. Of course, it could be that Irina knows exactly what is in her bloodline and what to watch out for. Early on she meets another Serbian woman who she has not met before, but who calls her ‘sister’. The implication is that this woman is another ‘cat person’, who has recognized this in Irina. There is a suggestion that the ’other woman’ in this triangle is meant to represent so-called normality, the ideal that the man Oliver (Kent Smith) should be aiming for. (This hasn’t aged well – Alice (Jane Randolph) comes across as something of a homewrecker, seeing Oliver’s uncertainty and going for it.)
Of course, there is much that is questionable about the film’s plot. Irina takes Oliver home when she has only just met him – even in the 1940s I would assume that might be considered high risk behaviour. Oliver marries her even though apparently they have never kissed, and in the end it is suggested they never consummate the marriage, due to her fears. He is aware of this problem, and you have to ask yourself why he would marry her under those circumstances. Did he really think the problem was just going to go away? So, he decides that she needs to go to a psychiatrist, and gets a referral from his female work colleague (you know, the homewrecker). Clueless Oliver cannot understand why his wife might object to him discussing her mental health with this other woman. The marriage is strained (which was bound to happen) and Oliver promptly starts to question his feelings. Alice makes her move, and suddenly Oliver is thinking about divorce. Oliver is an idiot, and also something of a bastard, in spite of his affable appearance.
Then there is the psychiatrist. Dr Judd, played by Tom Conway, is pretentious and condescending. (We could make some jokes about psychiatrists here, but I won’t). What is more disturbing is that either there were no ethical standards in the 1940s or this guy just doesn’t care. He makes a pass at her, tries to set up an affair, and then threatens to have her committed, even telling her husband he will have papers drawn up when he’s seen her a grand total of two times. To call this character unprofessional would be putting it mildly. One can’t really be sad about his fate.
Irina in many respects is the nicest person in this film. She is genuinely fond of her husband and does everything she can to protect him. Her fury at her so-called friend Alice is understandable, as Alice apparently has no problem with declaring love to a married man and doing everything she can to win him over. Oliver comes across as weak-willed and very changeable, moving on from Irina as being too much of a problem. The psychiatrist is a creepy tosser. Irina is surrounded by people who do not have her best interest in mind. She is doomed by them as much as by her own issues.
“Cat People” is an entertaining and atmospheric film. It is short, one hour and thirteen minutes only, but I think this does not detract from its appeal. It is worth watching for its moody and suspenseful atmosphere alone.