Eye For Film >> Movies >> Cat People (1942) Film Review
One of few US-made films to bring together horror and noir during the glory days of the latter, Cat People foreshadows the work of Roman Polanski and latter-day experimentalists like Jay Alvarez and Mickey Keating. Its stunning visuals, much enhanced by the work of legendary cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, give it a class belied by its frankly rather silly plot - yet the story has hidden depths that make this one of the most interesting horror films of the period.
Let's start by establishing what horror means in this context. There's no blood or gore here, and none of the sort of monster antics to which Universal had acclimatised viewers in the period. Rather, this is a mixture of psychological and supernatural chiller, embellished with a rather heavy helping of romance. It centres on the relationship between Serbian immigrant Irena (played by French actress Simone Simon) and all-American guy Ollie (Kent Smith), who meets her when she's sketching a panther (Dynamite) in the local zoo. From her apartment they can hear the lions roar, yet when he buys her a kitten she can't connect with it - she says that cats hate her. She tells him about an old legend from her village - the belief that the women there would turn into monstrous cats when they submitted to a man's embrace. It sounds like a fairy story but as the two grow closer, Ollie comes to realise that this is something she believes deeply - about herself.
How to consummate a marriage in the face of a fear like this? Ollie doesn't push. He tries to be understanding and, as he realises that the situation is hurting Irena too, tries to persuade her to see a psychiatrist (played with predatory charm by Tom Conway). But frustrated as he is, he finds himself increasingly falling for the charms of work colleague Alice (Jane Randolph). Seeing this happen, Irena grows jealous, and fear begins to give way to aggression.
As significant as the lack of sex in Ollie and Irena's relationship is the cultural difference between them. Initially he finds this charming, but it grows into a gulf, each struggling to understand the way the other sees the world. Irena simply can't assimilate; too much of the culture of her homeland remains central to her life. She can't compete with an all-American gal. There's real tragedy in the film's reflection on immigrant experiences, something that director Jacques Torneur, who had been working in the US for just a few short years, would have been acutely aware of.
For lovers of noir, Cat People is a must. It includes some of the best work in the genre, with Musuraca's use of low-positioned lights and sharp shadows giving us a cat's-eye view of the protagonists. Often the shadows behind Irena are suggestive of a cat, yet they're all beautifully constructed so we can believe that they're natural. This parallels the ambiguity at the heart of the plot - though we know that even if it's all in Irena's head, that doesn't necessarily make her less dangerous.
The film is also interesting for its depiction of psychoanalysis - still fairly new to mainstream America - which is subtler and distinctly more sober than in later films like Psycho. Much of the psychology on which the story is based, particularly around Irena's complex feelings about the panther, rings true, and balances the excesses of the transformation story. The whole is a film with a lot more depth than its premise would suggest.Reviewed on: 28 Sep 2016