The Rear-View Mirror: Cat People (1942)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

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In the early 1940s, RKO was in trouble. The costs of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and the financial disaster that was The Magnificent Ambersons (now tragically partly lost) had left the studio in dire straits. In order to get back in the black, they looked to Universal, which made a steady income from low budget by-the-numbers horror movies.

How Val Lewton actually became the studio’s B-movie producer we will never know (he insisted that someone told the the studio he had written “horrible novels” and they mistook it for “horror novels”), but that decision has left us with some of the most interesting, hauntingly poetic thrillers of the era. If you have never heard of Lewton, his work has been an inspiration for films like Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010). Lewton was undoubtedly the driving force behind his productions, but alongside him were equally gifted artists such as Jacques Tourneur, DeWitt Bodeen, and Mark Robson. With Lewton at the helm, they produced films which have an singular identity. An “ability to pass between darkness and light, to drift close to that borderline”.*

Lewton was as terrified of cats as he was of being touched. Both these fears – Lewton himself called them “atavistic” (ancestral) – lend Cat People, his 1942 smash hit, an emotional punch. Following the opening credits an epigraph reads: “Even as fog continues to lie in the valleys, so does ancient sin cling to low places, the depressions in the world consciousness – The Anatomy of Atavism, Dr. Louis Judd”

This sensibility, aided by Tourneur’s masterful eye, are clearly felt in the film. Simone Simon plays Irena Dubrovna, an artist who meets marine engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) at a zoo, where she happens to be sketching. They quickly fall for each-other, but Irena is – or thinks she is – under an ancient curse. Should she ever sexually submit, she is petrified she will, quite literally, turn into a wild animal. Meanwhile, pert and wholesome Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) has fallen for Oliver too.

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According to Tourneur, “horror is created in the mind of the spectator” and this film is a prime example of that philosophy. His chiaroscuro direction suggests, rather than shows, the beast that stalks the city in the dark. In one of its most legendary scenes Alice walks through a darkened New York City with a sense that someone is following her. Frightened he speeds up her pace, when she hears a loud noise: like a loud hiss, a feline shriek. Startled, she swivels round, only to discover it is… a city bus.

Even for a more sophisticated modern audience, the characters are as ambiguous as they are captivating. Irena, supposedly the antagonist of the film, is fully humanised even as she collapses under her own anxiety. Oliver, who seems at first to be the standard all-american male, at once playful and earnest, devolves into an overgrown boy: someone who can not forego whatever he wants whenever he wants it. Though he refuses to be emotionally available to the troubled Irena, whose fears he brushes aside as mere superstitious nonsense, he practically hounds the vulnerable young woman into marriage. As soon as he decides he’d rather be with Alice, he has no qualms about getting rid of Irena, in the most humiliating way imaginable. To Alice, he complains of never having known unhappiness. At least not before his marriage to Irena (his unhappiness, of course, lies in Irena’s abstinence). Alice, in turn, seems to know exactly what she is doing as she weans him off her.

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As if this wasn’t enough sophistication for a so-called B-movie, Cat People becomes even more impressive when audiences consider the rules under which it was green-lit. It was to run as a double bill, so it could run no longer than 75 minutes. The title was pre-determined as being Cat People regardless of whatever script the production team came up with. It was to be a horror movie, and if it wasn’t: it would be marketed as such regardless. Finally, the budget was to be no more than $ 150,000.

Cat People was, in fact, a double bill with Gorilla Man at its general release (oddly, as that was not a horror film either). It was marketed with slogans like “Stark shockery! Killing chillery!”, and it was brought in for $ 134.959.

“No grisly stuff for us” Lewton has said. “No horror piled on horror. You can’t keep up horror that is long sustained, it becomes something to laugh at. But take a sweet love story, or a story of sexual antagonism about people like the rest of us, not freaks, and cut in your horror here and there by suggestion and you’ve got something. Three scenes of suggested horror and one of actual violence. Fade out. It’s all over in less than 70 minutes.”

So it is, but the film will haunt you for far longer than that.

*Val Lewton, The Man in the Shadows, 2008 (available with the Criterion Blu-Ray of Cat People)

Apart from the book Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career by Edmund G. Bansak, 1995, this short article owes many thanks to the lovely The Secret History of HollywoodShadows” podcast, and the You Must Remember This podcast “Happy 110th Birthday, Val Lewton”.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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