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From the Vaults: 'Cat People' (1942)

October 11, 2010 |  1:52 am

Catposter I really didn't plan a cat theme, but someone mentioned this movie a few months ago and I thought "hm, if I ever ditch the idea of sticking to movies from specific years, I will have to write about that one." So, done and done! It was a pleasure to sit down last night and rewatch this. Producer Val Lewton (supposedly an ailurophobe himself) created a B-movie classic with his hastily-assembled "Cat People."

Adorably kittenish Irena (baby-faced Simone Simon) meets aw-shucks nice guy Oliver (Kent Smith) outside the panther cage at her local zoo, and quickly has him captivated. But she refuses to let him kiss her, and after their wedding, she expresses a trembling fear of marital intimacy, which Oliver is way too nice to pressure her about. Irena, it turns out, comes from a village in Serbia that's the legendary home of evil, shapeshifting "cat people"; she's afraid that if she surrenders to physical passion, she'll transform into a lethal cat and tear Oliver to shreds. Yoicks!

At first the film seems like a lurid but relatively plausible little psychodrama. A shrink is called in, the oily Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), who taps his cigarette ash and smiles: "These problems are relatively simple for psychiatrists." But then Oliver starts confiding in beautiful colleague Alice (Jane Randolph) about his marital problems -- and Alice soon finds herself menaced by something that's definitely not human.

CattrioDirected by Jacques Tourneur, the movie's super-stylish, with most of the menacing happening in artful  shadow. Probably the most famous scene involves Alice in a swimming pool, treading water and screaming for help as something unseen stalks the perimeter; when the lights come on, the only creature present is Irena, slouching against the wall with an evil little grin. I'm a big fan of an earlier bit when Irena follows Alice home one night, their two sets of heels clicking faster and faster, stopping and starting, on the darkened sidewalk. The tension builds and builds until finally there's a hideous roar and a hiss -- but it's only a bus, which the shaken Alice hastily boards. I'd love to watch that scene in a crowded theater.

For a budget film, "Cat People" gives you a great sense of place, of everyday life in a 1942 American city. There are great bit characters -- a singing zookeeper, a cleaning lady with a cigarette in her mouth, a bottle-blond desk worker who calls everybody "dearie." You immediately see how at home Oliver and Alice are here; Alice, who seems to know everybody, even finds a Serbian restaurant to host Oliver and Irena's wedding dinner. But Irena's perpetually the outsider. She's not even really comfortable in the restaurant: A feline-looking woman at a nearby table completely freaks Irena out by slinking by and greeting her as "sister" in their native tongue.

Under the horror-show trappings, there's real anguish at the heart of this film: Irena's struggle to find her identity, Oliver's hurt as his wife rejects him, Alice's helplessness on the sidelines. I love the water-cooler scene at Oliver's office, where he breaks down and tells Alice that he'd never really been unhappy before he got married; his pain makes her, in turn, burst into tears, and he guides her gently behind the water cooler so their colleagues won't see her crying.

Catwoman And, of course, there's magnificent tension between the two female leads. It all starts when Irena comes home from her first appointment with the psychiatrist, feeling tense and scared but also shakily confident, and flings open her front door only to find Alice sitting on the couch with Oliver -- apparently concluding a heart-to-heart about Irena's problems. "There are some things a woman doesn't want another woman to know!" Irena hisses at Oliver.

There's a sequel, "Curse of the Cat People," which takes an interestingly different direction: Simon returns, but as the imaginary friend of Oliver's daughter (tiny Ann Carter, who played Veronica Lake's daughter in "I Married A Witch"). Elizabeth Russell, the Serbian cat woman from the first movie's restaurant scene, returns in a different role as a creepy neighbor. The subject matter's much less lurid, but thematically the movies pose a single question: What do we do with this oddball female who insists her strange fantasies are true, and who can't seem to relate to anyone around her? Oliver dismisses his wife's concerns with "Oh, Irena, you crazy kid," with ultimately tragic results; in the sequel, the eventual outcome for his daughter is much happier, thank God.

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon

Images: Top, Simone Simon (center) makes nice with Jane Randolph and Kent Smith; below, Elizabeth Russell establishes territory as the unnamed cat woman.