Criterion Project #37: CAT PEOPLE (1942)

Cat People

Spine #833

Year: 1942

Director: Jacques Tourneur

After last week’s article on Tokyo Story, I find myself writing about another film with a minimalist narrative yet rife with thematic material. I’d seen Cat People a couple years ago and, I’ll admit, I was left partially underwhelmed. It just didn’t have enough for me. That sounds vague, but it felt restrained in its storytelling. There wasn’t enough story, there wasn’t enough horror, there wasn’t enough substance. I didn’t easily read the subtext and psychological elements. And within the horror genre, as this film is categorized, it can be difficult to pull off a film based on psychological subtext. But I’m here to tell you, I was wrong.

The gist of the story concerns a Serbian woman, Irena (Simone Simon), who’s mysterious origins bubble to the surface when she falls for an American man, Oliver (Kent Smith). Irena recounts a fable of witchcraft from her homeland, which entails a belief that the women of her village transform into cats after becoming intimate with a man. Because of this, she keeps to herself and has no friends, but a chance meeting with Oliver at the zoo and the impending marital conflicts may just turn this myth into reality.

The star of the film is undoubtedly the atmosphere director Jacques Tourneur utilizes, often casting suffocating black shadows to hide the psychological horror at the heart of the narrative. The noir-ish blacks really serve to accentuate the themes and provide a place not only for physical danger to lurk but also for the metaphysical harm to be concealed and stalk its pray, not unlike a wily jungle cat.

I found it fascinating how Tourneur flips the atmosphere at a moment’s notice to create a world consisting of only light and shadow. Probably the most famous scene in the film takes place in a community pool with Oliver’s resolute friend, co-worker, and would-be love interest, Alice (Jane Randolph). After suspecting and discovering the seemingly clandestine relationship, Irena secretly follows Alice home, with her intentions equally as shrouded in blackness as her physical presence. No evil deed goes unpunished, as they say, so we’re lead to believe that perhaps this will result in Irena’s transformation. Alice decides to go for a dip when she gets home and we see a clashing of two worlds. As she swims in the well-lit pool, Irena stalks her from the darkness surrounding the pool. Tourneur’s camera guides our gaze around the room, cutting back and forth between Alice and the looming black shadows cast on the wall in between glistening waves of light reflecting off the pool. Tourneur opts to leave much of the horror to our own imaginations as we are shown very little in the darkness. The cutting becomes more frenetic as the psychological attack goes on, culminating in Alice’s shrieks of terror at an unseen assailant. It’s a horror scene built entirely through light and shadow coupled with precise editing and a steely performance, and it’s magnificent.

It’s especially impressive when you consider that this type of metaphorical horror had never before been seen at the time of the film’s release. For the majority of the film, we’re not given a definitive answer to the question of whether Irena’s fear of becoming an agent of darkness will manifest itself into a literal cat or if the threat is metaphorical. What we know now about witches and accusations of witchcraft would seem to provide an answer. Historically, the charges were false claims against a psychological fear, but the film makes sure to keep the answer hidden for most of its runtime. Irena is taken to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway), who puts her under hypnosis in order to extract and diagnose the cause of her fears. This approach is visually and conceptually represented with a solitary glowing circle illuminating Irena’s face drowning in stark blackness as she details her frightening inner doubts about herself. (The film regularly makes use of single light sources to project beams of light that cast defined shadows to magnificent effect.) Like Oliver, Dr. Judd deduces that her fears are unfounded and based in myth, not reality. However, this diagnosis does not sit well with Irena, so we’re left to wonder if the cause of her dormant evil rests in her own insistent belief that she is cursed, and will become this deadly thing if she allows herself to give in to the affections of her husband.

This element, alone, brings a different psychological aspect into the horror. The curse would seem to insinuate the reason a woman from her village would morph into a dangerous animal is through intimacy, or a sexual awakening. There’s a lot made of the film incorporating the supernatural into the mundane life of regular people, which was a unique marriage of worlds at the time, but integrating the sexual innuendo also merits mentioning among its distinctive views. The idea of a woman becoming a ferocious cat is loaded with a myriad of ideas that could branch off for days. Similarly, one of my favorite images occurs near the beginning of the film and foreshadows nearly everything to come in Irena’s journey.

When Oliver first meets Irena, she’s standing in front of the panther cage at the zoo with a sketch pad. We’ll discover that she is drawn (pun intended?) to this cage and this creature time and time again as if there’s an animalistic bond between the two. When Oliver asks to see the sketch she’s working on, Irena refuses and tears the drawing out of the pad and politely refuses. The conversation continues and they walk off together, but the camera lingers on the discarded drawing. Tourneur moves in for a close-up of the picture, which is that of a panther with a sword blade plunged into its side and a rip in the paper across its throat. The image is punctuated with another lighting technique as the panther appears incarcerated behind shadowy bars. It’s a terrifically expressive image that injects the film with a foreboding sense of inevitable doom. The depiction of a caged animal pierced by steel as a metaphor for this tortured woman was surely an uncommon idea in 1942.

This is just one of many (many) images of cats populating the frame throughout. Irena’s apartment, in particular, features several cat likenesses, statues, and figures that key us in on her steadfast belief in the old curse. None are more prominent than the mini statue of King John with a conquered cat speared atop his blade like Achilles dragging Hector in front of the gates of Troy. Irena tells Oliver the tale of King John, an old Serbian legend who defeated those that enslaved the people of her village and turned them to witchcraft and devil worship. Again, the inclusion of witchcraft and devil worship conjures up several ideas concerning womanhood in the wake of sexual freedom and the fears associated with that concept. I think it bears repeating that this was released in 1942 and deserves credit for daring to cover some fairly new territory.

For a film that runs a mere 73 minutes, it’s incredibly impressive that one could extract so many different ideas and concepts from it. Again, the first time I watched it, I felt the sting of disappointment because I didn’t hone in on the craft and technique that so cleverly synchs with the narrative. It’s a film that isn’t really about the story unfolding before our eyes, that of a troubled couple and an ancient curse, but rather about the abstraction lurking in the darkness that we can’t see. It gives the film a power you rarely find. It captures something in you that you might not be able to put your finger on. I know it did that for me, and I’m ecstatic I stepped back into the shadowy world of Cat People again. What an experience.

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