This review contains plot spoilers
New York City, the early 1940s. Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) meets Irena (Simone Simon), a pretty young woman of East European extraction. They fall in love and are married. But soon there’s trouble. Irena fears an ancient curse that when she is making love, she will turn into a panther which will kill her partner…
Cat People was the first of the nine horror films Lewton made for RKO, and its commercial success – partly due to some imaginative marketing – set the template for the ones that followed…and has had a considerable influence on the horror genre ever since . Given its contemporary setting it set the tone for the dark, fatalistic type of movie soon to be dubbed film noir – which are non-supernatural crime thrillers and melodramas, but not very much distant from a film like this. (Director Jacques Tourneur and DP Nicholas Musuraca would go on to collaborate on one of the key noirs, 1947’s Out of the Past) This film’s horror takes place not in some Gothic castle but in the here and now, among normal working people. And in how many horror films of the time do the main characters have actual jobs?
But this is a horror film, and two sequences in particular stand out. Both feature Alice (Jane Randolph), Oliver’s work colleague and friend, of whom Irena is – with good reason – jealous. In the first, Alice walks through Central Park. It’s a soundstage, and we know quite well it is, but it’s become a space of the imagination, aided by Musuraca’s shadowy black and white cinematography. All we hear are her footsteps. But something is following her. We hear the low growl of a panther – but it’s the hiss of the brakes of a bus as it comes into shot from screen right. Watching this in the right circumstances, you’ll jump out of your skin…as no doubt audiences in 1943. This technique is known in horror-movie technique as a “bus” in direct reference to this very scene. It’s long since become a cliché, but this is where it first appeared. Tourneur uses it again in The Leopard Man and especially in I Walked With a Zombie and there’s a good example of it in the film he made without Lewton over a decade later, Night of the Demon. Remember the kite?
The second great sequence is where Alice takes a swim, but is scared by noises from around the darkened pool – only to see Irena standing by the side when she turns the light back on. But Alice’s robe is torn, clawed… This scene was replayed much less effectively in Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake, with a topless Annette O’Toole in the Alice role. I won’t mention the remake too much, as it’s really a different film with the same general premise and title. While Tourneur suggests, Schrader is explicit. His film is a lush, lurid and loud take on the story, with the eroticism up front, perverse and not avoiding being ludicrous. Although Schrader had the freedom – which he certainly used - to add the gore and nudity that the Hays Office would never have allowed Tourneur and Lewton, that’s not to say that the earlier film is tame. For its time, it’s remarkably frank about sexual dysfunction – Irena won’t consummate the marriage because of her fears – and for much of the running time, Tourneur keeps the actual cat (played by Dynamite, who also appeared in The Leopard Man) in the shadows, allowing the interpretation that it’s not more than a projection of Irena’s disturbed psyche. This tactic has often been misunderstood: it’s not that we don’t see the monster, but that our sight of it is deliberately limited.
Simone Simon had made films in her native France for some years – including Jean Renoir’s La bête humaine - before moving to Hollywood with The Devil and Daniel Webster in 1941. As well as Cat People and its sequel, she also appeared in Lewton’s non-horror production Mademoiselle Fifi. Petite, with a face that could convey sweetness and lasciviousness equally, she’s ideal casting in the role of the exotic but possibly dangerous Irena. Jane Randolph is a delight as Alice, and for once there’s a real rivalry for the affections of the comparatively stolid Ollie. Tom Conway is very reminiscent of his older brother (George Sanders) in its supercilious, debonair authority as the psychiatrist Irena is referred to. The film makes much use of RKO’s contract players, many of whom would turn up in later Lewton productions. You won’t easily forget Elizabeth Russell’s one scene as a compatriot of Irena’s.
Cat People was an instant success and has achieved classic status. However, some of us prefer its very different sequel.
The Curse of the Cat People takes place a few years later. After Irena’s death, Oliver and Alice have married, moved away from New York to nearby Tarrytown. They now have a six-year-old daughter, Amy (Ann Carter). But Amy doesn’t fit in with the other children: she’s an imaginative child, too imaginative, often lost in her own dreamworld. Then, from a photo of Irena found in a drawer, she conjures up her own imaginary friend…
The original title was Amy and Her Friend, a far more appropriate title for what is not a horror film (despite some dark elements) but one of the finest fantasies of childhood ever made. It’s so accurate that it has been taught in child psychology classes. Apart from a cat in a tree in the opening scene (to justify the title), there’s no felines to be seen. Irena – who doesn’t appear until the halfway mark - isn’t necessarily the same character as she was in the first film. She’s again played by Simone Simon, but there’s no suggestion of anything catlike to her – she’s Amy’s imaginary friend, unseen to anyone else.
Gunther von Fritsch, a former documentary filmmaker, began shooting the film. The head office were pleased with his work, but he was too slow and the film was soon several days behind schedule. Editor Robert Wise was promoted to the director’s chair. It’s hard to distinguish between the two men’s work, although they shot half the film each, as the film does seem all of a piece. Nicholas Musuraca is again the DP, but this film seems at first quite uncharacteristic of his work. We open on location (not on a soundstage) and the light is brighter. Only later, would his trademark use of shadows come into play, notably in a scene where eccentric old lady Julia Farren (Julia Dean) scares Amy by telling her the locally-set legend of Sleepy Hollow, complete with headless horseman…which provokes a notable “bus” later on. The woods and the Reeds’s back garden are spaces for the imagination – ours as well as Amy’s – and Musuraca’s lighting of them can change the atmosphere in an instant.
Kent Smith, Jane Randolph and Simone Simon reprise their roles to fine effect, and there’s a suitably intense turn from Elizabeth Russell (in a different role to that in the first film, as Julia Farren’s daughter). The casting of Trinidadian singer Sir Lancelot in a dignified role as Edward, the Reeds’ butler and cook, is a good example of Lewton’s ahead-of-its-time non-stereotypical casting of ethnic-minority actors, which has gained the films’ attention from black critics. (Sir Lancelot had previously made a notable appearance as a calypso singer in I Walked With a Zombie and had played a sailor in The Ghost Ship.) But the film belongs to seven-year-old Ann Carter, who gives one of the great child performances in 40s cinema, entirely lacking in tweeness and sentimentality. She continued to act until 1952 and then retired. She’s probably one of the few people to have appeared in a Lewton horror film to still be alive (Simone Simon died in 2005 at age 95), but apparently no-one can trace her. But for this film alone, her presence is indelible.
Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People are released on a single DVD-9 disc, which is available as part of the five-disc Val Lewton Horror Collection and also available separately. The affiliate link below refers to the box set. The DVD is encoded for Regions 1 and 4 only.
Both films are presented in their original Academy ratio. The transfers of the nine films in this set can be variable, but these two are very good. Contrast – vital in a black and white film – is good, blacks solid and grain pleasingly filmlike.
The soundtrack is the original mono, presented in a 1.0 mix that plays through your centre channel. The track sounds fine, with a minimum of distortion or hiss and dialogue, effects and music well balanced. Both films have twenty-one chapter stops. Subtitles are provided in three languages for the features only. The English track is generally accurate, but it’s worth noting that they are hard-of-hearing subtitles: sound effects aren’t noted, and anything not in English (such as Elizabeth Russell’s one line of dialogue in the first film) isn’t either. Also, referring to Amy’s teacher as “Ms. Callahan” is arguably over-PC and certainly anachronistic: she’s clearly “Miss” on the soundtrack.
The main extras are commentaries for both films by film historian Greg Mank. Both are excellent: Mank speaks a little quickly (though bear in mind that these are short films) but he’s easy to listen to and packs in a lot of information. In a few places Mank breaks off and we hear Simone Simon, interviewed by telephone just before her death. The sound quality of these sections is notably poorer: that, and her strong French accent, make it regrettable that Warners have not provided subtitles for the commentary. The other extras on the disc are the trailers (Cat People 1:06, The Curse of the Cat People 1:38), which are noticeably darker and in worse condition than the features. The Curse trailer is one of the poorest-quality items I’ve ever seen transferred to DVD: dupey-looking, with several bad splices and soundtrack jumps.
With films this old, the opportunities for extras are limited due to few if any participants still being alive, so it’s fortunate that Simon was able to be interviewed before she died, and a pity that Ann Carter couldn’t be found. The main documentary feature in this box set shares a disc with The Seventh Victim, which I will be reviewing in due course. In the meantime, this disc does its job: takes two fine films and presents them well.