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Cat People (1942)

by on 2011/10/03

“I like the dark. It’s friendly.”

* * * *

I’ve wanted to review a Val Lewton film for ages. Tragically short-lived, he produced several gothic proto-noirs for RKO in the 1940s. I began to hear early mentions of him in various documentaries, lauded especially by director Martin Scorsese.

Resting comfortably in the middle ground between Universal Horror and Atom Age flicks, Lewton had a knack for elevating schlocky ephemera. Saddled with gimmick titles and piddling budgets, he managed to conjure great stories, talent, and style. I thought of him often when watching Budd Boetticher’s modest, superlative westerns (Seven Men From Now).

His bosses probably expected him to make disposable sci-fi. Instead, he created 1942’s Cat People, a psychological tale of haunted obsession and jealousy, with only a handful of players, and just as few locations. (Contrast that practice with nowadays, when producing sprawling expensive crap is so common.)

Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) meets Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), who is sketching at a local zoo. She has a troubled past and, oddly, animals avoid her. Nonetheless, they fall in love and eventually marry, but she avoids paying him overt affection.

Seeking help from psychiatrist Louis Judd (Tom Conway), they discover her belief that passionate feelings will transform her into a killer. If we’re unsure whether it’s true or not, one thing is for sure: she’s increasingly jealous of her husband’s co-worker, Alice (Jane Randolph).

The modest production doesn’t impede their highly suspenseful conflict. In fact, the limited resources are well disguised by the brief, brisk running time. Lewton deals in quality over quantity. Limitations serve to heighten the mystery, as monsters are never seen, suggesting fear in what is hidden and, possibly, unreal.

And what we do see is treated with sublime simplicity, not ostentatious effects. Doors are found mysteriously opened or closed. The paw prints of a giant cat Rorschach into high heels. Precipitation suggests the passage of time and the couple’s mood. The whole endeavour is a textbook example of doing more with less.

It also uses lighting in ways which bridge Expressionism with film noir. The black and white stock does well to show stark shadows, projections, and patterns. Figures stand in silhouettes, ambiguous shadow puppets. Misty streets by night diffuse each solitary lamp. Even rooms with electric light don’t completely dispel the gloom, with a first date spent in a darkened apartment, hypnosis with the psychiatrist, an office of drafting tables, and an indoor swimming pool.

I also noticed the audio was equally original in treatment. Echoing steps in a darkened street overwhelm with reverberation. Built-up sounds are abruptly cut off, a shocking drop into suspense. Other noises function like the footprints: a feral growl becomes a braking bus, a whistle becomes a taxi.

Which is not to say all was perfect. One setting in particular seemed to have many issues. Perhaps it was the print I saw. In one visit to the zoo, a cage shuts without any audible clang. Shortly after, the visiting doctor mouths an unspoken parting line. Later, overnight, the animal’s cage is clearly a daylight shot.

Still, these are trifling, minor gaffes in an otherwise exemplary work. Cat People’s cast is compelling, its story provocative, and its production values humble, yet effective. In our current times of “torture porn” horror, I mourn the absence of such features. They suggest ideas far more extreme than the grisliest visual effects, while remaining accessible, interpretive, and elegant.

* * * *

Not rated

73 minutes

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