Life and Death in L.A.: May 2023

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Danger Lurks in the Shadows of Noir-Tinged ‘Cat People’

Under hypnosis, Simone Simon, 'Cat People' (1942).

By Paul Parcellin

This article contains spoilers,
so you may want to see the film before reading it.

Director Jacque Tourneur said “The less you see, the more you believe” and his film, “Cat People” (1942), proves his theory. It shows how a movie can spark an audience’s imagination when it lets them hear threatening sounds from things that lurk just off screen. We get a palpable sense of phantom-like predators that hide in the shadows, but because we can’t see them we conjure up dastardly images that fill in the blanks.

RKO budgeted the film at around $135,000 and the director made creative use of whatever odds and ends happened to be available. But that suited Tourneur, who preferred to work with a smaller budget. That would mean less oversight and more opportunity for creative innovation.

Others might have found the paltry budget to be a stumbling block, but the director had an ace up his sleeve in cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who sculpted deep pools of black shadow for “Cat People” and another Tourneur masterpiece, “Out of the Past” (1947).

With its spare use of special effects and dramatic lighting, the film’s overall mood places it in the noir camp. “Common to all of Tourneur’s films was a muted disenchantment, a strange melancholy, the eerie feeling of having embarked on an adventure from which there was no return,” said director Martin Scorsese, who is a Tourneur fan and an appreciator of “Cat People” in particular. When discussing the film he frequently uses the word “psychosexual” to describe this story of Serbian artist in exile, Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), who is doomed by an ancestral Balkan curse. The curse makes her metamorphose into a panther if aroused by passion.

Mr. America

 She meets the self-proclaimed “good plain Americano” Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) one day while she’s sketching a panther at the zoo and the two begin dating. From the start of their courtship there are signs that Irena is anything but the average girl. She sets off a frenzy in a pet shop when she walks among the caged birds. The bemused owner remarks that “animals are ever so psychic.”

Despite ample warning signs that this may not be a match made in heaven, the two get hitched. During the wedding celebration at a small Serbian restaurant a catlike woman at a neighboring table notices Irena, who greets her as a sister when their paths cross — Simone Simon was cast as Irena, in part, because of her feline-like facial features. It’s a brief, uncomfortable moment that unsettles the guests and sets the tone for the couple’s future. The marriage gets off to a rocky start. That Irena must withhold herself from the man she loves lest she morph into a panther is hardly a formula for matrimonial bliss, yet it’s a secret she withholds from Oliver.

‘Normal’ Life

From the start it’s obvious that the two are polar opposites. Oliver is the picture of a “normal American,” so much so that Smith’s performance borders on parody. His line readings are stiff and his utter ordinariness makes him seem like a Ken doll come to life. It’s obvious that Oliver’s normal American persona drives Irena to distraction. At one point he admits that prior to the marriage he never knew what it was to be unhappy.

  In time he becomes closer to his “work wife,” the perky Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) than to Irena. As Irena’s condition deteriorates Oliver sends her to a psychiatrist to help her deal with her anxieties. But later Irena learns that Alice recommended the psychiatrist and Irena has an emotional flareup over his betrayal. “There are things that a woman doesn’t want another woman to understand about her,” she tells him. Their relationship is at the breaking point, and Irena is driven to takes steps she thinks will preserve their crumbling relationship.

Simone Simon, Kent Smith

The film is all about passions that are on the verge of boiling over and the restraint it takes to hold those seething emotions in check. Reflecting that, scenes are shot with great restraint — no flashy special effects or elaborate sets, but clever uses of the modest sets and props available to the director. A scene that sums up the concise, economical storytelling that Tourneur is known for takes place near the end of the film. When the roguish psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway) attempts to force himself on Irena, she transforms into a panther, but we don’t see the transition, or even the panther, for that matter, nor do we see her return to human form. Instead, after the confrontation is done we follow a trail of paw prints in the mud and suddenly the paw prints stop and a trail of a woman’s shoe prints continue on.

An Iconic Shot

“Cat People” was the first of the films produced by Val Lewton at RKO. The year after “Cat People,” Lewton and Tourneur combined for RKO’s “I Walked with a Zombie” and “The Leopard Man.” Lewton made his mark with “Cat People” in an unexpected way that continues influence filmmakers to this day. Irena and Alice’s rivalry leads to the oft imitated shot that became known as the “Lewton Bus” or the “jump scare.” Roger Ebert notes that “‘Cat People’ is constructed almost entirely out of fear,” and the Lewton Bus is the perfect illustration of what he meant by that.

One night at home Irena and Oliver quarrel and he leaves in a huff to go to his office. Along the way he crosses paths with Alice at a cafe. Irena has  come looking for Oliver and she hides outside. Alice leaves to go home and Irena stealthily follows. As Alice walks along the transverse beneath a bridge she begins to sense that she’s being followed. Echoing heels behind her begin to take on the rhythm and sound of a train clattering along a railway trestle. She looks around, disoriented, searching for whoever is tailing her but there’s nothing except shrubbery swaying in the wind — or is it just the wind? Without warning a city bus barrels into the frame, hissing like a jungle cat pouncing on its prey. It startles the already nervous Alice and usually shakes up the audience, too.

It may not have been the first time the jump scare was used in a film, but it brought that technique into the mainstream and has been repeated innumerable times in thrillers and horror films. 

The Supernatural

“Cat People” exists in a place where film noir and the supernatural intersect, like “The Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” It has aged well, in part because it lacks clunky special effects and because of the ingenuity that went into filming it. Squeezing the most value out of every dollar in its budget forced the director to scale new creative heights. But most of all it’s the puzzle of Irena, the psychosexual underpinnings, as Scorsese would say, of a cursed woman who becomes unhinged by “normal” American life — a social critique that seems ahead of its time and still feels relevant today.