Cat People (1942): Jacques Tourneur’s Brilliant Horror Film, Starring Simone Simon

Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, made in 1942, holds up extremely well, as the first great horror films produced in the 1940s by Val Lewton and his team.

Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

Cat People
Cat People (1942 poster).jpg

Film poster for Cat People

A- (**** out of *****)

The appeal of Cat People lies in its deceptively simple story, credited to DeWitt Bodeen, its touching performances, especially by Simone Simon, its stylized black-and-white visuals, and its narrative, which bears both literal and figurative relevancy.
Visiting a local zoo, the all-American architect Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) encounters a strange immigrant from Serbia named rena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), who seems to ne especially intrigued by cats.
She walks around the panther cage, gazing upon the prowling beast, and all along trying to make a few sketches of it.
Courted by Oliver, the flattered girl, who admits to be a lonely immigrant with no friends, invites him over to her home for tea and Serbian folklore. Oliver notices that the apartment is very dark, and that Irene behaves strangely, to say the least.
Even so, after a brief romance, the two get married. Soon, Oliver begins to suspect that “something is wrong” with Irene.  She craves intimacy, but refuses to kiss him, claiming that the erotic act might turn her into a rabid feline and maul him.
At first, Oliver thinks that Irena is just frigid or asexual. Female sexuality and male jealousy have served as rich sources of melodramas, thrillers, and film noirs, and here they are well used in the service of the horror.
Visually, the most compelling–and scary–scene is set in a public pool, where Alice takes a swim and is visited by Irena, after a series of frightening sounds. Alice is shocked to find her robe in the changing area shredded to pieces.
What doesn’t work well is the text’s depiction of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, represented in the therapeutic session between Irena and her psychologist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway). At one point, he threatened to place her in an asylum due to her symptoms of insanity.
The great director Jacques Tourneur draws on–and exploits– the fears and anxieties in quietly subtle, understated ways.
He also benefits from the culture clash and personality differences between the simple all-American guy, who wishes to have a normal domestic bliss, and the beguiling, brooding, bizarrely erotic Eastern European femme.
Clearly, Irena is an immigrant who cannot (or is unable) to assimilate and/or to forget her Serbian origins, including the cultural myths and superstitions
When Oliver shows interest in another woman, Irena gets irritated, leading to a violent burst of feline-like female jealousy and rage.
The movie works on several levels in its depiction of human transformation based on cruel animalistic instincts.
Simone Simon is very well cast as Irena, a woman who’s both  docile and violent. The first time we see it is truly shocking due to her initial vulnerable nature. Throughout, Simon evokes in us feeling of pity as well as empathy and sympathy.  There are frills and chills in equal measure.
Defying graphic depictions and special effects (which always help movie monsters like the “Wolf Man” or “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”), Lewton and Tourneur demonstrate here the greater power of suggestion. There is not a single image of a feline-like woman (or cat people).
One of Lewton’s most commercially successful horror films, Cat People was made, like most of the producer’s pictures, on a low budget of less than $150,000.
And though there’s dispute over the exact extent of its commercial appeal in terms of box-office receipts, there’s consensus that the movie was profitable and made a lot of money for RKO.
The film relied on a shrewdly manipulative marketing campaign, which lured viewers to the theater with the subliminal ad, “Kiss me and I’ll claw you to death!”
Cat People was the first collaboration of director Tourneur with ace cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. The duo would later make the seminal 1947 film noir, Out of the Past.
Recycling: Sequels, Remakes
The sequel, The Curse of the Cat People is not as good or as scary as the original.
Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake in color, with Kinski in the lead, is also inferior.
Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon)
Oliver Reed (Kent Smith)
Dr. Judd (Tom Conway)
Alice Moore (Jane Randolph)
Commodore (Jack Holt)
Carver (Alan Napier)
Miss Plunkett (Elizabeth Dunne)
The Cat Woman (Elizabeth Russell)
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Produced by Val Lewton

Written by DeWitt Bodeen
Music by Roy Webb
Cinematography Nicholas Musuraca
Edited by Mark Robson

Production and distribution company: RKO Radio Pictures

Release date: December 5, 1942 (premiere Rialto Theatre, NYC); December 25, 1942 (wide)

Running time: 73 minutes