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.

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 Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), who seems to ne intrigued by cats. She walks around the panther cage, gazing upon the prowling beast, and making a few sketches of it. Courted by Oliver, she invites him to her home, which is unusually dark, for tea and Serbian folklore.
After a brief romance, they get married. Oliver begins to suspect that something is wrong with Irene, when she refuses to kiss him, claiming that the erotic act might turn 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 melodrama and thrillers and here are well used in the service of horror.
Tourneur draws on and exploits these fears in a subtle, understated ways. He also benefits from the culture clash 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 myths and superstitions
When Oliver shows interest in another woman, Irena is 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 both the docile and violent cat; 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 sympathy, 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 the power of suggestion.
One of Lewton’s most commercially successful horror films, “Cat People” was made on a low budget of less than $150,000, and though there’s dispute over the extent of its commercial appeal, all agree that it made a lot of money for RKO.
The film benefited from a shrewd marketing campaign, which lured viewers to the theater with the 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.
The sequel, “The Curse of the Cat People” is not as good or scary as the original.
Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake 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)l December 25, 1942 (wide)

Running time: 73 minutes