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Cat People (1942)

Well, this isn’t news to the world, but I can now personally confirm that Jacques Tourneur’s CAT PEOPLE (1942) is a simple, moody little black and white horror classic. It has a strange mythology (woman believes she’s descended from a tribe that turned into panthers when jealous or horny), but any monster business is late and brief and primarily implied by shadows (and a little bit of animation). Mostly this is a movie about men and women and their relationships.

Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon, THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER) is the one possibly belonging to the titular race. She’s an immigrant from Serbia and a fashion illustrator. In her spare time she likes to go to the Central Park Zoo to paint the animals. One day she’s tossing one of her sketches in the trash and misses. Oliver Reed (not the actor [THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM] but a fictional character played by Kent Smith [BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON]) is the dipshit standing near the garbage who gives her shit about it. He strikes up a conversation, they have tea, next thing you know they’re married.

In the eventual dissolution of this union, I unequivocally side with Irena. However, there is one major red flag about her that Oliver shouldn’t have overlooked: that very first time they met he saw that she had a framed painting of King John of Serbia slaying a cat that she explained represented the history of her country when her ancestors turned to witchcraft during slavery. As an American she has a right to believe this – and within the reality of the movie it is the truth, not just some bullshit she saw forwarded on Facebook – but it’s obviously something that didn’t jibe with him but he didn’t pay attention until after they got hitched. Big mistake.

This is a movie with a melancholy feel to it, and I think that’s only enhanced by the passing of time. To me, even the part where things are supposed to be strawberries and cream is a little depressing because the way marriages were depicted back then is so alien to me. He goes off to his big shot office to design boats and then he comes home, and I’m sure he appreciates that she’s nice and beautiful and the idea of her being a painter, but you don’t see them sharing anything – having things to tell each other, to joke about, to go do together. It seems more like they got the good wife/husband they were supposed to want, and that’s the end of it.

Irena starts to worry about her cat people heritage because he buys her a kitten that doesn’t like her and then they go to a pet shop and all the birds freak out. She accidentally scares a pet bird to death and feels a compulsion to take the body out and feed it to the panther at the zoo. Shit like that. Then when she gets married the wedding party has their dinner at a Serbian restaurant – they have a table reserved, but didn’t rent the place out – and a strange woman (Elizabeth Russell, THE CORPSE VANISHES) they all agree looks like a cat (?) stares at her, then comes up and calls her “my sister” in Serbian. She’s so freaked out she decides she can’t have sex with her new husband. He says it’s okay.

So Oliver gets her to go talk to a psychiatrist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway, narrator of PETER PAN). He’s a smarty-pants Dr. Freud type who openly talks about her as a fascinating puzzle to solve instead of being an empathetic listener. He’s not terrible, but she knows he’s got nothing for her, because he thinks she’s reacting to some childhood trauma. So she doesn’t go back, but doesn’t tell Oliver.

For his part, I think he’s doing his best, and is really trying to get her help, but this is the point where he starts fucking up left and right. He talks about how hard it is on him that she’s unhappy. And Irena feels humiliated when his hot and hip co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN) asks her how she liked Dr. Judd. These days most people are pretty open about having therapy, as they should be, but for Irena at this time it’s a huge breach of trust that a woman she doesn’t even know knows her business.

The friendship between Oliver and Alice is interesting to me, because I strongly believe in and have good male-female friendships and don’t think there are enough of them in movies. And I like that this doesn’t portray it as inherently suspicious, but unfortunately this is a case where the dude is out of line. Jane confesses her love to him and is pretty good about trying to distance herself from him, but he still does shit like go to the museum with both ladies and tell his wife she should go somewhere because she can’t truly appreciate the miniature boats like he and his boat industry colleague pal can.

That kinda bullshit plus a couple of misunderstandings when Irena thinks those two are spending secret time together leads to our cat problem. The movie starts to follow Alice as she believes she’s being stalked by a mostly unseen cat. And then Oliver conveniently realizes that he’s actually in love with Alice and also he’s worried about Alice so he wants her involuntarily committed. (He seems to sincerely think that’s the right thing to do.)

The shit really hits the fan when fucking Dr. Judd proves that I misjudged him, and he actually is horrible. He decides that forcing a kiss on her will be good therapy. So she turns into a panther. He gets what he deserves – you could say that his license gets revoked (though his character somehow appears in the otherwise unrelated THE SEVENTH VICTIM). But the ending is beautifully tragic, as these things often go. You want to see her come out on top, but that’s not how the world works.

There’s some beautiful, shadowy photography as Alice is being spooked on the street and in a hotel pool at night, thanks to cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. Fittingly, he and Tourneur later did the influential film noir OUT OF THE PAST.

I watched this without knowing the background, but it’s amazing. Val Lewton was a journalist who worked for a while writing novelizations for MGM movies, then had a hit pulp novel (later turned into the movie NO MAN OF HER OWN starring Clark Gable and Carole Lombard). He came to Hollywood to try to write movies, ended up becoming David O. Selznick’s assistant, which included doing some rewrites on GONE WITH THE WIND.

Then in 1942 he was made the head of a new horror unit of RKO Pictures. He had to make them cheap, under 75 minutes, and using lurid titles that were provided to him – a little like Blumhouse, alot like Full Moon Video. They gave him “CAT PEOPLE” because of the popularity of THE WOLFMAN, but he decided to use some ideas from a story he’d written for Strange Tales in 1930 and made kind of a masterpiece. You see how that works, Asylum? They used leftover sets from other movies, including THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS.

It was RKO’s biggest hit that year so he was pretty much allowed to do whatevs for the followups. But his 11 RKO productions, including I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, THE LEOPARD MAN, THE SEVENTH VICTIM and ISLE OF THE DEAD came out in a period of only five years. And then he died five years after that.

This entry was posted on Thursday, January 9th, 2020 at 7:27 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

33 Responses to “Cat People (1942)”

  1. Thank you for the review, Vern! Could this possibly be the start of a Val Lewton retrospective?

  2. I know I should be ashamed of having never seen this or any other Lewton film, but I’ve noticed that people who make horror movies I don’t like seem to really like his horror movies, so I’ve never pulled the trigger. It’s not CAT PEOPLE’s fault that “We didn’t have enough money to show anything so let’s say we did it like Val Lewton on purpose” has become kind of a cliche so I should suck it up and watch it, if only so I can see that jump scare with the bus everybody is always talking about.

  3. I hope this means Vern will review the superior sequel, CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, which isn’t a horror movie at all, but a sweet and melancholy children’s fantasy movie.

  4. Curse of the Cat People is amazing. I hope we get a review.

  5. Majestyk: Here’s the key difference between Lewton (and similar era horror films) and the more modern ones I believe you’re referring to: it’s tight. In my lurking I’ve noticed you don’t really care for bloat, so I’d guess you would at least appreciate these classics. And I also hope we get a Lewton retrospective.

  6. OK, if we’re gonna get a CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE review, we’ll probably hear how Lewton gave Robert Wise his directing break, but Lewton’s influence runs through a bunch of films Wise made in the 40s and 50s. Anyway, I too hope we get a Lewton retrospective.

    Mr. M, no criticism intended, I know we all need shortcuts and rules of thumb, but I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t always judge a thing by the assholes who like it. Some things really are so good that even the idiots get it, and when they do they’ll bray the loudest.

  7. Borg9: For sure. It’s The Dorm Room Poster Rule: Just because everybody you hate has a Bob Marley poster doesn’t mean you have to hate Bob Marley. I try to remind myself of this every time “One Love” comes on at a bar and makes me want to start throwing elbows.

    And it’s not like I think I’ll hate CAT PEOPLE or anything, especially if it’s as lean as Kris says. I’m not a massive fan of Golden Age of Cinema stuff, but I do appreciate that it wasn’t unusual to have running times that barely crack the one-hour mark. That said, it’s hard to get me to want to watch a movie where the main draw is “It’s amazing! There are NO Cat People in it! You don’t see anything! There’s one part with a scary sound effect!” Like, I know it’s all in the execution and the power of imagination and all that, but that’s not exactly a pitch that’s gonna make me choose CAT PEOPLE over NIGHT OF THE DEMONS 2 or whatever other slice of instant gratification that I am more naturally inclined to pop in on any given evening. It’s not like I’ve been avoiding the movie or anything. It’s just never really felt like a priority.

    I never said I was a role model.

  8. Yeah, I get that. You’re pretty much describing exactly how I choose books these days.

    But with movies I kinda learned the hard way. I’m no Golden Ager either, but when I was a kid the UK had three TV channels and on a Saturday two of them showed horse racing and football all afternoon. I grew up in the far southwest – STRAW DOGS country – it rained all winter, and there were no multiplexes, no VHS, and newer movies took forever to get on TV anyway. But we had tourists, so one summer our local cinema showed HERBIE RIDES AGAIN all summer knowing holidaying families would go see it. So when old movies showed up on TV boasting cheap but smart execution and the power of imagination, you were pretty much bound to pay attention. I swear that when the BBC screened A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH – A war movie? Of course we watched it – , we ran around the school yard shouting “Peter! Peter!” in imitation of Marius Goring’s French-English accent for weeks afterwards.

    “You try and tell that to the young people of today, and they won’t believe you!”

    Take a ride on Lewton’s bus!

  9. I’m coming off like a real philistine here, so I will say that I am not immune to the charms of Golden Age cinema. I’ve probably seen THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR six times because I love that fake pirate cursing they had to employ to get past the censors. I’ve spoken of my admiration for NIGHT OF THE HUNTER recently. I could have sworn I owned a copy of the Criterion edition of M but now I can’t find it and that’s honestly kind of troubling to me. I was delighted by HARVEY and ROMAN HOLIDAY. I have a real fondness for movies from the 30s and 40s that combine fast-talking comedic repartee with thriller/horror plots. THE THIRTY-SEVEN STEPS and THE LADY VANISHES are the ones that clued me in to that whole vibe but I recently watched James Whales’ THE OLD DARK HOUSE on Shudder and loved every second of it, despite most of the movie being about rich white people arguing.

    So I don’t necessarily require nonstop stabbing and splosions. They sure do help, though.

  10. If you were immune to the charms of THE LADY VANISHES you’d really be a philistine. Or brain dead.

  11. I have a hard time with a lot of the Golden Age stuff, for all the reasons that I’m sure everyone can guess and probably has the same problems. I’m totally digging the vibe and the story and the look and then I’m confronted with something terribly racist or sexist and it ruins it for me. I decided awhile ago to mostly give up on it. It’s not worth it to me. That said, there are still ones that are worth it. I try to be judicious about my viewing.

    I saw this one years ago and don’t remember a whole lot about it. I may have seen it while I was in college, which is funny because I was just trying to scour my brain to see if I knew any assholes in college who had Bob Marley posters as Mr. M suggested. All I can remember is Monet posters. Plus, One Love is one of my favorite songs, so I guess maybe I’m one of those people Mr. M wants to elbow? Getting back to this movie, all I can remember is a faint unease with the theme of a woman turning into a murderous, jealous beast who must be destroyed because of her sexuality. Plus, men putting inconvenient wives into loony bins in order to be with other women is painfully true history.

  12. Maggie: I have nothing against Bob Marley other than the fact that I went to a hippie college so by the time I graduated I never wanted to hear any of the songs on LEGEND ever again. I like a lot of his other songs and don’t hold it against anyone who didn’t have his greatest hits ruined by a bunch of guys with dreadlocks named Kyle.

    I also could have used the Blues Brothers, SCARFACE, or even my own super played-out RESERVOIR DOGS posters as examples. All these probably date the fuck out of me.

    Don’t play him in a bar, though. Wrong vibe entirely.

  13. Majestyk – I know what you mean. I have long been annoyed by conversations about horror movies where people would claim that it’s always better when it’s implied instead of shown. I always use THE THING as an example of a movie where showing us the business is much more effective than if they had left it to my boring imagination (though last time I did some guy on Twitter thought it was an idiotic example). I originally got into horror movies for the crazy monsters so although I appreciate all different methods I can’t abide by some rule that it’s always better to do it the opposite way.

    That’s why I didn’t make much of a deal out of that in the review, that would not be a selling point to me. But going in knowing it was not going to be a monster movie, the story really worked.

    Maggie – I read it the same way and I’d like to learn more about the intentions. It seems like at that time the movie wouldn’t have been made to criticize a fear of women’s sexuality, but Irena is so much more sympathetic than Oliver that that’s how it plays to me. On the other hand, it definitely acts like we should like Oliver and consider his actions reasonable.

  14. (Obviously I meant THE THIRTY NINE STEPS. I didn’t see the prequel or anything.)

  15. >I have long been annoyed by conversations about horror movies where people would claim that it’s always better when it’s implied instead of shown.

    Vern, I suppose the question would be “what do you mean by ‘it’s'”?

    Cat People & the Thing are two of my favourite horror movies but they’re certainly very different, as you note. Part of the Thing’s effectiveness is that it doesn’t hold back on the gruesome transformation scenes. But a large part of what makes the Thing work is what’s unseen – not knowing which people have been infected. The tension and suspense in that film come from moments like the dog walking up to an unidentified silhouette. The first time through, you have a number of doubts & questions.

    Cat People is effective in what it sets out to be because given the state of special effects at the time, even if RKO had employed a Jack Pierce-level makeup artist the creature transformations would have been a bit hokey and remove a great deal of the suspense we feel as viewers. And we know a version of Cat People with top-notch special effects would be kinda crappy and not suspenseful thanks to the Paul Schrader version.

    It’s great that we can enjoy both “you don’t really see the monster” and “you definitely get to see the monster” films and they’re both pretty popular mainstream movies.

  16. MaggieMayPie – oh, rats! That sucks that it’s hard for you to get past the racism/sexism of the past in classic cinema & art type things generally. I was just watching ARSENIC & OLD LACE this last weekend, and it does not have an enlightened view of mental illness and the way Cary Grant treats his new bride is problematic at best… but dang it, it’s such a hilarious and goofy flick that I guess I cut it a ton of slack because the good stuff outweighs the bad? I dunno.

    I mean, BIRTH OF A NATION is an awful, hateful slice of evil so the one time I watched that was enough for my entire lifetime, and on par with CLOCKWORK ORANGE and GONE WITH THE WIND – I don’t think watching them once makes me a terrible person, but if I wanted to watch them over and over… I think that would be a different matter. So I know where you are coming from. But classic cinema has so much awesome stuff! Thinking about you never watching a Buster Keaton movie or a Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks or George Cukor flick? Well, it makes me the sad.

    (And MaggieMayPie, if you are the same person who does the YouTube channel, your commentaries on Xistian movies are a delight. You are awesome and I hope you have made Kirk Cameron cry.)

  17. Shemp, Cary Grant is hard to pass up, even with problematic elements in the movies themselves. Him being in a movie always makes me give it a chance.

    And, nope, that’s not me with the YouTube channel. I’ll have to see if I can find it and then maybe start taking credit for it.

  18. My sisters and I used to watch CHARADE over and over as kids just because we liked Cary Grant in it so much. That and QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER (but for Tom Selleck, and which is still one of my favorite “Westerns”) which is where I knew Alan Rickman from long before I saw DIE HARD for the first time.

  19. On the topic of seeing vs implication- I think it’s a really fine line to walk and there’s no one right answer. As mentioned, THE THING is a perfect example of gonzo FX horror that totally wouldn’t work without you seeing a body open up into a huge mouth and bite off a guy’s arms.

    I personally think the best is often a mix between the two. JAWS and ALIEN are two that strike the perfect balance for me between seeing just enough violence and gore that when we *don’t* see it, it really works great. Like, for me, Dallas getting snatched in that tunnel is so much scarier because we saw what happened to Kane earlier in the movie. This thing fucked up a dude like that when it was a just a baby, god only knows what it’s gonna do now!

    Also both directors were able to recognize that their respective creatures might start to look a little goofy if you stare at them too long (unlike the creatures in THE THING, which would be weird and upsetting even standing completely still), since they’re just rubber suits, so they had to figure out workarounds (I also think CGI monsters suffer from the same problem and could use a little more judiciousness in their appearances most of the time, but Hollywood is not responding to my emails on the subject).

  20. Hoo boy, The Kurgan – CHARADE is a terrific, terrific film. Stanley Donen at the top of his game, making Alfred Hitchcock movies after Hitch decided he wanted to make things like MARNIE, TORN CURTAIN, and TOPAZ instead. An incredible cast: Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Walter Matthau AND James Coburn! Fantastic, actual location shooting in Paris. And a great score by Henry Mancini. Man, oh man. Now I have to watch it again.

    And MaggieMayPie, the creator on YouTube I was thinking of was Maggie May FISH – sorry about that. Her videos are ginchy, and you seem ginchy too – so I was confuzzled.

  21. A movie that could have done with more of the unseen, is-it-or-isn’t-it approach is Tourneur’s later NIGHT OF THE DEMON. Apparently he wanted a bit of ambiguity about the existence of the demon, but the producer wanted a big monster reveal. The producer got his way.

    I love movie monsters, but that thing’s an abomination.

  22. Vern, you really should review Bong Joon-ho’s THE HOST sometime. The monster shows up fully formed and brilliant in the fist 10 minutes, and it still has all the Korean family melodrama and tonal shifts we love.

    Maggie, thanks for those remarks. I have to confess that it wasn’t until I saw Schrader’s clumsier more explicit version of CAT PEOPLE that I really thought about that reading of it. What can I tell you? I was really young and dumb. But I sympathise, if it’s sympathy that we need here, even if my tolerance for such nonsense is shamefully high in the cause of an otherwise good movie. My wife has, however, forever spoiled IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE for me by pointing out that while George Bailey spends the first half of the movie whining about how small and constricted his life is, the female characters have no choices or agency at all and this passes without comment by the film-makers. And then when we get to see the world as it would’ve been without the male lead their lives get worse!

    Cary Grant though. Hell yes! If THE LADY VANISHES isn’t my favourite Hitchcock, then NORTH BY NORTHWEST is. And it’s not like NOTORIOUS isn’t a great movie. And CHARADE even has a shower scene, in case we didn’t get what Stanley Donen was up to.

  23. The shower scene was Grant’s idea. He was embarrassed because of the age difference between him and Hepburn. Donen on the other hand went on to make BLAME IT ON RIO!

  24. Hmm, and I am thinking the age difference between Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett in SATURN 3 probably wasn’t less than 30 years either. Who knew that older film-makers would be so thematically interested in men having relationships with much younger women?

  25. 25 years between Grant and Hepburn, 31 years between Douglas and Fawcett, and 32 years between Caine and Johnson. Luckily BLAME IT ON RIO was his last movie.

  26. One of my mother’s favorite movies when she was young. She saw it on the big screen & it stayed with her for years. She was not, however, fond of the ’80s remake (was anyone?).

    Thanks for reviewing this one, Vern! I hope you do more ’40s films.

  27. Does This Mean CATS Will Turn Me On?

    January 12th, 2020 at 10:16 am

    Lost in all of this is that the title of the film should be Adorable Little Kitten Girl, because Simone Simon… damn.

  28. Donen on the other hand went on to make BLAME IT ON RIO!

    Obviously, his greatest contribution to cinema…

    So you fucked your best friend’s 18-year-old daughter?? Oh well, BLAME IT ON RIO!

    Taped from a Cinemax free-preview weekend, and that tape was used often.

  29. Everything ok, Vern?
    You’ve gone all quiet this week!
    Hope you’re cool.

  30. I went out of town for the weekend and got behind on reviews. Trying to catch up. Thanks for asking, Gary!

  31. Haha, cool man.
    We worry!

  32. Hope this means more old-timey movie reviews! I love this one and along with it getting away with a whole bunch of stuff post-code, it’s a really effective story in its own right. Yeah, using Val Lewton as a barometer for ‘what you DONT see is scarier’ may be cliche, but what they don’t mention is how good Lewton was at it. Most are not and may as well show it.

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