Cat People (1942)

OCTOBER 31, 2011


For the first time since 2007, I watched a genuine classic on Halloween, though ironically it was also the most horror-lite movie of the month (besides Red State anyway). I had missed Cat People when TCM aired pretty much all of Val Lewton’s productions a few years back, and it wasn’t until I got a copy (with the sequel!) in a gift bag at Screamfest that I remembered “Oh yeah, I still haven’t seen this classic horror movie”. So now I can finally see the sequel AND the remake! And understand some Bowie songs.

Anyway, no dissent here – I dug the movie as much as everyone else who has put it in all those top 50 horror movies of all time lists and what have you. I think I prefer Bedlam over this one, but it’s still great, even if its horror elements are (like Bedlam’s) quite light compared to his others. It’s not until the final 30 minutes that you could even consider it a horror film, as until that point it’s pretty much just a sad drama about a man torn between his frigid wife and his coworker who is openly in love with him. The only hint we get about the wife’s problem comes early on, when she walks into a pet store and all of the “residents” freak out.

But when the suspense/scare scenes show up, they’re worth the wait. And – score one for understanding context and the history of the genre – this was apparently the first horror movie to have a fake scare based on similar noises. Sub-heroine Alice (played by Jane Randolph, with whom I was instantly smitten – how was she not a bigger star?) is being stalked by Irena (Simone Simon), and suddenly things get quiet. She turns around, and we expect Irena to pop out, but instead the loud sound we hear is actually a bus that has pulled up to where she is standing. Obviously I didn’t jump out of my seat like the audiences did back in 1942 (on Christmas, no less!), but I did enjoy finding out that this was the first fake scare of its type, and in fact the technique is referred to as a “Newton bus”, something that I’m sure actual director Jacques Tourneur finds quite annoying.

I actually preferred one of the others though, inside a pool. Not only does Ms. Randolph wear a swimsuit throughout the scene (and finally play a scene without one of her ugly ass hats), but I’ve seen a zillion women hurriedly walking through a deserted city street trying to evade a pursuer – it’s much less often I see one in the middle of a pool, knowing she’s in danger and unable to move quickly. Plus I figured she’d be a goner, and having already escaped once, this time there’d be no escape. Good little setpiece, that.

I was also tickled by the fact that the hero – named Oliver Reed, oddly enough – is kind of a dick. I couldn’t really feel too bad for him marrying Irena without ever having even kissed her – that’s psychotic. But he made his bed, and thus the fact that he instantly starts spending nights alone with Alice when she’s clearly into him is a bit douchey. Worse, he tells her about Irena’s problems with being intimate (ouch), and at one point, when the three of them are at a museum, basically tells Irena to get lost so he and Alice can enjoy the artwork without “boring” her. Yikes.

Interestingly, this subplot tied a bit into what I was saying yesterday about the Code, in a movie that also featured human/animal hybrids. As Irena can’t be kissed lest her “feline” side come out (so she says – the movie leaves it ambiguous), they actually work the lack of physical contact among the actors into the plot. And since the divorce never goes through as far as I know, Alice and Oliver are never physical and thus committing themselves to hell by smooching. The inability to show any real violence also allowed Lewton/Tourneur to keep the movie’s mystery a bit more ambiguous – had they been allowed to show someone getting clawed by a catwoman, they would have shown it, I’m sure – but since they couldn’t, they apparently figured that turning it into a debate point would be the best route to take (even when Irena is dead at the end, we’re never shown any specific evidence that she’s really part cat).

The disc has a trailer that makes it look more like a typical horror movie of the day, as well as a commentary by Greg Mank, who, like most film historians doing commentaries on movies that they weren’t actually involved with, tends to merely narrate the film while reciting the IMDb pages of everyone who shows up on-screen. He doesn’t seem to offer much insight or discuss the film’s greater importance in cinema history – even when he brings up the remake, he merely points out that the Alice character in that one had a nude scene. He edits in a few snippets of a phone interview with Simon, but she's hard to understand and basically just talks about how wonderful everyone was, so it doesn't really amount to much. I guess if you don’t have an internet connection then it’s worth a listen; otherwise just go on Wikipedia and access the bios of the people you want to learn more about, and spare yourself a dry summary of the film’s events in the process.

Screenwriter Dewitt Bodeen and the central cast (even Simon) returned for The Curse Of The Cat People, which I’ll probably check out next week. I think it’s the only sequel that Lewton made, and with Robert Wise at the helm I expect an above average production, but I haven’t heard too much about it. So you guys tell me – should I put it off for a while, or see it ASAP?

What say you?


  1. I said already once that I always mean most classics to know. Also with this film I must find out embarrassed that my assertion is not right, The only film with the title "Cat People" which I know is with Nastasia Kinski from the 80th.

    But it is nicely to be known that there are still people who know not only the new films!

  2. The sequel is not much like the original at all. However, it is very good in its own way. It's not necessary to watch them back to back.

  3. Yes, this one is a true classic! I consider it one of the best 'werewolf' movies ever made. I just got the Lewton box set last month and watched them all for Halloween. My favorite movie was "I Walked With a Zombie" which Lewton and Tourneur made right after this. It's beautiful, haunting, and truly creepy.

    Not to spoil anything, but the sequel "Curse of the Cat People" is a very different type of movie. Another clear case of Lewton going "Alright studio, you gave me another lurid, terrible title, but I'm going to make the kind of movie I want to make."

  4. What Curse of the Cat People lacked in Curses and Cats, it more than made up for with People. There were definitely people in it.

    Funny. It was Simone that I was smitten with. Maybe it was the accent.

  5. I just saw this last week, as well. I recorded a boatload of Val Lewton movies from TCM, including a Martin Scorcese-narrated 90-minute documentary on the man. So far I've only seen CAT PEOPLE and THE LEOPARD MAN, which was quite good and in the same ballpark as CAT PEOPLE. There's more tension and a few more scares in THE LEOPARD MAN, although I do prefer CAT PEOPLE in general.


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