by Mel Valentin
In the early 1940s, Val Lewton, a Ukrainian-born writer/novelist became a horror film producer for RKO Studios. RKO, reeling from their ill-fated association with Orson Welles (both "Citizen Kane" nor "The Magnificent Ambersons" underperformed at the box office), decided to open up a B-level horror division to cash in on a genre profitably mined by Universal Studios. To that end, they hired Val Lewton, a writer and story editor for David O. Selznick ("Gone With the Wind"), to head up the division. Lewton asked for creative control. RKO agreed, attaching certain conditions to their agreement: (1) budgets were limited to $200,000 per film, (2) RKO would pick the films’ titles and Lewton would create a story around them, and (3) the films were proscribed from running longer than 75 minutes (in order to fill the second slot on a bill with an A-level feature film).Lewton, however, had the run of RKO’s standing sets, production departments, and actors or directors on contract. Over the course of only five years, Lewton produced nine quality films, an output that, in retrospect, has come to be acknowledged as the work of an auteur (a rarity for producers). Lewton's first film for RKO, the sensationally titled Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur (I Walked With a Zombie, Out of the Past, Night of the Demon), has been long considered a classic of understated, psychological horror.
"A horror classic fully deserving of the term."
Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a Serbian immigrant and fashion designer, meets Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), a ship designer, at the local zoo. Reed, instantly attracted to Irena’s exoticism (and accent), asks her out for tea. Tea turns into courtship and, eventually, marriage. Irena, however, is haunted by her native Serbia’s superstitions (or at least the superstitions of her local village). According to local folklore, the centuries-old invasion and occupation of Serbia by foreigners led to native Serbians turning away from Christianity and toward Satanism and witchcraft. As punishment, the women of Irena’s village are cursed to live passionless lives. Passion, positive or negative, transforms the women into feline predators.
Reed soon discovers that Irena treats these folktales as fact. Physical intimacy between Reed and Irena becomes impossible, sending Reed to seek advice from an overly sympathetic co-worker, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph). Alice suggests psychiatric help for Irena (Alice also has a second motive for her suggestion). Reed sends Irena into the care of Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway), a British-born psychiatrist who treats Irena’s obsessions with mildly veiled derision (he is, after all, a man of science, defined by his unshakeable belief in rationality to solve all problems, metaphysical and emotional). Dr. Judd also shows a decidedly unprofessional interest in his new patient.
With Cat People moving into romantic triangle territory, tragedy, psychologically or supernaturally based, is all but inevitable. The director, Jacques Tourneur, skillfully manages several set pieces, set pieces which have been recognized as standard setting for the genre, emphasizing the interplay of light and shadow, and suggestion (rather than effects or makeup). The set pieces range from a woman walking under lamplights in central park, the same woman going for a swim at night in a deserted public pool, a nighttime attack at Reed’s office with the only light provided by light boxes, and the final set piece that takes place inside a darkened apartment and the nearby zoo.
To its credit, Cat People depends on ambiguity for its effectiveness, swinging between natural (i.e. psychological) reasons for Irena’s neurotic behavior and the supernatural, with physical clues pointing to a feline predator loose in New York City. Using the limited resources provided by RKO to his advantage, Val Lewton and Tourneur decided against showing the monster or villain here (contrary to Universal Studios' approach during the 1930s and 1940s), instead depending on shadows moving against a wall, rustling branches, sound effects, misdirection, and the reactions of his performers to a mostly unseen menace (RKO did force Lewton and Tourneur to show a black panther late in the film, which effectively undercut the subtlety and suggestiveness inherent in their oblique approach).If "Cat People" has any weaknesses, it’s in the relatively brief running time, which leads to underdeveloped characterizations and several undermotivated character turns, but those are minor faults which are easily forgivable (especially given the limitations Lewton worked under at RKO). More than sixty years later, "Cat People" remains the benchmark for psychological horror. That Lewton failed to match the success of "Cat People," either critically or commercially, is a testament to "Cat People’s" compelling storyline, thought-provoking subtext, taut direction, and noirish cinematography.
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originally posted: 01/23/06 12:10:36