Of all the movies produced by Val Lewton during his now legendary stint as the horror-show unit head at RKO, perhaps none has inspired more tributes and caused more ink than The Cat People. This 1942 flick, directed by Jacques Tourneur (the finest of Lewton's stable of directors – which also included Robert Wise), was named dropped in The Kiss of the Spider Woman, remade and tarted-up by Paul Schrader in 1982, and is a staple of horror revivals, film studies classes, and discussions of noir style.
As an aside, if you really want to know horror, listen to every painful second of David Bowie's "Putting Out the Fire (The Theme to The Cat People)," one of the White Duke's least impressive and most gratuitously '80s outings. Several medical studies in Europe have actually linked a pattern of repeated listening to "Putting Out the Fire" with increase incidences of rectal cancer; that's how bad the song is. It appears on the 2002 two-disc Best of Bowie. I specify the year here because, realizing that the word "best" carries a specific meaning to most of the English-speaking world, EMI dropped the tune from the 2004 release of the set.
But enough about Bowie's less-than-greatest hour and back to the flick in question, the original Cat People is the first flick on a two-feature disc, the first of five double features in the TCM Lewton collection. The story is a classic boy-meets-girl, boy-marries-girl, girl-turns-out-to-be-a-cursed-cat-monster story. We open on Irena, a raven-haired beauty sketching the black panther in its cage at the Central Park Zoo. Irena's played by French import Simone Simon, whose Marseillesn accent is sufficiently non-Parisian enough to sound suitably exotic without being quite identifiable. Irena catches the eye of Oliver Reed: All American. Played by square-jawed, hyper-vanilla Kent Smith, Ollie is a sort of Everyman in the Grey Flannel Suit. Ollie puts some smooth moves on our foreign-born beauty and soon they're dating. Eventually Ollie wants to do some light consensual lip wrasslin', but Irena puts the kibosh on any physical contact. She explains that she descends from a long line of cursed villagers. The cursed women of this village, when they "fall in love" (read: "do the naughty"), have the tendency to turn into cat monsters and claw up their men. How this has lead to there being a long line of such women is unclear. My admittedly scant knowledge of Darwinism suggests that this particular trait would pretty much ensure the extinction of folks carrying it – but let's not dwell on this as it is a mere bump in the road compared to the narrative obstacle I'm going to ask you to leap next.
Ollie, after being cock-blocked for their entire dating history (or kiss-blocked, as it were), decides that he just can't take it anymore and does the reasonable thing: he marries Irena. That's right. Without so much as exchanging a smooch, Ollie decides that Irena's cat people story is just a manifestation of some erotic frigidity. And nothing heats up the sexually frigid like marriage – it's a well-known fact! He figures that he's a patient guy and he can just wait out whatever deep-seated psychological trauma makes human contact so horrifying to Irena. Our heroes get hitched and settle into married life. Sure, things are a little weird: Irena's obsessed with cats, has the tendency to scare pet birds to death, and enjoys chasing bits of string maybe just a little too much (okay, not that last bit). Ollie's hottie blonde coworker (the blonde = good, dark haired = bad correlation in these old flicks is remarkably consistent – it's like there was some clause in the SAG contract) suggests Irena should see a shrink, which introduces the pompous and sleazy Dr. Judd, who starts taking a more than strictly Hippocratic interest in the exotic Irena. Everything comes to a bewhiskered head when Irena's jealousy over Ollie's blonde "um-friend" and the creepy attentions of the good doctor make her "break all kitty on this ishi, yo," as the gentlemen down on the corner phrase it.
Admittedly, the story is a bit clunky. In the 1940s and '50s, American cinema became utterly enamored with what was a strangely mechanistic misunderstanding of psychoanalysis. Flicks like The Snake Pit and Dark Voyage reworked horrific mental illnesses into fodder for weepies. Shrink doctors popped up in film after film, conveniently provided exposition at reasonable hourly rates. Hitchcock seems to have used the DSM as a screenwriting handbook, hanging on to his paperback psycho-babble for an embarrassingly long time after others had moved on to more trendy characterization crutches (see Marnie). Cat People is a clear product of that decades long infatuation with the monster that Freud built. It's a film unashamed to include dialogue like "Find me a psychologist, Ollie. Find me the best one there is." This is all a little curious insomuch as the shrink turns out to be a bit of a sleaze-bag and the existence of a sequel called The Curse of the Cat People should give you a pretty good indication of just how rooted in psycho-pathology Irena's problems really are.
Still, despite the leaps of logic required by Hollywood censors and the screenwriter's love of Freud for Dummies, the director and actors manage to make the film hum along. Visually, the flick is a shadow-soaked noir treat. One scene in particular – when Ollie and his blonde are trapped in his office with the only light coming from a series of tabletop light-boxes – is a standout. The acting won't stick with you, but the cumulative effect is to make the viewer pity Irena. Despite the oddity of the character, she seems genuinely trapped on all sides. The film's dramatic tension comes almost entirely from our concern about Irena, even though she's supposed to be the "monster" in this particular feature.
For many modern viewers – as well as for the folks behind the remake - Cat People may go a bit slow. Lewton created this curious hybrid genre of the horror-melodrama. His flicks were stylish, thoughtful productions intended for adult audiences – in stark contrast to the teen-centric fare that's dominated the horror genre from the '50s on. This unique fusion's pace and detailed characterization aren't for everybody. Personally, I dig this flick and think it well deserves its status as the gem in Lewton's crown.
The second feature on the disk is lackluster sequel The Curse of the Cat People. Despite reusing the same characters, the title's deceptive as the cat persons plot is pretty much jettisoned for a whole new set of psych-influenced problems. The film marks the first director credit for Robert Wise (he served as co-director) and contains a few nice scenes. But, overall, the film's a disappointing follow-up.