Monday, December 03, 2007

Movies: The cat came back.

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.


spacejack said...

As a teenager, I was pretty fascinated by the weird mix of sleaze, excellent horror effects, new wave soundtrack and overall confused plot of the Cat People remake.

The original 1942 version was one of my first ventures into sampling some classic cinema. This was probably due to some review of the remake that described it as crappy, big-budget shadow of the original.

To be honest, I don't think I gave it much of a chance. There were a few neat scenes I remember, like the "morphing" footsteps. But I also remember the Ollie character seeming too wooden or goofy. In the end, it was a bit too tame to hold my attention.

What saddens me is that if they were to re-make the film again, a teenager today would probably see the 80s version in the same way that I saw the original.

P.S. I thought the movie version of Bowie song wasn't too bad. I would agree that the album version on "Let's Dance" is incredibly bland and unlistenable.

Whenever I hear the movie version, with the long, slow buildup with the drums, I never can figure out if it's going to be "Cat People" or "Better be Good to Me" by Tina Turner. Try comparing the two sometime.

Anonymous said...

I have never seen the Lewton version of the film.
But, I see that there's going to be a new TCM special on Val Lewton and his studio output presented by Martin Scorsese (!) which I think is scheduled for two broadcasts on January 14 (double check that date, though).

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

I was thinking as I watched the original that it would appeal more to fans of old school Hollywood melodrama than horror fans. Lewton's approach seems to have been to bring the mainstream Golden Age Hollywood sensibility to horror cinema rather than take horror and bring the production values up. The result is that you get horror movies that sometimes don't seem all that interested in being horrific.

That said, I think that, as the years go on, the '80s remake looks more and more dated while the original looks more and more like a visual classic. There's one shot, when Ollie and the Blonde are in the office, and there trapped in the corner, and the only light is coming from this table-top light-boxes. And, on the wall above them, are a series of design tools - abstracted into crosses and arrows and the like by the dark shadows - and all one can see in the light is a series of measure markers on the wall (they're ship designers and they need to have a sense of scale, so they painted foot markers all along the entire length of the office). That one shot alone - our heroes, lit from the floor, in a corner, between a tangle of mauled and uncanny crucifixes and a rigid minimalist number line - could have come from Peter Greenaway. That's the allure for me.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Cattle,

Marty's special is also going to replace the current doc that appears in the five-disc collection - so anybody who already bought it is SOL. But, for folks cooking up a wish list for the holidays, the new Scorsese hosted doc is an added incentive.