CAT PEOPLE (director: Jacques Tourneur; screenwriter: DeWitt Bodeen; cinematographer: Nicholas Musuraca; editor: Mark Robson ; music: Roy Webb; cast: Simone Simon (Irena Dubrovna), Kent Smith (Oliver Reed), Tom Conway (Dr. Judd), Jane Randolph (Alice Moore), Alan Napier (Carver), Elizabeth Russell (The Cat Woman); Runtime: 73; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Val Lewton; RKO ; 1942)
“A thinking man’s supernatural thriller.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A thinking man’s supernatural thriller (the horror is imagined rather than presented on the screen) directed by Jacques Tourneur (“The Leopard Man”/”I Walked With a Zombie”). It’s the first time Tourneur works together with producer Val Lewton, in what will be a long and successful collaboration. This B film was Tourneur’s first major film. Dr. Freud comes into play, as the heroine’s problem is attributed largely to psychological problems; the narrative is built around a sober psychological case study about repression and sexual frigidity, relating it to a Serbian fable. The plot is based on Algernon Blackwood’s story “Ancient Sorceries.” It’s so much better than Paul Schrader’s remake in 1982, that one wonders why the remake. In this low-budget film, the film’s main set was built for Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and was used again by Lewton for his The Seventh Victim (1943).
It opens with attractive but mysterious Serbian fashion illustrator Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) sketching a panther at the local zoo and subsequently being picked up the American Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). Irena mentions she’s obsessed with cats and that she has a disturbing influence on felines. She then tells Oliver about the legend of King John of Serbia, who banished the cat women from her home village long ago–a race of cat-women she fears she’s descended from, who turn into a cat whenever emotionally aroused and when their anguish is resolved turn back to human form. This possibly explains her repression and why she puts a check on her emotions.
Oliver buys her a kitten, but there’s a bad reaction of fright from the kitten so Oliver returns it to the pet shop for a canary. Simone tries to put off Oliver’s love for her by casting doubts about her animal-like qualities getting the better of her sense of being. She appears to be a woman trapped by her fate. When she tries to make nice to the canary, it drops dead from fright and she brings it to the panther at the zoo for a snack. Oliver is blinded by love, and believes there’s nothing wrong. They marry. At the reception a strange woman (Elizabeth Russell) suddenly appears and addresses Irena as “my sister.” This unglued Irena so much she refuses to consummate the marriage in a biblical way. Oliver becomes concerned over the sexless marriage and gives her the name of a shrink, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway). Irena, under his spell, tells him everything, but the lecherous shrink only has designs on her. When Irena finds out that Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), a co-worker in her hubby’s office, who has designs on Oliver, recommended the shrink and knows all about her problems, she rails against hubby.
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, a restless Alice, after the dispute with Oliver and in a fit of jealousy over Alice, walks beside the wall of the zoo on her way home. There are streetlights and there are also patches of darkness, and as she walks the wind howls against the tree branches and we hear the growling sound of a cat. What follows is a shot of sheep slaughtered, giving us the first clear evidence that Irena indeed might be a cat-woman. That night Irena has a disturbing dream that Dr. Judd is King John, which suggests her problems are Freudian and perhaps she doesn’t turn into a cat but has been plagued by hostility, guilt and repression–fearful she can’t satisfy her hubby and also fearful that if her animal nature is unleashed it would become uncontrollable.
The film’s most memorable scene has Alice go alone to a pool for a swim, with the eerily light reflecting off the water. Alice soon hears a panther and sees on the white wall a large shadow. She becomes so terrified that she can’t get out of the water until she perceives that the panther is gone. When she recovers her bathrobe, she discovers it’s torn to shreds and the only person around is Simone.
The filmmaker never wanted us to see the panther, but the unwise studio suits at RKO insisted on giving the audience an overt conventional horror ploy–something they have been conditioned for by the genre.
When Alice tells Judd of her recent experience in the pool he discounts it until he sees the tattered robe, and after consulting Oliver and Alice he moves to have Irena institutionalized. This comes after Oliver told Irena that he’s in love with Alice. When Irena returns to her apartment, Judd is still there and puts some sexual moves on her and she changes into a cat and takes care of business. Hearing Judd’s screams, Alice and Oliver enter the apartment to find Judd dead. Unseen in the shadows, Irena flees to the zoo and enters the panther’s cage. The beast lunges at her and then runs into the street, where a car hits it. When Alice and Oliver go to the zoo, they find Irena’s dead body lying next to the open panther’s cage.
The movie might have dated and is certainly not how modern cinema presents horror films but, nevertheless, this still remains one of the better horror movies ever made. The Serbian legend it introduces relating to witchcraft may derive from the persecution of Bogomil heretics in the middle ages, which adds another interesting dimension to an already fascinating film.
REVIEWED ON 10/25/2006 GRADE: A
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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