Friday, March 22, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Cat People (1942)

The third film seen from my list of 10 Classics for 2013, following SAFETY LAST! (1923) and LITTLE CAESAR (1931), was the Val Lewton-Jacques Tourneur horror classic CAT PEOPLE.

CAT PEOPLE was one of the bigger successes from my "classics lists" of the past couple years; I loved it! Although I usually stay away from horror films, this one was just my style, managing to be very spooky without being graphic or truly horrific. I was fascinated by the stylish way the filmmakers put over the story of a woman who turns into a killer cat, without ever actually showing her transformation. It may be a scary film, but it's also visually beautiful, which isn't what one tends to expect when it comes to horror. This film was quite special, and I know I'll be wanting to watch it again in the future.

Irena (Simone Simon), a Serbian immigrant, meets Oliver (Kent Smith) in a zoo, and they marry after a whirlwind courtship. Unfortunately, Irena strongly believes in a legend from her native village, that she will turn into a dangerous cat if she becomes passionate or angry. Poor Oliver learns on their wedding night that Irena is unwilling to consummate their marriage as she fears the potentially deadly consequences of passion. (Needless to say, this is all handled quite delicately, given that the movie was released in 1942. Less is more.)

Initially Oliver is very patient, but when Irena can't get over her fear he sends her to Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway), a psychiatrist. Dr. Judd's not able to help much either, and after weeks of frustration and rejection, Oliver realizes that he is actually in love with his coworker, Alice (Jane Randolph), and she with him. This awakens Irena's jealousy, which is not a good thing...

I've heard for years how well-done this film is, and happily it did not disappoint. There are some wonderful set pieces, including Alice's scary swim in her apartment building's pool and her very creepy walk home late at night. The latter scene where Alice is stalked is reminiscent of the sequence in Lewton's THE LEOPARD MAN (1943) where the young girl walks home from the store in the dark, and it also made me think of Betsy's walk through the jungle to the voodoo ceremony in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943). Both these films, like CAT PEOPLE, were directed by the very stylish Jacques Tourneur.

My favorite scenes included Irena, having recently had one of her episodes, crying in shame and frustration in her bathtub, and I especially loved the scene where Oliver and Alice are stalked by a lethal cat which seemingly comes out of nowhere. I loved how that sequence was resolved; apparently homicidal cats and vampires are afraid of the same thing!

Simon is effective as a lovely but strange young woman; her performance is certainly different from her funny role in the wacky JOHNNY DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1944), a favorite '40s comedy.

I also enjoyed Jane Randolph, who manages to make the "other woman" likeable; she and Simon are initially both sympathetic characters, but as Simon's Irena grows increasingly distant and disturbed, the audience's sympathy gradually swings to Randolph. Randolph's background included serving as a live-action model for the ice skating sequence in BAMBI (1942). She appeared with Tom Conway in a couple of the FALCON films, THE FALCON'S BROTHER (1942) and THE FALCON STRIKES BACK (1943). She was also in IN THE MEANTIME, DARLING (1944) with Jeanne Crain.

Jack Holt and Alan Napier have small roles as Oliver's coworkers. Teresa Harris, who plays the cafe waitress in CAT PEOPLE, also appeared in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE.

The superb black and white cinematography was by Nicholas Musuraca (OUT OF THE PAST), and the editing was by future director Mark Robson. The film runs 73 minutes.

CAT PEOPLE was written by DeWitt Bodeen. He didn't write many screenplays, but they were of a very high quality, including THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE (1945), I REMEMBER MAMA (1948), and MRS. MIKE (1949). Growing up, I learned a great deal of film history from back issues of Films in Review, to which Bodeen was a regular contributor; he specialized in profiling actors from the silents and pre-Code days.

Bodeen also wrote a loose sequel, CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944), which was directed by Robert Wise and Gunther von Fritsch and again produced by Lewton. Like CAT PEOPLE, it starred Simone Simon, Kent Smith, and Jane Randolph.

CAT PEOPLE is available on a relatively inexpensive "double feature" DVD, along with CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944), or in the big Val Lewton Horror Collection boxed set. The DVD can be rented from Netflix or ClassicFlix.

The movie can be rented for streaming from Amazon Instant Video. It was also released on VHS.

Finally, a reminder for any bloggers interested in writing about CAT PEOPLE this month: You're invited to send me the link to your post, either via the comments or email, and I'll include the link at the end of this post, as well as Tweet whenever the post is updated with a new link.

Leticia, a classic film fan in Brazil who writes at Critica Retro (Retro Critic), has a very interesting post comparing the 1942 version with its 1982 remake. (There's a handy translation widget at her blog, by the way!) I'd completely forgotten that CAT PEOPLE was remade; although I never saw it, I remember it being released, and it's hard to believe that was 30 years ago! I was interested to learn from Leticia's post that Tom Conway played Dr. Louis Judd in another Lewton film, THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943); I'll plan to see that one along with CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE. Thanks for joining me enjoying CAT PEOPLE this month, Leticia!


Blogger Lasso The Movies said...

I love "Cat People"! It is just so much fun to watch and I can't see it too often. I watched it for the first time about six months ago and have already gone back to it three subsequent times. I'm glad you enjoyed it as well. It just has such a creepy feel that surrounds it and Simone Simon really does a fantastic job.

8:44 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Wow, you've really gotten to know the movie well in a short time frame, Paul! I'm curious to watch it with the commentary track, I'm sure I'll learn more about it. I really appreciated the film's mood and beautiful look.

Best wishes,

11:53 PM  
OpenID livius1 said...

Good to hear you enjoyed this one Laura. It really is a masterpiece of dread and suspense that builds beautifully. Tourneur, Musuraca and Lewton blended their talents to great effect in producing this.

I think what makes Lewton's movies so successful is the way they actually capture the essence of good horror filmmaking. I mean that they're almost the embodiment of Karloff's observation that such films ought to be fairy tales for adults. The key to this is the focus on atmosphere as opposed to cheap shocks - atmosphere lingers in the memory, the unexpected jolt really only works once.

I hope you enjoy The Seventh Victim. However, a word of warning. The film can be seen as either a prequel or sequel to this one - I can't decide which in all honesty - but it's a different beast. I actually think it might be Lewton's best movie, but there's a very heavy mood about it and it can feel quite depressing.


4:06 AM  
Blogger LĂȘ said...

Cat People was the Val Lewton huge classic that was missing in my cinephile life. Thanks for choosing this one, so I couldn't postpone my viewing anymore! It was great, yet I walked with a zombie is still my favorite.
I didn't know Jane was a live-action model in Bambi. Cool!

10:42 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Colin, those are some great thoughts, especially that atmosphere lingers but jolts just have a temporary impact. Everyone making this film was surely on the top of their game.

Thanks much for the caution of THE SEVENTH VICTIM. From what I know of the film, I think I may have trouble with the subject matter, but I'm willing to give it a try and see whether or not it's something I feel I can watch. I'm quite intrigued that Conway's doctor is in it as well!

Best wishes,

5:10 PM  

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