Matthew Carter squares up to ailurophobia
When RKO Radio Pictures were feeling the pinch from the excesses of Citizen Kane, a directive for a meat and potatoes B-movie landed on Val Lewton’s lap. Jacques Tourneur stepped up as director and DeWitt Bodeen produced the screenplay. Using sets from Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, Tourneur and Lewton created an entirely new genre: noir-horror-sex-thriller.
Lewton selected a French actress for the lead role, Simone Simon, based partly on her kittenish visage. Rather pleasingly, Simon had already starred in Love and Hisses. Ironically, Lewton was petrified of cats, but he was a perfectionist when it came to set design – the film is suffused with feline imagery from the offset. There are oil paintings of cats (Goya) and statuary of kings slaughtering cats. Tiger lillies are strategically placed throughout. When we first meet Simon as Irena, she is sketching a black panther at a zoo; her drawing depicts it being fatally impaled.
Of Serbian descent, Irena believes herself to be a descendant of a race of people who turn into cats when sexually aroused. Kent Smith, a rather wooden and charisma-free leading man, plays Oliver Reed (!); Mr Reed marries Irena but there is no consummation, despite his oh-so thoughtful gift… a kitten.
As Irena’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, Oliver focuses his attention on urbane co-worker Alice, who happens to be good with animals and is keen to recommend psychiatric support for Irena. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, cat-faced Elizabeth Russell stares menacingly at Irena and Alice during a dinner party. She approaches the diners, and in a sequence dubbed by Simon with a heavy Serbian accent, refers to her as ‘sister’.
Alice’s increasing interference leads to Oliver insisting that Irena visits Dr Judd (Tom Conway – George Sander’s brother) for a spot of therapy. Irena confesses that she believes herself to be descended from Serbian ‘cat people’, who transform into panthers when emotionally and sexually aroused. When Irena learns that Oliver has confided in his co-worker, bemoaning his wife’s fear of physical intimacy, she starts to stalk Alice. There is an increasing sense of menace, beautifully evoked by paw prints becoming shoe prints, shadows ‘caging’ Irena and Alice, and a Hitchcockian scene in a swimming pool.
Oliver, Alice and Dr Judd plot to have Irena incarcerated, following an annulment of the ill-fated marriage. Irena repeatedly visits the panther caged at the local zoo, eventually stealing the zoo-keeper’s key. She then goes to Oliver’s workplace in cat form, clearly unimpressed by his devotion to overtime. She attacks Dr Judd, killing him, but not before he has driven his cane into her torso. The wounded Irena makes her way to the zoo, releasing the panther, who kills her as he escapes.
Nicholas Musuraca’s chiaroscuro cinematography is remarkably effective, with shadows enveloping the cast as the sense of terror increases. Those second-hand sound-stages add to the claustrophobia, creating a feeling of enforced confinement and surrealism. Cat People’s $150k budget and $4m takings led to a slew of pale imitations, including a Paul Schrader remake in 1982. However, the ailurophobic Lewton’s perfectionism and vision were never bettered. Cat People remains a masterpiece of indirection and implied dread.
Cat People is available on Blu-ray from Criterion