Cat People: Darkness Betrayed

On Film / Essays — Sep 20, 2016

Cat People is a legendary movie—a sleeper hit of 1942 and an instant cult item praised on release by James Agee and Manny Farber—that manages, over multiple viewings, to break free from its own legend. Fans and commentators have sifted every shot and every situation of this seventy-three-minute feature, pondering each line of dialogue and taking note of each editing gimmick and trick of lighting, speculating on the implications of every archetypal motif and psychosexual frisson. Yet a fundamental mysteriousness remains, a slippery unwillingness to submit to final explanation. Cat People’s most famous gesture—keeping the object of dread concealed in the shadows, and trusting to the human impulse to people the dark with the most unspeakable fears—is only the most blatant of the many ways in which the film leaves spaces deliberately blank. It presents us with a series of unforgettable moments and obliges us to imagine connections among them.

It was the first of the films produced by Val Lewton at RKO, and its success permitted him to extend a brief but extraordinary creative run through ten more pictures made between 1942 and 1946. The Yalta-born Lewton had originally gotten a foothold in the film business through his aunt, the great Russian actor Alla Nazimova, and subsequently served producer David O. Selznick at MGM for eight years as writer, story editor, and general literary adviser. Had Lewton not found a job as head of a small production unit at RKO after leaving Selznick’s employ in 1942, his career would not even be a footnote, although anyone poking into his earlier years would discover that he was also a poet of decadent tendencies, a pornographer, and the author of a series of pulpy novels—No Bed of Her Own, Where the Cobra Sings, A Laughing Woman—published under a range of pseudonyms. (When RKO tapped him to produce movies for the horror market, he joked that somebody had said he wrote “horrible novels” and the studio misinterpreted that as “horror novels.”) The close knowledge of filmmaking he had absorbed under Selznick meshed to indelible effect with his own peculiar sensibility: intellectually sophisticated, drawn to the exotic, and marked by an undertone of mournfulness close to morbidity.

Lewton’s historic collaboration with director Jacques Tourneur began under Selznick, with the stirring second-unit sequences of A Tale of Two Cities (1935), and the year after Cat People, they combined for RKO’s I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man. Lewton would make other remarkable films with Robert Wise and Mark Robson, and Tourneur would continue to exercise his precise and self-effacing art in films as beautiful as Canyon Passage (1946), Out of the Past (1947), Stars in My Crown (1950), and Night of the Demon (1958), but the cinema poetry the two conjured up together remains an unsurpassed mixture. The question of authorship becomes irrelevant; each brought the best of himself, with Tourneur finding inspiration in Lewton’s high-poetic concepts and Lewton discovering in Tourneur an artist who could ground the producer’s most dematerialized ideas in specifics of light and shadow, movement and angle. (The formal means Tourneur employed to achieve his effects are laid out at length in Chris Fujiwara’s excellent Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall.) In Cat People, completed for around $135,000 and making creative use of whatever stray furnishings became available (notably the grand staircase from Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons), they produced a movie both compact and sumptuous, a distillation of perfectly realized moments not merely lovely or chilling but unexpectedly moving.

They benefited from the work of their other collaborators: the cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, whose sculpted chiaroscuro would later grace Tourneur’s Out of the Past and other noir classics; Roy Webb, whose score establishes a mood not so much eerie as plaintive; and DeWitt Bodeen, whose script is a model of concision and, crucially, of omission. What is left out, in the way of personal backstory and pseudoscientific trappings, adds to the film’s power. Lewton contributed greatly to the script, as was his practice, and the originality of his temperament can be discerned throughout, in the bizarre non sequiturs and unexpected high-cultural allusions, and in the suggestiveness of a casually delivered remark such as “I like the dark; it’s friendly.”

The premise of Cat People can be simply put: a woman (Simone Simon as Irena Dubrovna, a Serbian artist in exile) is doomed by an ancestral Balkan curse to metamorphose into a panther if aroused by passion, and thus obliged to withhold herself from the man she loves (Kent Smith, as the self-proclaimed “good plain Americano” Oliver Reed). It has the irrational finality of a folktale, an irrationality the film embraces, even as the characters keep it at bay with sage comments about the influence of superstition and the lingering effects of childhood trauma. Cat People is not a movie about the psychological power of folktales; it is itself a folktale. It subordinates the materials of its surroundings—modern office buildings, modern American dating protocols, psychoanalysis, swimming pools, the Central Park Zoo—to a dark and imperceptible force, until supposed normality looks like a fragile interim state. Irena’s impossible predicament is simply a deeper aspect of the natural world, to which animals if not humans are fully sensitive: Irena sets off a frenzy among the caged birds when she walks into a pet shop, as the bemused owner remarks that “animals are ever so psychic.”

Cat People is also a film about a failed marriage. Irena’s predicament was calculated to evoke whole realms of sexual anxiety that the Production Code had effectively barred from Hollywood product, much as the immigration department might seek to bar undesirable aliens. That the protagonist of Cat People is indeed an alien—a fact underscored by the sometimes almost incomprehensible thickness of Simone Simon’s accent—deepens the chasm between husband and wife, with Oliver’s naively aggressive American optimism utterly failing to connect with Irena’s tragic uprootedness. They meet in cute and harmless style at the zoo. He is a conventional up-and-coming draftsman at a shipbuilding company; she is a refugee from European horror, an artist who covertly sketches images of a panther impaled by a sword.

Their courtship and hasty marriage are marked at every turn by ominous signs of misunderstanding on Oliver’s part and fear on Irena’s. When she reveals her secret—her descent from a cult of devil worshippers in the mountains of Serbia, who were nearly eradicated by the avenging “King John”—Oliver can offer only hearty skepticism and bland assurance: “You’re so normal you’re going to marry me.” During the wedding celebration at a small Serbian restaurant, Irena is noticed by a catlike woman at a neighboring table, who greets her as a sister when their paths cross: a brief and low-key moment that, in typical Lewton fashion, sets off a ripple effect of suggestion. We never see the woman again and nothing more is said about her, but the mood of the film has been decisively altered.

In Cat People, we are brought repeatedly to contemplate images held just long enough to make an enduring impression—those frozen moments singled out by Alexander Nemerov in his superb study of Lewton, Icons of Grief. The film is constructed of such beadlike instants—Irena’s torn sketch drifting among the leaves; the distant howling of a wild beast filtering into a city apartment; Irena crouching by the door of a bedroom in which she has locked herself while snow falls outside the window; weeping as she crouches in the bathtub (the beads of water on her bare back making an image quite daringly erotic for its time); gingerly feeding a dead bird to the panther at the zoo; a zookeeper suddenly invoking the prophecies of Revelation; an overhead shot of slaughtered sheep—and the force of their compression imparts a feeling of expandable duration.

The transition from one shot to another can signal the vast interpersonal distance that Oliver articulates by admitting that “in many ways we’re strangers.” Time often seems to stand still, and the studio sets and Musuraca’s lighting create the impression of an indeterminate zone where daylight is perpetually overcast and even the exteriors are hermetic. There is a close-up of Oliver asleep on Irena’s couch, and his momentary disorientation when he opens his eyes is jarring. He doesn’t know where he is; he has never really known where he was.

The actual supernatural menace in Cat People—which takes a long time to arrive—in a way comes as a relief from watching the painful disintegration of Irena and Oliver’s relationship. Rarely had a Hollywood film of any genre so elliptically yet vividly expressed a fundamental inability to connect, a wounding sexual grief manifested in moods of frustration, mistrust, irritation, appeasement, yearning, hapless fascination, unbreachable depression. It is an intimate story about the terrors of intimacy. No mere otherworldly horror could match the shot of Oliver turning away in sheer incapacity, lighting a cigarette while Irena is attempting to convey the depth of her anguish. His initial acceptance of her inability to consummate the marriage erodes into a sullen standoff and a flirtation with his fellow office worker Alice (Jane Randolph), whose practical-minded temperament is more suited to a man who finally confesses, in a kind of wonderment: “You know, it’s a funny thing. I’ve never been unhappy before. Things have always gone swell for me. I had a grand time as a kid, lots of fun at school, and here at the office with you and the Commodore and Doc.”

The nearly laughable woodenness of Kent Smith’s line reading here seems deliberate, and the effect is both comic and pathetic. The man unable even to conceive of unhappiness is pitted against an ancient and lingering sorrow beyond his grasp. He is the very embodiment of that normal American life that haunts Cat People like a specter, and that from Irena’s perspective is as much a torment and a destructive force as her own ancestral curse. It is the pragmatic and forward-looking Americans, with their businesslike energies and faith in modern science (the latter represented by the suave and finally duplicitous psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd), who will finally force her into extinction: darkness betrayed by the forces of light.

Dr. Judd—who would make a return appearance in Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (1943)—is incarnated by Tom Conway, George Sanders’s slightly more dissipated-looking younger brother, who radiates glib worldly authoritativeness while discussing the corrosion of the soul by childhood tragedies. An allusion to Freud’s death instinct (“We all of us carry within us a desire for death”) goes hand in hand with a manifest lecherousness waiting for the right moment to pounce on the hapless Irena—with a predictably poor outcome for Dr. Judd. By now the film has moved into its phase of overt horror, but as is well known, these horrors are not overt at all. Everything is done by suggestion and omission.

The famous extended set pieces—the unseen Irena, transformed by jealous rage, stalking Alice in Central Park, and again in the basement swimming pool of an apartment building—are built on imperceptibility and affirmed only after the fact by the marks left behind: paw prints trailing off into heel marks, a bathrobe clawed to shreds. What lingers in memory is a bush rustling where some creature has just disappeared, or the glistening surface of the water in the darkened swimming pool while a cat growls among the shadows. We must assume that Irena has turned into a panther, but we never see it happen; we scarcely see the panther at all, save for a fleeting and too literal studio-imposed insert in one sequence. It is a brilliant instance of making the best of budgetary constraints, trusting to effectively managed suggestion over inadequate special effects, but the effect goes deeper. Irena’s transformation takes on the aura of a holy of holies not to be profaned by being filmed.

The triumph of Cat People is to tell this story without recourse to clearly distinguished categories of good and evil. Nobody can quite help being what they are, including cat people and even Dr. Louis Judd, and Irena and Oliver alike are tragic figures unable, for all their deep longing, to bridge the gulf between incompatible worlds. A movie that begins with a portentous and spurious quote from a book attributed to Dr. Judd himself—The Anatomy of Atavism—closes with lines (quoted slightly inaccurately) from John Donne’s Holy Sonnets: “But black sin hath betrayed to endless night / My world, both parts, and both parts must die.” One might well wonder where the sin lay—hardly with Irena, condemned to an eternal loneliness by a force entirely beyond her control. With Lewton, under all the other layers of his films, there is always a note of that “desire for death” of which Dr. Judd murmurs almost seductively to Irena at the zoo. To spectators in the shelter of a darkened movie theater nestled within the uneasy security of wartime America, Cat People offered a forbidden hint that it might not be so terrible to surrender to oblivion, going beyond grief and dissatisfaction into darkness: “I like the dark; it’s friendly.”