Val Lewton’s Cat People is a classic example of a cinematic diamond-in-the-rough.Recognized for decades as a definitive chiller, it was conceived as a title, with no story or notion in mind, and as a way of generating cash for RKO. Made in the midst of World War II, it transposed the horror movies’ conventional Old World legends into Freudian vernacular, and recast the standard romantic conflicts in surprisingly direct (for the time) sexual terms. In doing so, Cat People advanced the movie-going public’s notions of horror, fear, and lust by at least two decades. And it did all of that on a budget of less than $135,000. Val Lewton was a successful author, the nephew of the famed Russian actress Nazimova. He had been employed for several years as a writer by David O. Selznick when RKO offered him the chance to produce horror movies. The studio was still reeling from the financial debacle of Orson Welles’ tenure, and new production chief Charles Koerner was charged with establishing a reliable cash flow. Taking his lead from rival Universal, which had climbed out of a similar financial hole with a new series of horror movies, Koerner wanted to release a series of chillers, all strictly budgeted and using titles that had been tested by the studio’s sales department.
The offer was presented to Lewton: if he followed those restrictions, he would have a free hand with the films themselves.Lewton took that freedom and ran with it, producing a series of the most literate and delicately conceived and executed B-movies ever made, of which Cat People was the first. According to Lewton scholar Joel E. Siegel, he initially intended to adapt Algernon Blackwood’s Ancient Sorceries, but quickly realized that the required period setting would strain his budget. So instead, with screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, he took the notion of Serbian women animal worshippers and came up with Cat People. Alongside Bodeen, Lewton assembled a production team that included expatriate French director Jacques Tourneur, editor Mark Robson—himself a cast off from Orson Welles’ tenure at RKO—and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca to work on the film.
As it turned out, Cat People was almost too sophisticated for RKO’s management, who felt that audiences would feel “cheated” by Lewton’s reliance on suggested, rather than depicted, horror, and insisted that a couple of the tensest horror scenes include visible shots of a real black leopard stalking its victims. Fortunately, Tourneur’s overall handling of the film, coupled with Robson’s deft editing, reduced the impact of these shots to a bare minimum. Indeed, most viewers, then and now, scarcely remember seeing the big cat—they just remember the palpable fear of those scenes.And a lot of people saw Cat People. Released as a B-picture in tandem with another low-budget feature, Lewton’s film was held over for weeks in many of the theaters into which it was booked, as word spread about this fascinating, terrifying little movie. Ironically, while Cat People did well throughout the country, it was even more popular in towns and small cities than it was in places such as New York and Los Angeles—where one assumes audiences would have been more attuned to its notions of psychological horror, but where it had to compete with bigger-budget, higher-profile films. Lewton’s little “programmer” ended up as one of RKO’s most successful movies of the 1940s, earning something over $2,000,000—a figure more appropriate to a major MGM blockbuster of the same period. The producer was immediately encouraged to deliver more movies like it, and he did: I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), The Ghost Ship (1943), Curse of the Cat People (1944), The Body Snatcher (1945), Isle of the Dead (1945), and Bedlam (1946). They were different from Cat People—Lewton never did another movie as focused on sexuality as Cat People, with its lesbian and fetishist undertones—but several, including I Walked with a Zombie, The Seventh Victim and Curse of the Cat People, were more sophisticated. Some were pretentious, and a few, like Bedlam, overreached, but none disappointed anyone except Lewton, who was unable to follow this series with anything nearly as successful before his death in 1951.
His production team became a breeding ground for a new generation of filmmakers. Tourneur left for his own successful career (which included Out of the Past and Curse of the Demon), and was succeeded by Robson, who graduated to the director’s chair on The Seventh Victim and later created such classics as Champion, Home of the Brave, The Harder They Fall, and Von Ryan’s Express; he was replaced by Robert Wise (another refugee from RKO’s Welles era), who rose from editor to director on Curse of the Cat People and went on to Blood on the Moon, The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and The Sand Pebbles.
The members of Lewton’s stock company achieved their best work with Lewton: Simone Simon, who had previously had one Hollywood success as a featured player in The Devil and Daniel Webster, found the role of a lifetime as the tormented Irena Dubrovna. Kent Smith’s work as Oliver, the architect in Cat People, is one of only two film roles for which he is remembered (the other is Peter Keating—ironically, another designer—in The Fountainhead). Former Philadelphia model Elizabeth Russell, a picture veteran since the late 1930’s, found her first memorable screen part in the virtually silent role of the “cat woman” Irena encounters during the party at the restaurant. She became a member of the Lewton stock company, and plays a major (and terrifying) role in the 1944 film Curse of the Cat People. And Tom Conway, just emerging from the shadow of his brother George Sanders, did the best work of his whole career in Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and The Seventh Victim.