RKO Studios, grumbling over their great misfortune with Orson Welles and Citizen Kane (1941), hired Val Lewton to produce nine low budget horror films. The executives handed Lewton a list of idiotic titles and told him to make some “horror pitchers” that could make money. The RKO execs were looking and hoping for a cheap hack in Lewton. What they got instead was an erudite artist. Numerous directors have imprinted their body of work with their own personality. Few producers have. Val Lewton, did and he began with a film which highlighted two of his own phobias: cats and the fear of being touched.
Cat People (1941) is the first and probably best of Lewton’s nine RKO films. It was directed by Jacques Tourneur. Tourneur’s entries undeniably stand out among the Lewton series, much like Terence Fisher‘s films did with Hammer Films. For the starring role of Irena, Lewton and Tourneur chose the diminutive beauty and temperamental imported French actress Simone Simon. Simon found Hollywood distasteful, and she remained a perennial outsider.
Simon was the perfect choice for Irena. Much Freudian babble has been written about the film, usually focusing on the fear of sex. Undoubtedly, that is an element in Cat People (one that was vapidly intensified in Paul Schrader‘s 1982 glossy MTV-styled remake). However, Irena’s brooding complexity, amidst a world of two-dimensional bores, is the driving impetus. Predictably, the dullards demonize Irena.
Her husband, Oliver (Kent Smith) is the worst of the lot: banal, hopelessly bourgeois, unimaginative, and attached to hyper-realism: the impotence is on his part, not Irena’s. Oliver can only wither in the company of such fiery intricacy.
Irena’s psychiatrist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) tries to convince her that her world is a hopeless fantasy and that she merely needs a real man to show her the light. Irena’s response is to dim her countenance, brandish her claws, and catapult the condescending idiot into oblivion. Good for her.
If only she could have dispatched Oliver in a similar fashion. Marrying the vacuous, phony puritan Oliver is Irena’s downfall. (Off screen, Simone Simon made no such missteps. She never married, and had numerous affairs with artists, including George Gershwin). Almost matching Oliver in monotony is his sort-of girlfriend Alice (Jane Randolph) who feels bad that poor little Oliver has a wife that won’t put out and give him the American dream. Oliver and Alice ban Irena from a stroll through the art museum. Thinking themselves superior in their suburban elitism, Oliver and Alice mantle the attitude that only they are privileged to view the art on display. Perhaps Irena will spend too much time actually looking at the art and disrupt what, to Oliver and Alice, is merely a trendy fashion statement.
Randolph and Smith are perfectly awful in their roles. There is an unintended moment of hilariously wretched acting when Oliver and Alice, pursued by Irena in the form of a panther, hold up a cross and cry: “In the name of God, leave us in peace, Irena!” Disappointingly, we do not witness Irena clawing their suburban dogmas to shreds. Irena, the Eve-like animal and curse upon patriarchal structure, temporarily withdraws.
Cat People is indeed a horror film. Its moments of horror are much celebrated. The above-mentioned pursuit, soaked in expressionist shadows, climaxes in screeching bus; the avatar for Irena’s terror. The swimming pool sequence is an even more discussed classic, deserving of the accolades it has received. Innovative camera angles, lighting, and pacing evoke a blackened, nervous cry. One of the film’s best moments is a more intimate one, with Irena clawing through the cover of a couch.
While not all of Lewton’s films are good, they were a refreshing anti-thesis to the rot that was then being churned out by the Universal factory. RKO executives, initially, did not think so. One such exec walked out of the Cat People screening, convinced of the film’s worthlessness. To his surprise, the film brought in 5 times it’s cost. The unimaginative exec might have been named Olivier.
Predictably, RKO wanted a sequel to their surprise hit and sent Lewton an additional title to produce: Curse of the Cat People. Lewton did, indeed, produce it. But, he delivered a different kind of gem altogether.