erun, re-released, and discussed regularly, Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People has become a horror classic. It is a film I am mysteriously drawn to whenever and wherever it is shown or mentioned. I’ve had a VHS recording for years. Why then does part of me find it overrated and tiresome?
The problem is the premise. Whether wild and untamed, domestic and cute, I just don’t find cats scary! Indeed, being a sucker for the domestic variety, and encouraged from a young age to believe that big cats are in more danger from us than we are from them, the horrific implications of Irena Dubrovna’s transformation from human to panther are lost on me.
In this 1942 film, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), a shipping draughtsman, meets and falls in love with Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a commercial illustrator from Serbia. Irena believes that she is descended from the “cat women” of her village who, according to legend, take the form of killer panthers when sexually aroused. And until she has resolved the evil in her, Irena cannot give herself to Oliver after they marry. Oliver urges Irena to see a psychiatrist, and turns increasingly to his colleague Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) for moral support.
While many a ’40s film noir, to which Cat People is in some respects related, treated male paranoia over female sexuality very convincingly without the aid of metaphors, Cat People becomes more and more eccentric for me with each passing year. Knowing that I won’t be appalled or traumatized, I nevertheless return to it when I’m in the mood for its textbook qualities. I realize now that I’ve been traipsing back again and again for its historical resonance, its sense of cinema, a liveliness that increasingly falls under the sexy modern label “Cult,” and occasionally, very occasionally, a spooky frisson.
That scene in which Alice walks home alone down a night-lit street is one of the most celebrated episodes in the annals of the American horror movie. As Tourneur aficionado Chris Fujiwara perceptively observes, the intermittent darkness and pools of light through which Alice passes are part of a scheme that pervades Cat People. The film, photographed by Nicholas Musuraca, is a concerto in darkness and light. Accompanying Alice is the distinctive click of high heels on the sidewalk alternating with Alice’s muted and measured footsteps. The climax comes as the unnerved young woman thinks she hears a low growl before a bus pulls up alongside her, its air brakes hissing. The economic use of light and sound has made this something of a key moment in film history. Later, the famous swimming-pool scene finds Alice menaced by something that dances in a web of shadow up the walls while “Alice’s reverb-drenched screams assault us” (Fujiwara). Again, the scene is a miracle of spooky economy.
It is just as well that, like The Blair Witch Project did in 1998, Cat People relied on the basics of cinema to scare the pants off people because I for one don’t buy big-cat horror. Ghosts, vampires, zombies, witches, “presences”—I can enter into the spirit. But not cats. Cats are beautiful creatures. Big cats are endangered. If we don’t get wise to ourselves, there won’t be any Siberian tigers left. Now that is scary! Even the film’s title has an innocuous ring to it. In Britain, “cat people” are nothing more or less than people who like cats, as opposed to “dog people.” It is symptomatic of this movie’s quaintness that its title evokes not a jot of the Gothic.
Cat People’s play with shadows and sound is arguably about America and Europe. Emphasized near the beginning by a folksy childlike song, Irena’s exoticism, her difference, is part of a dialectic between alien and American that was not irrelevant to an America newly at war when the film appeared. That Irena and Oliver come together so quickly at the beginning, then drift apart as her strangeness takes hold, resonates with a nation committed to defending democracy but uncertain over abandoning traditional isolationism in the face of an inscrutable world. Irena is driven by mysterious passions, and strikes in the dark. Oliver and Alice meet during the day and use reason to understand things. Cat People drifts between the darkness of irrational instinct and the light of common sense. (Indeed, this straightforward mapping of theme onto image makes it an easy movie to teach).
That inscrutable world is evoked at Irena and Oliver’s wedding reception where a mysterious woman approaches Irena with the utterance “Moj sestra?” By contrast, when the bus stops for Alice, the driver says in very American vernacular, “Hop on, sister . . . Are you ridin’ with me, or ain’t you?” Irena has to tell Oliver (and us) that the Serbo-Croat words mean “My sister?” Irena is at once exotic and different, alluring but threatening. Even the click of her heels, as opposed to Alice’s muted footsteps, suggest a fancy, ornamental, European cast, compared with the domestically manufactured, probably nurse’s regulation shoes worn by American working women like Alice Moore (or Mildred Pierce). David Thomson writes of Simone Simon: “[H]er unease with English supports the sense of occult, while her buttoned-up prettiness is a poignant sign of sexual inhibition.”
By comparison with Irena, Alice is pragmatic and a warm and wisecracking American girl-next-door. At one point in DeWitt Bodeen’s script, she tells the stolid Oliver, flirtatiously: “I’m a new type of ‘Other Woman.’” When we see Alice in the swimming pool, she is wearing a bathing suit that boldly hints at her flesh-and-blood allure. Even Alice’s surname—Moore—suggests a woman more substantial than the exotic but elusive Irena. Of Irena, the poster blares: “She knew strange, fierce pleasures that no other woman could ever feel!” Yet notice how the swimming-pool scene, with its shapely young woman under threat, steers us to appreciate the pleasures in store for Oliver and Alice! Indeed, Alice’s remark also comments upon Cat People’s subversion of a generic archetype. Here the “Other Woman” is not the vamp but the nice girl.
Partly because she has been disregarded in critical circles for so long, the “girl next door” probably warrants closer scrutiny. (I say this without a hint of irony.) There has been an actual, lived-in quality to many examples of this Hollywood archetype that illustrates, by default, the contrived quality of her exotic opposite. The women Teresa Wright and Cathy O’Donnell essayed in The Best Years of Our Lives and Shadow of a Doubt, Virginia Huston in Out of the Past, Nancy Olsen in Sunset Boulevard, the characters Jeanne Crain used to play; all are rooted in the specific textures of day-to-day lives. Realistic agents of identification for the audience, they embody the circumstances and aspirations of millions of ordinary women in American towns and cities in the middle decades of the last century.
Irena seems to lack a personal history. Instead, the foregrounding of legend, the spooky baggage, suggests the over-determination necessary to shore up the woman-of-mystery cliché. J.P Telotte, writing in the very good Dreams of Darkness, his book on Cat People’s celebrated producer Val Lewton, argues that the Americans Oliver and Alice seem rootless in any specific sense. But codified in indigenous terms—Oliver is “a good plain Americano,” loves apple pie—Oliver and Alice do not need a past. We don’t need to know their Social Security numbers to take them at face value.
Once upon a time, I would argue with friends that there was something xenophobic about Cat People’s setting Simone Simon’s beautiful immigrant up as a weirdo while Oliver got together with “good egg” Alice. Indeed, one evening I tried to argue for it as a “woman’s picture” about a young married who, like Joan Fontaine in Rebecca, couldn’t bear the idea of being touched. But, as alluring as the cross-pollination generated by Simone Simon is, and as much as La Simon lures me back to Renoir’s La Bête humaine (The Human Beast/Judas Was a Woman), the less Irena is a real character and the more she becomes a pathology.
But of course, Irena isn’t real. She is an insufficiency in men and a derangement in women, a symptom of gender in crisis. A femme fatale as slaughtered in print as she has been on screen. And so now I feel seduced by Alice’s matter-of-fact curves and sociocultural availability. Alice charts a genuine mid-century cinema-going demographic, one that an enterprising film researcher might usefully seek out before it passes into history.
Despite Cat People’s various stylistic and ideological moments, we live in a different world from the effectively prewar world of 1942. Decades of mounting concern over the environment and urgent appeals to conserve nature militate against the Victorian notion that wild animals should be caged or shot, skinned or stuffed. Growing feminist consciousness militates against both the simplistic opposition femme fatale/girl-next-door, and the idea that a woman’s sexuality is degenerate compared with a man’s.
In an attempt to invest the story with post–slasher cycle horror, Paul Schrader’s 1982 Cat People first offers a glimpse of the ’60s network cartoon Top Cat—smart, lovable, modern kitty—before showing the visceral consequences of the predator’s instinct—ligaments stretching like elastic, blood spurting out—grrrr! But literalizing the horror still doesn’t make the dread of cats tangible, nor the nasty odour of felinist (read: feminist) hatred go away!
Yet I have to admit, that 1942 original remains a true original, a late-night reverie in which barrel organs still haunt municipal parks, unassimilated Europeans still wander American streets, and chiaroscuro rooms pulsate with the accumulated clutter of an old-time studio prop department. Jaded as I am, part of me still lives there. . . .
Richard Armstrong lives in the UK and is books editor for Audience Magazine, where this piece first appeared. It is used by permission.