You’ve undoubtedly heard the saying “less is more.” In the case of Cat People, that definitely rings true. Producer Val Lewton crafted his first horror flick for RKO from a title and a shoestring budget, but with a masterful usage of light and shadows coupled with sensitive direction, the team elevated the B film into an artistic achievement and a masterpiece of the genre. With complex characters, a story that revolved around the relationships between people, a setting in modern times, and a focus on the unseen, Cat People set out to prove that horror wasn’t all about mad scientists, Tyrolean mansions, and monster makeup.
Set in New York City, the film centers around a Serbian young woman, Irena Dubrovna, (Simone Simon) who is a fashion design artist by trade. She meets and falls in love with Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). They marry, but Irena is troubled. She believes she is descended from a line of people with an ancient curse placed upon them. Haunted by her past and fearful for herself and her husband, Irena seeks for answers, but is she beyond help?
Simone Simon is absolutely marvelous as the sweet but tortured Irena. As a French beauty with a je ne sais quoi, her exotic features and accent fit her character perfectly, lending to the mysterious aura surrounding her. Simone Simon brings out the loneliness that Irena feels, making her an incredibly sympathetic character due to her nuanced performance. In my humble opinion, she makes the film. It’s no wonder that the character of Irena would become the defining role of her career.
Kent Smith plays Irena’s husband, Oliver Reed. American as apple pie, he is drawn to Irena because of her foreignness and exotic charm. Smith’s all-American quality contrasts so well with Simon, making the two a compelling couple. Smith gives a very good performance of a man who goes from being understanding and patient to confused and defeated. It has been said that Smith gave a stilted performance because he did not want to do the movie; however, I think his delivery and style fits the character well. To me, he is a mix between Laurence Olivier in Rebecca and Superman’s alias, Clark Kent – warm but detached, all the while having a desire to be practical and heroic but lacking in tact and discernment.
Roy Webb was chosen as the composer for Cat People. A former assistant to Max Steiner, he became RKO’s chief musical director and worked in virtually every genre. His first credited score is Alice Adams, (1935) while his most famous is Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). For Cat People, Webb gathered inspiration from real life by using the song, “Dodo L’enfant Do,” a French lullaby and favorite of Simon’s, as Irena’s theme. (Listen for Irena briefly singing the song a few times.) As the film goes on, the presumed innocence of the theme gets turned on its head becoming twisted, dark, and ominous. Webb’s haunting score for Cat People effectively conveys feelings of despair and longing, as well as the terror and danger that surrounds the characters.
Cat People is a beautiful film, and if you are in love with black-and-white, stylish cinematography, you are in for a treat. Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca is the genius behind the sumptuous look of Cat People. In 1940, Musuraca filmed what some call the first film noir, Stranger on the Third Floor, and in 1947, he filmed Out of the Past, one of the definitive films of the genre. Similarly, Musuraca brought that rich touch of film noir to Cat People.
Cat People is all about subtlety. The director, Jacques Tourneur, believed that what can be rendered in the imagination is much more frightening than what could be placed on the screen. Val Lewton agreed, “We tossed away the horror formula from the beginning.” Those in favor of explicit horror might be disappointed because of this aspect, but I much prefer it. I love the atmospheric, moody lighting and the poetic nature of the screenplay that sets an appropriately eerie tone as the story unfolds.
For viewing purposes, I highly recommend the Criterion version of the film. The bonus features are great and include a commentary featuring film historian Gregory Mank and audio clips of an interview with Simone Simon. The commentary adds so much to my enjoyment of this film and my appreciation of it. Cat People is one of those films that I get more and more out of as I watch and think about it. Alluring, enigmatic, and unique, Cat People has stood the test of time continuing to draw many viewers into its world of darkness, mystery, light, and shadow.
Behind the Scenes & Trivia
- Cat People was commissioned to make some quick money for RKO and saved the studio from bankruptcy after the box office failure of Citizen Kane (1941).
- Val Lewton’s former employer, David O. Selznick, wrote commending Lewton on his work: “It is an altogether superb producing job, and is in every way a much better picture than ninety percent of the “A” product that I have seen in recent months…it is one of the most credible and most skillfully worked out horror pieces in many years…”
- Cat People was shot in three weeks.
- Cat People was one of the first psychological horror films and was very influential to the horror genre as a whole.
- Before becoming an actress, Simone Simon studied fashion design just like Irena Dubrovna.
This post is my contribution to Dark and Deep: The Gothic Horror Blogathon hosted by Pale Writer. You can read all the other spooky entries here. Many thanks to Gabriela for hosting and for letting me take part in my first blogathon!
Thanks for reading and for visiting The Classic Movie Muse!