Cat People (1942) – The Power of Suggestion

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.

Jane Randolph, Simone Simon, and Kent Smith

Image: Pinterest

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 and Kent Smith in a promo shoot for the film

Image: https://www.facebook.com/tcmtv/photos/a.202574775395/10155719032290396/?type=3&theater

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.

Simon in a promo shoot for the film

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.

Smith and Simon in a promo shoot for the film

Image: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0808949/mediaviewer/rm1852855552

Roy Webb

Image: Imdb

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.

Jane Randolph and Kent Smith

Image: https://rowereviews.weebly.com/viewing-log–reviews/cat-people-1942-jacques-tourneur

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.

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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!

Niagara (1953) – Marilyn and the Falls

Image via: https://www.hojobythefalls.com/content/marilyn-monroe

The more powerful force of nature? I’ll let you watch and decide! Niagara is the film that put Marilyn Monroe on the map. Through the character of Rose Loomis, she established the persona and style that would follow for the rest of her career.

Niagara concerns two couples on holiday at one of the most romantic places on earth, Niagara Falls; however, the two couples couldn’t be more different. Polly (Jean Peters) and Ray Cutler (Casey Adams) are there on a delayed honeymoon and are as happy as newlyweds. Rose (Marilyn Monroe) and George Loomis (Joseph Cotten) have a strained relationship and are there to regain marital bliss. The suspense builds as Polly becomes involved with the unhappy couple and notices that there’s more to them than meets the eye.

Niagara is one of the few film noirs that were shot in Technicolor, and boy, does it deliver. With the setting of the infamous falls, the addition of color is absolutely essential and heightens the drama in this suspense thriller.

The film takes full advantage of its magnificent setting by masterfully showcasing the natural beauty and danger of the falls. Niagara perfectly captures the feeling of being at the site, and the thundering of the rushing water is never far away.

The cinematography in this film is stunning. Yes, black and white noir films are beautiful and iconic; but when done artfully, color can have its own luminous quality. We can thank Joe MacDonald, the cinematographer, for that.

Joe MacDonald
image via: IMDB

MacDonald was born in Mexico and came to Hollywood in the 1920’s working as an assistant camera man. By the 1940’s he was a full fledged cinematographer at 20th Century Fox. Among the movies he filmed were My Darling Clementine (1946), Call Northside 777 (1948), and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). Though he didn’t win (a three time nominee) any accolades during his lifetime, MacDonald holds the honor of being the first Mexican born cinematographer, and left behind a legacy of seventy-five films.

Marilyn absolutely glows throughout this movie. Not only visually, but in her role as well. She portrays a woman with a lust for life, ready to do anything to be with the man she loves. A very broad character indeed; and yet, she plays the part with such subtlety. Her performance is found in a look, a roll of the shoulder, a smirk. It is a shame that she didn’t go on to make another film noir as she is quite enjoyable to watch in this one.

Henry Hathaway and Marilyn Monroe
Image via: IMDB

Henry Hathaway, the director of Niagara, said that Marilyn was “marvelous to work with, very easy to direct and terrifically ambitious to do better. And bright, really bright…” Hathaway commented to a columnist in 1952, “She’s the best natural actress I’ve directed, and I go back. I’ve worked with Barbara LaMar, Jean Harlow, Rene Adoree-right up to today…”

Henry Hathaway learned his craft from the best. In the 1920’s he was an assistant director to such notables as de Mille and Victor Fleming. Hathaway made his own directorial debut in 1932 and became known for his work in westerns, including How the West was Won (1962), and noirs, such as Fourteen Hours (1951). He was at his best in action sequences, location shooting, and excelled at driving the narrative tension. Niagara stands as a fine example of the talented director’s work.

Let’s get to the rest of the cast! Joseph Cotten and Jean Peters work very well together on screen, creating a rapport between their characters and with us, the audience. This was a lovely piece of casting; however, Casey Adams is another story. He might have been brought in to provide some relief and lightness to the dark plot, but his style could have been better used elsewhere. The dialogue he was given does not help matters either. For me, the film does lose its steam about three-quarters of the way in (for repeat viewings only; the first time I saw it I was riveted.)

Jean Peters and Joseph Cotten

Niagara never gets old. It contains wonderful performances, standout moments, stunning visuals, and a gripping story line. All these reasons and more make it a film that’s not to be missed!

Legacy

According to film historian Sylvia Stoddard, there was a new system invented to make filming at the falls possible for the equipment. “In order to keep the camera lens free of water drops and mist during filming, a lens that could be kept dry and clear in any kind of weather was developed at a cost of $10,000…Cinematographer Joe MacDonald predicted it would be in wide use shortly and was worthy of a technical achievement Oscar.”

Marilyn’s iconic pink dress, designed by Dorothy Jeakins, was in demand the moment audience members saw it on the big screen. Since then it has been copied, sold, and served as inspiration for designers.

Side note: (This shade of pink reminds me of Esther William’s bathing suit in Bathing Beauty (1944), our first look at the swimming star in Technicolor. Was this Hollywood’s “look at me” color?)

image via: books.google.com

Niagara contains the “longest walk in cinema history” – a view of Marilyn walking away from the camera, which used 116 feet of film.

A great companion to this movie would be the book, Falling for Marilyn: The Lost Niagara Collection by Jock Carroll. Mr. Carroll spent a few weeks with Marilyn in Niagara Falls on the set and behind the scenes. He shares many photographs he took along with his reflections on the time he spent with the young starlet.

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Thanks for reading and for visiting The Classic Movie Muse!