In reference to the final sketch that is drawn at the beginning of the picture and then casually left and carelessly discarded outside a panther cage at the zoo, I thought I’d start with a little joke;
“You can’t leave that lyin’ there!”
“It’s not a lion, it’s a panther.”
As we are introduced to the pretty Serbian fashion designer Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), she is quietly creative, drawing pictures of an imposing feline at Central Park Zoo. On each failed attempt to achieve the required likeness, she rips the paper from her pad, tossing it aside with little or no thought for where it may land. When we see the final attempt, it is easy to see why she tossed it away. For an artist, she clearly still has some practicing to do. Given her predisposition for big cats, it is surprising she can’t draw them more accurately.
It is at this point that she meets Oliver Reed (no, not that one, instead, the one played here by Kent Smith), who picks up both her and her rejected sketches. The latter, he throws in the bin. The former, well, let’s say he takes a good deal more care with. Inexplicably, even for these days, Irena is forward enough to invite Oliver into her home after he walks her back there, which is glamourously furnished and expansive enough to make you question where this lonely foreign girl gets the money to pay the rent. Not from her sketches, surely?
These two strangers, somewhat for the sake of a painfully short seventy-three minute running time. fall quickly in love. How they manage this is questionable, as we are not privy to the reasons for their infatuations. With Oliver, it is more obvious. Irena is beautiful and alluring, yet fragile and helpless in a new world where she has few friends (perhaps she ate them). But she is reticent to fall for Oliver, for reasons she slowly reveals over the term of their courtship. Although her notions seem fantastical to Oliver, he is a patient, caring man, but even his loyal, unconsummated nature has its limits, and once married, he sets about trying to find someone to ‘cure’ her, with the help of his confidante, Alice, from work.
By the arrival of Cat People, Jacques (Jack) Tourneur had already made four other pictures in the US after a stint at direction in his native France. Cat People was to be his most successful flim, however, and it is cited by many as a classic of the horror genre. Made for less than $150,000, its immediate box office success ensured it turned a nice profit, although critics were less enamoured with the film straight out of the gates. Nonetheless, it has endured to become a firm favourite of many noteworthy auteurs, fans and critics as a great example of what can be achieved in the creation of mood and lighting, despite the constraints of finance.
And Tourneur does indeed light and shoot his film imaginatively. The story is an oddity, to be sure, and the scares are tame by today’s morally questionable standards of storytelling. There are few out and out shock moments and the acting by some of the more secondary actors is woeful at times, but thankfully this is in the hands of some very watchable ‘talent’ in the form of Simon, Kent Smith and Jane Randolph in particular. It is never reeking with acting brilliance and the cast do just about enough with what little they really have to go on. Several scenes, however are completely gripping, such as when Alice is treading water in the swimming pool, while she is literally stalked by her assailant that prefers to remain in the shadows and reflections of the undulating water.
Not as racy as you might have heard, with a glimpse of stocking top about as sordid and filthy as it gets, this is indeed an edge-of-your-seat experience, even if the total payoff may be lacking. As always, I try to imagine what a forty-five year old Steve would have made of this in 1942, and I can imagine being very excited at the prospect of what was a highly anticipated event, but I would still have left the cinema feeling like it probably wasn’t as horrifying as my own imagination had prepared me for.