It’s a bright, sunny day and the citizens of New York are enjoying the pleasant weather at the Central Park Zoo, which is the perfect place for the two of the best-looking people in the city to meet cute. The exotic beauty of fashion designer Irena Dubrovna (French/Italian actress Simone Simon) attracts the attention of the blandly handsome Ollie Reed (Kent Smith) when a discarded sketch of hers misses the trash barrel, and before you know it, she’s inviting him up to tea in her improbably palatial apartment. This is followed by an ambiguous scene designed to evade the censorship of the day, and not long afterwards, they’re getting married.
What’s that they say about repenting at leisure? Ollie’s been ignoring a lot of signs that Irena is not exactly the girl next door. When they first met, she was absorbed in sketching a caged panther. On that very first “date,” she tells him she comes from a cursed village where people worshipped Satan. Her apartment is furnished with, among other things, a large screen with an image of a panther and a statue of King John of Serbia spearing a cat—or a woman in the form of a cat, because that’s part of the legend she just told Ollie. When they go to a pet shop, all the animals go crazy. And at the wedding dinner, a strange, feline woman (Elizabeth Russell) upsets Irena by addressing her as “My sister.” But poor Ollie is such a gosh-golly American—and certainly no believer in strange legends from the Old World—that he completely misses what quickly becomes obvious to the audience.
Irena and Ollie are madly in love, but they just can’t make it work. Apart from its excellence as a psychological horror film, Cat People also deserves credit as a rare example of a 1940s film that frankly portrays a young couple having sexual difficulties. Irena begins to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway, menace fairly oozing out of his pores), while Ollie begins to turn his attention toward his attractive co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph, sporting a marvelous collection of hats). Irena can sense what’s going on, and begins stalking Alice, leading to several scenes of real tension, including one on the Central Park transverse that introduces Lewton’s famous “bus” effect. Another, set in an indoor swimming pool, works remarkably well despite studio interference that resulted in it being more explicit than originally planned.
Lewton took full advantage of the resources available within the studio framework, and Cat People looks a lot better than your average “B” movie. Part of this is due to his clever reuse of sets designed for bigger-budget movies—among others, the Zoo set from several Fred and Ginger musicals, and the staircase from The Magnificent Ambersons—but much of the credit should go to the team of director Jacques Tourneur (in his feature debut) and cinematographer Nicholas Murasaca (seriously, is there anything Murasaca couldn’t do with shadows?). Cat People is a psychological horror film, so don’t come expecting to see a woman transform to a CGI cat before your eyes. Instead, come for the subtlety and slow-creeping terror and Lewton’s patented combination of fantasy and psychology grounded in real human experience. | Sarah Boslaugh
You can find where Cat People is streaming on reedgood.com. Be sure to click on the 1942 black-and-white film, not the 1982 Natassja Kinski remake.