Cat People is many things. A precursor to the minimalist horror that would make films like Jaws, Alien and The Thing from Another World so terrifying in their suggestive properties. An equally important film in the creation of the psychosexual thriller, in which hangups are expanded and compounded until the weight of dogmatic ideas of purity collapse on top of the naïf forced to bear the burden (see: Black Swan, a sizable portion of Roman Polanski's filmography). But what it is primarily is a slap in the face not only to the moral impetus behind the Hays Code but the lingering argument that the cleverness of Old Hollywood was indebted to the restrictions placed upon films by censors.* Numerous artists attacked the Code through their work, but few are as scathing as this digestible thriller.
Cat People opens at a zoo, following a woman as she sketches the caged animals. Up walks Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), a man who oozes such a stereotypically American presence one expects a bald eagle to swoop in and land on his arm carrying letters from President Roosevelt. He strikes up a conversation with the woman, a Serbian-born fashion designer named Irena (Simone Simon), though for someone who must deal with the egotistical world of fashion regularly, she is incredibly shy. Despite her feline looks and black dress, she projects an innocence that casts her less as a removed ice queen than an inexperienced ingénue. Still, she does invite the man up to her room almost immediately.
That room establishes what director Jacques Tourneur, then a side player at RKO Pictures, and producer Val Lewton were trying to do with the film. It's as spacious as one might expect the flat of a fashion designer to be, but it's filled with the sort of trinkets and decorations one might expect of an immigrant's tenement. The one piece of old-country art and superstition (they never seem to be that distinct from each other) that attracts Oliver's eye is of a miniature statue of King John of Serbia, a symbol he, being the all-American he is, cannot fathom. His confusion only deepens when Irena goes into the legend behind the monarch, her voice rising with excitement and faith as she relates the story of John freeing her village from a strange band of people who terrorized the residents by turning into cats. Suddenly, the kind but aloof and chic woman walking with poise among the vulgarity of a zoo takes on a more childlike quality.
Exacerbating Irena's superstition is the location of her apartment. It overlooks the zoo, forcing Irena to listen to the animal howls and roars all night. Yet she does not mind, save for the panther, the one beast that continues to defy its capture, stalking around its cage and "screaming like a woman." Irena, who fears that the old folk legend is true and that she might be a descendant of the cat people, fears the panther yet always returns to look at and listen to it. Later, a therapist (Tom Conway) remarks upon her inability to separate herself from her fear and suggests she wants to unleash the panther as an instrument of death, something he says with the breezy tone of a comment upon the weather.
Yes, the panther stands in for Irena's pent-up sexual frustration, a fear of her own libido instilled in her by superstition, and the manner in which that metaphor is hidden in plain sight will no doubt inspire the defenders of the Hays Office to note the subtle boldness of the suggestion, but Tourneur and writer DeWitt Bodeen turn that symbolism against itself. By forcing the character to place her sexual frustrations and insecurities into an outside object to avoid dealing with such "lurid" matter directly, the filmmakers demonstrate how Irena tortures herself . Every day she stands before the symbol of her caged but untamed desires, wanting desperately to free the beast, as it were, but still too terrified to give herself to Oliver, even after they marry. Though some blatant Christian imagery and dialogue is included, Cat People makes several unmistakable equations between the folkloric hokum that psychologically stunts Irena within the film's diegesis and the puritanical Christian morality of the Hays Office that limits what Tourneur et al. can do with her from a structural standpoint.
Of course, Irena does eventually prove herself to be one of the titular cat people, but that is less a vindication of her superstition than a further point on the nature of censorship and repression. By restraining her passion, Irena does not cure herself of desire; she merely dams the natural flow of emotions, building a reservoir of frustration, aggression and hunger that turns her into a monster when it explodes from her.
The marriage between Irena and Oliver is the primary casualty of her hangups: Oliver loves Irena deeply and is incapable of thinking about anything else. Oliver is so all-American he orders apple pie every time he eats out -- even when a black waitress recommends the chicken gumbo -- but Irena may be the first foreign thing or person he's ever engaged. But the filmmakers point out the importance of sex in a healthy relationship: as emotionally complicated (sometimes contradictory) and occasionally unromantic an act as it is, sex is a display of passion. By refusing to give in to her own passions, Irena snuffs her husband's, and he turns to Alice (Jane Rudolph), the friend who loves him and wants to give in to her desires.
Tourneur manages to interweave this relationship drama and the creeping horror that arises from it until they are one and the same. Alice's mere presence brings up the jealousy and anger Irena begs Oliver not to create in her, but Oliver, who is such a man it's not even funny, just cannot figure out why it's so bad to spend so much time with another woman, even after Alice confesses her love for him. Irena tries to push Oliver away, but when she succeeds, she feels intense, furious jealousy at the woman who can reciprocate his love.
However, Irena does not particularly unleash her fury in the gory, intense manner one might expect from a horror film. Simon's performance has been building to this quieter terror the entire time: from the moment we meet her, she's distant. One could attribute that to classic Hollywood acting style, but Tourneur goes out of his way at the start to present a more natural tone for everyone but Simon, down to Smith's boastful ringing of a waste bin with a tossed bit of paper, his triumphant smile fading when he turns round to find Irena not even looking at him. Her catlike looks, all sharp with just enough softness to suggest a hidden beast, create a mild but forgotten whiff of unease when she relates the story of the cat people, but her stilted delivery does far more to disconcert the audience. As befits someone for whom English is a second language, Irena speaks directly and bluntly even when discussing emotions. She wears a plastered-on, transparent smile that belies a darker energy, and she radiates an unsettling quality long before she more openly displays her edge.
Tourneur captures Irena's mounting rage with two justly famous scenes that are not scary so much as gripping, to my immense satisfaction. One occurs after Irena spots Oliver eating in a restaurant with Alice. On her way home, Alice hears the sound of footsteps behind her and stops, looks back and sees...nothing. No shadow, no rustling leaves, nothing. Cut back to Alice, who walks some more, hears the noise again, and stops. This time, the winter-stripped branches of some trees move in the breeze, but still not so much as the inkling of a shape. Back-forth, back-forth. What the hell is going on? Is there anything here? I can't even hear anything at this point; is the sound working? Am I going insane? Then, the whole thing deflates with an amusing half-jump, a sharp hiss breaking into the soundtrack, only for Tourneur to reveal that it's just the sound of a bus pumping its air brakes. Naturally, Alice jumps on in an instant. Thank God. My heart couldn't take it if she took one more step.
Later, Tourneur crafts one of the simplest but powerful bits of suspense I've ever seen. Where the previous moment of terror works because of its repetitious nature, constantly oscillating between Alice's increasingly panicked face and the horrifyingly non-eventful reverse shot, this sequence unfolds with sparse linearity until the structure collapses in modulated chaos. Alice goes for a swim in the basement of her apartment complex, but before she can get in the pool, a cat hisses and stands up on end. Looking back at the stairwell, the shadow of a large cat -- possibly a panther -- appears. In a panic, Alice leaps into the pool to protect herself, and the ripples of the water reflect light onto the walls, dissipating a steady light and making it impossible to sort out whether the darkness that passes over the walls is the shadow of a woman, a panther, or nothing at all. Tourneur reuses his shot/reverse shot, but it's less disciplined here, as if the camera operator himself has been spooked.
Both scenes stand out among the constant building of things-going-amiss, never giving fully into horror but stringing along a series of chilling shots that make what may be a silly B-movie into something gripping and interpretive. Footprints left in sheep's blood turn from feline pads to a woman's shoe-print. A shot of a revolving door creaking to a halt during the climax is as terrifying as both of the celebrated scenes, the grim twirl saying more about the fear Alice and Oliver feel than the previous shot showing them actually confronting the Irena panther.
And those ceilings. God, it's been so long since I've binged on classic Hollywood pictures that I've forgotten just how wonderful high ceilings can be. They are a relic of the old way of making movies, back when damn near everything was on a set. How could a New York flat have a ceiling that high? It's impossible; you could divide the vertical space of Irena's flat into two floors and no one would notice. But those absurd dimensions allow Tourneur to complicate his largely static camera, using low-angle shots to further distort the size and distance between characters in the epic apartments. So stretched and warped are the interiors that anyone, or anything, could hide in the masses of shadow that exist around the characters.
The falling action further links the supernatural horror of the last act with the sly commentary presented in the film's first half. Instead of releasing the panther in the zoo, Irena becomes one herself, deepening the symbolism and metaphor. Religious imagery comes into play, but it's at least slightly ironic, from the use of a T-square as a makeshift cross to frighten the beast away to a broadly cynical bit of text at the end. Tourneur and especially Lewton, who would go on to save RKO from bankruptcy with the popular response to this film and his subsequent horror pictures, implicate that same spirituality with the mental forces that weigh on Irena. Cat People is one of the most acerbically anti-Code films I've yet seen, and it attacks the idea of legislating morality and adhering to the behavioral codes set down through antiquated mythology. Irena is as much a victim as the anti-ice queen of Roman Polanski's Repulsion, molded and misshapen by a society that sets such unreal and cramped boundaries that it's inevitable the people contained within them will burst out.
Just as impressively, however, Cat People works almost flawlessly on its surface level, and as a piece of termite art, it's damned magnificent -- I actually thumbed through my copy of Farber on Film looking to see if the great Manny had reviewed up but only came up with a blurb in the middle of a piece on another Val Lewton production years later that mentioned Tourneur's film in passing as "my idea of the best Hollywood film in about three years." Deftly plotted and sturdily directed, Cat People retains its thrilling possibilities. Yet the sinister tendrils of commentary running underneath it make it so much more, and the terror of self that infects Irena extends and melds with the fear of morality of a different but all too familiar stripe.
*This is an argument so astronomically dumb and antithetical to any appreciation of art that I never know where to start with it; thankfully, I can just point to the Self-Styled Siren, who has fought this noble and necessary fight for years and has condensed her response into one terrific post that contains the hilarious line, " It's silly to suppose that no Code means Lubitsch would have made Last Tango in Paris."