Cat People - A new kind of horror film

With Cat People, what was to be an effort at cashing in on the wake left by Universal's big-earner The Wolf Man, Lewton and Jacques Tourneur minimized any Universal-style shocks (which also saved on the special effects) and instead tried to imply situations and the presence of the dangerous 'cat person' (Simone Simon) through lighting, camera-work and story tone.

Light-years ahead of the the 1930s style scare methods, either by design or accident, Lewton and Tourneur invented a new way of approaching a monster-movie subject that required the audience to participate by the suggestive manipulations from abstractions put upon the screen. The idea being that the viewer is going to 'see' things that are not actually there if the hints are strong but subtle. Some of this was achieved by Tourneur simply putting his hand in front of the arc-lamps used to light a scene they were filming, and a vague shadow was projected onto the screen.

Cast and Story in Cat People

The cast of Cat People seem wooden the way program pictures from that era often seem. Relatively stiff leading man Kent Smith is Oliver Reed, a "good plain Americano" as he calls himself, a boat designer who has a chance meeting with troubled fashion artist Irena Dubrovna (Simon) at a zoo and a gentle romance strikes up.

They are soon married, but at the same time Irena's peasant old-world fears about a village curse that will cause her to become a panther if she is emotionally aroused (love, anger or anything else) becomes uppermost in her mind, and she refuses to consummate the marriage. At first the "good Americano" is all understanding and patience, but it runs out once he starts spending time with the warm sympathy of fellow-boat designer Alice Moore (played by Jane Randolph) who has long harbored a secret infatuation for him.

It is Kent Smith's acting style (along with Jane Randolph as the 'other woman') that frames French actress Simone Simon as the 'Cat Woman.' Simone's exotic accent and more natural acting skill is that much more effective when contrasted with the particularly placid Smith.

Although Simon plays the monster of the film, she is the one being victimized, and Lewton and Tourneur (the script is credited to DeWitt Bodeen) have turned the usual Hollywood adultery on it's head: it is the foreigner who is being wronged by the average, well-meaning American lovers.

With the triangle established, Lewton and Tourneur put Irena through her paces with episodes of jealousy, sorrow, despair and anger. Actor Tom Conway is called in as psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd, providing George Sanders-like line delivery (and why not? He was Sander's brother!).

This classic romantic triangle has Dr. Judd trying to crash it with his frequent invitations to a refusing Irena to engage in emotional therapy of a more physical nature, a quest that ends up getting him killed when a vengeful Irena has finally taken shape as a lethal black panther.

Jane Randolph and Kent Smith are the next victims-to-be, but the avenging Irena/panther finally leaves them unharmed when confronted by Smith's pleading 'for God's sake, leave us alone'.

With imaginative cinematography and a small cast that works the story from beginning to end without generic horror-movie histrionics, it is Simone Simon and the tricks of light and sound that that help give Cat People it's special position as an innovative and high quality low-budget film.

The story is that in 1942, after money-lost over Citizen Kane and other projects that didn't do well-enough at the box office, RKO was in precarious condition. A new "B-Unit"was created by RKO executives to make inexpensive thriller movies, they put Val Lewton in charge, and his first film Cat People went into theaters at the end of 1942. It was such a big hit that the profits eased the dangerous financial straits at the studio (some have claimed it saved the studio from bankruptcy), which was now being run by new President Charles Koerner after President George J. Schaefer had resigned in the wake of money lost over Kane and Magnificent Ambersons. RKO changed its concentration to getting out low-cost topical films, such as a title like Hitler's Children (which was in the top ten earning films for 1943) and to not risk too much on 'artistic' endeavors, particulary since RKO has a limited star roster and was often contractually sharing what stars it could get with other studios.

Lewton was already in the throes of making his next movie for RKO when the news came in about Cat People churning strong grosses across the country. Lewton and director Jacques Tournier knew they were on the right path with their methods for "psychological terror" and continued in this style with I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man.

Aside from overseeing title choice and marketing, RKO left Tournier and Lewton alone. But after Lewton's third film Leopard Man did well, RKO had the idea of making even more money by splitting up the Lewton/Tournier team and thus generating more titles faster.

This didn't work, as Tournier and Lewton were at their best together, though Lewton's later titles for his unit (The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, Isle of the Dead, Bedlam, among others) usually did well and were consistently successful critically (and are studied as a group today as 'Lewton films' because they all share similar aesthetic aspects despite being directed by 5 dfferent men). Tournier went on to have a long career, and is probably best known today for the noir Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum, aside from his three Lewton movies.

RKO didn't stay stable, though, a condition that haunted the studios fortunes almost its entire existence. When Koerner died suddenly in 1946, the long-promised promotion of letting Lewton step into straight-ahead "A-Picture" production didn't happen, and in the executive shake-up that followed, Lewton found himself out of a job and his B-Unit dissolved.

Cat People is unique in that it set off the cycle of Lewton movies at RKO, and also incidentally made (depending on your data source) between $2 and $4 million dollars, effectively stabilizing the company (or saving it from bankruptcy, if you believe the claims by many of the Lewton film history boosters who exist). The money also went to some degree in insuring Lewton's control over his miniscule-budgeted unit where he made 8 more films. Though he couldn't control the titles assigned him ("market-tested" was the claim the executives gave for the often-times ridiculous exploitation-tinged titles) Lewton did control the one thing where he had supreme responsibility, the story and selection of director.

Though other names are attached to the writing credits for his films, he is known for making the final revisions and shaping (or reshaping) the movie scripts to fit his own ideals for effective and quality filmmanship (Lewton worked years for David Selznick as a story editor and talent scout searching for Hollywood-appropriate stories: Lewton is known to have disliked Selznick's giant hit Gone with the Wind, but on the other hand was instrumental in bringing Hitchcock to the USA, intending to make a film version of the Titanic story, but instead making Rebecca, among others).

More Cat People 1942

RKO Pictures

Released December 25, 1942 (premiere Dec 6, 1942 - NYC)

Run time: 73 minutes

Directed by Jacques Tourneur

Writen by DeWitt Bodeen (Most Val Lewton bio books claim that Lewton himself wrote the final shooting draft)

Simone Simon as Irena Dubrovna Reed
Kent Smith as Oliver Reed
Tom Conway as Dr. Louis Judd
Jane Randolph as Alice Moore
Jack Holt as The Commodore
Teresa Harris as Minnie

Original Page November 2012

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