Director: Jacques Tourneur
Starring; Tom Conway, Jane Randolph, Simone Simon, Kent Smith
Runtime: 73 minutes
Going back to earlier horror—and one of the few horror films of the 1940s—we have Cat People, a strange film that focuses more on psychology than action. Irena (Simone Simon), a Serbian woman, falls in love with and marries Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). But, believing herself to be under a curse that turns her into a panther if she has any intimacy with a man—even kissing—she denies Oliver any physical contact. As you can imagine, this leads to some tensions in their relationship.
Universal Studios released The Wolf Man a year earlier, another shapeshifter tale that set many of the conventions of the werewolf subgenre. Cat People was influential as well, with how animals get agitated by a shapeshifter, and the linking with sexual arousal and transformation (rather than just the full moon). It also implies that Irena transforms willfully—or perhaps from anger rather than lust, since she changes a couple of times during the movie without any sexual arousal. That is, if you believe that Irena actually changes, and not just delusional (and has convinced the other characters of her delusion). Viewers are still debating this.
Producer Val Lewton, of RKO Radio Pictures, Inc., saw himself in competition with what he considered Universal’s more low-brow version of horror. Like this one, his films often had a more ambivalent, psychological, and existential approach. So he probably wanted to make an artistic alternative to The Wolf Man (though the film is apparently based on a Lewton story published in 1930).
Dated in many ways, particularly in its stance on divorce (a psychiatrist tells Oliver, thinking that Irena is delusional, that mental illness is a good reason to divorce your wife—although that may be because the doctor has designs on Irena himself), the film still holds up as a smart horror classic, perhaps even better than The Wolf Man (which I still enjoy myself). All the actors do a decent job, but it is Simone Simon’s presence that really gives the movie life. An immigrant herself, Simon was notoriously difficult to work with, and had a rather assertive personality. She felt that Irena was the perfect role for her—part of an interview with her is included in the audio commentary, in which she says that she was Irena. Still, her character is not just eccentric or aggressive; in fact, she displays a lot of vulnerability and self-torment, the sort of thing Lon Chaney, Jr. was going for, perhaps less successfully, in Larry Talbot.
There are also a number of beautiful and suspenseful scenes, the creepiest one being where Jane Randolph’s character, Alice, Irena’s rival for Oliver’s affection, goes for a swim in her apartment building’s pool, and finds herself menaced by an angry Irena—supposedly transformed into the panther. We see the reflected light from the pool dancing on the walls with shadows that look ominously like a big cat’s. Still, we never actually see Irena change, although there’s a very suggestive scene toward the end that makes me lean more toward believing that Irena is an actual shapeshifter. I can see though how viewers question this, and I believe it was either Lewton or Tourner who said they wanted this to be ambiguous—in contrast to the vulgar movies with guys running around with yak hair on their faces (a reference to the transformation scenes in The Wolf Man, where we see the gradual application of yak hair to Lon Chaney, Jr.’s face).