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film: cat people, 1942.


CAT PEOPLE
The run time is seventy-three minutes; it lacks in special effects, shown violence, major studio stars, and overall budget. But, somehow, with the right mood and or construct, the B picture made for $135,000, became RKO's top-grossing film in nineteen-forty two, making four million. With its subdued manner, it revived the careers of its director Jacques Tourneur, its producer Val Lewton, and the French actress Simone Simon. 

The film was copied. It was scary, beautiful, and cheap. Though where others fail is in its artistry. A sleeper hit and an instant cult film, the film that was constructed on the thought and idea of fear, has been studied, ripped apart and had its shots, shadows, and words dissected and restitched, and placed upon on the mantel. Fans of this film tend to ponder each line and take note of each light and hidden moment, moments of confusion and human impulse. Human's impulse to descend into the dark with fears that even they cannot speak of. The film's most famous use of this is by keeping all this with the shadows, leaving intentional spaces within time, presenting us with connections and moments that we must take into our own hands.

"But black sin hath betrayed to endless night / My world, both parts, and both parts must die."


AT THE CENTRAL PARK ZOO, SERBIAN-BORN FASHION ILLUSTRATOR IRENA DUBROVNA (SIMONE SIMONE) IS MAKIN A SKETCH OF A BLACK PANTHER. AS SHE IS DRAWING SHE CATCHES THE ATTENTION OF MARINE ENGINEER OLIVER REED (KENT SMITH), WHO STRIKES UP A CONVERSATION. THE TWO HIT IT OFF AND HEAD OFF TO HER APARTMENT FOR TEA. IT IS HERE THAT OLIVER BECOMES INTRIGUED BY A STATUE OF A MEDIEVAL WARRIOR ON HORSEBACK, WHO IS SEEN IMPALING A LARGE CAT WITH HIS SWORD. SHE INFORMS HIM THAT THIS STATUE AND THE LEGEND BEHIND IT AND HOW THE CAT REPRESENTS EVIL. ACCORDING TO THE LEGEND, THE CHRISTIAN PEOPLE OF HER HOME VILLAE TURNED TO WITCHCRAFT AND DEVIL WORSHIPPING AFTER BEING ENSLAVED. WHEN KING JOHN SAW WHAT HAD BECOME OF THE VILLAGERS HE ORDERED THEM TO BE KILLED. ALL BUT ONE ESCAPED INTO THE MOUNTAINS. OLIVER PASSES THIS TALE AS SIMPLY A STORY. THOUGH, IRENA TAKES IT SERIOUSLY.


SHE TELLS OLIVER THAT SHE BELIEVES SHE IS APART OF THE CAT PEOPLE AND THAT SHE WILL TRANSFORM INTO A LARGE PANTHER IF THROWN INTO PASSION. THOUGH HEARING THIS, HE ASKS HER TO MARRY HIM, SHE AGREES. THOUGH THE MARRIAGE IS NEVER CONSUMATED AS IRENA IS SCARED OF THE CONSEQUENCES THAT MAY FOLLOW. OLIVER PERSUADES HER TO SEE A PSYCHIATRIST, WHO TELLS HER THE FEARS STEM FROM CHILDHOOD TRAUMAS. 


I love silence. I love loneliness. And they…They are in me. 
Their strength, warmth. They’re soft. 
They’re soft.

IT IS AROUND THIS TIME THAT IRENA DISCOVERS THAT OLIVER HAS CONFIDED IN HIS ASSISTANT, ALICE MOORE (JANE RANDOLPH). WHEN IRENA SEES THEM AT A RESTURANT, SHE FOLLOWS ALICE HOME. AFTER ALICE BOARDS THE BUS WE SEE PAWPRINTS THAT LEAD INTO IMPRINTS OF A WOMAN'S SHOES. IRENA RETURNS TO HER APARTMENT. THAT NIGHT SHE DREAMS OF KING JOHN SPEAKING OF "THE KEY". THE KEY TO THE PANTHER'S CAGE AT THE ZOO.

SOON AFTER, IRENA, OLIVER, AND ALICE VISIT A MUSEUM. MATTERS BECOME WORSE WHEN OLIVER AND ALICE IGNORE HER. THAT EVENING, ALICE IS USING THE BASEMENT POOL OF HER APARTMENT BUILDING WHEN SHE IS STALKED BY AN ANIMAL.

IRENA TELLS OLIVER THAT SHE IS NO LONGER AFRAID, BUT THE TIME HAS PASSED AND OLIVER REALIZES THAT HE IS NO LONGER INTO LOVE WITH HER, BUT WITH ALICE WHO HE INTENDS TO MARRY. LATER AT WORK, THE NEW COUPLE ARE CORNERED BY AN ANIMAL, AS THE PAIR GET OUT, OF THE BUILDING, THEY SMELL IRENA'S PERFUME.

ALICE CALLS IRENA'S THERAPIST AND WARNS HIM ABOUT IRENA. WHEN IRENA ARRIVES FOR HER APPOINTMENT HE KISSES HER, WHICH RESULTS IN HER TRANSFORMATION. 

I.

"She never lied to us."

This was the first film produced by Val Lewton at RKO studios. He had been hired by David O. Selznick to make horror pictures for under $150,000 from titles provided by the studios. With CAT PEOPLE's success, it launched him into a brief creative run, with ten more pictures made between nineteen-forty two and nineteen-forty six. He entered the film business through his aunt, the Russian actor Alla Nazimova. His knowledge of pictures and the making of them was focused on exotic, sophisticated, and simple ranges, with undertones of something quite intellectual. 

The idea of CAT PEOPLE is simple, a woman doomed by an ancestral curse, a curse that turns her into a panther when aroused by passion, this causes her to withhold all from the man she loves. The film is a folktale, one found deep within ancient, dust-covered books. Not a psychological film at all. Though the setting is quite mundane, with office buildings and swimming pools, the film is still soaked with a dark force. A folktale that focuses more on animal instinct than anything else, such as the pet shop scene when she sets off a domino effect of flocking wings and scratches, as the owner remarks that, "animals are ever so psychic." 

With cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, we are brought to these moments of singed out softness, some that are loneliness wrapped in enduring thoughts, ones that keep us somewhat at a distance, as if we are reminded time after time that we are strangers, and nothing more. Instances like Irena's torn sketch, floating among the fallen leaves; the beads of water on Irena's back as she weeps in her tub; the feeding of a dead bird to the panther at the zoo; the overhead shot of a slaughtered sheep.

One thing that makes this film unique was the subject, one that takes shape throughout the picture: sexual grief, with undermarks of mistrust, depression, and yearning. A Hollywood that dares to touch upon these matters in such a remarkable way is rare. The film is intimate, with the fears of intimacy. As intimate and cold as Oliver turning away and lighting a cigarette while Irena attempts to covey the depth of her anguish. Without the consummating of the marriage, he floats aimlessly into flirtation, who's down-to-earth, normal-minded temperament is far more compatible than Irena's. 

II.

What really makes CAT PEOPLE such a cult classic and Halloween staple is its ability to tell a story without having to come out and list its categories, no good and evil. Irena is not evil, nor good. Oliver is not evil, nor good either. It's the film's way of saying that people cannot help be what they are, the same goes for the tale of the cat people, they could not help it. And to the American people, nestled within the unease of war, CAT PEOPLE gave them a fleeting glimpse into the forbidden land of the darkness, "the desire for death", as the film put it best, 

"I like the dark; it's friendly." 



R.