Directed by Jacques Tourneur; produced by Val Lewton
Barge-designer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), passing time at his city’s zoo, meets young Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a fashion-designer sketching a panther. They strike up a romance, hesitantly on Irena’s part, that quickly leads to marriage. What Reed doesn’t know is that Irena fears an ancestral curse: that she will transform into a large, predatory cat when she and he become intimate. Reed must confront Irena’s beliefs, and hope they are nothing more than superstition.
Cat People seems to be a movie better known for its reputation than for being seen. It certainly has much to recommend it, but also much that detracts from those recommendations. Two of the problems are the lead actors. Smith’s performance is average at best, while Simon, though she manages to convey a waif-like innocence half the time and a rather menacing coyness the other half, both elements needed and effective, her acting seems almost affectatious.
Better work is given by Jane Randolph, as Reed’s friend, and Tom Conway (George Sanders’s look-a-like brother) as Dr Judd, a psychiatrist with dubious ethics.
The characters brought to life by the actors reflect the performances. Reed has to be one of the dimmest bulbs to darken a storyline. He seems lost much of the time as to what to do, or even as to what is occurring; at other times, he is insensitively dismissive. Irena is an appealing girl, but nonetheless does not involve the audience in her plight, and her actions leave viewers wondering if they should sympathise with, or condemn, her actions. Alice Moore (Randolph’s character), on the other hand, is smart, sophisticated and loyal, and Judd is, despite his moral lapses, certainly interesting.
Acting and characters are not the only element of Cat People to have a dual aspect. The script, by DeWitt Bodeen, is similar. The story is an intriguing one, but isn’t developed enough. The background is indefinite. We are told that when Serbia was occupied by the Mamelukes (Turks? The Mamelukes never made it to Europe), Irena’s village turned from God to worship Satan. After “King John” liberated Serbia, he destroyed the village for its wickedness, though some of its inhabitants fled, and these took with them the curse Irena fears.
But is it a curse, or a symptom of their dark religion? If a curse, who placed it upon them, and why that particular affliction? There are clues that it might be hereditary: Irena’s father was reported as killed in the woods (by her cat-creature mother?) before she was born. As well, the final scene leaves some doubt as to the course the curse’s effects take, since the transformation to and from cat seems to be arbitrary at the end.
The direction is very good in parts but, again, sometimes works against itself. The use of light and shadows, the ambivalence of images, is often attributed to Val Lewton, a first-time producer here, who became a great influence in Hollywood, though he died young and most of his work was low-budget. But credit for what is good in Cat People must go, in at least equal parts, to director Tourneur.
There are some excellent scenes in the film, in particular the two instances when Alice is stalked. Vague images are well utilised, as is silence, punctuated by footfalls or screams that are all the more startling for coming amid the quiet.
Yet, later in the film, there is a more obvious threat to Reed and Alice, and, though effective elements of the supernatural appear to be included, the danger is tangible. This is not only less effective than earlier scenes, but works against their implications.
Cat People has come to be seen as influential in its genre, and certainly contains a number of enjoyable elements. It could not be considered a wasted time at the movies. But in its uneven acting, writing and directing, it leaves the viewer thinking it could have been much more.