This kitty needs no introduction: Simone Simon is the purring-sweet immigrant with a dark atavistic secret. It’s Val Lewton’s debut smash hit. The real hero is director Jacques Tourneur, who conveys a feeling of real life being lived that won over audiences of 1942 and drew them into his web of fantasy.
The Criterion Collection 833
1942 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 73 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date September 20, 2016 / 39.95
Starring Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph, Jack Holt, Elizabeth Russell, Theresa Harris.
Cinematography Nicholas Musuraca
Art Direction Albert S. D’Agostino, Walter E. Keller
Film Editor Mark Robson
Original Music Roy Webb
Written by De Witt Bodeen
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Val Lewton never had to be ‘discovered,’ actually. Life magazine awarded him his own photo layout and the critics praised him as the maker of a new brand of psychologically based horror films. One of the first to write about the horror film genre in scholarly terms was avant-garde filmmaker Curtis Harrington, who emulated Lewton in his experimental pictures as well as commercial efforts, like Night Tide. Lewton’s collaborators consciously tried to recapture his style, in their later pictures Night/Curse of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur), The Haunting (Robert Wise) and Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting (Mark Robson). Criterion now takes a crack at the Lewton ethos with 1942’s Cat People, and it couldn’t happen soon enough for this reviewer.
The story in a nutshell: Val Lewton landed his B-Unit deal at RKO and hit the ground running. Part of his success must be attributed to a clear mission statement from above. With the purging of Orson Welles from the lot (“Showmanship, not genius!”) Lewton was ordered to turn out inexpensive horror films that would do well at the box office and offset the losses of costly artistic movies. He was handed infuriatingly trashy ready-made titles that were sort of a blessing in disguise — who could blame him if a movie called Cat People wasn’t a huge hit? If it did at all well, it would be considered a triumph.
Cat People became a triumphant hit. It secured Lewton’s producership and allowed him to build his own little department of filmmakers specializing in civilized horrors. Sitting out the war, editors Robert Wise and Mark Robson quickly realized that the creative buzz around Lewton could become a career booster. The Lewton unit would also become a springboard for a supremely talented previous associate of Lewton, the then- obscure director Jacques Tourneur.
A bona-fide classic and a screen original, Cat People defines the Lewton approach. It bases its terror less in supernatural monsters than in psychological problems. The De Witt Bodeen screenplay (reportedly heavily re-written by Lewton, as were all of his films) presents convincing characters in ordinary adult situations, and then sneaks the supernatural content in through the side door. Lewton’s sources of terror would often be related to sexual problems compounded by negative emotions, like jealousy.
New York is a lonely town for Serbian émigré Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), until she falls in love with ship designer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). But Irena has a strange problem – she balks at consummating her marriage for fear that she is descended from a line of satanic cat people: If sexually aroused, she’ll transform into a deadly leopard. Oliver indulges Irena’s problem and sends her to a psychiatrist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway). Yet his affections drift to his friendly co-worker Alice Moore (Jane Randolph). Already susceptible to psychosis, Irena’s jealous instincts bring on the curse she hoped to suppress.
Author Joel E. Siegel nailed why Cat People connects with audiences more deeply than a typical ’40s horror picture like, say, Universal’s The Mummy’s Ghost. Lewton’s people live in the real world, holding down jobs and making plans for the future. There are no mad scientists or foreign mountebanks with reanimated corpses in their cabinets. If someone feels the influence of the occult or a hereditary curse, they themselves are in doubt about it. A ‘business as usual’ mood predominates. People get tired or out of sorts. Leading characters don’t have pals to provide comic relief. Romantic leads aren’t ‘perfect people.’ This movie’s handsome and outwardly sensitive Ollie Reed turns out to be a thoughtless clod.
Cat People gave 1942 audiences a lot to think about — genre movies at that time just didn’t dig deeply into the mundane sexual problems of ordinary people. Irena Dubrovna’s issues can’t be helped by marriage to a patient nice guy. Oliver is tolerant but incapable of understanding Irena or interpreting her pleas and moods. He violates her confidence by discussing the problem with another woman, something Irena takes very personally. Things matter in marriage, and a betrayal of trust between partners is nearly impossible to repair. Irena crouches on one side of a door hoping for a sign that Oliver can overcome her fear. As in real relationships, it’s a case of bad timing and missed cues. When Irena tries to give the marriage an honest try, Oliver has already made up his mind that it’s a bust. The story’s feline curse seems almost beside the point: relationships are tough for most everyone.
Many horror critics point out the fact that Tourneur and Lewton wanted to keep the whole cat transformation business ambiguous, an idea the front office would never accept. The leopard is easily seen in the shadows of the drafting room and the fur-covered corpse at the end (Oliver and Alice just walk away and leave her there!) looks suspiciously like a dead panther. But the show is unambiguous about the existence of Cat People. Without a real cat curse there is no explanation for Elizabeth Russell’s creepy scene (“Moi-ra sestra?”), unless both cat women are neurotics from a similar background. The balance between the rational and the supernatural and how much of the threat needs to be shown are always debatable, as can be seen in Tourneur’s triumphant return to the Lewton style fifteen years later in Night of the Demon.
Much is made of Lewton’s own reported cat phobia, but the feline menace is undercut by amusing catlike details seen in artwork, décor, etc. The real scares in Cat People come from unnerving little lapses of personal security, the kind everyone experiences — the feeling of being followed or watched, or of something being ‘not right.’ Lewton likes to put his characters in vulnerable positions, as when Alice feels trapped in her apartment building’s basement pool. And there is of course the nighttime walk with its famous ‘bus’ moment. It’s curious that few people object that Irena’s muddy paw prints magically transform into high heel prints on the sidewalk. As does Dracula in some pictures, she apparently can change physical form and still retain her clothing.
‘Forties thrillers and films noir discovered Freud in a big way, and Cat People is one of the earliest pictures to feature an unscrupulous psychiatrist. Dr. Judd’s oily smooth-talker indicates his desire for Irena by saying things like, “What does one tell a husband? One tells him nothing.” He’s a pretty lousy psychiatrist, interpreting Irena’s non-reactions as a veiled come-on. Audiences surely responded positively when Irena takes the opportunity to exercise her bestial imperative on such an appropriate target – Tom Conway’s voice always reminded this viewer of the slick city wolf in the Tex Avery cartoons.
Tourneur and Lewton retain the mystery throughout, never allowing Irena to shake her curse of isolation and sadness. Oliver and Alice sympathize but in the end lock her out for not fitting in well enough with conventional social normality. In this case, poor Irena slips back to her defiant Wild Side. And audiences understand when she secretly revels in her feral power, even if they make sexist connections between women and animal instincts. Tourneur doesn’t need to show a makeup transformation. Linwood Dunn applied an optical filter and eye glints to Irena’s close-up for her on-screen transformation, a great moment for Lewton’s brand of subtlety. To know what was happening to Irena, Jack Pierce makeup effects were not necessary. ( top, large image)
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Cat People is a much-awaited item, as we haven’t seen improved transfers of any of the Lewton pictures since Warners’ very good 2005 DVDs came out. Long ago in the 1970s we were able to view good prints of the Lewton pictures, but the RKO library does not have ‘shelf depth’ on printing elements. I doubt whether original negatives exist on any Lewtons, and titles like The Body Snatcher seem to have real problems. But the Cat People’s elements are at least reasonably intact. This is a new scan with Criterion’s own digital cleanup and it is indeed a beauty. Detail and contrast are pleasing, if not optimal; blacks aren’t quite as deep as I remember. But the show is consistently sharp and attractive overall. The steady image is a plus too. Nicholas Musuraca’s fine lighting comes across very well, especially in the rich, warm atmosphere of Irena’s apartment.
The improvement flatters the film’s optical and effects work. The partly animated montage dream sequence illustrating Irena’s irrational desire to ‘let loose evil in the world,’ is still more effective than sequences in pictures by Victor Fleming and Alfred Hitchcock. We can now study Linwood Dunn’s optical job on the famed ‘Irena goes feral’ close-up, which adds contrast and filtration to accomplish what in 1942 looked like the beginning of a physical transformation. I also noticed one shot in the night walk/bus sequence that stands out. Jane Randolph looks back from the door of the bus, and we see what looks like a frozen frame of the view back down the Central Park transverse. In the shot are a handful of white dots, which would appear to be flaws in the original film. I think that Criterion decided to leave them rather than perform a revision on the scene. That’s a commendable call.
Criterion’s cleanup also gives Roy Webb’s melancholy music a boost. I am told by Craig Reardon that the little ditty sung by the zookeeper was cooked up by Bernard Herrmann, and first heard in The Devil and Daniel Webster: “Nothing left to do, oh nothing left to do…”
The extras give us the best of the old and two terrific new items. Repeated from the old disc is Gregory Mank’s authoritative audio commentary, with its archived telephone interview with actress Simone Simon. And we also get an improved encoding of the 2008 Kent Jones / Kristen Huntley docu Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows. Its worth can be judged by its many unexpected film clips from the Lewton pictures, as opposed to just the famous moments. An opening montage is almost disorienting, in that we don’t immediately recognize bits from films we’ve seen a dozen times each. The newly produced extra is an illuminating interview with cinematographer John Bailey, who points out the qualities of Musuraca’s fine lighting and camerawork.
But the real must-see item on the disc is a 1979 French interview with director Jacques Tourneur. There aren’t that many photos of Tourneur drifting around, and I wasn’t sure I would ever see him on film or hear his voice. He’s a marvelous personality, open and friendly, civilized and thoughtful, just like many of his movies. He talks about ‘the cinema’ in plainspoken terms and describes his collaboration with Val Lewton as a happy blend of opposites — Val was a poetic dreamer and he the pragmatist. Tourneur part-jokingly says that he tried to retain some of Lewton’s poetry. Tourneur doesn’t rate himself as a great filmmaker and is convinced that he’s already forgotten, but not in a regretful way. We like him immediately. He looks like a cross between Claude Chabrol and Philippe Noiret.
Geoffrey O’Brien’s insert liner note essay covers all the critical bases and puts the film’s accomplishment in perspective. We were hoping someone had discovered a good-quality trailer for this show, but unfortunately we only get the same battered remnant seen elsewhere. Yet there’s too much to applaud in this special edition to complain. Let’s hope that the future holds more Criterion Lewton.
A final note — beware Japanese import Blu-rays of RKO pictures, including the Lewtons: the discs are legal but the Japanese source them from their own older printing materials. So far they haven’t looked much better than the American DVDs from Warners.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Video: Very Good ++
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Audio commentary from 2005 with Gregory Mank, and excerpts of actor Simone Simon; feature documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows; 1979 interview with director Jacques Tourneur; new interview with cinematographer John Bailey; trailer, insert essay by Geoffrey O’Brien.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 31, 2016
Here’s Mick Garris on the Lewton classic:
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson