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Wednesday, 5 April 2017

CAT PEOPLE (1942)

Cat People is a hugely impressive achievement on many levels. It was Val Lewton’s first release as a producer for RKO and made under studio restrictions that many creatives would have found demoralising. Each film of his tenure had to be brought in for no more than a tightly-budgeted $150,000, their running times could not exceed 75 minutes (they were, after all, B-picture supporting features), and most chafing for Lewton, he was forced to accept the lurid, audience-tested titles his bosses forced upon him. He, however, learned to manoeuvre within these limitations and what they gifted him in largely being left alone to interpret them through his artistic vision. Arguably, the assumed freedom of a much greater budgeted A-picture would also have an accompanying greater scrutiny by the studio heads.

In his cabal of talent, Lewton chose wisely. His director Jacques Tourneur shared not only his meticulous eye and craft, but also Lawton’s unceasing desire to go beyond the mundane mainstream. Speaking of his loathing for television many years later, Tourneur revealed what drove him aesthetically as a film-maker: “If you don't bring some of your individuality and some of your experience and sensitivity to bear on a subject, you don't get more than a mechanical result.” His interpretive genius as a director has such flair that when viewing Cat People one continually has to remember that it is a B-movie; indeed, the care and sensitivity shown by all departments lifts it far above what other studios were producing in quality. Instead of the routine schlocky horror that the title would usually signal, audiences were getting something that played to, yet subverted, their own expectations. Lewton was careful to supply the horror jump-shocks that the format required, and it features cats who are supernaturally bound to human beings in macabre ways. And yet the producer-director partnership layered in subtexts of meaning, clues and character story-telling so deep that if all the horror elements were cut out, Cat People could still stand as an engrossing drama of a failing marriage doomed by dark secrets. Like everything else in the film, this was a deliberate result of rare and painstaking artistry.

In Dewitt Bodeen’s carefully-structured screenplay, the story’s protagonists, Irena Dubrovna and Oliver Reed, (Simone Simon and Kent Smith) meet cute at the zoo where we discover much of their essential natures immediately. She is a sketching artist of talent whose playful surface hides a passionate temperament for high standards as she carelessly tosses each drawing away of the panther who fascinates her. He in turn is transfixed by her beauty, and her littering brings out his innate decency and almost paternal care. The casting of the two leads is a master-stroke. Feline French actress Simon was already a well-known star from her homeland,, and since arriving in Hollywood had already given a literally bewitching cameo in The Daniel and Daniel Webster (see my review of 16/2/2017 ). In looking for his Irena, Lewton actually sought “A little kitten face like Simone Simon”. She is charming and as endlessly watchable as a cat, being both cute and with hidden dark depths that can turn from playful to the self-servingly demonic with great subtlety. Beware, those who underestimate the physical winsomeness of her petite size. Her scarlet fingernails are claws and there is something poised to pounce within her.

What lies beneath Irena’s kittenish charm is unknown as yet to the man she will entrance. Kent Smith’s seemingly bland marine engineer Oliver is a disarming and necessary counterpoint to Irena’s exoticism. He describes himself aptly as a “good plain Americano”, a tall, handsome, solid man of integrity and conscience embodied by an actor who exuded those qualities in a long career of nearly five decades, never quite achieving stardom.

Irena lives alone in an apartment (at the top of the staircase recycled from Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and begins to gradually draw Oliver into her lair. Her Serbian background is drenched in tragedy and dark menace. Both her parents had died by the time she was a teenager. Her village history is steeped in suspicion of practised devil worship resulting in Irena’s seemingly irrational fear that she must never make love to or even kiss a man for fear that she will transform into a cat or panther and kill them. She possesses a statue (or maybe it possesses her) of her country’s saviour, King John, spearing a cat-like symbol of the fabled 13th-century Muslim Mamaluk warrior enemies of their land. This is a contradictory image for such a fetishist of the feline and adds to her complexity, possibly suggesting an inner duality and conflict. She is also curiously fond of the unlikeliest elements: “I like the dark. It’s friendly”.

This enigmatic and elusive woman with her macabre fantasies beguiles Oliver so much that he endures, even welcomes the enticing mystery of Irena, knowing she is destined to always be ultimately unknowable to him. He buys her a kitten as part of his gentlemanly courtship of her; the moggy’s hackles rise in her presence, causing them to exchange it for a canary at the pet shop, whose menagerie are similarly freaked out by her. “Cats just don’t like me”, Irena explains, further confusing us and Oliver. Irena’s secret smile of delight at the preferred present is almost predatory, although when she teases the bird, its sudden demise on the cage floor fills her with genuine regret.

To complicate the central relationship, there is Oliver’s co-worker friend Alice (Jane Randolph) who appears to be his gal pal shoulder to cry on, but is expertly driven as a inciting wedge between the couple as the story unfolds. The original gifted cat takes to her all right, and she seems the soul of guileless understanding for her colleague when he increasingly confides the frustration he is too nice to admit in front of Irena.

Another striking female haunts Irena during the couple’s wedding night meal, a brief albeit crucial cameo by the equally feline Elizabeth Russell, who would feature much more substantially in the 1944 sequel, Curse of the Cat People. “She looks like a cat”, says workmate Doc Carver indifferently, played by Alan Napier, biding his time till his 6ft 5-inch frame elegantly shot him to fame in the Sixties TV Batman as butler Alfred. The lady comes over and punctures the festivities with her innocently blunt enquiry to Irena: “Moya sestra?” (‘My sister?’). Russell’s voice was dubbed by Simon to subtly accentuate her link with her fellow Serbian. Irena’s reaction though is a hasty crossing of herself in fear at this bad-luck supernatural reminder of home crossing her path. Some critics saw a seam of lesbianism implied by this encounter and Irena’s cock-blocking of her husband; Dewitt Bodeen dismissed this as an intention in his writing.

Whilst Cat People’s varied symbolism is rich enough to support even the most fanciful of arguments, it is infused with more than the ideas of Bodeen and Tourneur. Val Lewton’s personality and preoccupations imprint themselves on the shaping of the film’s heroine. In real life, he shared Irena’s life-long fascination with death, and had a fear of being touched that must have placed him at a comparable slight remove from those around him. Most bizarre of all, considering the material, was his intense fear of cats. One might argue a parallel between his and Irena’s complex embracing of the very thing that also horrifies them.

A less welcome influence on the screenplay was Joseph Breen’s all-powerful censorship office who were troubled by Irena’s original account of being illegitimate (tweaked), any suggestion of sexual consummation (a key plot element in the end), and the horror angle which Lewton and his team treated with an emerging signature style of restraint.

The gloves are delicately taken off where Alice is concerned though. She takes devious advantage of Oliver’s confided struggle to her, about Irena’s physical distance, to confess her own hitherto-concealed love for him. This self-serving will be a catalyst for Irena’s darker territorial side to flex its claws with fatal consequences in the film’s most memorable scenes later.

As if hubby’s sly colleague on the make and a second cat person isn’t enough, the course of Irena’s embattled true love is hampered further by unprofessional advances from the psychiatrist Alice recommended for her. Dr Judd (The Falcon series lead Tom Conway) listens to her recount her past in a stunningly isolated circle of light by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. She reveals that her mother was labelled a witch by villagers who branded her a shape-changing cat person. Judd then crosses ethical boundaries with honey-toned smoothness, challenging her fear of inherited panther prowess with the offer of kissing her. Conway’s languid, top-drawer toned Britishness was intriguingly an assumed shape in itself. He and his more famous brother, actor George Sanders, were actually both from an aristocratic Russian family forced to flee after the revolution. Sanders in particular harboured a life-long resentment of being cheated over his rightful inheritance, and although he achieved great fame, with an Oscar for All About Eve (1950) and 1957’s The Jungle Book showcasing his own remarkably English vocal grandeur, he took his own life in 1972. Conway was plagued by alcoholism like him and his death preceded his younger brother by five years after being found in a seedy flop-house.

As a result of Alice’s seemingly benign interference, doom is set to stalk her. When Irena learns that the shrink was her idea, she coldly tells her husband: “There are some things a woman doesn’t want other women to understand”. Like an alley-cat backed up against a wall, the invasion of her privacy will turn her from a pussy into a hell-cat. “A cat just walked over my grave” remarks Alice as she says good-night to Oliver. This deliciously prefigures her solo walk home through Central Park in a brilliant sequence of threatened danger and suggestive power. Roy Webb’s music score is suddenly silent; we are left with the creepy echo of Alice’s heels clicking along the pavement, intercut with those of the pursuing Irena. The air is thick with unseen menace, Alice continually looks behind her to the left of frame until – hiss! – not a feline attack, but the air brakes of a bus bursting in from the right hand side. Cinema audiences received a classic jump-shock, skilfully played on them by Tourneur’s sleight-of-screen distraction and superb sound design by John L. Cass. (Homages to this scene would crop up in many later films, such as the oppressive tracking through the dark streets felt by a paranoid Robert Redford in 1976’s All the President’s Men).

Irena may have stalked Alice invisibly, but she leaves the unmistakable wake of slaughter, satiating her frustration on lambs in the zoo. An indelible mark is left on her too by an effective dream sequence (the visuals designed by Lynwood Dunne), full of haunting symbolism: predatory animated panthers, an equally predatory Judd putting them to the sword in the armour of King John, the key to the panther cage she gave to its zoo-keeper earlier, which may unlock her own tragic destiny.

The most notorious scene of Cat People is to come, whereby the huntress makes her boldest pursuit of her prey in a hotel swimming pool. Alice goes for a swim and in her most physically vulnerable state is tormented by a catlike shadow we see spread across the wall. Once again, without music we are similarly naked and sense-sharpened, listening in suspense to the reverberation of water droplets and the deep, rising growl of a very hungry cat. She dives into the water in vain, yet there is no escape from the animal force closing in on her prissy doggy-paddling. At the peak of tension, a light-switch flicks on, and against the wall leans Irena, a triumphantly-grinning Cheshire Cat having savoured the pawing of her little mouse. Some later horror maestros like Clive Barker had no patience with this technique of teasing the viewer with a solely imagined horror, preferring the in-your-face visceral terror of seeing the monster in full sight. It is hard though to conceive of anything artist-made that could live up to what our minds devise of Irena’s metamorphosised form here. A woman in a cat-suit can be alluringly sexy, but a costume to create fear is more likely to end up inspiring laughs, like the disastrous monkey-suited men of tacky gorilla shockers. Lewton and his team were too refined for such self- sabotage. Tourneur wanted to develop the mind’s-eye only representation of ultimate fear for his monster concept in Night of the Demon (1957) but was over-ruled by Columbia.

Inevitably, Irena must draw human blood. She cannot be satisfied by weak innocent animal victims. She doesn’t know her gallant husband has been torturing himself to do right by her. “It’s too late”, he mournfully tells her. Alice has moved into his lonely heart. Irena slumps into the sofa, her inner homicidal resolve signalled by the marvellous touch of her nails scratching long slashes down the cushion.  “I love loneliness” she intones, as if to convince her fatally divided soul.

At least Irena has one deserving victim to fatally lash out at in the lascivious form of Dr Judd. In a cheeky reference to Universal’s The Wolf Man (1941), he blithely mentions possibly defending himself with silver bullets in a gun. An even more direct ‘tribute’ from it is his sword-cane, which sadly for him is no help after he wilfully kisses Irena. She allows him to do so, the sparkle in her eyes momentarily caught by Musuraca’s artful lens as she transforms again. We still do not see the change, yet receive it reflected in Judd’s terrified reaction before death.

As with her life, Irena’s cat who walks by itself must also decide alone when to end it, and she does so with the awful inexorability of returning to the panther at the zoo where the story began. She releases it from its cage to launch at her, freeing it from captivity and herself from the prison of the human condition. When Oliver and Alice find her body, the ambivalence of Irena’s damaged journey rears up even in death: “She never lied to us”.

Simone Simon never found a lead role again that fit her as well as Irena. In Greg Mank’s marvellously informative DVD commentary, she recalled: “I was Irena when I shot. It was like a weird connection…everything came naturally. I worked on that picture with all of my being”.

Despite the confidence of his vision, Lewton was extremely apprehensive about the reaction in advance of Cat People’s pre-release screening in December 1942. Everything was riding on this first venture of his as producer. The staging of the RKO premiere was no help, consisting of a Disney cartoon beforehand that centred around a cat. By the time the main feature started, audience members were still miaowing facetiously. Lewton’s heart sank. He needn’t have worried. The astonishing latent power of his film slowly weaved its magic upon the restless crowd, converting and subverting them through poetic tenderness and orchestrated blasts of palpable fear into a rousing reception. Lewton and his team were now an overnight smash success…

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