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With: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph, Jack Holt
Written by: DeWitt Bodeen
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 73
Date: 12/06/1942

Cat People (1942)

4 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Cat People (1942) was a cheap B-movie made on assignment for very little money at RKO. I doubt that anyone really paid much attention to it back then, but today I consider it one of the ten greatest films ever made.

Although not revered when it was first released the movie has by no means been forgotten. Influential critic James Agee championed the film, and it was a modest hit, inspiring a sequel The Curse of the Cat People (1944), and a job for producer Val Lewton for the next couple of years.

Val Lewton had worked on all kinds of odd jobs at RKO before being tapped to produce a series of low-budget horror movies. His first assignment was Cat People. Lewton was a well-read intellectual who surmised that people would be more frightened at the things they couldn't see than they would be at actors running around in cat costumes. So, with writer DeWitt Bodeen and director Jacques Tourneur, he came up with a story about a mysterious Serbian woman (Simone Simon) who lives in America and works as a fashion designer. She captures the attention of an architect (Kent Smith). The two begin courting, but the woman is reluctant to kiss, or make love to, her lover, even after they've married. She believes, if aroused, that she will turn into a cat.

Lewton and Tourneur give us evidence of a cat--or something catlike in motion--lurking just around corners. But they show us nothing concrete. In one scene, a woman is walking along a dark sidewalk. She hears rustling and fears something is out there. From out of nowhere a bus pulls up between her and the audience, letting out a loud and sudden squeal from its breaks. It's the one time Lewton allowed himself an easy scare, but the scene is eerily effective. There are other great scenes that make astonishing visuals out of cheap sets, as in the swimming pool scene and the architects' office, playing with light in the pool water and desktops. The cat is unseen on the periphery in both scenes, and it's terrifying.

As well as being scary, the film deals intelligently with sex and the psyche. Simon's fear of having sex with her new husband could be taken in many ways. It's certainly not an entirely dated idea. And her subsequent psychiatric analysis lends weight to the notion that her fear could go either way.

Simon, who had worked with Jean Renoir in La Bete Humaine (1938), is amazingly touching in her role as the cat woman. She's very sweet, small, and brave. She has to deal with clueless men like Smith, who is immediately taken with her but lacks the guts to stick around when she really needs him, and the headshrinker (Tom Conway) who tries to convince her that "it's all in her head" and even makes a sexual advance toward her. Simon comes out winning, with a sadness wrapped in dear loveliness. It's a truly great performance, underappreciated because the limits of the film's budget.

But Cat People continues to be influential. In 1982, Paul Schrader remade the movie in color and with graphic violence. That remake is effective, but not as atmospheric or imaginative as the original. All nine Lewton horror films are recommended, as well as Curse of the Demon (1958) directed by Tourneur, The Haunting (1963) directed by Robert Wise (who also worked with Lewton), and The Blair Witch Project (1999), which continues Lewton's theory and brings it into the 1990's.

Even though it has been lauded by Martin Scorsese and other defenders Cat People doesn't receive the respect it deserves. Its status as a B-movie and a horror movie prevent it from being included on lists of the "greatest." But, in my mind, that it lacks the pretension of movies like The Lost Weekend or The Best Years of Our Lives only adds to its merits. Make no mistake, it is one of the greatest.

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