Movie Review: Cat People (1942)
“Kiss me and I’ll claw you to death!”
Cat People (1942)
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Cast: Simone Simon, Tom Conway, Kent Smith
Synopsis: The Serbian bride of an American man fears she will turn into a cat if sexually aroused.
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Little does carefree Oliver Reed (Kent Smith – The Trouble with Angels, Assignment to Kill) know that the cute Serbian (Simone Simon) he picks up outside the panther cage at his local zoo has some emotional baggage. It turns out that she’s an immigrant from a backward village steeped in witchcraft, and believes that she will turn into a panther if she is angered or sexually aroused. This doesn’t discourage Oliver, who marries his foreign bride without ever having so much as kissed her. However, their relationship is doomed by Irina’s inability to commit physically to Kent.
The plot of Val Lewton’s Cat People is quite ridiculous when you think about it, but no more so than the b-movie horror movies put out by most of the Hollywood studios of the 1940s. The reason it outscores all others of its ilk is its rich atmosphere, fine acting (for its budget), intelligent script and creepy cinematography. It also contains a couple of truly unsettling scenes – both involving the stalking of Jane Randolph, who plays Kent’s closest friend – that are today looked upon as the first of what became known in the industry as ‘Lewton Buses’ – apparently sinister moments of danger that turn out to be ostensibly benign.
Simone Simon, as the cursed Serbian, provides the most moving portrayal; a victim of her heritage, she possesses a touching vulnerability that slowly mutates into something far more unstable as the pressures she places upon herself begin to take their toll on her mental health. Smith gives a solid, if workmanlike, performance as her worried (and ultimately very nervous) husband, while Tom Conway (Peter Pan) provides the obligatory psychobabble with typically suave aplomb. Tourneur’s direction – dictated to some degree by budgetary limitations (so often the spark that lights the creative fire) – is tight and efficient while remaining sensitive to the diverging requirements of plot and budget, while DeWitt Bodeen’s script finds masterful ways of circumventing production code restrictions that prevented his characters from openly discussing the real problem that’s bugging Irina.
(Reviewed 12th January 2012)