Sunday, October 23, 2005

Cat People: Elemental Fear in Film Noir Drag

Last night, I labored from 11pm til about 3 am on a Petri Dish entry about the original Val Lewton-produced 1942 version of Cat People, perhaps the finest horror film of the forties and one of the most influential efforts ever to grace the genre. I did promise an entry a day, y'know.

After my usual ritual of merciless hacking, slashing, and self-proofing I finally finished the little guy. No, it wasn't gonna rouse Pauline Kael from the grave with shouts of Hosanna. Nor would it send a pack of literary agents to my door clucking like hungry poultry and waving six-figure checks. But it was a decent little entry, and, weary but satisfied, I hit the 'Save Draft' key. You know, the one that saves your work for you before you actually publish it.

Then I got every blogger's most dreaded screen: Cannot Find Server.

I'd been in such a composing fever dream for the preceding four hours (with the movie playing in the background as I wrote) that I'd forsaken my usual practice of frequent Saves; not once had I stopped to cover my butt with a token click of Save Draft. Nothing I could do could resurrect my Vanishing Entry, either. Demoralized and tired, I cried Uncle, crawled upstairs, and lapsed into a bedtime coma.

This twist of fate had me absolutely livid when I woke this morning. But instead of drop-kicking my computer hard drive or staging a Jihad against the folks at Netgear Wireless, I took it philosophically, pretending it was, in its own mundane and drab way, a Val Lewton horror moment; a random and entirely unpredictable event that offered me no easy resolution, only a plethora of questions and psychological avenues to ponder as I picked up the pieces.

No, the metaphor didn't work for me, either. I'm still irritated, but if any movie's worth writing about twice, it's Cat People. And now that Lewton's entire canon of horror films have been recently reissued in a handsome DVD box set by Warner Home Video, the time is right for serious re-appraisal of this, the flagship of the most sublime fleet of fright flicks ever unleashed.

Some historical context: Val Lewton toiled as a screenwriter, magazine contributor, and assistant to legendary Hollywood producer David O. Selznick throughout the thirties. By the start of the next decade, Lewton was heading up the newly-minted horror movie division of RKO Radio Pictures.

RKO was still smarting from the financial belly-flop generated by boy wonder Orson Welles' vanity project, Citizen Kane, and they weren't about to screw around. The brass handed Lewton a low budget, a seventeen-day shooting schedule, and a lurid title: Cat People. All RKO wanted was a B horror flick that'd turn a tidy profit. What Lewton and his creative team gave the studio was a dark, enduring, and unforgettable work of art.

Cat People begins as shipbuilding architect Oliver (Kent Smith) meets cute with Irena (Simone Simon), a fashion sketch artist, at a New York zoo. He's a savvy, sophisticated urbanite; she, a Serbian imigrant who has yet to make any meaningful friendships in the big city. They fall in love and marry, but on their wedding night, Irena drops a bomb; she refuses to consumate the marriage in any way--even with a kiss--for fear of losing control and becoming an animal...literally. Inexplicable events continue to escalate, and Irena's delusional belief that she's a ravenous shape-shifter begins looking a lot less delusional.

It sounds like the recipe for pure schlock, but Lewton and his gifted director Jacques Tourneur play things with an unerring and unexpected subtlety. Audiences of the time were well-accustomed to the very tangible monsters of Universal's horror classics; Cat People subverted all of that by implying everything, showing nothing explicit, and leaving the audience to scare the bejesus out of itself. In one fell swoop, this 73-minute thriller created the psychological horror film.

The movie works on numerous levels, in layers great and small, beginning with its characters. No inhabitant of this universe behaves in a stock, movie-character manner. Oliver may be our theoretical good guy, but he's also patently unable to help his troubled bride through her (maybe not-so-imaginary) mental trials. If Irena, conversely, is a monster, she's a lonely and sad one, truly tortured by her paralyzing fear that giving in to her desire will result in carnage (Simone Simon's unconventional beauty and barely perceptible body language speak volumes here). Alice (Jane Randolph), Oliver's workplace pal, comes on like the traditional unassuming girl-next-door/buddy to our hero at first, but she soon reveals layers of cruelty and condescension at poor Irena's expense. Even psychiatrist Dr. Judd (a silkily predatory Tom Conway), initially presented as a rescuing Voice of Rationality, proves to be a wolf in sheep's (or intellectual's) clothing.

DeWitt Bodeen's literate but concise screenplay elegantly weaves dark folktale elements with an intelligent and believeable contemporary setting, contributing to the palpable sense of menace by making everything seem eerily plausible. Lewton and Tourneur augment the atmosphere with elements that would also become staples of the burgeoning film noir movement. The suspense setpieces that pepper the last third of Cat People wreak havoc on the subconscious of the viewer by using light, shadow, and sound to imply the horror.

And when it comes down to brass tacks, this sixty-two-year-old movie still delivers the willies in spades. The most famous scene in the film--a nighttime swim by Alice in a hotel pool as shadows and panther growls build to a maddening crescendo--works so magnificently, even today, that director Paul Schrader nicked it wholesale for his more literal 1982 remake of Cat People.

Incidentally, the 1942 Cat People broke box office records and became a huge hit, despite the brass's nervousness about the extremely cerebral and psychologically dense subject matter. That financial windfall insured Lewton and his creative team a degree of creative freedom unheard of in golden-era studio-dominated Hollywood. All of the thrillers borne of Lewton's RKO years maintained the producer's high standards, but Cat People is, indisputably, Lewton's masterstroke.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to go watch it again. Five times is not enough.


JennyB. said...

Excellent review...I'd love to have read the first one. *pets your poor, tired, type-worn hands*

Having never seen the movie, I'm now making mad assumptions based on your entry... It sounds like Cat People might be making some similar carnal parallels that Dracula did...the connection between bestial behavior and sexuality. Am I even close to the target, or have I completely missed the bail of hay and hit someone in the crowd? *g*

I tend to dismiss a lot of the thrillers from early Hollywood as schlocky or to tame for today's standards, especially the pre-Hitchcockian stuff. Reading your write-ups of these films makes me want to investigate more. I do love being creeped out as much as the next gal. They do call me Jen-boooooo, after all. ;o)

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P said...

Thanks for this great review, so incisive and intelligent.

I just watched "Catwoman" and really enjoyed reading your thoughts about it.

I've added this blog to my favourites on the strength of that review.

Please continue. Your opinions are excellent food for thought.


P said...

Pffffft! sorry, of course I meant "Cat People", not that atrocious Halle Berrie piece of celluloid trash.


Tony Kay said...

Thank you for your feedback, P! Cat People really is a masterpiece, and it's always a pleasure to hear from another fan.

I've been a bit remiss in my pop culture musings of late but hope to be back in it soon.Meantime, if you're a horror fan, all the genre-related entries have their own category.

Again, thanks--