Cat People (RKO, 1942). Photo (8”x10”)
Cat People (RKO, 1942).
This is an RKO Radio Picture
Director Jacques Tourneur lept into the horror genre in magnificent style with this moody and atmospheric tale of a woman who's convinced she can turn into a cat. This marked the beginning of Tourneur's collaboration with producer Val Lewton to create some of the best horror films of the 1940s; a series that would take a huge bite out of Universal's monopoly on the genre. Simone Simon was absolutely radiant as the unstable, mysterious and feline Irena and this title card depicts her to perfection.
For anyone who's a fan of the Cat People movies, this actress enchants you. Her Irena's the most sympathetic character, unusually comely and appealing for someone playing the alleged monster of the title. Yet still...some weird stuff is going on behind that kittenish doll's face that's eerily off-kilter, a note that's just a mite tone-deaf in that sing-song voice. "There is something subtly alarming about [her] oddly mannered good-girl behavior," Roger Ebert says in his review of Cat People.
Angelique has to master similar "Good-girl" behavior in order to thrive in Collinsport without anyone discovering her secret powers. Yet she should indeed remain "oddly mannered;" this will remind us of the cray cray evil boiling away underneath the pretty surface. However, like I said, Simon also commands a great deal of sympathy as Irena, a sympathy vital to any portrayal of Angelique that's as fully realized as Lara Parker's original performance. As scintillating as Eva Green is in the new movie, she's almost too flamboyantly nuts for us to believe a true aching heart exists there within her broken frame. Simon's ethereal spookiness combined with the human weight she brings to her characters would make Angelique the complex villain you can't just dismiss as a woman scorned, just like the witch Parker originated.Val Lewton produced nine amazing horror films in the 1940’s that relied more on psychological terror that cheap monsters the way Universal’s monster films did. He always hired beautiful and talented actresses for his horror films and none more so that Simone Simon, star of Cat People and Curse of the Cat People. In these films she plays a troubled immigrant who fears that she will turn into a wild beast if her emotions go awry. Simon’s beautifully exotic looks and haunting performances makes her the most memorable of Lewton’s ladies.
Handed the exploitive title Cat People, RKO producer Val Lewton opted for a thinking man's thriller--a psychological mood piece, more reliant on suspense and suggestion than overt "scare stuff". Simone Simon plays an enigmatic young fashion artist who is curiously affected by the panther cage at the central park zoo. She falls in love with handsome Kent Smith, but loses him to Jane Randolph. After a chance confrontation with a bizarre stranger at a restaurant, Simon becomes obsessed with the notion that she's a Cat Woman--a member of an ancient Serbian tribe that metamorphoses into panthers whenever aroused by jealousy. She begins stalking her rival Randolph, terrifying the latter in the film's most memorable scene, set in an indoor swimming pool at midnight. Psychiatrist Tom Conway scoffs at the Cat Woman legend--until he recoils in horror after kissing Simon. If the film's main set looks familiar, it is because it was built for Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (Lewton later used the same set for his The Seventh Victim). Cat People was remade by director Paul Schrader in 1982.
In just a three-year period in the 1940s, producer Val Lewton created some of the most influential and intelligent psychological horror films ever made, bringing a depth to the 'B' movie that would influence any number of independent-minded Hollywood filmmakers in later years. Lewton's first, and probably best, effort was Cat People. It was directed by first-timer Jacques Tourneur, who went on to helm another of Lewton's best films (I Walked With a Zombie), a classic noir mystery (Out of the Past), and one of the great horror films of all time (Curse of the Demon). But a Lewton film is a Lewton film, as he had control over just about everything. The defining characteristic of Cat People, as of most of his movies, is the absence of the standard horror creature. Before Lewton, the payoff in a horror movie typically came from exposing a ghastly beast who capitalized on the technology of the makeup crew. Lewton instinctively understood that it was scarier not to see the menace, and that keeping things in shadows said something darker and more original about the characters. The psycho-sexual complexities of the Simone Simon character in Cat People are an ideal example of this method.
Cat People (RKO, R-1952). One Sheet (27" X 41").
Irena Reed, played by Simone Simon, believes herself to be from a race of people who, when aroused, turn into cats. It's an intriguing premise that's perfectly captured in this poster, as Simon is seen lying down in a seductive manner, while a menacing black cat lurks in the shadows. Costing just under $150,000, the film proved to be a huge success, and helped save RKO from financial disaster in the 1940s.
This 1942 Val Lewton produced film is unique in that it set off the cycle of Lewton movies at RKO, and also incidentally made (depending on your data source) between $2 and $4 million dollars, effectively stabilizing the company (or saving it from bankruptcy, if you believe the claims by many of the Lewton film history boosters who exist). The money also went to some degree in insuring Lewton's control over his miniscule-budgeted unit where he made 8 more films. Though he couldn't control the titles assigned him ("market-tested" was the claim the executives gave for the often-times ridiculous exploitation-tinged titles) Lewton did control the one thing where he had supreme responsibility, the story and selection of director.
Though other names are attached to the writing credits for his films, he is known for making the final revisions and shaping (or reshaping) the movie scripts to fit his own ideals for effective and quality filmmanship (Lewton worked years for David Selznick as a story editor and talent scout searching for Hollywood-appropriate stories: Lewton is known to have disliked Selznick's giant hit Gone with the Wind, but on the other hand was instrumental in bringing Hitchcock to the USA for making Rebecca, among others).
A new kind of horror film
With Cat People, what was to be an effort at cashing in on the wake left by Universal's big-earner The Wolf Man, Lewton (and fully cooperative director Jacques Tourneur) minimized any Universal-style shocks (which also saved on the special effects) and instead tried to imply situations and the presence of the dangerous 'cat person' (Simone Simon) through lighting and camera-work.
Light-years ahead of the the 1930s style monster-movie methods, either by design or accident, Lewton and Tourneur invented a wholly new way of approaching a monster-movie subject that required the audience to participate by the suggestive manipulations from abstractions put upon the screen. The idea being that the viewer is going to 'see' things that are not actually there if the hints are strong but subtle.
Cast of Cat people
The cast of Cat People seem wooden the way program pictures from that era were. Relatively stiff leading man Kent Smith is Oliver Reed, a "good plain Americano" as he calls himself, a boat designer who has a chance meeting with troubled fashion artist Irena Dubrovna (Simon) and a gentle romance strikes up.
They are soon married, but at the same time Irena's peasant old-world fears about a village curse that will cause her to become a panther if she is emotionally aroused (love, anger or anything else) becomes uppermost in her mind, and she refuses to consummate the marriage. At first the "good Americano" is all understanding and patience, but it runs out once he starts spending time with the warm sympathy of fellow-boat designer Alice Moore (played by Jane Randolph) who has long harbored a secret infatuation for him.
It is Kent Smith's acting style (along with Jane Randolph as the 'other woman') that frames French actress Simone Simon as the 'Cat Woman.' Simone's exotic accent and more natural acting skill is that much more effective when contrasted with the particularly placid Smith.
Although Simon plays the monster of the film, she is the one being victimized, and Lewton and Tourneur (the script is credited to DeWitt Bodeen) have turned the usual Hollywood adultery on it's head: it is the foreigner who is being wronged by the average, well-meaning American lovers.
With the triangle established, Lewton and Tourneur put Irena through her paces with episodes of jealousy, sorrow, despair and anger. Actor Tom Conway is called in as psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd, providing George Sanders-like line delivery (and why not? He was Sander's brother, and it would be hard to say which brother had complete ownership of the cynical, suave style that characterizes both actors work).
This classic romantic triangle has Dr. Judd trying to crash it with his frequent invitations to a refusing Irena to engage in emotional therapy of a more physical nature, a quest that ends up getting him killed when a vengeful Irena has finally taken shape as a lethal black panther.
Jane Randolph and Kent Smith are the next victims-to-be, but the avenging Irena/panther finally leaves them unharmed when confronted by Smith's pleading 'for God's sake, leave us alone'.
With imaginative cinematography and a small cast that works the story from beginning to end without generic horror-movie histrionics, it is Simone Simon and the tricks of light and sound that that help give Cat People it's special position as an innovative and high quality low-budget film.