Make Something Called ‘Cat People’, and Make It Cheap

Val Lewton turned a B assignment into a spooky classic about a woman's fear of her own sexuality.

How do you make a movie called Cat People? That was the question faced by producer Val Lewton when put in charge of his own RKO unit with a mission to make B horrors from titles provided by the studio. He had the freedom to crank out a movie attached to whatever cheesy moniker was handed to him, as long as he stayed under budget.

He rose to the challenge with a series of atmospheric wonders that saved his effects budget in favor of suggestions and shadows. The first of these, Cat People, became a surprise hit, cannily (or uncannily) exploiting the nation’s wartime jitters.

The title was RKO’s attempt to cash in on the previous year’s Universal hit The Wolf Man (1941). While keeping the idea of an anguished shape-shifting protagonist, Lewton’s film switches genders for an overtly sexualized story about the link between pleasure and one’s animal nature. Historians, such as Chris Fujiwara in Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, report that Lewton’s decision to emphasize suggestion and indirectness went too far for RKO’s tastes, and the studio insisted on shots of a panther in one scene just to make it clear there really is a monster.

Lewton and writer DeWitt Bodeen used Lewton’s short story “The Bagheeta”, from a 1930 issue of Weird Tales, as their basis. The story adopts the POV of a teenage boy who must confront the scary yet seductive leopard-woman, whereas the film centers on a Serbian woman named Irena (played by French actress Simone Simon, displaced to Hollywood by WWII) who’s convinced she will transform into a panther on her honeymoon and shred her groom (Kent Smith).

In other words, the central motif is fear of sex, and specifically a woman’s fear of the ravenous sexuality she’s been conditioned to suppress, and incidentally, a fear of immigrants from old war-torn Europe. Women’s desires have often seemed threatening to the status quo in male-dominated society, yet women everywhere during the topsy-turvy wartime were encouraged to take on traditionally male roles. To some people, there seemed something monstrous and unnatural about it all and then, out of the blue, a B melodrama becomes a hit.

Also in the cultural air was an episode of Arch Oboler’s radio series Lights Out called “Cat Wife”, first broadcast in 1936 with Boris Karloff, and repeated due to popularity. About a woman who suddenly changes into a cat for no reason. It may have been inspired by David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox (1922), a short comic novel about a narrator whose wife turns into a literal vixen. In both of these scenarios, the transformation seems to occur because it’s been willed by the husband’s angry words, a wish coming true that punishes him. In Lewton’s film, however, the change is brought about entirely by something inside Irena, some inherited atavism or something psychological, as an ill-fated shrink (Tom Conway) tries to explain.

One brilliant sequence of fear and tension coined a much-copied suspense device that the industry has called a “bus” or “Lewton bus”. It begins with a woman (Jane Randolph) in a swimming pool, spooking herself over the watery shadows and sound effects (note the almost radical absence of melodramatic music here), and continues as she walks down the street. Without giving away a moment that’s still an effective shock, the punchline involves the sudden introduction of something harmless that makes the audience jump with a kind of trick catharsis. In too many modern horror films, this is the “it’s just the cat” scare. In this movie, a cat would have been just what we feared.

Cat People proved auspicious for director Jacques Tourneur; the great noir photographer Nicholas Musuraca, who re-teamed with Tourneur on Out of the Past; and editor Mark Robson, who began directing for Lewton. The film previously been previously released in the 2005 DVD set The Val Lewton Horror Collection.

This Criterion Blu-ray, boasting a new 2K digital restoration, reprises that edition’s commentary track by historian Gregory Mank with interview excerpts of Simone Simon. It adds a 2008 documentary narrated by Martin Scorsese, Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, previously available separately. There’s a 1979 interview with Tourneur and a new appreciation of the film’s look by cinematographer John Bailey, who shot the 1982 remake.

That remake isn’t included, of course, but we might have looked for the inclusion of Lewton’s sequel Curse of the Cat People (1944), one of the best films about the world of a lonely child. Maybe that’s coming down the pike.

RATING 9 / 10