brilliance in Hollywood comes in very modest packages. Who would have thought
that a string of horror films made on shoestring budgets, with no star power,
and little attention from the studio, would become classics in style and
what happened when, in 1942, producer Val Lewton was put in charge of a
division at RKO Radio Pictures with the directive to make a series of ridiculously inexpensive movies intended to be competition for Universal’s successful
franchise of monster flicks. Lewton—a former novelist and poet—had previously worked
for MGM and, in particular, David O. Selznick, before being hired by RKO. He
brought this experience along with his literary background to the table when he
was told he could do anything he wanted as long as the budget for each film did
not exceed $150,000.
there wasn’t enough budget for special visual effects, elaborate monster
makeup, or any of the other trappings for which Universal was known. Lewton had
to tap into the imaginations of his audience members and find ways to suggest that what was on the screen was
truly frightening. To do so, he put
together an inventive creative team—director Jacques Tourneur, writer DeWitt
Bodean, cinematographer Nicholas Musucara, and editor Mark Robson—to make the
first iconic entry under the producer’s watch.
result? Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur,was so successful
that it put RKO, which had been struggling after the financial failures of
Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, back on the
map. Box-office aside, the motion picture manages to be atmospheric, eerie, and
psychologically disturbing without a single monster appearance. Everything
frightening about it is all in the mind. Cat
People unnerves viewers through the use of light and shadow, sound, and the
mere suggestion of menace.
story concerns Irena, an Eastern European woman in New York (exotically played
by Simone Simon), who has a mysterious past and family tree. It seems she
descended from a cult of Serbians who practiced witchcraft—and they had the
ability (or curse?) of turning into panthers when sexually aroused. During the
course of the story, Irena—as well as the men around her— must come to grips
with who she really is. Okay, it’s a love story... sort of.
sexuality at the heart of Cat People had
to be played with a good deal of subtlety due to the Production Code, but it’s
there. Much of the film’s power comes from the primal, sensual heat within the
subtext of the visual poetry on display. Not only does the movie burn with
suggestive tension, its German expressionistic beauty is seductive. The style is what gives Cat People its claws.
new 2K digital restoration, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack, certainly
shows off the look of the film, and it appears better than ever. The black and
white imagery is appropriately grainy and the contrasts are sharp. There’s an
audio commentary from 2005 featuring film historian Gregory Mank, including
excerpts from an audio interview with Simone Simon.
the supplements is a new interview with cinematographer John Bailey, who was DP
of Paul Schrader’s more explicit 1982 remake of Cat People—this is a highlight, as Bailey compares the two pictures
and talks about the work of his predecessor Musucara. Additionally, Jacques
Tourneur is interviewed in a 1977 French television program. Most impressive is
the inclusion of a feature-length documentary from TCM, narrated by Martin
Scorsese, about the life and work of Val Lewton. The movie trailer and an essay
in the booklet by critic Geoffrey O’Brien round out the extras.
stylish, and mesmerizing, Cat People was
the beginning of a remarkable four-year run of interesting, intelligent horror
movies made by dedicated craftsmen who not only wanted to entertain an audience
but also to create art. Let’s hope that The Criterion Collection presents more
of the works of Val Lewton, but for now, Cat
People is just in time for Halloween!