Sunday, April 12, 2009

Target #268: Cat People (1942, Jacques Tourneur)

TSPDT placing: #471
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: DeWitt Bodeen

In Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Hollywood producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) brainstorms ideas for the latest B-movie horror project to fall into his lap. Unhappy with the feline costumes they'd been testing, he proposes not showing the titular "cat-men" at all: "And why? Because the dark has a life of its own. In the dark, all sorts of things come alive." Shields was obviously referencing Jacques Tourneur's Cat People (1942), the brainchild of legendary horror producer Val Lewton, who made B-movies so professionally-crafted that to call them B-movies would be to do them a disservice. My first Lewton film was The Seventh Victim (1943), a clash of superb cinematography and a ridiculous plot, but fortunately Cat People has a more palatable storyline – though, of course, you'll still have to suspend disbelief on the odd occasion. If this film is a triumph, then it's a triumph of atmosphere, with Nicholas Musuraca (one of film noir's most accomplished cinematographers) prolonging the intrigue and suspense through his masterful use of lighting and shadows.

When American Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) marries Serbian immigrant Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), he convinces himself that his wife's fear of intimacy is simply a remnant of her superstitious childhood. But Irena is adamant that she not consummate the marriage, for she fears that, due to a Satanic family curse, her sexual passion will force her into the form of a bloodthirsty panther. Irene constantly surrounds herself with feline imagery, is instinctively drawn to a captive zoo panther, and her fears swiftly become a psychological obsession that threaten to take her over. Oliver confides his concerns in attractive co-worker Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), who is biased by her love for him, and psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway, who oddly appeared in the same role in The Seventh Victim), who dismisses Irena's worries as mere insanity. The three supporting players give good performances, but Simone Simon is weak; she does display a certain exotic allure and a shy vulnerability, but her dialogue delivery is entirely unconvincing.

Val Lewton originally instructed Tourneur to completely avoid showing the elusive panther, but RKO demanded more money-shots. Even so, Irena's feline form is on screen only for a few shots, and never in plain view. The filmmakers evidently understood that seeing nothing was infinitely more frightening than seeing a trained animal, and so the unknown – a shadow that lurks cunningly in the shadows – is exploited for maximum thrills. Lewton's initial insistence on not showing the panther, maintaining ambiguity on Irena's mental state, suggests that he had in mind something more than a simple "monster picture." Is this panther that plagues a shy, married woman's mind representative of something within ourselves – of suppressed jealousy, aggression and lust? Sex and violence have often blended together in mythology. Mafdet, the Ancient Egyptian goddess of justice and execution, possessed the head of a lioness; she was later replaced by Bast, whose image then changed to represent fertility and motherhood. In the same way, Irena's marital lust is intrinsically linked with her aggression, and abstinence alone will only temporarily quell her desires.

Currently my #8 film of 1942:
1) Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)
2) To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch)
3) This Gun for Hire (Frank Tuttle)
4) Holiday Inn (Mark Sandrich)
5) The Major and the Minor (Billy Wilder)
6) The Glass Key (Stuart Heisler)
7) The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles)
8) Cat People (Jacques Tourneur)
9) Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (John Rawlins)

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