I really need to stop scheduling in advance, things never go right! I know I mentioned moving I Walked with a Zombie to today but I always forget that TCM’s “day” runs from 6am-6am so when I read that the film would air the 3rd at 1:30 I failed to take into account that it would be 1:30 on the 4th. Either way I had to do some last-minute scrambling but it all worked out as I got to rewatch a film favorite a few days early! I Walked With a Zombie will (finally) run Saturday.
Today’s film is hands-down one of the best psychological horror films out, playing on fears of foreign “invasion” via marriage and feminine sexuality. I originally saw Cat People in a college class and simply loved the subtle horror elements that director Jacques Tourneur came up with, particularly the two “stalking” scenes that the film is famous for. Rewatching this a second time opened up my eyes to how the film fears foreign intermarriage as well as the hostile feminine competition that invades the psyche of our heroine Irena (Simone Simon). One of the pervasive feelings I felt this second time was sadness for Irena, ultimately coming to hate our “heroes.” Let’s look at Cat People!
Irena (Simon) is a beautiful Serbian fashion artist who meets and falls in love with average American Oliver (Kent Smith). The two get married but Irena fears that a Serbian curse that condemns all those who experience arousal has befallen her and that if she were to consummate her marriage she would turn into a cat person. As the couple drift apart Oliver finds himself drawn to sweet co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph) which causes Irena’s fears of becoming a cat person to start manifesting.
Cat People is an incredibly complex film and to think, audiences assume it’s all about a chick who turns into a cat (perhaps that’s why the remake is hated so much…never saw it). There’s numerous interpretations of the plot that I’ll explore in a second but overall, this is an amazing film. The way Tourneur plays shadows against the light, the subtle horror and sound effects, the lecherous doctor played by Tom Conway who you might think looks/acts/sounds like George Sanders and you wouldn’t be wrong because they’re brothers (fun fact). You can watch this film in the dark and be on edge without being out-and-out terrified which I think works so well with this film. I’ll discuss/review the plot and acting before getting into the various ways to view the film.
The acting in this is what sells and who doesn’t love Simone Simon in this movie? She’s the first character you meet and she’s so striking in both her looks and her accent. Her features are feline in themselves and throughout the movie, even when she’s doing something that’s “evil,” there’s a look of amusement on her face that’s simply adorable (look at her face when she goes after the canary). Cat images pervade her life from the outfits she wears to how she decorates her home. The film explores not just a woman who theorizes that an ancient curse has passed to her, but also a bride struggling to understand the sexual politics of marriage. The strongest theories about this film come in the way it views sexuality, that if Irena were to engage in sexual stimulation it would let out an uncontrollable, animalistic side to her. The fact that praying mantis’ and black widows devour their male partners after sex goes along with this and it’s apparent that Irena loves her husband and while wanting to make him happy, is afraid of hurting him at the same time, both emotionally and physically. The way her fur coat changes throughout the film is an indicator of her increasing embrace of her cat persona. She starts to wear it after marrying Oliver and when she attacks sheep it actually turns into a disheveled mess like an animal pelt.
To go further, Irena is a young foreign woman trying to find and shape her own American Dream (or condemning it depending on your views). She comes to this country with old world ideals and wisdom and is unable to reconcile those with the views of her husband. In watching Cat People for a second time I noticed how jingoistic the film is, asserting that Oliver and Irena’s relationship is doomed to failure due to their ethnicity. I mean Oliver is a poster child for America, right down to ordering apple pie at the diner! Alice is seen as the “right” woman for him not just because she’s a friend who shares similar interest but because she’s as American as apple pie. Her name being so common in America strengthens that argument.
The problem I have is that I grew to despise Oliver and Alice and root for Irena. Oliver doesn’t do anything to prevent Irena from feeling pushed aside in favor of Alice. Once it becomes apparent that Oliver and Irena won’t be sleeping together the husband suggests his bride see a psychiatrist. Irena goes but discovers that Alice recommended him and that Oliver has told his co-worker everything about their relationship! What a guy! As the story progresses Oliver comes to discover he’s no longer in love with Irena and finds he’s “never been unhappy” in his life until he got married. Now I wouldn’t say my life is perfect but I can name some times when I’ve been unhappy so apparently this guy is the American ideal.
Him and Alice fall in love, both with the full knowledge of poor Irena’s feelings being caught in the middle. You have to love a male character who starts to realize he’s probably never been in love with his bride until he meets another woman. I mean Oliver is blunt about stating that Irena’s exotic nature is what attracted and bewitched him (possibly implying some crazy sexual streak he expected to find in her?). These two really bring it on themselves! I mean at one point in a museum Oliver sends his wife away so him and Alice can have a date! And by the end Alice, Oliver, and the lecherous Dr. Judd work together to have Irena committed and the marriage annulled! Just who are we meant to be afraid of here because I’m terrified more of the regular people than the cat person!
Feminine competition is nothing new in film but here it manifests as a return to the ways of the jungle (the “full tilt jungle madness” scene of Mean Girls is running through my head here). Irena’s cat persona of a panther is obvious but Alice cites herself as the most dangerous type of other woman, like a new species of predator. The two stalking scenes between Irena and Alice are what the film is famous for and boy are they suspenseful as it’s a showdown in a sense between the competitors for Oliver’s attention (although I don’t understand why Irena is wasting her time, she could do better). I know the scene of Alice walking down the streak is the go-to but my personal favorite is when Alice is swimming in the pool and Irena arrives. The panther sound effect preceding these scenes is great but again it’s Irena’s bemused face, particularly after scaring the crap out of Alice in the pool, that works so well. It’s obvious that Irena is now a cat playing with her food and it serves Alice right!
One can’t forget Dr. Judd here and boy does Tom Conway make that character pervy. He doesn’t help his position either as he plants the seed in Irena’s mind that Oliver might not love her if she remains frigid and believing in the cat people. From there he aggressively abuses his power as a means of exerting his own sexuality onto Irena. By the end he’s pretty much resolved to assaulting her either because he believes Irena is playing a game or because he knows no one would believe her. Regardless, his animal nature asserts itself, leaving Irena to attack in self-defense. The scene of her and Dr. Judd is another haunting moment of light meeting dark and shadows on the walls.
Cat People is a must-see and a must-own (thus why I’ve inundated you with Amazon links). Each scene is beautiful in how it’s filmed and expressed by the actors, particularly Simone Simon. It’s filled with various layers that you’ll notice through each rewatch. Go watch it!
Type of Horror: Atmospheric, Psychological
Fright Meter: 4
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Buy it with the sequel The Curse of the Cat People
The entire Val Lewton collection
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.