After the debut film by their golden boy Orson Welles underperformed at the box office, RKO Studios decided to refocus their efforts on commercial genre work. They decided to create a new “horror unit” to make inexpensive frighteners and put Val Lewton, a former employee of legendary producer David O Selznick, in charge of it. This probably seemed like a good idea, except for the fact that 1942 might have been the worst time in Hollywood history to get into the horror business. There was no guarantee that an America gearing up for war would be in the mood for macabre entertainment, the Universal monster cycle that had defined Hollywood horror was all burned out, and in any case the newly-instituted Hays Code was keeping a tight leash on anything macabre, frightening, blasphemous or perverse – anything, in short, that you could make a good horror film out of.
It turned out Lewton was the perfect person to overcome these restrictions. Not only had he previously worked as an intermediary between the studios and the censors, but he shared the Hays Office’s objection to the excess and gore of the Universal horrors – albeit on artistic, rather than moral, grounds. His horror movies would locate their transgressive, frightening material in the subtext, the spaces that the then-new field of psychiatry had opened up to artists, spaces the censors were not yet looking into. He hired Jacques Tourneur, who he’d worked with under Selznick, to direct, and DeWitt Bodeen was tapped to write. Lewton told Bodeen that the title he’d been given by the studio was “Cat People”, and said that if Bodeen wanted to bail out now, he wouldn’t blame him.
What emerged was one of the most singular, groundbreaking horror movies in American history, one which uses the strictures of the Hays Code to pioneer a new form of fantastic cinema whose repercussions are still being felt today. Its fairy-tale ambience and deep sympathy for characters other films would portray as straight-up monsters points the way ahead to Guillermo del Toro; this year’s major genre talking point The Witch would be unthinkable without its careful, psychologically-based ambiguity. Like The Witch, Cat People maintains a constant state of plausible deniability; its heroine Irena may be suffering from an ancient curse which turns her into a panther when aroused, or she may be mentally ill. Neither interpretation lessens the film’s uneasy power.
In much the same way that the Hays Office’s insistence on “crime doesn’t pay” messages helped unwittingly shape the deep fatalism of film noir, their insistence on morally upright central characters makes Cat People into a more twisted, uncomfortable film. On paper, Irena’s refusal to unleash her inner beast is laudable; in practice, and in Simone Simon’s tightly-wound performance, she comes across as frighteningly repressed and self-loathing. She venerates a King from her native Serbia who violently cleansed his kingdom of witches and starts visiting a psychiatrist, Dr. Judd, on the advice of her boyfriend (Kent Smith, playing a character who shares a name with Hammer’s preferred lycanthrope Oliver Reed). But Judd, played by a magnificently oily Tom Conway, is not the disinterested medical professional he appears to be, and when a frustrated Oliver starts having an affair with his co-worker Irena decides it’s time to embrace the big cat within.
After a long apprenticeship on studio quickies Tourneur found his voice here. Along with his cinematographer Nicholas Musaraca, he crafts a film where you can follow the story just by looking at the lighting. When Dr. Judd first hypnotises Irena the scene is almost pitch-black barring strange, tiny spotlights; it looks more like a seance than the modern scientific process Irena and Oliver are hoping for. The ambiguous Irena lives in soft light and shadows, a very different world to the sharp, high-contrast lighting of Oliver’s office. The most virtuoso displays are the two legendary scenes where Irena stalks Oliver’s lover. The first, on a street at night, creates an uncanny, metronomic rhythm by having the characters pass in and out of streetlights. The second, in a swimming pool, keeps dissolving from the action to the reflection of the water on the walls, creating a sense of deep instability. Whether it’s the movement of the water or Irena’s descent into savagery, uncontrollable forces are at work here.
Criterion’s goldmine of extras include an appreciation of Musaraca’s work from John Bailey, who shot Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake. He notes that the swimming pool scene in Schrader’s version is almost exactly the same as the one in Tourneur’s film, because “you can’t do it better”. Schrader’s film was marketed not as a horror movie but as “an erotic fantasy” (to quote the poster), which flags up the generic ambiguity of Tourneur and Lewton’s story. For all it has perhaps the prototypical jump scare – that bus! – there’s a tender affection in the film’s portrait of Irena that feels unusual for a horror movie. Arguably it feels closer to the A-movie “women’s pictures” Bette Davis was making than any contemporary horror film – albeit a woman’s picture where the possibility of the heroine settling down and having good sex with a man she loves is the implicit danger, rather than the implicit promise.
Why does Cat People love Irena so much? One theory is put forward in Criterion’s most substantial extra, the feature-length, Martin Scorsese-narrated documentary Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows. Lewton’s family were of Russian Jewish origin; they converted to the Russian Orthodox church to fit in, then emigrated to America, Anglicised their surname from Leventon to Lewton, and converted again to Episcopalianism. It’s not hard to see echoes of this in Irena’s story, particularly when you consider Lewton insisted on writing at least a draft of every film he produced. The famous scene where Irena meets what seems to be another cat woman is often interpreted as part of the movie’s psychosexual scheme; a hint of lesbianism to further explain why Irena is so repressed. But while Irena immediately senses there’s something wrong with this mystery woman, it’s only when she speaks Russian – “moya sestra”, Orphan Black fans – that Irena crosses herself in terror. This fear of the old country, of being found out as something other than all-American, repelled with a Christian symbol no less… it feels like something Lewton was raised with.
The other possibility is that Irena represents the embattled horror genre itself; hemmed-in, in love with self-destruction, on the run from its monstrous and bestial nature. For all her story is a tragic one it brought the genre new life, and Lewton produced a string of interesting, intelligent, atmospheric films at RKO before growing bored with his formula and moving on. His first non-horror film as producer, Mademoiselle Fifi, also starred Simone Simon as a woman caught in a moral dilemma, and is an interesting comparison point to Cat People. For all that, Lewton’s ventures outside horror were never as successful as Tourneur’s, who made strong showings in the film noir genre (Out of the Past), as well as Westerns (Great Day in the Morning) and a late spoof of the genre he made his name in (The Comedy of Terrors). In an interview on the disc, Tourneur paints his working relationship with Lewton as a reversal of the stereotypical director-producer relationship, with Lewton as the artistic dreamer and himself as the hard-nosed pragmatist. Perhaps this is why he later proved more versatile. Either way, there’s no argument that both men found each other at the right time, and that Cat People unlocked a potential in them that might have gone unexplored otherwise. We’re all the richer for it.