Written by: Dale Raulerson
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Cast: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph
It’s interesting to look back in time and see how many of the same issues plaguing Horror films today lead to some of the most creative and effective film production. Cat People was never expected to become a multi-million dollar hit, and with a budget of less than $150k and various production issues such as the attempted ousting of director Jacques Tourneur, it’s a wonder that it did. Thankfully, his efforts alongside visionary producer Val Lewton, resulted in a film of quiet class and tension.
The plot follows a Serbian national named Irena (Simon) who has recently arrived in New York, and makes a personal connection with a man named Oliver (Smith). The two fall in love, but Irena’s obsession with a myth from her homeland about ‘Cat People’ who transform into horrible, murderous beasts when they fall in love prevents their relationship from fully blossoming. Oliver’s coworker Alice (Randolph) and psychiatrist Dr. Judd (Conway) attempt to aid the couple, only to become wrapped up in a web of love and jealousy as they steadily discover that some myths are indeed true.
The cast is small but superb, with each character bursting with personality and connecting organically among themselves. The actual courtship of Irena and Oliver feels a little rushed, basically consisting of a series of short scenes and time jumps, but given the films short running time and the actor’s natural charisma, this fault becomes easy to write off. The supporting cast of Dr. Judd and Alice are rich and enjoyable, their roles as vital to the plot as the two leads, so you never feel as though time is being wasted with them. Jane Randolph’s career was unfortunately rather short, though she did appear in other classics of the era such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. It’s a shame that it was so, because her spunk and strength of character was very enjoyable here, and especially refreshing for a film of the time.
Given its tight budget and the demands of the studio, Tourneur and Lewton had their work cut out for them, reusing set pieces from other studio films and making particular use of shadows and lighting to hide special effects and deficiencies. What was borne of meager resources however turned out to be the movie’s greatest strength, as skillful camerawork and incredible use of shadow make the film lovely to look at and ramp up the tension of its infamous stalking scenes. Your imagination is forced to fill the void of the shadowy backdrops as Alice flees an empty alley in terror, every movement drawing your eye towards something you know is there but can’t place. To this day I believe that the ability to “do less with more” is the linchpin of a good Horror director and that skill was alive and well in these men. We see here the creation of the false jump scare as well, for decades called the “Lewton Bus” technique, named for Val Lewton himself and a scene where a bus erupts on screen after an elongated stalking sequence. It’s a solid scare and an delightful history lesson.
Besides the rather rushed courtship of our leads, the film’s primary flaws are simply from pacing. The running time is short, but the plot drags at points as Irena’s state slowly decays in a stop and go pattern. There are a few questionable aspects as well, even for the time, such as how this couple has now been married for months but have never even kissed before. There is compassion in their performances, but perhaps the material could have been a little more believable (besides the monstrous cat curse of course). The ending itself is also rather abrupt, though not without visual beauty and resolution. The skillful film making and performances earn this the right to be called a ‘classic’, but the plot becomes a bit too thin, or even too subtle, and only scratches the surface of a more engrossing tale.