Cat People (1942): A Classic Movie Review

Cat People (1942): A Classic Movie ReviewCat People (1942): A Classic Movie Review

Val Lewton‘s steamy thriller Cat People details the fast-moving romance between all-American ship builder Oliver (Kent Smith) and the sexy-but-shy Serbian fashion designer Irena (Simone Simon). They meet at a zoo, where Irena often visits the deadly panther, and are soon married. Unfortunately, Irena is haunted by a curse drawn from her homeland – an old story concerning her female ancestors who were known to turn into ferocious big cats whenever they were intimate with men. She’s too terrified to even kiss her new husband, convinced there’s something evil inside her that will claw its way out. Oliver encourages her to seek psychiatric help, and leans on his coworker Alice (Jane Randolph) for support. Irena’s jealousy over the closeness between Alice and Oliver awakens the vengeful cat within.

This film isn’t too hard to figure out, really: Irena is a lady, and ladies aren’t allowed to have sexual desires, and those who do are basically “whores” and/or “sluts”. This poor woman has all this pent-up evil sexual emotion and she has to fight to keep it from turning her into a homicidal panther-being. She is also Serbian, which makes her “exotic,” and we all know those non-American women are the worst when it comes to sexy sex. They don’t even wear bras half the time! Irena tries to be a good American girl so she can fit in, and she totally keeps it in her pants. But of course, her exotic ways seduce the American men around her, who can’t help but want to sleep with her, which means she can’t help but want to retaliate with her own brand of sexuality…one that kills people. All she wants is to be able to be intimate with her husband without killing him! Is that so much to ask? Can’t she just lie there and let him do all the work?

Cat People is an interesting atmospheric horror movie that feels ahead of its time, and while I may have been a bit facetious in the previous paragraph I did legitimately enjoy it! The premise is sound, playing on the perceived “otherness” of Eastern Europe (especially in the ‘4os) by seriously positing the existence of Serbian women cursed to become ferocious felines when engaged in sexual activity. The pacing is slow and deliberate, escalating from slightly off-kilter domestic drama to tense, uncertain horror. There are several memorable thrilling scenes, most notably that at the pool, with its expert play of shadow and sound.

As played by the lovely Simone Simon, Irena is a sweet, reserved young woman who lives in such fear of herself that she chooses a lonely lifestyle. She is beautiful, but also somewhat childlike: the opposite of the seductive vixen I might have expected from the poster. Kent Smith is almost alarmingly stereotypical as your “average joe”, but the funny thing is he knows it and even brings it up at the beginning, calling himself as American as it gets. Randolph’s Alice is interesting, the sarcastic but dependable “guy’s girl”, as it were, the best friend who gets the guy in the end as opposed to the sexy popular lady.

I was unsure about Cat People at the beginning, finding it slow and unconvincing, but as it picks up and director Jacques Tourneur cleverly keeps viewers in the dark

about the veracity of Irena’s story, I became more and more absorbed. It’s also interesting as a snapshot of the time period, rooted in the psychological and sexual politics of the ’40s, and surely somewhat scandalous for the era.

Alex Kittle is an art, movie, and comic geek with a penchant for nonsensical jokes and exaggerated claims. Her blog Film Forager explores movies of every genre, from weird high-concept sci-fi to classic brooding romance.

  • Hank Zangara

    Val Lewton’s Cat People: Yes, terrific and stylized noir-ish classic horror film, all done with smoke and mirrors, shadows and creepy music.

    For a more family-friendly take on the same theme of half-cat/half-woman, see the Dutch film “Minoes,” the English-dubbed version is known as “Undercover Kitty.” Colorful, very funny, very clever, and ultimately very sweet.

  • http://davesclassicfilms.blogspot.com/ Dave DeSousa

    Lewton was a master of atmospheric, moody and creepy horror films. With Lewton, it was more of what was not shown and left to the viewers imagination that made his films so great …

  • Kai Ferano

    I’ve got to see this movie! How did I ever miss it? I guess it has nothing to do with the re-released trilogy, “Curse of the Cat People.”

  • Christine Harrison

    I always thought it was a pity at the end that you did see an actual cat, which made out the story was true after all. I would have preferred the idea to be left open to the viewer’s imagination so that they would be left wondering if it was indeed sexual frustration that was at the centre of Irina’s problems. This was certainly quite a bold idea for Hollywood at the time, and I always thought it was gratifying to see a subject like this used as the basis for a horror film. Val Lewton did a number of outstanding and original films in this genre, and I also found “The Seventh Victim” to be particularly memorable – especially the ending, which is about as far removed from a stereotypical Hollywood happy ending as you can get!

  • RupturedDuck1

    I think I have seen and enjoyed all of Val Lewton’s films and Cat People is one of his best.
    I saw the remake done in the 70s first, but the
    original was much better. The sequel Curse of the
    Cat People was also a decent production, though it
    really had nothing to do with cats.

  • Stan Flax

    Val Lewton was at his best with Cat People. It is amazing how suspense and that feeling which comes from real horror can be conjured through suggestion, by showing the shadow of a panther on the swimming pool wall amidst the moving water of the pool, or the feeling roused when the young lady walks down the street and you see the branches rustling like a cat lurching above, with the suspense climaxing as a city bus pulls up with its air brakes resounding.

    The way Lewton used shadows, lighting, darkness, and ordinary characters, in black and white was absolutely masterful. He was able to do the same in other masterpieces of his, “Bedlam”, “The Body Snatchers”-as scary a movie as you will ever see with Boris Karloff at his best, “The Ghost Ship”, etc.
    “Cat People”-the original had no gore, no bloodletting, save the shrink, but a great story, eerily directed and produced by masters of the genre.

  • Doug

    Well, if you probe into the actual history of the Serbian cat people, you will find out that these people were a race of persecuted people who (somehow, it’s never explained) have learned to turn themselves into panthers spiritually and physically to counteract any kind of aggression shown them. True, it’s an emotional response, but not purely a sexual one.

    In one seen, Irena is with some people in a pub/restaurant when a woman walks past – the woman catches Irena’s gaze and this silent communication between them disarms her. She has just seen someone who sets off something in her, and makes her think. This episode awakens something within her.

    Then you see her with the canary; she accidentally kills it by reaching her hand in the cage and slapping at it like a cat would and the smile on her face shows that she is enjoying the play like a cat would. Then she comes back to her senses and is disgusted and remorseful over what happened, puts the canary in a box and goes to the zoo and tosses it in to the panther’s cage.
    That’s nothing sexual, just instinct awakening in her.

    Throughout the movie, you see how she deals with the truth of what she is and how she sometimes agonizes with the moral issues that conflict her;
    the good decent human being or the unleashed hunger of her other self that doesn’t belong out in the open with other people.

    The turmoil that Irena feels with her husband is more psychological then sexual. And it has nothing to do with her turning into a mad impassioned panther when they have sex. It comes from a different kind of issue; trust. She just doesn’t know if it’s okay to subject him to something that could endanger him if he were ever unfaithful or dishonest with her. She’s afraid she doesn’t trust herself either on how much she can constrain herself should she be (or perceived to be) hurt.

    And notice how she goes after Alice when she senses that Alice has become a threat to her. That’s nothing sexual, just pure aggression to rid herself of a threat.

    In the end, she feels it’s safer for all if she just gives in to her other form, is locked up, and nobody is hurt. It’s a spiritual decision that she makes.

    This was a B-movie. But it was so well conceived and acted and filmed that it became a classic. It also had new storytelling techniques used in future horror genre films. It really is a forerunner, and it’s a great film. The sequel (‘The Curse of The Cat People’) is a kitten compared to the original, and not as interesting, sadly enough.

    Another great film that came out after this by Val Lewton is ‘The Leopard Man.’ In some ways that film is even cooler than ‘The Cat People.’

  • Ann

    why does Curse of the Cat People have no curse and no cat people?

    Good movie though…the little girl was quite a good little actress

  • Bill C.

    This is one of my favorite of the Lewton films (along with “I Walked with a Zombie” and “The Body Snatcher”).

    I totally agree with Alex and disagree with Doug. Irena’s major motivation is a fear of her own sexual passion.

    What I really like about the movie is that it deals with a sexual issue in a way that is not at all hard to understand, yet was still able to satisfy the movie censors of its day. And in a “B” horror picture! A good many “A” pictures were never so frank.

    Kai:

    I’m not sure why you refer to “Curse of the Cat People” as a “trilogy.” It is only one picture – and a nominal sequel to “Cat People.” So it isn’t even a part of a trilogy, let along a trilogy by itself.

    Lewton had his titles imposed upon him by the studio. They wanted a sequel to “Cat People” and imposed the “Curse of…” title. Lewton, as usual, went in his own direction.

    “Curse of the Cat People” does retain the main characters of Irena, Oliver, & Alice, but uses them in an entirely different way.

    If you view “Curse of…” not as a horror film, but as a delicate fantasy film about a lonely child (in fact, a meditation on loneliness as “Cat People” is a meditation on a fear of intimacy), it is really a very unique film in Hollywood history.

    When I first saw it (“Curse of”) expecting another Lewton horror film, I was disappointed. By having re-viewed on its own terms, I found I really, really like it.

    I would put it in a “second tier” of Lewton films along with “Seventh Victim,” “Isle of the Dead,” and “The Leopard Man.”

  • Thomas A. Petillo

    HIGHLY over-rated movie.
    Not bad, at best.

  • Connie Ferrell

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought this movie less than great. Watched it with my husband and brother and sister-in-law many yrs. ago, and we all thought it was laughably bad. Were we missing something?

  • Judy

    I recently watched this movie and agree with Doug’s profound insight regarding Irena’s dilemma.

    Irena was struggling w/her two identities (human &
    feline). We’ve all experienced how fragile our own
    human existence can be. Irena knew that in the end her 2nd nature would pervail and she’d lose her humanity. The story line was ahead of its time and very well done. It truly is a classic.

  • Doug

    Actually, the whole ‘sex’ thing is in your imagination.

    Btw, any of these serbians could transform themselves, not just women. Read the notes on the original film.

    They belong to a christian sect who are persecuted and turn to witchcraft.

    The main issue is trust, not sex, sorry.

    And this was a B movie. The cost of making this film was lower than an A film and put it in that category. B is determined by production costs, not quality of a film. Doh.

    Why don’t you and this blogger do some research before you make yourselves look stupid again. I’m surprised this web site lets her write these pieces of misinformation that belong on a blog page, not a web site like this.

  • Doug

    I agree, Judy.

    Over the years I’ve read various reviews on this classic. Some speak about Irena’s sexual passion transforming her, others talk about her ancestry.

    I think the misconception that this is all about sex comes from the movie poster (which really played the sex thing up to sell the film, which was not uncommon in the 40’s, as this blogger suggests because a lot of women in movie posters back then were seen as ‘stacked.’ Not uncommon at all for studios to play sex up to sell a product),
    and the 1982 remake, which I saw in the theater when it came out. The remake really changed the story and made us believe that the transformation was due exclusively to sex. Her own kind tell her(Natasha Kinski) that that’s what it’s all about.

    I hate seeing a classic like Lewton’s Cat People
    portrayed as some psychodrama soap opera about women and their desires when there is a far more endearing quality to this story.

    Irena really doesn’t trust people. Her ancestry has inbreed this in her. Her own mother was killed and her father mysteriously disappeared.
    She just doesn’t trust people. Furthermore, she learns through this beautiful psychological horror drama that she cannot trust even herself.

    I mean, come off of it. She turns into a panther when she finds her husband and Alice together. She was hurt and pissed.

    She turned into a panther when the psychiatrist came on to her, feeling so disgusted by his sexual urges and betrayed by him that it triggered a transformation.

    She isn’t intimate with her husband because she’s afraid to let him know what she is, and afraid of him leaving her. It’s a much deeper thing driving her to indecision.

    Nowhere in this movie do you hear her say that she can’t have sex with her husband because she’s going to turn into a killer if she does. Go back and listen to the dialogue, lol.

    Geez…

    Thanks Judy.

    One of the neat things about Lewton’s films was letting the audience use their imagaination, instead of giving them a ‘monster’ to stare at on the screen. he really displeased RKO by not having more panther shots. That’s what makes this such a great psychological drama. He lets you use your imagination to figure things out.

    I really hope that Joe Johnston (The Wolfman/2010)
    takes this wonderful movie and does a remake that will knock everyone’s socks off. His Wolfman was so beautifully made that when I saw it on dvd I could have slapped myself for not seeing it at the theater. The period detail is so rich and beautiful. It would be so cool if he would film Cat People, doing it as an early 1940’s period piece, complete with 40’s regalia, etc.

  • Shawn

    I love the pool scene with Alice. I remember seeing it as a kid a being creeped out. All the terror is done with shadows and sound which is so rare nowadays.

  • Bill C.

    Ah, but the central tension in the marriage between Oliver & Irena is Irena’s refusal to consummate the marriage. Their relationship was great until they got married. Then, she refuses to have sex with her husband and that begins to drive a wedge between the couple.

    That in turn causes Oliver to begin confiding more and more in Alice. Irena only begins stalking Alive when her jealousy is aroused. In other words, Alice is a potential rival for Oliver’s sexual attention.

    I don’t know about you, but refusal to have sex and sexual jealousy, to me, indicate that the plot turns on sex.

    Further, I don’t see anyone here saying that Irena’s problem is universal to “all women” or anything like that. Both men and women can have a fear of intimacy – and that is what this picture seems to be about for me.

    Lewton is known to have had disdain for the horror genre in general and wanted his pictures to be about more than shock. Lewton’s next film, “I Walked with a Zombie” has a plot that revolves around marital infidelity.

    Plus, in Lewton’s original vision, we never would have resolved the issue of whether or not Irena could transform into a cat or if it was all in her mind. It was the studio that insisted on including the brief shot of the panther roaming Oliver’s office. But that was not the original intent of the creator’s behind this film.

    To those who find this film overrated, one should understand that it was “B” picture with a very miniscule budget, also necessitating the use of “B” list actors. If you are used to spectacle, big special effects, or really top drawer acting, then this film will be a disappointment. But if you understand the “B” movie ethos of the 1940’s and everything that Lewton was working against, than “Cat People” is a surprisingly subtle and mature film.

  • SUSAN

    1) RE: “THE CAT PEOPLE: I agree with nearly all of you, including the reviewer. VAL LEWTON did a great job with the movie. I also think “Curse of the Cat People” MAY refer to the curse, as why did Irena come back? And, the deal with the lady and her “daughter” who looks a lot like the woman who comes by the table at Irena was there. Perhaps the “curse” is that the cat people don’t die?
    BUT, on the other hand, I can’t help watching “THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL” with Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Gloria Graham, etc. as the movie which the writer/producer (whoever) was referring to when Douglas and his “protegee” Director get hired by a studiot to make low-budget films.
    When they are looking at the costumes the wardrobe person is showing them for the cats, they are old. tattered, non-fitting and wouldn’t scare anybody – if seen; however, the wardrobe is showing how cutting some material and adding it “here”, padding shoulders and stuffing it “there, etc. will be good enough for their “B-Movie “Budget”.
    Then Douglas (Jonathan Shields in the movie) shows his director friend – the DARK, and says “what is the most scary but the dark”. Then, one has to use their imagination…”
    The 1st time I saw this movie I could only think of the CAT PEOPLE, mainly that “Swimming Pool” scene, and how horrible it was/is. TERREIFIC, and think that is where T.B.a.T.B.get their idea – straight from LEWTON!
    I think this is a great review, and that you others added terrific contribusion/s to it!

  • Tiny Tim

    Hmmm, Doug as I remember the explanation Irina gives in the movie, the Serbian Cat People did not evolve as a defense against the invading Mamelukes but as a result of their influence. That’s why King John drives off the Mamelukes and kills the witches in the same campaign. His heroic statue doesn’t depict him vanquishing an Ottoman warrior, it focuses on the more important deed, killing the cats. Far from some kind of occult freedom fighters, the shape shifters are the worst evil that the infidels have inflicted on the people. Irina repeatedly refers to the cult as “evil” and describes them as indulging in profane rites and practices, more reminiscent of the pagan acolytes of Sodom and Gomorrah than the resistance fighter of occupied Paris. As for sex, the movie is dripping with it. You can deny its significance if you like, but three generations of reviewers and viewers have clearly seen what is there. It doesn’t matter how the “actual history of the Serbian cat people” describes the witches, whether Val Lewton wanted a shot of a panther in the final scene, or what is depicted on the movie poster. The movie itself gives us Irina’s version of that history, a real cat in the apartment, and sex as a central conflict between the two main characters. The backstory can inform our view, but the movie is the movie, and we have to deal with what is there, not what we (or anyone else) wishes were there.

  • Anne

    I saw a movie when I was a child, and never learned the name of it, so I ask you learned writers for help. I think that it may have been “Cat People”, but I’m not sure. The only scene I remember is one where everyone in some small village runs inside because something horrible is coming, but one young woman can’t make it home before they bar the door on her. We never see what kills her, but we can hear it beyond the door, and then slowly we see blood seeping in beneath the door.

    I remember it because it set the same tone of horror that you say the swimming-pool scene in “Cat People” set. Could it have been from the same film?

  • Judy

    Doug, enjoyed reading your review re: the 2010 Wolfman movie. The original movie was terrific, and I’m currently looking to purchase the 2010 Wolfman. I’ve enjoyed quite a few wolfmen movies -right to my fave Professor Lupin in the Harry Potter series. A pity his character was limited in the other movies.

    Do you u have any ideas re: the name of the movie Annie is seeking?

  • Grand Old Movies

    The movie I think Anne is referring to is “The Leopard Man,” another Val Lewton production (from 1943). The scene takes place in a small New Mexico town, in which a panther has gotten loose from its trainer. A young girl, coming home alone at night, is locked out of her house by her (rather heartless) mother. We then *hear* the panther attacking the girl outside; and while her desperate family members try to unlock the door (which is stuck), we see a shot of blood seeping under the door. An unsettling effect, to say the least.

    As for “Cat People” and repressed sexuality, another interpretation of Irina’s frigidity that has become popular is that she’s really a repressed lesbian, so her sexual desires are not directed towards her husband. Much of this interpretation hinges on the restaurant scene (where the wedding party takes place), in which a strange woman (Elizabeth Russell) address Irina as “my sister” (in Irina’s native language). Irina is upset by the woman’s appearance, since the woman seems to imply that she and Irina have a connection, which perhaps might be (symbolically) sexual. I’m not saying this is the correct interpretation, but it’s one often mentioned in analyses of this film.