Release Date: December 6th, 1942
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: DeWitt Bodeen
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph
RKO Radio Pictures, 73 Minutes
“I like the dark. It’s friendly.” – Irena Dubrovna
Cat People was the first picture produced by Val Lewton for RKO. It was also his first collaboration with director Jacques Tourneur. And like their other collaborations, it is very much horror but sort of has a film-noir flair to it in a visual sense.
The story takes the typical werewolf tale and gives it a few new twists. Firstly, the were-monster is a woman, as opposed to it being a man, as seen in 1935’s Werewolf of London or 1941’s The Wolf Man. Secondly, the creature is a cat, as opposed to a canine. RKO was trying to compete with Universal’s horror franchises, so taking a familiar formula and breathing new life into it made this picture unique and stand out from the pack, pun intended.
The main character is Irena, a Serbian fashion designer. She marries an American man but she is afraid of intimacy because of a curse she believes she has. She assumes that if she is sexually turned on or becomes angry, that she will transform into a killer cat. Her husband thinks it is old country nonsense and that her fears are just Serbian superstition. He ends up confiding in a pretty co-worker, which angers Irena and sets the really dark part of the story in motion.
Due to budgetary constraints, Cat People is a film that utilizes the less is more approach. The film completely hides its monster and the horror mostly happens out of frame. It forces you to have to use your imagination but the direction by Tourneur, enhanced by the enchanting cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca, pulls you in and doesn’t let go. The part where the character of Alice is being stalked through the night is an amazing sequence that really is one of the best horror moments of the 1940s.
This definitely seems to be the most popular of the Lewton and Tourneur collaborations. I like I Walked With A Zombie just a bit more but this is an incredibly well produced and directed film. It was also the start of a good string of work from both men. Plus, Cat People builds suspense and a feeling of real dread in a way that Universal’s were-creature movies did not.