In honor of Halloween, today’s post concerns one of my favorite horror movies – the RKO production of Cat People from 1942, produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur.
Beginning in the early 1940s, RKO Radio Pictures released a cycle of low-budget but poetic horror movies designed to compete with the wildly successful monster movies that Universal Studios had been churning out for over a decade. Cat People is the first and probably the most famous example of this unique and celebrated breed of horror. Although directed by Jacques Tourneur, a great director in his own right who would go on to make Out of the Past (one of the masterpieces of film noir), Cat People today is more often than not discussed as the work of its producer, Val Lewton, rather than Tourneur. In our auteurist age, where movies are typically thought of as personal expressions of their directors, even by casual movie fans, this makes Lewton something of an anomaly.
When the Ukrainian-born, former MGM writer Lewton was given his own B-horror production unit at RKO early in 1942, he was given three rules to follow: he had to use titles for his films that were supplied by his superiors, he had to work with a meager budget of only $150,000 per picture and he had to bring in each film at a running time of under 75 minutes. Within those parameters, Lewton could do as he pleased and he had a talented group of writers, directors, actors and technicians under his command. He would re-use this team (including writer DeWitt Bodeen, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca and directors Tourneur, Robert Wise and Mark Robson) over and over through classic chillers like Curse of the Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man and, my personal favorite, The Seventh Victim. If Lewton is today considered the primary “author” of these movies, it’s because they have more in common with each other than any of them do with other films made by the same directors that were not produced by Lewton. Also, as Kent Jones points out in his excellent documentary Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows, Lewton was the definitive hands-on producer who practically “pre-directed” his movies on paper before shooting began.
So what are the hallmarks of a Lewton production? First of all, he worked exclusively in the horror genre but he had unique ideas about how horror should be conveyed. The horror in the RKO cycle is almost always supernatural in nature and yet there’s also a certain amount of ambiguity surrounding the supernatural elements – Lewton liked to keep these elements off-screen and out of sight. Cat People, for instance, is about a “cursed” young woman who literally turns into a giant cat when driven to extreme emotional states. However, you never see her as the “cat person” because after the transformation has taken place, she is either kept off-screen or hidden in shadows onscreen (as is the case with the film’s justifiably famous indoor swimming pool scene). Low-key lighting was very important to Lewton’s films because he felt that keeping crucial visual information shrouded in darkness would allow the audience to imagine what was there. Lewton knew that the horror you can imagine is more frightening than anything you can be shown.
Also key to Lewton’s universe is having a strong-willed but sympathetic female protagonist. In Cat People it’s a young Serbian woman named Irena (played with an appropriate mixture of creepiness, stubbornness and vulnerability by the wonderful French actress Simone Simon), who suffers from the aforementioned ancient curse. Or is it simply a figment of her imagination? After a whirlwind courtship with Oliver (Kent Smith), a successful, blandly handsome engineer, the disturbed young woman gets married but, fearing the transformation that may take place in the heat of passion (paging Dr. Freud!), she refuses to consummate the marriage. As time goes by, Oliver grows impatient with his beautiful but frigid bride and enters into a relationship with Alice (Jane Randolph), an attractive co-worker.
It is within these characters and their interrelationships that the film’s modest genius resides. Oliver comes across as a nice guy on the surface but the closer one looks the more he seems uncaring and a little too quick to jump into the arms of the next attractive woman who comes along. The moment in the film when he and Alice give Irena the brush-off in a museum is genuinely heartbreaking. For her part, Irena comes across as both killer and victim; Cat People may be typical of the 1940s in that it “others” female sexuality but the tension between the filmmakers’ conflicting desires to make Irena the character of whom we are afraid and with whom we are meant to most closely identify makes the film look unusually complex today. The one time Irena acts on her murderous impulses is when a psychiatrist, Dr. Judd (winningly played with repugnant self-satisfaction by Tom Conway), betrays her trust and makes unwanted sexual advances towards her. In other words, the good doc gets what’s coming to him. This strategy of having the viewer identify with “the other” character is unusual even in today’s horror movies (see my recent post on Guillermo del Toro) but it is also precisely what makes Cat People a beautiful, poignant and, finally, tragic film; Val Lewton knew how to make us locate the horror within ourselves.