Cat People: Dated, yet Ahead of It’s Time

SCAD Radio’s In-House Classic Movie Aficionado, Ellen Gillespie, is back at it again with a review of Val Lewton’s 1940 Cat People.


Imagine being approached to make a film, and only having the title as your jumping off point. Sound a bit crazy?

Well back in the 1940’s, Val Lewton was approached by RKO Motion Pictures to produce nine horror movies, and all he was given to work with was the names of each picture. The first being 1942’s Cat People starring Simone Simon.

Taking place in New York, Serbian immigrant Irena Dubrovna, (Simone Simon) meets young and handsome marine engineer, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), and instantly falls in love. The two marry, but Irena’s fears of an old Serbian superstition about evil witches turning into cats causes major friction between the lovebirds. So much so, that Oliver’s coworker, Alice (Jane Randolph) makes a move on the married man. Oliver asks Irena for a divorce, leading her to terrorize the man she loves and anyone who gets in her way.

It’s all a giant metaphor for a woman’s burgeoning sexuality.

I’m not reading too much into this.  The film makes it very clear from the beginning. A quiet and shy girl who’s never had a friend meets and falls head over heels with a good ol fashioned red blooded american boy, but when the wedding night falls upon her, she gets cold feet and begs him to wait. Later, she loses the man she loves to a woman who’s more in control of her sexuality. Only when tossing her cares away and becomes a bit of a b word—for lack of a better term—does she become empowered and in control.

For the hour and thirteen minute long film, it takes a while for the plot to really get going. The film makes up for it though by moving fast enough that you don’t mind. I wasn’t fully engrossed with the movie, but it did hold my attention.

The real jewel of the movie has to be Simone Simon as Irena. Playing up the pure and naive aspect of the girl’s personality, Simon does her best with a character that could have come off as incredibly annoying. She almost plays it too well. I really hated her husband for leaving her for Alice, and Irena is suppose to be the bad guy.

One moment that really speaks to Simon’s acting is when Irena plays with her pet bird.  It seems sweet and comedic until she accidentally kills it, then feeds it to a panther at the local zoo. Ms. Simon’s face after realizing what she’s done goes through so many layers of denial, sadness, regret, then acceptance of what she is, and what she has done. All the little things that Simon puts into her role are what really sell her as Irena. The icy daggers she shoots at Alice, the chipperness she uses as a mask to hide all the pain inside, I admit I choked up a bit at the little wave she gives to Oliver as she escapes near the end of the film, which he doesn’t see.

Another amazing moment of the movie is the stalking scene. Irena, after seeing Oliver and Alice run into each other, gets suspicious and follows the couple down a dark alley. Alice leaves Oliver, and it’s just now her and Irena. The whole film we’ve been teased of what could happen to Irena if she becomes mad or jealous. Now we’re starting to get some payoff. We watch Alice as she walks alone, all the while hearing Irena’s high heels clicking far behind her. Suddenly, the heels stop. Alice, along with us, becomes weary. We wait in silence to hear the heels again, but nothing. A faint noise of what can only be described as a cat lurks in the darkness, but it’s suddenly juxtaposed by an extremely loud bus. A very well done jump scare. Just like Alice, we want to get out of the situation as fast as possible.

The ending, however, was lackluster to say the least. I don’t want to give the final moments away, but it really left a bad taste in my mouth. I was angry that Irena was treated so horribly by everyone in the film.

Yet after spending some time away from the movie, I realized that no one in the film was really all that innocent. They all dealt with some sad and hard decisions. Irena’s dark past kept her from living a life she wanted. Oliver tried his best to love someone that just could not be saved. Alice had to watch the man she loved marry another and then watch him slowly fall apart when it didn’t work out. Everyone’s a sinner, and no one is a saint.

The film’s minor characters are laughably bad. They are so indicative of the time that there is a character whose lines almost all consist of, “Gee whiz” and “Dearie”. Then again, with how some of the dialogue is written, I don’t think the actors had much to work with. It is bad enough though, that it’s kind of endearing. It’s the kind of bad that you can get a giggle out of just because they seem so serious, but sound so ridiculous.

The cinematography definitely has it’s moments, especially whenever Irena is in her cat form. The last fight of the film is done beautifully, playing with shadows rather that flat out showing all the gorey details.

Costuming is fine, as I am not a big fan of 40’s clothes or their shoulder pads. I do have to hand it to the film. There is some seriously subtle costume changes for Irena. Her clothes get darker and darker throughout the film, and it’s a little on the nose that her coat oddly enough looking like panther fur.

It is a very cheap looking film. Almost all the action goes back and forth from two different sets: Irena’s apartment and the zoo. I don’t hold it against the film though as it works with what it has.

My main problem with the film is not exactly the film’s fault. I’m talking about the time period in which the film came out. The idea of divorce or annulment was almost blasphemous to talk about in a 40’s picture. Even today, it’s still a little problematic; therefore, I applaud the film for addressing it. My issue is that back in the 40’s, there were certain rules in film that kept the bad guy from having a happy ending. (That’s why in the original Italian Job, the film literally ends on a cliffhanger.) They couldn’t show the bad guys getting away with their ill gotten gains. I hoped that Irena would not be seen as the bad guy, and in the last five minutes of the film, the story tricked me into thinking that I would be right. Alas, it was not meant to be. Irena still gets a sad ending to her sad life. Now, if her character were in a modern film, she might be spared such a tragic ending as she is a likeable character. Therefore, I submit my honest opinion:

I think this film should be remade.

Yes, it’s already been done as in 1982. RKO changed up parts of the story to make it a bit more interesting. Along with giving it a killer theme song done by the late and always great, David Bowie. And the newer film wasn’t that bad. It’s wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad.

The idea can still have another great rendition if put into the right hands. Perhaps, instead of making the film about sexuality, it could be an allegory for depression.  A young woman who hates her own existence and tries to move on from her troubled past and find happiness, but only to spiral downwards into self-hatred and despair? In the ‘42 version, you definitely read that Irena is depressed, and may have thought of suicide to end her cursed existence. I know it’s a bit harsh, but it could work.

The film still holds up pretty well. It definitely has it’s hokey moments. It looks a little cheap, the writing is really dated, and the message may not be read too well for a modern audience. A woman who is afraid of what she’ll become if she enters into a sexual relationship and becomes an evil murderous beast when she fully accepts herself and her sexuality? I don’t know. It’s a little mean spirited towards women; however, the film still has something about it that makes it worth a watch.

So dim the lights and settle in for a chilling night, go enjoy Cat People.

3.5 out of 5 Black Cats

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