In ‘The Big Picture’ Sarah Shachat takes movies off of Roger Ebert’s List of Great Films and discovers how they’ve made an impact on the medium or what about them would appeal to your friends who think black and white looks weird.
One of the smartest things I ever heard anybody say about film is that, when you’re looking up at the screen, expectation is a form of desire. When you see a big doorway wreathed in shadow, you damn well expect something’s hiding in there, because why else would it be on screen? Why else would the strings on the score start to build and screech? Why else would the light get all slanted, cast like knives on the shining eyes of our hapless protagonist? All this stuff is scary, certainly, but scary with craft and intention. So however much ironic joy or ridiculous relish we take in some old studio titles like I Walked With A Zombie or Cat People, they are built around the idea that the audience can see something living without seeing it at all, can sense something terrible before it appears. That the dark has a life of its own.
This is the philosophy behind producer Val Lewton’s series of B-horror pictures for RKO, of which Cat People is the first and one of the best examples. By 1942, RKO, film studio behind glamorous Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane hit a financial wall and was looking to carve out a new, cheap, and profitable niche for itself in the game of Hollywood monopoly. To this end, Lewton was charged, more or less, with cannibalism. Using secondhand sets, suggestive titles rather than finished scripts, old name or no name actors, and strict limits as to run time and budget, the Lewton unit went above and beyond its pinched format requirements. Without drawing much attention to film form itself, Cat People makes full use of its production limitations and turns the sparseness and artifice of its world into B-horror virtues.
By B-horror, I should be clear, we’re not just talking about a lower budget affair with less exciting actors. B-movies, at least in studio terms, mean something specific: normally they run under 80 minutes (Cat People clocks 73) with a budget of under $200,000 in 1940s money (Lewton had about $150,000) and would form the bottom half of a double feature bill. No great stars to speak of in these films; they instead utilized older actors and directors, up and comers paying their dues, and whoever else you could scrounge from a studio stable. Quality doesn’t necessary factor into it, and production value depended on the studio in question, what their extra resources and backlots offered. Cat People actually stole the sets off an Orson Welles picture, The Magnificent Ambersons. A later Hollywood picture, Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad And The Beautiful, famously paid homage the making of Cat People with Doom of the Cat Men, a fake picture Kirk Douglas has to get off the ground while keeping his dignity intact.
The actual plot of Cat People isn’t too far off from the kind-hearted fun Minelli makes of it in the clip above. We are introduced to Simone Simon’s Irena, an alluring Serbian immigrant who’s deeply drawn to big cats and yet terribly afraid she might turn into one; she in turn meets the dapper, near saintly Oliver, who falls in love with her over tea and forbears even to kiss her after they’ve married, so afraid is his new wife of her passion consuming her veneer of normalcy. At a wedding dinner, for instance, a voluptuously dressed woman appears to the happy couple and hails Irena as “sister” in Serbian. She is to Irena as Irena is to everyone else: heightened, mysterious, maybe even dangerous. Director Jacques Tourneur finds cheeky ways for a chair, for example, to give Irena the semblance of cat ears, or for the shadows in a room to resemble the bars of a cage not unlike the zoo cages of big cats.
However many hours you want to spend breaking down how Inception is a big metaphor for movie making, films rarely deal in concrete symbolism. There’s lots of ink and pixels out there about how Irena’s fears and inexplicable sexual repression are expressive of a lesbian identity, or that a woman turning into a cat is indicative of x kind of impermissible female passion. To the film’s great credit, Cat People is much broader than that. The foley sounds (or, pre-recorded “canned” sounds) of a growling cat don’t necessarily equal anything symbolically, but they evoke a lot. The film’s strength is in its atmosphere of horror, pitting the vulnerable Irena against both the overbearing boringness of ordinary life (Oliver, his all American gal-pal Alice) and the violent, animalistic chaos outside of that system (Serbians and/or cats). Weird phrases seep into the dialog and the minimalist, suggestive set design of the film’s world add to its stilted quality. Simon and the script do a fantastic job of conveying Irena’s essential strangeness, perhaps explained, or at least abetted, by her essential loneliness. She both needs Oliver’s love and tries to deny it. At times, Tourneur’s shadows creep closer and closer over her face, threatening to consume her. At other points, he strands her out in places so bright and airy we begin to dread what must be wrong with them. There’s no more escaping the horror in the world of Cat People than there is in escaping the breathable atmosphere in ours.
It is this potent cocktail of paranoia and inevitability that drives Cat People. There’s a story Irena tells Oliver about how the Cat People of Serbia were driven out of her homeland by the good King John, except for a few who still might be lurking in the hills. She has a statue of a knightly fellow with a big longsword impaling a mountain cat in her home. Again, it’s not directly symbolic of what happens in the movie, but suggestive in itself and backed up structurally by the character of a psychiatrist who tries to help ‘cure’ Irena of her fears. Dr. Judd, who coincidentally has a stealth sword-cane, is a hypnotist and unsurprisingly a bit of a perv. His efforts do little but provide the excuse for a trippy dream sequence that allows Tourneur to play really fast and loose with suggestive imagery and bring forward the sense of dangerous latent energy within Irena. Part of why Cat People is such a classic horror is in how effortlessly it sits astride the line between what’s literally going on (there may or may not be people who can turn into cats) and an atmospheric level of undefined terror (you have desires that make you uncomfortable, don’t you?) Irena is our protagonist and Simon really gets us to sympathize with her plight, however irrational it seems. But of course she’s the monster. She’s a woman. She’s foreign. She’s Simone Simon. She’s a cat.
There are two standout sequences in which Lewton and Tourneur pay off the dread they’ve built up. Both occur once Irena (and the audience) begins to sense there might be something more than sympathy between Oliver and his work partner Alice. In the first, walking through what is clearly a single stretch of wall set, Tourneur uses editing to stretch out Alice’s flight through a park at night, pursued by sound effects of a jungle cat and flashes of a sleek, feline shape. After ratcheting up the tension in this chase past the same damned stretch of wall, so that the whole thing has a dreamy quality, the building conflict breaks in the form of bus passing into frame at an odd angle. From close on a terrified face to a wide shot full of movement, the very change in the tenor of the sequence pays off the promise of violence without any fake blood split. It’s a near perfect piece of editing, staging, and sound design, as all the sinister cat noises strike from off screen or from the hidden depths of the darkened set.
The other takes place when Alice goes to a recreational pool (alone, at night, but whatever). All Tournuer really has to do here is encircle the outskirts of the pool in shadow while keeping Alice ringed in the asymmetrical light coming off the water. It’s streaky and harsh, like animal scratches playing across her face as we hear the throated growl of the big cat we know is Irena’s avenging spirit. Like everything else about the picture, there’s an alluring ambiguity to this moment, with the violence visualized and yet not acted upon, visible within Irena and yet mysterious and unseen. We’re shown only the suggestion of what a big cat would do to a healthy American girl swimming alone in a pool at night. It’s enough to make the emotional leap to full on terror, without the fuss or bother of having a cat wrangler on set. Expectation is a form of desire.
Other ominous incidents build out fears, such as you may have them, for poor Alice and Oliver. Not least of these include a doomed canary bird and the fatal maiming of Irena’s psychiatrist – the 40’s pop interest in psychiatry gives all the scenes between Irena and her doctor a terrific, non-scientific weight to them that probably couldn’t be matched today with our messier understanding of the profession. When she’s told that she’s insane, it comes from a voice of absolute clarity and authority, not someone who’s overprescribing Adderall. Perhaps in those events there’s Tourneur’s suggestive hand again. Even modulating the atmosphere between incidents, Tourneur and Lewton consistently build the pressure until the very end, where Alice and Oliver are indeed attacked by a live panther and ward it off with a crucifix. There’s a perfectly logical explanation – it escaped from the zoo and killed poor, mad Irena, who’d been drawn to the beast. But after all the characters and the viewer have seen, and the way Tourneur has shown it to you, who really believes that? Certainly not Val Lewton, who would milk the formula two years later in Curse of the Cat People, where the unspoken thing hanging in the air isn’t cats and female sexuality, but ghosts and childhood. It, and many other Lewton horrors, are well worth the watch.
But Cat People is a great entry point, as well as being one of Lewton’s most vibrantly artistic endeavors. Everyone involved was on their best game, and everything in the film is bent in service to its atmosphere of fearful, slinking certainty. Irena has a tragic certainty, and yet has the same essential wants we have, the same mingled fear and desire at the feline fatale she may become. The contrast and eventual contraction into the bright and airy lighting setups and the sinister world of contracting shadows exhaust the nerves, Irena’s and our own. In a way, Lewton and Tourneur have already pulled off all they need to do with the title Cat People, a title screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen famously worked backwards from. Ok, you say. Show us the cat people. Tourneur then sketches a world where they are anywhere, really, hiding in every pregnant frame, waiting somewhere between the screen and the terror in your eyes.