Thursday, October 13, 2005
According to the annals of film history, producer Val Lewton was tapped by RKO to produce a series of cheapie B-horror movies in order to recoup the huge financial trouncing the company sustained with the release of Citizen Kane, a bomb at the time if you can believe it. Although he was only given $200,000 per picture, Lewton thought outside the box. Hiring the best writers, actors and directors he could, and often reworking scripts himself, Lewton quickly developed quite a reputation that began with Cat People in 1942 and ended 9 films later with Bedlam in 1946.
Cat People begins at the zoo where we are first introduced to Irena, an “artist” who is busily attempting to sketch a panther. Ship designer Oliver spies Irena from a distance and is immediately drawn to her. After some flirting, Oliver spends the afternoon with her and it appears to be love at first sight. Eventually the two go to her apartment, where we begin to sense that Irena’s a bit weird. After Oliver questions her about a somewhat disturbing statue on her coffee table, Irena explains its significance and provides some unsettling background information about herself. Irena, it seems, was raised in the mountains of Serbia, where legends of demon cats prevailed. It is her belief that the people from her village are the direct descendants of these demon cats. As a result of her dark past, she is convinced that there is “evil” inside of her, which prevents her from kissing or having sex with a man. Doing so would change her into a cat and she would be driven to maul her lover. Unfazed by this huge red flag, Oliver courts Irena and they marry soon after. Sleeping in separate bedrooms and never consummating their marriage, or even kissing for that matter, Oliver becomes increasingly frustrated and insists that she see a psychiatrist. This is one of those movie psychiatrists who is completely inappropriate with boundaries and confidentiality. For one thing he’s a friend of Oliver’s and for another he openly discusses Irena’s case with everyone, but I digress. Irena becomes increasingly jealous of one of Oliver’s attractive co-workers and as the film reaches its climax we learn whether or not Irena is truly a changeling or just a delusional nut job.
Cat People is a lot of fun. Like film noirs of the 40s, a little goes a long way. Shadows have great meaning (e.g., simulating cage bars in Irena’s apartment), and what’s left to our imagination is much more powerful than anything the director could’ve shown us onscreen. With its moody setting and simple premise, this is an engaging mystery that keeps you guessing until the last frame of the film.