The black panther paces, snarling and snapping, its tail whipping behind it, itching to break free of its cage. Its eyes gleam fearsomely out of its black face. The cage seems inadequate to hold the cat back. It cannot rest. It is not like other wild animals you see at the zoo, beaten down by captivity, lying in a corner exuding apathy and depression. This cat is mad. A young woman in a dark suit stands by the cage, holding a sketch pad, trying to draw the beast, yet she keeps throwing away her efforts, sometimes missing the trash can. She has a somewhat squashed face, reminiscent of an Exotic Shorthair cat, and a nearby man, watching her, strikes up a conversation. She is Irena (played by French actress Simone Simon), she hails from Serbia, and the man, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) is fascinated by her. She is done with her attempt at drawing the panther, so the two walk home together. It is a friendly meeting, there is nothing ominous, not yet, although the pacing panther, the first shot in this creepy film, hovers over all interactions. Irena invites Oliver into her apartment, and he, with the expectation that this is going to be his lucky day, follows. Her apartment is cavernous, with a strange statue on an end table, of a man holding a sword aloft, a sword that has pierced a cat. Oliver asks her about it, and she tells him it is a statue of King John. “Oh, right,” says Oliver, “The Magna Carta, right?” Irena says no, not that King John. The King John of her statue is a Serbian king, who defended her ancient land from satanic cults, and legend has it that the people could take cat form. Legend also has it that the cat people live in the mountains to this day, having escaped the persecution of Good King John. Oliver Reed laughs at this charming story. Irena’s apartment overlooks the zoo, and she can hear the lions roaring at night. She finds it “soothing”. But panthers don’t roar. They “scream”.
Irena is haunted, haunted by the conviction that she has evil in her, that the “cat people” of her native land are somehow inside her. She is afraid that she will hurt someone, despite her diminutive size. As I mentioned on Twitter, the unbidden thought came to me last night, “Hey, this is like Bella and Edward”, which annoyed me, but the metaphor of Sex-As-Dangerous, tepidly played out in the Twilight movies, is in high gear in Cat People. Yeah, yeah, Serbian legend, yeah, yeah, King John… what the movie really is about is a woman afraid of what will happen when she lets her inner panther out. Perhaps I shouldn’t even mention this, because it maybe makes the film sound silly, but it is not. It is profound. It works as a horror film, although you never see the horror, not directly anyway. It’s the dread of the unknown, what might be out there in the dark, or in the dark in our own heads … Cats can see in the dark. It’s part of what makes them so creepy. They know something we don’t.
Despite some early misgivings in their gentle courtship (Irena won’t kiss Oliver, she is afraid of …….. something), the two marry. At their wedding celebration, in a restaurant called Belgrade, the guests whoop it up, Serb-style. Irena seems happy. Oliver’s co-worker Alice, a great gal, (played by the terrific Jane Randolph) found the Serbian restaurant for the reception, and while it may seem like Oliver and Alice make a better match, Alice takes it in stride. Randolph suggests all of this with no dialogue to support it. It’s in her behavior. During the reception, there is a chilling moment when a lady sitting at the bar with a face that could make your blood turn to ice turns and looks directly at Irena. She stands and walks to the table. She speaks in Serbian. One word. Then walks out. Irena is shaken. Oliver asks, “What was that all about? What did she say?” Irena whispers, “She called me ‘sister’.” The woman is played by Elizabeth Russell. It is her only scene. Jacques Tourneur shows his stuff in the filming of it: it is simply done, only one or two shots, but the feeling of dread and fear, merely from looking at this woman’s face, is palpable.
Cat People was shot for nearly nothing, and the lack of budget shows, if you’re looking for that kind of thing. There aren’t too many locations, the cast is small, the film is short … but it is evidence of how much you can do with almost nothing. The encounter with The Cat Woman in the Belgrade is a perfect example. A director needs to cast well (the actress is frightening looking), set up the “event” of the scene, and let the cameras roll.
There’s trouble in paradise immediately, starting on the wedding night. She is not ready to be “Mrs. Smith”, not yet. Her husband is patient, at first, although gently baffled. Sex is part of marriage. Everything will be all right, dear. No, it won’t. Not with that panther pacing and screaming below the window.
Early on, before the two marry, he buys her a kitten, as a present, seeing as she spends so much time staring at the panther at the zoo. When the kitten comes out of the box, it bristles its fur at Irena, hissing. Irena doesn’t seem all that surprised at the response, although it makes her sad, and sends doubts and fears flickering through her eyes. It seems to confirm her worst fears about herself. Oliver reassures her it’s fine, and they go together to the pet store to get another pet for her. The second the two of them walk in, all hell breaks loose in all of the cages: Parrots scream to high heaven, cats back up against the bars spitting, there is a great and insistent noise, of feathers ruffling, wings flapping, tails whipping about. Again, Irena knows the problem, although it is left unspoken. She steps back outside, leaving Oliver to find a pet for her, maybe a canary would be nice. The dotty old petshop owner takes this cage out, that one, babbling at Oliver all the while about the odd occurrence of the collective nervous-breakdown at the shop when Irena walked in the door:
Animals are ever so psychic. There are some people who just can’t come in here. My brother’s wife, for instance. I have nothing against her. But you should see what happens when she puts her foot inside this place. The cats particularly. They seem to know. You can fool everybody. But landee-dearie-me, you can’t fool a cat. They seem to know who’s not right, if you know what I mean.
Yes. We do know what you mean.
Oliver insists Irena goes into therapy, and the therapist condescendingly tells Irena that her fantasies are just that, fantasies. He doesn’t come right out and say, “You are afraid of how passionate you will get during the act of sexual intercourse,” but that’s basically his point. The human quality of that unspoken fear, that understandable fear,the fear of the unknown, maybe even fear of the “little death”, being blasted apart like that, losing your “self” for a moment … how will you be put back together again? is one of the many things that grounds this movie.
Things start to go downhill when Irena becomes jealous of the friendship between her husband and Alice.
There are two frightening sequences involving Alice. She walks home along a dark road, with an endless stone wall to one side. There are two pairs of footsteps echoing along the pavement. Alice gets spooked. The shadows loom. She turns around to look behind her, but sees nothing. Bushes wave at the top of the stone wall, as though something is crouched there. But nothing is revealed. Alice gets onto a bus, freaked out, and wondering what it was she just saw. Did she see Irena in that bush … or was it just a cat?
The other frightening sequence is a famous one, perhaps the most famous in the film. Late at night, Alice goes to her gym after work to take a swim in the pool downstairs. Because of course that’s what you do, when you are freaked out and think a giant cat woman is skulking behind you: You do things by yourself, late at night. This is, after all, a horror movie. Randolph, in her bathing suit, which gives her an added level of vulnerability, begins to feel she is not alone in the pool room. The pool room is in shadow, and the stairway leading up is light, with stark shadows of the bars on the stairs. She peers at that stairway, fearfully, and Tourneur uses a couple of identical shots, intensifying the suspense. You keep thinking you are going to see either the shadow of Irena descending, or the shadow of a tiptoeing cat/panther descending. But nothing comes. However, Alice knows something is … there. She leaps into the pool. The ripply shadows of the water on the ceilings and walls are used to brilliant effect, because you can’t quite tell what is real. Reality itself seems to ripple in that moment. Filmed sparely, every shot counting, it is a perfect sequence, primal fears bursting to the surface, one on top of the other: fear of darkness, the unknown, what is in the shadows, being alone, what is beneath the surface of the water, being at a disadvantage when facing a strong foe …
What is so extraordinary about those two terrifying scenes is that you never “see” the Cat Woman. You never see anything. It is all implied, the reverb left by her presence in spaces where she just was standing, or soon will be standing.
The shadows in this film cluster and huddle and seem to take on lives of their own. The lighting is so stark that people’s shadows are thrown onto walls far far behind or in front of them. The overall psychological effect of this is superb. Each person walks around with this other “self” floating along behind them, another aspect, the dark side, made visible. But nobody mentions it, because why would you. Shadows are normal, they are part of nature, they occur when there is a light source. But here, they seem like other characters, huddling around the conscious ones, their Doubles, the things that cannot be spoken or even admitted.
One of the horror films helmed by producer Val Lewton at RKO, Cat People is a metaphor, sure, that’s pretty obvious. The fear of sex is in every shadow here, explicitly. But it works as a straightforward story, too.
Once upon a time, in the ancient land of Serbia, there was a race of people who worshiped the Devil and, it is said, turned into cats. Some say the Cat People still exist. That they are out there still.