This post contains spoilers!
For today’s Cat Classics on Film, we are pleased to bring you the 1942 film Cat People, produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur. This is basically the story of a tortured woman and the man who is unfortunate enough to fall in love with her. We think it’s pretty terrific.
A woman with a strange, evil past
We first meet Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) at the zoo, where she is hanging out sketching a black panther. Within the movie’s first moments, Irena has met good-guy Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), who promptly begins to fall in love with her. Irena has a dark secret though—one that keeps her from getting too close to Oliver.
Let’s just say Irena is the kind of woman who enjoys hearing the roars of lions and the screaming sound of the panther from the zoo near her apartment. She is the kind of woman who causes kittens to freak out and can send a pet store into pandemonium just by walking in the door. What’s up with her?
Well, she comes from a Serbian village where the people were thought to be evil witches able to transform themselves into large cats. Irena believes strongly in these “cat people,” so much so that she thinks if she even kisses any man, she herself will change into a cat and tear him apart. This fear creates some tension after Oliver and Irena marry. He promises to allow her as much time as she needs to come to terms with this folk tale, but it isn’t long before he begins to worry about her mental health and finds her a psychiatrist.
The psychiatrist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) also takes the story of the cat people as just a folk tale. Irena lies to Oliver, telling him she is still seeing Dr. Judd when really she has given up, thinking he can’t possibly help her.
Jealousy brings out the beast
Enter the other woman. Actually, this other woman, Alice (Jane Randolph), has been there all along. She is Oliver’s pal at work but is secretly in love with him. Things take a turn when she lets the lid off that secret, even though Oliver at first insists that he loves Irena and will stick things out with her. But as Irena gets crazier and crazier, you have to wonder how long he’s going to last.
This brings us to our favorite scene in the film, when Alice is getting ready to go for a swim in her building’s pool when she hears a panther coming after her. The cat is never actually seen, but it nevertheless frightens her into jumping into the center of the pool and treading water while she’s surrounded by strange noises and shadows that may or may not mean the cat will soon be upon her. It’s an excellent use of the terror of what you can’t see (think Jaws, only with a panther).
If you like dark movies that can be viewed on more than one level, Cat People could be just the thing for you. This film can be viewed as a simple story of a woman haunted by her dark, evil past. Will she kill the man who loves her, or won’t she? Will Alice be a victim of Irena’s animalistic jealousy? But if you like to go deeper (and we do), you can ponder the ancient theme of cats being associated with female sexuality, which apparently is so dangerous it is deadly.
Cat People is a classic horror film, but it is more than that. It is also an entry in the long tradition of stories of people (usually women) who turn into cats (see "The Cyprian Cat," by Dorothy Sayers, for example), and that makes it a great cat classic. We give it an enthusiastic two paws up!
A note on the "Paws Up" system: Miss C gives either one or two paws up. One paw is for a good read; two paws is for a great read. She never gives three or four paws because that would require her to lie on her back...and Miss C does not do that!
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