Monday, December 7, 2015

Cat People (1942)

Director: Jacques Tourneur


This low budget horror picture left an indelible mark in the genre of horror film and aided in financially saving one of Hollywood’s major motion picture studios. Led by a first time producer, starring a no name cast, with a feature where the audience never gets to see the “monster,” Cat People would quietly revolutionize the entire genre with its story of fear and remains a hidden gem in motion picture history.

Cat People is a horror drama of a young woman who believes she she has the ability to turn into a large cat and murder. When Oliver (Kent Smith) married a beautiful young Serbian woman, Irena (Simone Simon), complications arise as she refuses to be passionate with him in fear that if she is aroused she will turn into a beast and murder her husband based on an old curse from her home village. Despite the aid of Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), a trusted psychiatrist, Irena refuses to become intimate with her husband as jealousy arises over Oliver becoming romantic with a fellow co-worker, Alice (Jane Randolph). Oliver falls out of love with her distant wife and wishes for a divorce causing Irena’s beastly side to begin to stalk and endanger Alice. Together Oliver and Alice fend off Irena’s transformative large cat form, but when Dr. Judd shares his deep passion for Irena she transforms and kills the psychiatrist. To stop herself from further infliction of her brutality Irena visits the zoo and has and releases a panther which kills her, relieving the world of her curse.

On the surface to the contemporary viewer this picture may not appear to anything particularly special, but its product is the case of timing and creative solutions of motion picture production. In its wake it leaves a legacy that would inspire entirely new way to build suspense and frighten audiences unseen by the monster movies made so popular by Universal Pictures over the prior two decades. Few may understand its impact, but Cat People’s influence on motion pictures remains decades later.

It was a feature that was produced on a very light budget, one more associated for a B-movie, especially when considering it was made by RKO Radio Pictures, one of Hollywood’s major motion picture studios. With the industry feeling the finical effects of the war RKO was looking to produce motion pictures on the cheap and would assign a former publicist, journalist, and story editor Val Lewton with one such project. Lewton, a first-time producer, was given only a $150,000 budget and a title Cat People upon which to produce a feature. Its result was a film that was a surprising success.

Most of the sets would be recycled pieces from previous RKO pictures, most notably the staircase from the financial Orson Welles bust The Magnificent Ambersons. Lewton utilizes the services of little the used director recently dropped by MGM Jacques Tourneur with whom he will have make many of these cheap B-movie horror films in the coming years.

Smith and Randolph use a T-square as a cross to hold back an unholy beast.
The film was cast with practical unknowns to greater American audiences. Names like Kent Smith, Tom Conway and Jane Randolph actors that would never make real names for themselves. The most marketable star was French actress Simone Simon whose rocky career in Hollywood, best known for being incredibly difficult to work with. Simon at least received a major push by 20th Century-Fox before that studio dropped her and RKO picked her up. She delivers the most memorable performance with her provocative look and alluring European accent drawing in audiences to her mysterious character of Irena.

With the low investment by the studio, what this motion picture lacks in production value it makes up in suspense. With a story based around the idea that the main antagonist transforms into a great cat and can slay anyone from her husband, a romantic rival, or the doctor that is secretly in love with her the suspense would lie on the idea of Irena’s transformative state. However, despite utilizing live animal in cages for set pieces, using a live roaming animal as a character would be too problematic and costly. Therefore when Irena is assumed to be a great cat she mostly goes unseen, leaving only faint hints of shadows and noises as the only sensory aspects of Irena to both the characters on screen and to us the audience. Much like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws decades later this lack of seeing the “monster” actually creates more of a sense of insecurity as our imaginations fill in what our eyes cannot see, which can provide a far more powerful reaction.

The most inexpensive, yet most effective “trick,” used in the feature is a moment where near nothing happens. Within this scene Alice is being stalked by Irena and Alice builds up haste as she believes she is being fallowed. The film leads us to consider at any point Alice will transform and attack her prey. As the editing becomes quicker and quicker, the camera becomes fixed on a shot of Alice with absolutely no sound when the silence is shattered by a sharp noise only to reveal it was the approach of a bus opening its door, with which Alice boards. In this scene suspense grows, tensions are high, and expectations are built all for a moment the audiences thinks is coming and is simply waiting for the big dramatic moment, when a loud noise breaks the silence and creates a moment would make most viewers jump out of their seats.

Randolph inn the famous Lewton bus scene.
Moments like these are none too uncommon several years separated from Cat People, but back in 1942 this was a new device of scaring the audience. It was so new in fact that this type of build and execution would be named after this very scene. A “Lewton bus” became a phrase for a suspenseful moment with a quick and surprising “boo!” intended to frighten audiences. To contemporary movie watchers, these moments are all too common, but for audiences accustomed to Frankenstein or Dracula fear was built up to with monsters, not sudden moments.

Critics at the time were mixed with their reviews, but box office returns manifest a surprising amount of viewership as the picture brought in over $4,000,000, massive returns on investment for the producer and studio. To many contemporary film critics and historians this creative manner of shooting suspense on a limited budget and its creative film construction would lead to Cat People to be one of the most renowned horror films of cinema history, but is commonly buried behind the likes of the various Universal monster movies of the age.

Cat People was such a success for Lewton none of his fallow-up features would come close to the same box office numbers he received in this, his first feature film. Even the picture’s sequel The Curse of the Cat People produced with the returning cast of Simon, Smith, and Randolph drummed up little box office return and critics deeming it a failure for those looking to receive similar stirs that established in Cat People.

In a sense the film was a groundbreaking horror feature, although it is still not a pleasing film to all viewers. Perhaps it was just luck that made these moments possible for the Lewton, Tourneur, or the editors to make the decisions they did as budget was so very low. In any case the product still remains what it is and it has inspired generations of filmmakers with it creativity on lack of resources. Surprisingly Cat People remains highly praised by horror picture lovers that are well versed on the genre’s history, making the feature quite a film to discover along the way of motion picture study.

So give it a look. Cat People may be far form the best horror film of all time, but it one of the more revolutionary horror features in the history of the genre.

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