Simone Simon — Irena Dubrovna Reed
Kent Smith — Oliver ‘Ollie’ Reed
Tom Conway — Dr. Louis Judd
Jane Randolph — Alice Moore
Clan of the Cats: A woman turns into a black panther due to an ancient family curse. Wasn’t that a movie with Nastassja Kinski? Why yes it was. In fact it was a remake of a much superior movie of the same name.
Cat People, released by RKO (King Kong, Citizen Kane) in 1942, was the first in a string of B-Movies produced by the legendary Val Lewton (I Walked with a Zombie, The Body Snatchers). Although the film had a low budget and a less than aspiring title, Cat People rose above it all and, according to some, surpassed the very films it was designed to mimic.
In 1941 the genius of Orson Welles was lost on the film going public. Citizen Kane, later considered the greatest American movie of all time, was a box office bomb and nearly put RKO Studios out of business. Through with visionaries, RKO just wanted to make money, and looked to the world of monsters to help bail them out. A decade earlier Universal Studios had horrified audiences and scored box office gold with Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy. RKO was determined to follow suit with its own string of monster movies, just as long as they didn’t cost anything and could be made in 18 days.
1941 saw the birth of one of Universal Studios’ most iconic monsters, the Wolfman. RKO quickly jumped on this premise, manufacturing their own shape-shifter movie … or at least the title for one. Cat People was intended to be the Wolfman, only with a cat instead of a wolf and a woman instead of a man. Val Lewton, who had worked as a story editor on such movies as Rebbecca and Gone with the Wind, was hired to produce the film which would be the first in a string of accessible monster movies that would make monster bucks. And they did make the bucks, but not in the way anyone at RKO had envisioned.
Warning: Major spoilers ahead …
RKO wanted a monster, but what they got was a psychological horror film noir love story. French film star Simone Simon played a fashion artist, Irena Dubrovna, who, while sketching panthers at the zoo, bumped into Ollie Reed (Kent Smith), the average American male. Unfortunately the average American male just happened to be in love with his best friend, Jane Randolph’s Alice, but didn’t know it. He was too busy being smitten by the beauty and allure of Simone Simon. Who wouldn’t. As the film had a short shooting time, the courtship lasted only a couple of scenes and soon Ollie and Irena were engaged to be married. Of course there was a problem. Irena couldn’t … well … how do you say in 1940s strict Hollywood code … she couldn’t be all a wife should be to her husband. Hell, she couldn’t even kiss him for fear of turning into an evil satanic black cat (panther) if she indulge in any sexual pleasure. (It was the 40s and women weren’t supposed to enjoy sex. Not even this movie was immune to that cliché) Good old Ollie initially shrugged it off as Irena’s fascination with her Eastern European upbringing. This time it was Serbia, not Transylvania. After promising to wait as long as necessary for his true love to come around, about a month, Ollie began to prowl a bit himself. It was here that the tragic and innocent Irena turned into the monster and began to stalk the competition. The swimming pool scene is still chilling to this day. Soon Ollie was feeling a bit out of sorts and sent his dear alluring wife to an unscrupulous psychologist, devilishly played by RKO contract actor Tom Conway. Conway had intended to cure Irena and get some on the side, but it didn’t work out. The whole affair ended tragically, with the lesson being that it’s okay to cheat on your wife as long as you think she is insane and will eventually take her own life by means of an escaped panther.
On a more serious, technical note, the bus, one of the staples of the horror genre, first appeared in this film. We know this scene as the false scare, in which a cat comes out of a closet or a harmless character turns around a corner during a tense moment in a movie. In one of the many pivotal scenes in Cat People, actress Jane Randolph, thinks she is being pursued by something not of this earth. The tension mounts as she walks down the sidewalk in central park. She looks back. Nothing is there. She walks faster. She hears a growl. She runs. A bus! Just as the scene crescendo’s a bus comes from the side, hissing and scaring poor Alice and the audience half to death. The scene is called the bus due to this very movie. As for Irena’s alter ego, the panther, it was seen only once in the entire movie and that was in the shadows.
… End Spoilers
If I make this movie sound less than incredible, it’s all done in jest. I adore this film. As a kid what impressed me was the mood of the piece, the long shadows on the walls that reminded me of the ghost stories my grandmother used to tell me. As I grew older, the adult content and contemporary feel of Cat People inspired me to plant my own characters in a real world and to give them genuine adult issues to deal with. Of course the metaphor of a women turning into a cat wasn’t completely lost on me either. Yeah, there’s a little bit of Irena in Chelsea. I even pay homage to the film in this strip, in which a girl calls Chelsea sister, a scene later added to the1982 remake as well. I recently watched Cat People for this review, and I was actually surprised by the similarities between COTC and this movie. Like Irena, Chelsea is cursed to become a black panther and only women are victims of this curse. It’s never clear if Irena is a witch, but she does mention that they existed in her Serbian village. They were evil witches and Chelsea is … well, I guess it depends on her mood.
Cat People sits above its contemporaries because of the respect the cast and crew gave the film. With such a title, it could have easily been a cheesy kiddie show with equally cheesy effects and make-up. Lewton and Tourneur (Curse of the Demon) proved that less was definitely more and turned a B-Movie into a psychological, dark, adult fairy tale. And unlike the Scream Queens of the Universal monster movies, Cat People was populated by strong female characters. Simone Simon’s Irena was a particularly powerful lead, but in a very subdued way, evoking both innocence and cunning in the same scenes. Ultimately it was the aspects of good and evil within each character that made Cat People a true classic. Good intentions proved disastrous while evil fulfilled the needs of justice. Characters, originally thought virtuous displayed genuine human flaws. Darkness, whether of psyche or the supernatural consumed all. This was indeed rare in any movie, not to mention a B-Grade horror flick with a silly name.