Saturday, October 5, 2019

Stubs - Cat People

Cat People (1942) Starring: Simone Simon, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph, Jack Holt, Kent Smith, Alan Napier; Director: Jacques Tourneur; Screenplay by DeWitt Bodeen. Producer: Val Lewton. Runtime: 74 minutes. USA. Black and White. Drama, Psychological, Horror

Sometimes, films that were made for low budgets to feed a distribution pipeline can grow in distinction over the years and live long beyond the few weeks of release they were originally intended for. Studios like RKO needed low-budget films to do well at the box-office to make up for big budget films, like Citizen Kane (1941) that didn’t always fare as well as hoped.

Val Lewton, a former editorial assistant and West Coast Story Editor for David O. Selznick, was hired by the studio to set up a unit that would produce low-budget horror films. The studio would allocate $150,000 for each picture and give Lewton a title. From that, Lewton and his unit could create a film to match. Cat People would be the first film produced by this unit.

The film was shot in a little over a month, from July 28 to August 21, 1942, with Jacques Tourneur as director. Tourneur, who was born in Paris but came to America when he was 10, became involved in films as an extra while still in high school. He would later become a script clerk on various silent films. Tourneur would return to France after his father, director Maurice Tourneur, finished working on The Mysterious Island (1925). Jacques would work as an editor and assistant director before directing his first film, Tout ça ne vaut pas l'amour (1931).

Returning to the US in 1934 under contract to MGM, Tourneur would meet Lewton while working as a second unit director on A Tale of Two Cities, produced by Selznick. Tourneur would get his first chance to direct a Hollywood film with They All Come Out (1939), a crime drama starring Rita Johnson and Tom Neal. He would direct two more films at MGM, Nick Carter, Master Detective (1939) and Phantom Raiders (1940), before being dropped by the studio. After directing Doctors Don’t Tell (1941) for Republic Pictures, he would join Lewton’s unit at RKO.

The studio wasn’t happy though with his work. After four days of rushes, Lou Ostrow, Lewton’s supervisor, wanted Tourneur removed from the film. Lewton, however, went over Ostrow’s head to studio chief Charles Koerner, who reinstated Tourneur as director.

The film opens with a written quotation from The Anatomy of Atavism, a book created for the film purportedly written by one of the characters, Dr. Louis Judd: "Even as fog continues to lie in the valleys, so does ancient sin cling to the low places, the depression in the world consciousness." It closes with the following sonnet from John Donne: "But black sin hath betrayed to endless night. Holy world, both parts, and both parts must die."

Fashion illustrator Irene Dubrovna (Simone Simon) is at the zoo sketching a panther.

While sketching a panther at the zoo one day, fashion illustrator Irene Dubrovna (Simone Simon) meets Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), a maritime engineer. They begin talking and she invites him to her apartment. She makes a point of telling him he’s the first friend she’s had over. He asks her if she’s Russian and she responds that she’s Serbian.

Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) introduces himself to her.

There, she tells Oliver that she feels strangely calmed by the cries of the lions in the zoo, which they can hear from her apartment through the open window. When he notices an odd-looking statue, she relates the legend of King John of Serbia, who banished the witches from her home village long ago.

Oliver buys Irene a cat at a local pet shop.

Later, Oliver, who is enchanted by Irene, buys her a kitten as a gift. However, when the kitten shrinks in fear from Irene, they return it to the pet shop. Irene's presence disturbs the caged animals there and they make so much noise they have to step outside to talk to the shopkeeper. At Irene’s suggestion, Oliver trades in the cat for a bird.

A cat-like woman (Elizabeth Russell) confronts Irene at a party celebrating her marriage.

When Oliver tells Irene that he loves her, she voices her fear that feelings of love will unleash a beast within her. Oliver dismisses her fears as fairy tales and she is convinced to marry him. At their wedding celebration, with his friends from work, Irene is greeted as "sister" by a strange, cat-like woman (Elizabeth Russell) who speaks to her in Serbian.

Back at her apartment, which is now theirs, Irene begs Oliver to be patient in consummating their marriage. After a month goes by, Irene laments her feelings of aberrance and Oliver insists that she seek help from Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway), a psychiatrist. When Dr. Judd uses hypnosis, Irene tells of the cat women in her Serbian village, whose passion turns them into bloodthirsty panthers.

Irene finds Alice Moore at home with Oliver. 

After her session with Judd, Irene returns home, where she finds Oliver visiting with Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), a woman who works in his office. When she learns that Oliver has confided her fears to Alice, Irene feels betrayed and later that night, unable to sleep, she paces in front of the panther's cage at the zoo.

Later, Oliver discovers that Irene has not been keeping her appointments with Judd, and he accuses her of not wanting to be helped and warns her that they are drifting apart. After Oliver's accusations arouse jealousy in Irene, he angrily storms out of the house and goes to work.

Irene calls Oliver at work and Alice answers the phone.

When Irene calls the office and Alice answers, Irene decides to go there. At a restaurant around the corner from the office building, Irene sees Oliver seated with Alice and is jealous. She doesn’t know it but she has good reason, as Alice has already confessed her love to Oliver. He walks Alice but when he offers to walk her home, Alice declines and begins to walk home alone.

Walking home, Alice swears she hears noises like someone or something is following her.

As she’s walking, she senses that she is being followed. Upon hearing a low growl and a rustling of the trees, Alice boards a bus that stops in front of her. Later, at the zoo, several sheep are found slain. Leading away from their dead bodies are the paw marks of a large cat, which gradually change into human footprints.

Disheveled and sobbing, Irene returns home and dreams that Judd is King John.

Irene talks with the zookeeper (Alce Craig), ending up with his keys.

The next day, she visits the zoo and when the zookeeper (Alec Craig) accidentally leaves the key in the panther cage’s lock, she steals it.

Later, Irene, Alice and Oliver attend an exhibit of ship models. Thinking she’d be bored by them, Alice and Oliver send her to another exhibit in the museum but Irene becomes separated from them.
Alice and Oliver leave without Irene and take a cab back to Alice’s apartment house. After saying good-bye to Oliver, Alice decides to go swimming in the basement pool. Irene follows Alice home, and as Alice enters the shadowy basement, she hears a low growl and sees the shadow of a cat. 

Alice feels like she's being watched at the apartment basement pool.

Jumping into the water to save herself, Alice screams for help. The receptionist (Mary Halsey) and one of the other residents come down to see what’s the matter. Irene turns on the lights, claiming to be looking for Oliver. After Irene leaves, Alice discovers that her robe has been ripped to shreds.

The receptionist (Mary Halsey) hears Alice's screams.

Alice tells Judd her suspicions that jealousy has transformed Irene into a cat. When he discounts her accusations, she shows him the robe. Soon afterward, Oliver informs Irene that he has fallen in love with Alice and she orders him out of the house.

Later that night, Judd, Alice and Oliver confer and decide to commit Irene and set up a meeting with her for that evening. When she fails to show up for their meeting, Alice and Oliver return to their office. Judd makes a point of slipping back into the apartment to retrieve his walking cane. While there, he makes sure the front door is unlocked.

Meanwhile, at the office, Alice and Oliver are ready to leave when they’re menaced by a prowling panther. Oliver manages to chase the beast away with a T-bar in the shape of a cross.

Irene then returns to her apartment, where she is greeted by Judd, who has snuck back in to wait for her. Judd kisses her, both because he likes her, but also in an effort to prove that her fears are not founded in reality. But he is sadly mistaken as he watches in horror as she changes into a cat and attacks him. Judd manages to wound her with the sword in his walking stick.

Oliver and Alice find Irene's body.

Oliver and Alice return and hear Judd's screams. They run up the stairs, passing Irene, who is hiding in the shadows. Wounded, Irene is drawn to the zoo's panther cage and unlocks it with the key she stole. After the beast lunges at her, it runs into the street and is hit and killed by a car in traffic.
Alice and Oliver, who have been following after Irene, find her dead body lying next to the open cage.

Irene hides from Oliver and Alice in the shadows on the stairway.

Cat People is a horror film, though in some ways not really. Even AFI considers it a psychological drama, though that doesn’t quite seem right either. I never found myself scared, and would have a hard time believing audiences in 1942 would have been scared by it either. So, this is not at the same level as the Universal monster films of the early 1930s. The most glaring difference is there isn’t really a monster or even the transformation of Irene into the panther that we’re led to believe she becomes. I would have thought it would have been a nice touch if she had turned into a panther when she died but that was not the case.

Simone Simon, French rather than Eastern European, was brought to Hollywood to by Darryl F. Zanuck in August 1935. She was hard to place in a film, actually being fired by Zanuck from her first film for him, Under Two Flags (1936), because she was too temperamental. After the big fanfare that greeted her arrival in Hollywood, she received third billing in Girls’ Dormitory (1936). She often bumped heads with her female co-stars, with Ruth Chatterton, that film’s star, complaining about all the attention was receiving. It would continue when she made Ladies in Love (1936), in which her co-stars Janet Gaynor, Loretta Young, and Constance Bennett complained about the large number of scenes Simon was in.

After floundering at Fox, she returned to France, where she appeared in the Jean Renoir film La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast) in 1938. She returned to Hollywood when World War II was breaking out and went to work at RKO, where she achieved her biggest success in such films as Cat People and its sequel The Curse of the Cat People (1944) but after that her career became stagnant, leading her to return again to France.

She is a curious choice as an actress. More exotic than beautiful, her character in real life would put most men off. She doesn’t really come off as a natural, relying mostly on her gaze to get by.

Her co-star in Cat People, Kent Smith, has a boy next door quality about him. He doesn’t really command the screen the way some actors do, though it’s hard not to like him. He had come to Hollywood from the stage, as many actors had done. He made his Hollywood debut in one of the Philo Vance mysteries, The Garden Murder Case (1936). He would go on to appear in such films as The Spiral Staircase (1946) and Nora Prentiss (1947). In Cat People, he portrays a rather milquetoast character here, so there is only so much he can do with the role.

Tom Conway plays Judd, a psychiatrist hired to treat Irene.

If Tom Conway sounds familiar it is because he is the brother of George Sanders, even taking over from him in the Falcon detective series. Born in Russia, Conway and his family emigrated to England during the Russian Revolution. He followed George to Hollywood, where he got work at MGM as a contract player. He had a small role in Waterloo Bridge (1940). When George tired of his role in the B-series, he passed the torch onto his brother in The Falcon’s Brother (1942) and RKO signed him to a long-term contract. His persona reminds me of a poor man’s Errol Flynn. Here he plays a psychologist with more than curing Irene on his mind. His character sort of gets what he deserves in the film.

The film takes some shortcuts with the story. Oliver and Irene’s romance is whirlwind, to say the least. It seems like he meets her one day at the zoo, buys her a cat the next and they get married on the third. Also, how blind does he have to be to not even sense that Alice is romantically interested in him? They work closely every day; how did he not know? And how does he not go crazy with the marriage never being consummated? Also, he and Alice both make the over-the-top gesture. Dr. Judd gives Oliver the option to have the marriage annulled or have Irene committed (and thus not be able to divorce her) and they choose the latter. So, it would be a guarantee that no one would be happy.

The film puts its low budget to good use, relying on shadows to set the mood and enhance the story. In scenes like the one with Alice and the pool, the shadows add to the mystery and thus to the horror. We can hear what sounds like the roar of a big cat. Alice is not sure what, if anything, she’s actually seeing. While I can see it being scary if you were really Alice, as a member of the audience not so much.

Cat People has some interesting moments but for the most part, it is not all that scary. While I’m not a horror junkie, I still found Cat People a little bland. Well-made bland, but still bland. If you’re looking to be scared, you might want to look elsewhere.

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