Sunday, March 14, 2010


"Cat People" (**** OUT OF ****) qualifies as a subtle, suspenseful, 73-minute, black & white, B-picture horror movie from RKO Pictures about a delectable young thing who cannot consummate her marriage because she fears that she will change into a deadly panther and tear her husband to shreds. Russian-born producer Val Lewton, who had once served as a story editor to producer David O. Selznick, advocated the power of suggestion to forge genuine horror in the hearts of an audience. Lewton shunned the standard approach by depicting outright horror as Universal Studios did with their "Dracula," "Wolfman," and Frankenstein" franchises. When "Cat People" was made, the Production Code Administration censored movies and chief censor Joseph I. Breen worried about the implications of this sinister tale of terror. Indeed, you never see anybody get clawed and Irena (French actress Simone Simon) never actually turns into a cat. By comparison, Nastassia Kinski went through a transformation in the 1982 color remake. Nevertheless, it is the ambiguity and the power of suggestion that makes this movie a masterpiece of understatement. The themes of light/good and darkness/evil permeate this yarn as well as the women versus women permeate this impeccable nail-biter.

Director Jacques Tourneur creates a spooky sense of atmosphere and freshman scenarist DeWitt Bodeen pile up ideas that brood just beneath the surface in this memorable fright flick. Simone Simon is perfectly cast as the tender young girl who draws fashion pictures and worries about her village in faraway Serbia. The stories that she tells Oliver about King John of Serbia and the witches foreshadow her own demise. Indeed, she has a statue of the regal witch-hunter in her apartment with a cat impaled on a spear. This hearkens back to the first scene when she throws away a sketch of a panther impaled on a sword. She meets a nice, clean-cut young draftsman, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith of "Hitler's Children") at the local zoo one day while she is sketching pictures of the caged panther and Oliver helps Irena dispose of her crumpled up drawings. He accompanies Irena back to her brownstone apartment and they begin a brief courtship that end with them getting married. This is where trouble enters paradise.

During her wedding party, Irena is approached by a strange woman in a black cat suit who addresses her in her native tongue as her sister. Later that evening, Irena cannot bring herself to have sex with her husband because of her intense fears about her past and what she might do. Patient, understanding Oliver recommends that Irena see a shrink, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway of "The People Vs. Dr. Kildare"), so she can come to terms with her anxieties about marriage. Dr. Judd is literally a wolf in sheep's wool and Conway turns in a brilliant but slimy performance and pays with his life for his perfidy. She never kisses Oliver and they never sleep together. Struggling to deal with her own fears, Irena turns on Oliver's office buddy, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) who has a thing for him, but she only wants to help Irena and Oliver. Irena doesn't like what Alice is doing and one night some strange things happen. "Cat People" is a classic, far better than its graphic remake with its mind-blowing special effects. Nicholas Musuraca's black & white photography is fantastic. No, "Cat People" won't give you nightmares, but it is an effective chiller with two incredible scenes, both between the opposing women. The first scene occurs at night while they are walking down a dimly-lighted city sidewalk and a bus appears. Later, Irena follows Alice home to the latter's apartment and stalks her in the swimming pool. The swimming pool is cloaked in eerie shadows so that we cannot see Irena or the panther into which she has transformed herself. Afterward, Alice finds her clothing clawed.

"Cat People" contains many inventive touches, such as Irena parading around in a fur coat, particularly when she visits the panther at the zoo. There is another brief scene when Tourneur frames Irena in a shot with tiger lilies. Bodeem's screenplay contains many wonderfully clever lines.

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