US Release Date: 12/25/1942
Simone Simon in Cat People.
Just as Frankenstein had his Bride, the Wolf Man would most certainly have loved Cat People in the person of Irena Dubrovna as played by French actress Simone Simon. She is a Serbian witch who turns into a large snarling panther whenever she kisses a man (or whenever she gets jealous of another woman apparently).
She seems meek and sad when Ollie first meets her in the park in front of the panther cage, but once she tastes jealousy and rejection she becomes, literally, a tigress. They are instantly attracted to each other, fall in love and get married. From the beginning Irena tells Ollie of her curse and how she cannot consummate their marriage, not even with a kiss. He is patient, thinking she will get over this childish fear but eventually gets her to see a shrink. As her mental issues appear to get worse, Ollie begins to fall for his girl Friday, Alice. Once Irena gets wind of this budding romance things start to get scary.
The most famous scenes in the movie are when Irena terrorizes Alice.
The first time occurs when Irena follows Alice down the sidewalk at night. Irena is walking very quickly, pounding her heels into the pavement a few yards behind Alice, who is quietly strolling. Suddenly the sound of heels on pavement stops. Alice turns around and no one is there. She begins to run in fear. A bus stops and she gets on.
The second time is at a city pool. Alice hears something in the locker room and so she does what any sensible person would do. She runs and jumps into the pool. Then Irena (or something) turns off the lights and stalks around the edge of the pool growling menacingly, until Alice lets out a scream and is saved by some women who work there. When they turn on the lights Irena is standing by the pool. After she leaves they discover Alice's bathrobe has been ripped to shreds.
All of the fear and suspense is built up beautifully but left to culminate in the imagination. The night Irena chases Alice down the street some sheep are killed in the park. The camera shows large bloody paw prints on the sidewalk. As the camera pans the bloody cat tracks change to those of a woman's stiletto heels.
Due to its small budget the climax of the movie is all done with shadows and sound effects. It works because the characters and story have been so carefully constructed. Simone Simon is wonderful. She looks like a cat. Her features were similar to Eartha Kitt's. If she had been 10 years younger during the 60's she probably would have been asked to play Cat Woman on the old Bat Man television show.
This was the first collaboration between director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton. Together they helped define the low budget horror movie of the early 1940's. After this movie they made I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man together, both in 1943. They mastered the art of suspenseful lighting. Rarely has the adage less is more been more faithfully adhered to. Modern audiences expecting shock or gore will be sorely disappointed. It's as much film noir as it is a horror movie.
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Photos © Copyright RKO Radio Pictures Inc. (1942)