Something of the abysmal darkness of the world has broken in on us, poisoning the very air we breathe and befouling the pure water with the stale, nauseating taste of blood.
— C. G. Jung, Essays on Contemporary Events
In movies celebrated for their portrayal of the unseen, the war is the singular invisible beast, the Damned Thing, that stalks around and bends the grass as we look in vain for shade of hide or hair.
— Alexander Nemerov, Icons of Grief
Cat People (1942) was a landmark film in the history of American horror cinema. It was the first in a series of low-budget feature films to be produced by Val Lewton’s unit at RKO with the aim of competing with the horror productions from other big studios such as Universal. While borrowing favoured archetypes from the Universal films of the 1930s and early 1940s, in particular that of the shapeshifting protagonist, Cat People was notable for its mise-en-scène, inventive use of sound, and its stylistic visual effects.
The latter was principally the work of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, putting into effect the desire of Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur to play with shadows, engaging the imagination of the movie-going public by means of suggestion. The lighting, which at times recalled Musuraca’s earlier work on the atmospheric Stranger on the Third Floor, was to influence the evolution of film noir as much as it was the 1940s horror film.
Cat People was also innovative as an example of the latter genre in locating the bulk of its narrative in a recognisably contemporary US setting, focusing on a story populated largely by everyman US citizens who are threatened by the duality and otherness of the Serbian immigrant to New York City, female protagonist Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon).
The film opens in the Central Park Zoo with Irena, a fashion artist by trade, sketching in front of the panther cage. A chance encounter with ‘good old Americano’ Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), following Irena’s clumsy attempt to dispose of her first drawing, soon leads to friendship and romantic interest. Irena reveals her loneliness and sense of isolation to Oliver, while also disclosing an obsession with a mysterious cultural heritage evidenced by the many images of cats in her apartment and a statue of the Serbian King John with a cat-like figure impaled on his sword.
It becomes evident that Irena believes that she is descended from a line of devil-worshipping, lycanthropic witches who have the power to transform themselves into large predatory cats when aroused to sexual passion, jealousy or rage. She tells Oliver that she has ‘fled from the past, from things that you could never know or understand – evil things.’
An encounter with a feline-looking woman in a Serbian restaurant on the night of Irena’s and Oliver’s wedding, who addresses Irena in their native tongue as ‘my sister’, fills Irena with terror. As a result, she refuses to consummate her marriage. Oliver, despite his apparent understanding, is dismissive of Irena’s beliefs and, as his frustration mounts at the unfulfilled relationship, he increasingly seeks solace in the companionship of his work colleague and fellow draftsman Alice Moore (Jane Randolph).
Addressing their failing marriage, Irena and Oliver decide that it would be best if she undergo treatment with a psychiatrist. Irena is not convinced by the Freudian approach adopted by the predatory Dr Louis Judd (Tom Conway). Under hypnosis, however, she does reveal to him the history of the Serbian cat women and the fact that she appears to suffer from intermittent amnesia. Her unwillingness to revisit Judd causes further tension between Oliver and herself, and fuels Irena’s suspicions about the burgeoning relationship between him and Alice.
In two celebrated sequences, Irena in panther form (although this is not seen on screen) terrorises Alice, first as she travels home through Central Park, then at the swimming pool in her YWCA building. When Oliver finally professes his love for Alice to Irena, and offers her a divorce, Irena again assumes panther form (this time explicitly shown on screen). She is on the point of attacking the couple at their workplace when Oliver, using an architect’s T-square as an improvised crucifix, beseeches her to leave them alone.
Returning home, Irena finds Judd waiting for her. While Oliver now believes all that Irena has told him regarding her shapeshifting capabilities, Judd remains entirely dismissive of her story. His interest in Irena is wholly sexual rather than pastoral. Irena willingly submits to a kiss in the knowledge that this will trigger another transformation. In the ensuing struggle, although Judd is killed, he wounds Irena with his sword-cane, a weapon that aligns him with the statue of King John and all that that symbolises.
Irena makes her way again to the site of frequent visits – the panther’s cage at the zoo. Using the key that she has stolen from the zookeeper earlier in the film, she opens the cage in a suicidal gesture, allowing the panther to attack and kill her before it is itself run over by a police car. The film ends with all-American couple, Oliver and Alice, walking away from the Serbian cat woman’s corpse. Normality and the patriarchal order are apparently restored.
[Picture credit: Poster from the 1942 film Cat People]
For a 70-minute B film, Cat People is an incredibly rich cinematic experience. The film has lent itself to interpretation under a variety of critical methodologies. Genre theorists, for example, have made a case for Cat People as a horror film, a film noir, and a hybrid of the two. Auteurists have argued both in favour of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur. The film has also been subjected to psycholoanalytical interrogation drawing variously on the theories of Freud, Jung and Fromm; to feminist, queer and race analysis; and to interpretation in terms of the mythical and the fantastic.
Popular with film audiences of the forties, it subsequently was held in high esteem by a generation of film-school-educated critics, academics and filmmakers in Europe and the USA. This resulted in a remake by Paul Schrader in 1982, as well as extensive references in Kiss of the Spider Woman, a 1976 novel by Manuel Puig. Its commercial and critical success, its enduring legacy, is suggestive of an ongoing cultural fascination with the notion of shapeshifting.
This is a tradition that includes figures like Dracula, the werewolf, Kafka’s Gregory Samsa and several characters in the Harry Potter series. In this sense, Cat People is both timeless and very much of its time, tapping into WWII-period anxieties about otherness, dislocation, exile and the rise of Fascism in Europe (panther as panzer), the self-sufficiency of women in the workforce during male absence in overseas conflicts, and the tension between tradition and modernity. All themes that we encounter still bubbling below the surface in 2016.
In his The Myth of the Eternal Return, philosopher and religious historian Mircea Eliade counterpoints archaic humans, who build their understanding of the world through magic and mythology, with modern people, who experience their lives as a linear sequence of events through historical time. In Eliade’s view, one of the contributory factors to humankind’s anxiety and existential angst is this acceptance of linearity, the abandonment of mythical thought and the resulting ‘terror of history’. Yet our popular culture ensures that myth, fable and a very different conception of time is never far away. Our archaic roots are entwined with our modern sensibilities, tapped with regularity by culture makers.
Little wonder, then, as we continue to develop understanding of the world we inhabit, that people remain so dependent on myth and fable to accommodate and assimilate the unknown, the unfamiliar, the uncertain. The resurgence in popularity of the vampire film as we first learned of and came to terms with HIV/AIDS, for example, was far from coincidental. In Cat People, the cat women of a magical past become incorporated into the tapestry of the most modern of modern cities. In Dracula, the vampire of a mythical landscape has the effect of a deadly virus in the industrialised communities he visits.
With stories – horror stories, love stories, detective stories, adventure stories, fantasy stories – we unlock our understanding of the human condition. Stories, whether in oral, theatrical, written, cinematic or televisual form, provide both lessons and escape. Stories like that of Cat People evidence something ancient, primal and enduring.
Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing … If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness.
— Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Suppose you see yourself as a citizen of the world, and you have a grip on the vastness, the diversity of the human experience, as well as the problems, the horrors, the sheer scale of such things as poverty, global warming, terrorism, war and hunger. If you see yourself as a citizen of the world and recognise that the world’s problems are your problems too, what can you be but paralyzed by that realisation? What can a citizen of the world do about the world’s troubles?
— James Garvey & Martha Nussbaum, The End of the Humanities?