Val Lewton's "Cat People."
At least, this is what I've always heard. I only saw "Cat People" for the first time last night, and I'd never seen any other Lewton films before. Until last night, therefore, I wasn't sure whether the standard line about Lewton was righteous praise or overblown hype. Now that I've seen "Cat People," though, I'm convinced. I'm going to be hunting down more of his films as soon as I can.
The plot of "Cat People" centers on a young Serbian immigrant to New York, Irena Dubrovna, who is played by the enchanting French actress Simone Simon. At the beginning of the film, while making sketches of a panther held in captivity in the Central Park Zoo, she encounters a young man named Oliver Reed, played by Kent Smith. She and Oliver begin seeing each other, and soon fall in love and get married, but always, Irena fears her own desires and passion for Oliver, and will not even kiss him, let alone make love to him. She tells Oliver a story of her village in Serbia, about how a group of Mamelukes took it over for a while, and how King John of Serbia had to retake the village and drive the Mamelukes out. When he did, he found that the people of the village had become corrupt and begun worshipping Satan, and that the women had become witches and developed the power to turn into large, predatory cats (like the panther in the zoo). King John killed many of these corrupt women but the most powerful of them escaped to the mountains. Irena tells Oliver that the evil of these cat women still haunts her village to this day, and makes clear that she is afraid that, if she ever physically expressed her own passion for him, she'd turn into a cat herself and tear him apart.
Maybe a 1940s era audience would see this line of thought differently, but to me it seems full of psychosexual symbolism. Irena is really just a woman who fears her own passions, and any element of her personality that is easily contained and controlled. She fears expression of any emotions other than the most sensible, because she thinks they'll destroy her ability to behave in a socially acceptable manner. What she fears is the possibility that her deep-down true self is something other than the charming, genteel woman that, in the company of others, she portrays herself to be. And regardless of how clear this would have been to 1940s audiences, it's certainly clear to Val Lewton, who spends the rest of the movie expanding on a central question: Is Irena really able to turn into a cat? Or is it all in her mind?
The plot thickens with the contrasting of Irena with Alice, played by Jane Randolph. Rather than having that old-world sensibility that drives Irena, Alice is a modern, independent woman, as close to the feminist model as would have existed at this point in American history. She's a brassy dame who dresses fashionably, cracks jokes with the guys, and works in Oliver's office, where she is basically the equal of the men who work there. She and Irena get along well enough at first, but as Irena and Oliver's relationship becomes more difficult, more fraught with tension, Irena's perception of Alice changes. It's Alice that recommends the psychotherapist, Dr. Judd, that Irena sees, but Irena doesn't know this until after her first visit. When she learns that Oliver has discussed with Alice the problems that are occurring in their marriage, she feels angry at having her secrets disclosed to another woman, but also threatened by Alice's awareness of her vulnerability.
Sure enough, Alice soon proclaims to Oliver that she loves him. It doesn't seem that this is an overt attempt by Alice to take Oliver away from Irena, as she continues to try and help him fix his relationship with Irena for a while afterwards, but one can't help but think that she's also taking advantage of the fact that his relationship with Irena is more vulnerable at this point, which makes Oliver a more receptive target for the affections of another woman. For the rest of the movie, as Irena becomes more and more distracted from her daily life and fixated on the panther in the zoo, the contrast between her and sensible, self-possessed Alice becomes more pointed. Oliver begins to spend more time with Alice, both at the office and in more social situations, and, while nothing untoward happens between them, this nonetheless pushes Irena further and further towards distraction.
Irena's anger at Alice leads directly to the film's most frightening sequences. One occurs when Alice and Oliver share a post-work meal at a diner near their office. Irena has followed Oliver to the diner, and spies on the two of them from outside. When Oliver and Alice go their separate ways after finishing their meal, Irena follows Alice, who walks home down empty streets, moving from pools of light thrown by streetlamps into sections of complete darkness. These moments of contrasting light and dark are but one of several sequences in which light and dark are used innovatively by the film's director, Jacques Tourneur. The stark, heavily contrasted feel that's created during all of these sequences seems like either a direct precursor to or the de facto beginning of the film noir movement. Considering that Tourneur went on to direct the noir classic "Out Of The Past" only five years later, the fact that he was already experimenting with noir effects makes sense in retrospect.
As Alice realizes that she is being pursued and, becoming afraid, walks faster and faster, we are never shown what pursues her. Irena is behind her at one point--we hear her echoing footsteps--but by the time Alice has become afraid, all we see is Alice herself. So what is behind her? It's never certain, because just in the nick of time, a bus pulls up and bears Alice away. Even in later scenes, when we do see something that looks like a panther, it's always briefly and indistinctly. And even then, there's also the possibility that Irena has let the panther from the zoo loose, rather than turned into one herself. During her visit with Dr. Judd, he says something that sticks with her--that many of us carry a desire to "unleash evil upon the world." Irena recognizes this desire inside herself, and that the battle with this desire is the same battle she wages to keep herself from succumbing to her passions.
Dr. Judd and his theories are themselves a pretty interesting element of this film. Horror movies are often driven by a deeply conservative impulse, and one of the main ways in which that impulse is expressed in horror movies is by treating the ideas of psychotherapy with contempt. There's plenty of room for Val Lewton to take that route in "Cat People," and what's noteworthy is that he avoids it. Dr. Judd tries to tell Irena that her fears of transforming into a vicious cat are all in her mind. In fact, he basically echoes the subtext of the entire film, telling Irena that she's really afraid of giving in to her passions and desires and, in so doing, losing control of herself and her life. There could be cognitive dissonance here between text and subtext, resulting in the audience dismissing the subtext with cries of "But she really CAN turn into a cat!" It speaks well for Lewton that he has not allowed the audience to draw that conclusion, maintaining an air of ambiguity that forces us to consider Dr. Judd's theories with at least a somewhat open mind. After all, we really don't know if Irena can transform into a cat.
The ambiguous treatment of psychotherapy in the film ties in well with Lewton's treatment of the main characters in the film. We are shown all of the main characters in a variety of situations, both alone and interacting with others. If any character in the film is the evil figure of a traditional horror film, it is Irena herself, but Lewton does more to make her a sympathetic character than he does with anyone else in the film. In particular, the men of the film, Oliver and Dr. Judd, would traditionally be seen as the heroes, they who maintain control and restore order. However, Oliver seems more overtaken by events than anything. He's a solid person without too much emotional depth, and he seems to understand neither Irena nor Alice on any deeper level. Dr. Judd portrays himself at first as the helpful psychotherapist, only interested in helping Irena, but as the film continues and she struggles more and more with her fears of her potential transformation, Judd grows impatient and frustrated. At one point, he berates Irena for "verging on insanity," and uses the possibility of his having her committed as a threat. He appears intent in this scene on frightening Irena into sanity, while at the same time acting as if her potential descent into madness is the willful behavior of a recalcitrant child rather than something that should by definition be out of her control. This is another scene that could be used by Lewton as an opportunity to show contempt for psychotherapy, but instead, the scene reflects badly on Dr. Judd as a person.
Finally, there's Alice. While the plot of the film sets her up as Irena's adversary, she is portrayed almost as sympathetically as Irena. While we know from early on that she has her own desire for Oliver, she continues to support him in his attempts to treat Irena properly. She and Oliver never do anything that constitutes Oliver cheating on Irena; Alice never even tries to kiss him, instead acting throughout the film as his friend rather than as a potential lover. As the closest thing the time period had to a truly liberated woman, what Alice represents is something that Irena could be if only she would let go of her fears. Alice is in touch with her feelings, secure in herself, and unafraid to express herself even when it means being less than perfectly genteel. The contrast between the two characters is interesting in part because it seems impossible to imagine Irena going from where she is to where Alice is. In many ways, it seems, she is a prisoner of the ideas she was raised with, the opposite of a "liberated" woman, even though she also has a career independent of Oliver's (as a fashion artist). She knows this too, lamenting to Oliver early in the film that she envies the women she sees on the street every day. "They are happy, and they make their husbands happy," she tells him. "They are free." She knows she is not free, and she knows that she is imprisoned by things that lie within her; what she never understands is something Dr. Judd tells her early on--only she can set herself free.
On the surface, "Cat People" is a horror film, one with an original premise, innovative direction, and some truly terrifying scenes. It deserves its reputation as a horror classic. But it's also, at its heart, a tragedy, the story of one woman's fight against the less appealing aspects of her nature. It speaks well for Val Lewton that he seemed to know this, that his film ended up with this subtext not by happy accident but through careful design. I definitely want to see more of his work now.
As for "Cat People," I wouldn't feel right revealing how it all ends for Irena, Oliver, Alice, and Dr. Judd, as you deserve to experience it for yourself. But regardless of the resolution, which does remove a great deal of the ambiguity that permeates most of the film, the tragedy at its heart remains. "Cat People" is not only a horror film but a feminist, even a humanist, parable. Life is hardest for those, like Irena, who cannot accept and love themselves for who they are.