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A Movie A Day: Quint on CAT PEOPLE (1942)
I like the dark. It’s friendly.

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day. [For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.] Today we follow French beauty Simone Simon from THE DEVIL & DANIEL WEBSTER to the Jacques Tourneur directed Val Lewton produced CAT PEOPLE. My only experience with this story comes from my childhood viewing of Paul Schrader’s remake on cable. I haven’t revisted it since I was a kid, so I only have impressions of moments, some of the make-up and Natassja Kinski being hot. So I went into this pretty cold. The only other Val Lewton flick I had seen was I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, which I respect more than I enjoy. The filmmaking was top notch and the story was intriguing, but I’m just not a fan of the traditional voodoo zombie myth. I like my zombies in the Romero mold, dead and hungry, not dead and just standing around being dead.

Jacques Tourneur’s CAT PEOPLE was a lot more elegant than I expected and less on the exploitation side than I expected, which is never a bad thing, but it took me a little bit to get what I was watching. When I did, though, I completely sank into the world. I even went back and rewatched the first 30 minutes after the first go-through just so I could see the opening as it was, not what I expected. I’m actually really glad I did that because I picked up on a lot of fine details that didn’t register on the first viewing. Knowing the ending, I picked up on a lot of foreshadowing and subtle shadow work… and that really damn disturbing painting in Simon’s house that has three cats about to pounce on a little birdie. Basically you have the story of a Serbian girl who is haunted by the tales from her small village about evil cat people who live in the hills. Many decades ago a King rode through the town and vanquished a cult of devil worshippers, but some women apparently escaped to the hills surrounding the village, turning into panthers.

They myth goes that these women instantly turn into great cats when they kiss a man, killing their would be lovers. Since her father died in an accident when Simon was a young girl, the rest of the kids teased her about her mom being a witch, one of the cat people. Since then she’s moved to the States, but kept a distance from people, preferring be alone, convinced there’s a cat woman inside of her. In fact, the film opens with her sketching a panther in a zoo, meeting the man she will fall in love with, Oliver Reed… no, not THAT Oliver Reed... Kent Smith is the actor playing the character first name Oliver, last name Reed. She falls for him, even marries him, but will not even kiss him for fear that the feelings inside her are more than just the disturbed left-overs of a semi-traumatic childhood. The ambiguity is really what I didn’t expect, but what I really came to love about the movie. Of course there comes a moment in the middle of the second act where it’s not so ambiguous anymore… they don’t directly show a transformation, but seeing paw prints slowly turning into the tracks of someone wearing high-heeled shoes kinda clues you in to what’s really going on.

Simone Simon, who actually has a little bit of a kitty face, plays Irena with a scared innocence. You really feel for her. She’s not a monster and she’s terrified that she might have something horrible inside of her, deep down… crouching, coiled and waiting for her to let her guard down. It takes her husband, a boringly nice guy, falling out of love with her and into love with a co-worker played by Jane Randolph, to push Simon over the edge and unleash her inner beast, resulting in what I can only imagine is the most widely known and loved scene in the film: Randolph in a locker room about to take a dip when she hears a growl in the dark… so naturally, she dives into the pool, swims to the middle and paddles as the cat slinks around the edge, always hidden in darkness, only really represented by horrible pissed off and hungry growls and shadow. It’s a great scene, rivaled only by one other for me… I loved, loved, loved the wedding reception held in a traditional Serbian restaurant called The Belgrade where Kent Smith’s friends surround the happy couple. Simon is beaming… until an incredibly cat-faced woman, played by Elizabeth Russell, takes notice of Simon, drawn to her. She slinks over to the table and greets Simon, calling her sister in her native tongue before slipping on a fur and gracefully exiting the restaurant. Simon crosses herself and we see her face slump, the light go out in her eyes. She’s broken in this moment, losing every bit of confidence she had slowly earned over the course of her relationship.

There’s a strong group of character actors surrounding our three leads, including Jack Holt (whose square jawed good looks were the inspiration for the visage of Dick Tracy), Tom Conway as a psychiatrist with a little more than friendly interest in Simon and a young(er) Alan Napier, who most probably remember as Alfred from the ‘60s Batman TV show. They are all good, but the film really does rest squarely on the shoulders of Simone Simon, Jane Randolph and Kent Smith. Of those, I took to the women the most. Smith’s character actually is a bit of a dickhead, even though you know that’s the last thing he’d ever want to be, which somehow makes it worse to see him hurt Simon even if she did push him to his limits in their relationship. Final Thoughts: High on mood, atmosphere and a complex examination of physical relationships, CAT PEOPLE isn’t filled with prosthetics or high tech transformation scenes. We never see Simon turn and only see the great cat in two key sequences at the end, the rest of the time the suspense comes from the building tension and sound design just like it should. This is a very, very smart genre flick and one that’s still to this day very enjoyable to watch.

The schedule for the next 7 days is: Saturday, August 30th: CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944) Sunday, August 31st: THE 7TH VICTIM (1943) Monday, September 1st: THE GHOST SHIP (1943) Tuesday, September 2nd: ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945) Wednesday, September 3rd: BEDLAM (1946) Thursday, September 4th: BLACK SABBATH (1964) Friday, September 5th: BLACK SUNDAY (1977) Simone Simon returns for tomorrow’s sequel THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, as do Kent Smith and Jane Randolph. After seeing the “sister” in the restaurant scene, I felt the world open up tremendously, so I’m looking forward to seeing how they tackle this next installment. See you folks tomorrow for that! -Quint

Previous Movies: June 2nd: Harper
June 3rd: The Drowning Pool
June 4th: Papillon
June 5th: Gun Crazy
June 6th: Never So Few
June 7th: A Hole In The Head
June 8th: Some Came Running
June 9th: Rio Bravo
June 10th: Point Blank
June 11th: Pocket Money
June 12th: Cool Hand Luke
June 13th: The Asphalt Jungle
June 14th: Clash By Night
June 15th: Scarlet Street
June 16th: Killer Bait (aka Too Late For Tears)
June 17th: Robinson Crusoe On Mars
June 18th: City For Conquest
June 19th: San Quentin
June 20th: 42nd Street
June 21st: Dames
June 22nd: Gold Diggers of 1935
June 23rd: Murder, My Sweet
June 24th: Born To Kill
June 25th: The Sound of Music
June 26th: Torn Curtain
June 27th: The Left Handed Gun
June 28th: Caligula
June 29th: The Elephant Man
June 30th: The Good Father
July 1st: Shock Treatment
July 2nd: Flashback
July 3rd: Klute
July 4th: On Golden Pond
July 5th: The Cowboys
July 6th: The Alamo
July 7th: Sands of Iwo Jima
July 8th: Wake of the Red Witch
July 9th: D.O.A.
July 10th: Shadow of A Doubt
July 11th: The Matchmaker
July 12th: The Black Hole
July 13th: Vengeance Is Mine
July 14th: Strange Invaders
July 15th: Sleuth
July 16th: Frenzy
July 17th: Kingdom of Heaven: The Director’s Cut
July 18th: Cadillac Man
July 19th: The Sure Thing
July 20th: Moving Violations
July 21st: Meatballs
July 22nd: Cast a Giant Shadow
July 23rd: Out of the Past
July 24th: The Big Steal
July 25th: Where Danger Lives
July 26th: Crossfire
July 27th: Ricco, The Mean Machine
July 28th: In Harm’s Way
July 29th: Firecreek
July 30th: The Cheyenne Social Club
July 31st: The Man Who Knew Too Much
August 1st: The Spirit of St. Louis
August 2nd: Von Ryan’s Express
August 3rd: Can-Can
August 4th: Desperate Characters
August 5th: The Possession of Joel Delaney
August 6th: Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx
August 7th: Start the Revolution Without Me
August 8th: Hell Is A City
August 9th: The Pied Piper
August 10th: Partners
August 11th: Barry Lyndon
August 12th: The Skull
August 13th: The Hellfire Club
August 14th: Blood of the Vampire
August 15th: Terror of the Tongs
August 16th: Pirates of Blood River
August 17th: The Devil-Ship Pirates
August 18th: Jess Franco’s Count Dracula
August 19th: Dracula A.D. 1972
August 20th: The Stranglers of Bombay
August 21st: Man, Woman & Child
August 22nd: The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane
August 23rd: The Young Philadelphians
August 24th: The Rack
August 25th: Until They Sail
August 26th: Somebody Up There Likes Me
August 27th: The Set-Up
August 28th: The Devil & Daniel Webster

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