A Movie A Day: Quint on CAT PEOPLE (1942) I like the dark. It’s friendly.
Published at: Aug. 30, 2008, 5:19 a.m. CST by quint
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.