Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Jacques Tourneur|
|Produced by||Val Lewton|
|Written by||DeWitt Bodeen|
|Music by||Roy Webb|
|Edited by||Mark Robson|
|Distributed by||RKO Radio Pictures Inc.|
|Box office||$8 million|
Cat People is a 1942 American horror film directed by Jacques Tourneur, produced by Val Lewton, and starring Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph and Tom Conway. The plot focuses on a Serbian fashion illustrator in New York City who believes herself to be descended from a race of people who shape shift into panthers when sexually aroused or angered. DeWitt Bodeen wrote the original screenplay, which was based on Lewton's short story The Bagheeta, published in 1930.
At the Central Park Zoo in New York City, Serbian-born fashion illustrator Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) makes sketches of a black panther. She catches the attention of marine engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), who strikes up a conversation. Irena invites him to her apartment for tea. At her apartment, Oliver is intrigued by a statue of a medieval warrior on horseback impaling a large cat with his sword. Irena informs Oliver that the figure is King John of Serbia and that the cat represents evil. According to legend, long ago, the Christian residents of her home village gradually turned to witchcraft and devil worship after being enslaved by the Mameluks. When King John drove the Mameluks out and saw what the villagers had become, he had them killed. However, "the wisest and the most wicked" escaped into the mountains. Oliver is dismissive of the legend even though Irena clearly takes it seriously.
Oliver buys her a kitten, but upon meeting her it hisses. Irena suggests they go to the pet shop to exchange it. When they enter the shop the animals go wild in her presence, and Irena becomes uneasy. Irena gradually reveals to Oliver that she believes she is descended from the cat people of her village, and that she will transform into a panther if aroused to passion. Despite this, Oliver asks her to marry him, and she agrees. However, during the dinner after their wedding at a Serbian restaurant, a catlike woman (Elizabeth Russell) walks over and addresses Irena as "? a" (moya sestra, "my sister"). Irena never consummates the marriage, fearful of the consequences. Oliver is patient with her, but eventually persuades her to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway). Judd tries to convince her that her fears stem from childhood traumas.
Meanwhile, Irena is unhappy to discover that Oliver has confided in his assistant, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph). Alice confesses to Oliver that she loves him. When Irena chances to see Oliver and Alice seated together at a restaurant, she follows Alice home. Just as Alice hears a menacing sound, a bus pulls up and she boards it. Soon after, a groundskeeper discovers several freshly killed sheep. The pawprints leading away turn into imprints of a woman's shoes. Irena returns to her apartment looking dishevelled and exhausted; she is shown shortly afterwards weeping in the bathtub. Irena dreams of Dr. Judd dressed up as King John speaking of "the key". She later steals the key to the panther's cage in Central Park.
Irena, Oliver and Alice visit a museum, and Irena is angered when the two virtually ignore her. That evening, when Alice decides to use the basement swimming pool of her apartment building, she is stalked by an animal. When Alice screams for help, Irena appears, turning on the lights, and says she is looking for Oliver. Alice later finds her bathrobe torn to shreds. After an appointment with Dr. Judd, Irena tells Oliver she is no longer afraid, but Oliver tells her it is too late: he has realized that he loves Alice and intends to divorce Irena. Later at work, Oliver and Alice are cornered by a snarling animal. Oliver and Alice manage to get out of the building but not before smelling Irena's perfume.
Alice calls Judd to warn him to stay away from Irena, but he hangs up when Irena arrives for her appointment with him. He kisses Irena passionately, resulting in her transformation into a panther who attacks and kills him. When Oliver and Alice arrive at Judd's office, Irena slips away and goes to the zoo. There, she opens the panther's cage with the stolen key and is struck down by the escaping panther, which is accidentally run down and killed by a car. Next to the panther's cage, Oliver and Alice find a dead panther lying on the ground. Oliver says, "She never lied to us."
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Cat People was the first production for producer Val Lewton, who was a journalist, novelist and poet turned story editor for David O. Selznick. RKO Pictures hired Lewton to make horror films on a budget of under $150,000 to titles provided by the studio.
The film was shot from July 28 to August 21, 1942, at RKO's Gower Gulch studios in Hollywood. Sets left over from previous, higher-budgeted RKO productions--notably the staircase from The Magnificent Ambersons--were utilized. Costing $141,659 ($7,000 under budget), it brought in almost $4 million in its first two years and saved the studio from financial disaster.
Near the end of the filming of Cat People, two crews were working to finish the picture on time, one at night, filming the animals, and one during the day with the cast.
Cat People was the first collaboration of director Tourneur with cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. Their later collaboration on RKO's Out of the Past (1947) would again be regarded as seminal for its genre, in this case the film noir.
Much has been said of Lewton and Tourneur's use of shadows in lieu of an actual monster in the film. This is very much in contrast to competing horror films being produced by Universal at the time. J. P. Tollette in his book Dreams of Darkness: Fantasy and the Films of Val Lewton speaks to the meaning of the extensive use of shadows in the film:
"While engaging our imaginative participation, the absence marked by those dark patches speaks of a fundamental - and disturbing - relationship between man and his world: it signals a black hole or vacant meaning in the physical realm which, in spite of man's natural desire to fill it with consciousness and significance, persistently and troublingly remains open."
Cat People had its world premiere at the Rialto Theatre in Manhattan on December 5, 1942. It was released theatrically the following day in New York City, on December 6, 1942, before expanding wide on Christmas Day. It held its Los Angeles premiere on January 14, 1943 at the Hawaii Theatre. It was reissued theatrically in 1952 by RKO Pictures.
The picture's box office receipts are disputed. Film historian Edmund Bansak has estimated the box office for Cat People at $4 million domestically and $4 million in foreign markets, almost 60 times its estimated budget of $134,000. Film historians Chris Fugiwara and Joel Siegel also put the domestic box office at $4 million.Variety estimated its rentals in 1943 as $1.2 million.
But film historian Richard Jewell specifically dismisses the claims by Bansak, Fugiwara, and Siegel, saying the film had a domestic gross of $535,000 and a domestic profit of $183,000.
Initial reviews for Cat People were mixed. A critic of the Monthly Film Bulletin stated that Cat People had "A fantastic story, reasonably produced and directed."Variety stated that the film is "well-made on a moderate budget outlay" and relies upon "developments of surprises confined to psychology and mental reaction, rather than transformation to grotesque and marauding characters for visual impact on the audiences."Variety also added that the script would be "hazy for the average audience in several instances, [but] carries sufficient punch in the melodramatic sequences to hold it together in good style," elaborating that Tourneur "does a fine job with a most difficult assignment." The Monthly Film Bulletin complemented the photography and acting, noting that Simone Simon "only partly succeeds in interpreting the part of Irena, but lighting and camera work and sound recording help to make her performance adequate".
Wanda Hale of the New York Daily News was unimpressed by the film, writing that it "tries hard to be a melodrama... but it doesn't try hard enough."Bosley Crowther (The New York Times) described the film as a "labored and obvious attempt to induce shock" and said that its themes are explored "at tedious and graphically unproductive length." Crowther commented on Simon's acting, stating that actresses who are trying to portray "[feline] temptations - in straight horror pictures, at least - should exercise their digits a bit more freely than does Simone Simon." A reviewer at BoxOffice found the film "grim and unrelenting... a dose of horror best suited to addicts past the curable stage" and noted that the film was "definitely not for children, young or old... Potent stuff, straight from the psychopathic clinic."
Cat People is contemporarily acknowledged as a landmark in the horror genre, and considered by scholars such as Chris Fujiwara as "the master text" of Tourneaur's filmography. On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, Cat People holds an approval rating of 93%, based on 46 reviews, and an average rating of 8.4/10. Its consensus reads, "Influential noir director Jacques Tourneau infused this sexy, moody horror film with some sly commentary about the psychology and the taboos of desire." William K. Everson dedicates a whole chapter to the film and its successor The Curse of the Cat People in his book Classics of the Horror Film. Paul Taylor in Time Out magazine remarked Lewton's "principle of horrors imagined rather than seen", its "chilling set pieces directed to perfection by Tourneur" and Simon's "superbly judged performance".TV Guide's review of the film praised the film's cast:
Superbly acted (with Simon evoking both pity and chills), Cat People testifies to the power of suggestion and the priority of imagination over budget in the creation of great cinema. The film was Lewton's biggest hit, its viewers lured in by such bombastic advertising as "Kiss me and I'll claw you to death!" – a line more lurid than anything that ever appeared onscreen.
In 1993, Cat People was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". Also, the New York Museum of Modern Art holds a copy of the film in its collection. Critic Roger Ebert has included it in his list of "Great Movies".
However, not every critic praises the film: Richard Combs (Monthly Film Bulletin) compared the film unfavorably to other Lewton productions, stating that "it is perhaps easier to prefer the more mellow, less heavily fingered fantasy of Curse of the Cat People, and even the reconciled ambitions of The Ghost Ship".
In the United States, Cat People and its sequel, The Curse of the Cat People were issued in 2005 as a double feature DVD or as part of the Val Lewton Horror Collection DVD box set. In December 2016, Cat People was reissued on DVD and Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection. Foreign DVD editions have been released in France (as La Féline), Spain (as La mujer pantera) and Germany (as Katzenmenschen), while in the UK the film has been licensed and released on DVD by Odeon Entertainment (OEG).
Lewton accepted the assignment of producing a follow-up film called The Curse of the Cat People, which was also written by DeWitt Bodeen and released in 1944. This follow-up film retained Kent Smith and Jane Randolph's characters, and showed Simone Simon either as a ghost or else as the imaginary friend of the couple's young daughter.
In March 1999, a second remake of the film was announced as a co-production between Universal Pictures and Overbrook Entertainment. The proposed remake, to be written by Rafael Moreu, would be updated to the present day and set in New York.
Another Lewton/Bodeen film, The Seventh Victim, was produced in 1943, and features Tom Conway as New York City psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd. In The Seventh Victim, Judd recounts to a poet that he once knew a mysterious woman who was in fact a "raving lunatic" (thought to be a reference to Irena Dubrovna), even though Judd's character died in Cat People, making the relationship between the two fictional narratives incoherent. In memos and early drafts of the script, Conway's character was referred to as "Mr. Siegfried"; film scholars believe that the character's name was changed to create continuity between the two films in order to capitalize on Cat Peoples success.
Lewton and his production are credited for inventing or popularizing the horror film technique called the 'Lewton Bus'. The term derives from the scene in which Irena is following Alice. The audience expects Irena to turn into a panther at any moment and attack. At the most tense point, when the camera focuses on Alice's confused and terrified face, the silence is shattered by what sounds like a hissing panther--but is just a bus pulling up. This technique has been used many times since. Any scene in which tension is dissipated by a mere moment of startlement, a boo!, is a 'Lewton bus'.