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CAT PEOPLE

(1942)

Starring Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Elizabeth Russell; dir: Jacques Tourneur

 

Domestic life can be a horror sometimes, so why not use the horror genre for a revealing anatomy of recognisable adult crises? This is what endures in Cat People, long after the frissons of its famous setpiece scenes.

These still pack a punch: the swimming pool at night, its entire perimeter swathed in velvet black shadows, or the footsteps cross-cutting from the pursued female marching between rippling pools of streetlamp light to the – what? Panther or other woman? These, and Simone Simon’s silent communion with the caged panther in her repeated vigils outside its cage are what stick in the memory.

But what emerges from a fresh viewing, when these favorite moments are already locked in, is a film that is a remarkably clear-sighted and mature observation of neuroses, sexual dysfunction and the harm it wreaks on three people.

Is the dark panther a projection of the sexuality Simone’s Irena so strongly represses? Pretty much. It attacks the competitor female Alice (who blithely says at one point "I’m the new kind of ‘other woman’ " [!] ) and eventually overpowers Irena herself, thus sealing its doom en route.

The love triangle in Cat People is sketched in quickly but deftly. Simone’s ability to internalise a damaged soul and portray it mostly silently, while simultaneously maintaining the is-she-or-isn’t-she subtext on which the horror depends, is an acting feat whose economy and skill grows on every viewing. Even Kent Smith handles the well meaning, corn-fed American lug, Oliver, with appropriate sensitivity (note that it is he who moves in with Irena, a reversal of sexual politics symptomatic of this wartime ‘Rosie the Riveter’ era).

Only the ‘uncomplicated’ American gal Alice (Jane Randolph, in a bland performance) lowers the emotional intensity. Her orientation to Oliver is strongly underlined by ‘their’ space being the clean, spartan, but above all functional site of the workplace, as contrasted with Irena’s dark, byzantine apartment (accessed by the ornate staircase first used in The Magnificent Ambersons).

A prominent fixture amongst the apartment’s clutter, frequently returned to by the camera, is the starkly phallic statue of Serbia’s King John spearing a dead cat (symbolic, we are told, of an ancient curse) straight up into the sky. OK, there’s some baggage here for Irena.

Such signifiers of ‘mysterious’ Central Europe, through Irena’s origins in Serbia, work both as a wartime ‘othering’ for American audiences, and as a horror movie reference stretching back to Transylvania.

Redolent of this, and a real highlight of Cat People, is the single scene appearance of an enigmatic, slinky ‘cat woman’ (Elizabeth Russell) of apparent European origin, whose strange connection with Irena at the latter’s wedding party seems to auger her curse.

As the playing out of an adult nightmare laced with mild surrealism (through the panther), Cat People is reminiscent of the little known but similar vehicle of male sexual angst, 1994’s Wolf, directed by Mike (Carnal Knowledge) Nichols, in which Michelle Pfieffer played opposite Jack Nicholson as the eponymous predator. It’s a recurrent vision of the cost enacted when sexuality is thwarted, and its modern guise was launched in stunning fashion in 1942 with Cat People.

- Roger Westcombe