CAT PEOPLE (1942) B/W 73m dir: Jacques Tourneur
w/Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph, Jack Holt, Alan Napier, Elizabeth Dunne, Elizabeth Russell
A man marries a strange girl possessed by a dreadful spell passed on from her ancestors. Superior horror thriller, intelligently written and directed.
From Joel Siegel's book, The Reality of Terror, about the career of the "B" film producer Val Lewton: "Cat People , Lewton's greatest popular success, is not among his best films; it is seriously weakened by passages of lumpy, strained dialogue, uncertain performances and uneven pacing. But, in spite of these shortcomings, Cat People has more than its share of cinematic grace and inventiveness, and is distinguished by Jacques Tourneur's visually eloquent direction. ... The opening reels employ delaying tactics surprisingly similar to those used by Hitchcock in The Birds . The hero and heroine meet and strike up a light flirtation which is deepened by the gift of a singing bird. These first reels are purposely unsuspenseful, sustaining and even increasing our sense of anticipation at what is sure to come in a movie called Cat People . The horror sequences, when they do arrive, are all the more effective for having been withheld. ... When the set-pieces of horror finally come, well past the film's midpoint, they are so well executed that most of the sluggish patches are quickly forgotten. ... The film's seemingly rational, calm tone works well against its fantastic content. ... There are some problems with the performers. Visually, Simone Simon is perfect, and her wordless sequences, like the marvelous moment when she angrily slits the back of a velvet divan with her fingernails, could not possibly be improved. But her acting range is too narrow for the film's more dramatic moments, a problem heightened by her difficulties with American pronunciation. Kent Smith is terribly stiff most of the time, and Jane Randolph, though somewhat better than Smith, is not fully convincing. Only Tom Conway, of the principals, turns in a fully realized, persuasive performance. The real stars of the film, apart from Lewton and Tourneur, are cameraman Nicholas Musuraca and art directors [Albert S.] D'Agostino and [Walter E.] Keller. The photography, low-keyed with shadowy interiors and misty exteriors, is magnificent; and the sets, stuffed with evocative details, have enough life to help the performers through their more awkward moments."
From The Movie Guide: "Significant as the first of the literate, understated horror films Val Lewton produced for RKO in the 1940s, CAT PEOPLE is also notable for playing with audience imagination by refusing to show made-up movie monsters a la the Wolfman or Mr. Hyde. Although earlier films had linked horror and sexuality, Tourneur's study of a woman tainted by an ancient Balkan curse was arguably more explicit in this direction than any previous film had been. The result is a haunting and subtle film, filled with desires gone awry and everyday settings turned inexplicably nightmarish. ...
"Beautifully directed by Tourneur and carefully paced by screenwriter [DeWitt] Bodeen, the film opens in mundane New York settings, only occasionally hinting that evil is about (e.g. a feline woman at the bar, the reaction of the animals at a pet store to Irena's presence). Once Irena's darker side begins to manifest itself, however, the film's pulse quickens and so does the viewer's. Perhaps most famous are the justly celebrated sequence where Irena stalks Alice along a park path at night (featuring the marvelously jarring cat-like hiss of bus doors) and the brilliant set-piece when Irena surrounds the terrified Alice at a darkened indoor swimming pool with the cries of a ferocious panther.
"Superbly acted (with Simon evoking both pity and chills) [see Siegel's comments, above, for a different take on this], 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 by such bombastic advertising as 'Kiss me and I'll claw you to death!' --- a line more lurid than anything that ever appeared onscreen. Forty years later Paul Schrader would remake the original, failing to learn any of the lessons which Lewton had taught."
You may also want to check out the sequel to this film, THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE.