Believe it or not, but as I write about Cat People and the follow-up Curse of the Cat People, 40s B-films involving women with catlike superpowers, I have every intention of calling them necessary viewing for film fans. Notice I’m not calling them Must See; it’s entirely possible that half the people who take the time out to view these will hate them, and just as likely blame me for robbing them of a few hours. I’ll hold my ground and say these are necessary viewing just the same.
Cat People and Curse of the Cat People were both produced by the legendary producer Val Lewton. He produced Cat People on a tiny budget, and managed to save the finest studio in Hollywood by doing it. RKO, having produced so many fine artistic achievements like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (the William Dieterle version with Maureen O’Hara and Charles Laughton) and Citizen Kane, was running out of cash and was about to bow out of the movie scene when Lewton brought out a shadowy, spooky film with no big stars and brought in a huge audience.
The movie stars Simone Simon, an actress you may recognize from her role as the quintessential femme-fatale in Jean Renoir’s Emile Zola adaptation Le Bete Humaine. She plays a woman with a mysterious origin rooted back in Eastern Europe. The film treats her nationality as elusive and mystical, just as movies tend to treat people born outside of America or Western Europe. As it is slowly (very slowly) revealed, she has some manner of cat-based powers. If that sounds far-fetched, well, it is.
She meets a man who falls for her all too quickly, but is turned off by how circumspectly she keeps him at a distance. Eventually, it’s showed that there’s a relationship between his nearness and her cat abilities. As you might expect, it’s a story fraught with symbols of female sensuality and how it alarms and even frightens men who expect a certain docility from the fairer sex. It very likely secretly threatened a few guys in the audience too.
Double-entendres aside, Cat People is remarkable for its constant use of shadows. In reality, this was a filmmaker’s trick to hide the shabbiness of the film sets. Very frequently in old, cheap movies, when you’re seeing, say, a hallway, in reality that hallway leads absolutely nowhere. Where it’s engulfed in shadows is usually where it ends. This isn’t something to hold against the filmmakers though; I’d sooner call it commendable. It allowed filmmakers to work on a smaller budget, meaning they had to shake hands with less corporate execs and make less changes to their work. For a great example of this, see John Ford’s early classic The Informer.
The other innovation of this film was generating suspense without showing much of anything. To borrow a line from Fulke Greville, “absence my presence is, strangeness my grace.” In this strange film, director Jacques Torneur (who’d go on to make the gem Out of the Past) keeps the cats out of the picture almost entirely. If you’re expecting cat-fights and cat-scratch fever, watch something else (I can’t think of any right now, so write your suggestions in the comment box). By not showing people in big cat suits, the movie gains some respectability.
As I said earlier, the movie saved RKO, but it did other things as well. It launched Lewton’s career, and he made several more pictures in the same vein throughout the 40s (such as The Leopard Man). It helped inspire The Bad and the Beautiful, a good melodrama made by Vincente Minelli borrowing the structure of Citizen Kane. Kirk Douglas plays a producer with a budding career who is basically a composite of Lewton, Darryl F. Zanuck, and David O. Selznick. Cat People has also inspired contemporary directors; Christopher Nolan, on the first week of shooting The Dark Knight, screened it for the entire cast.
A very short time later, Lewton produced a sequel called The Curse of the Cat People with all of the cast returning, including Simone Simon. It’s directed by Robert Wise toward the start of his directorial career, fresh out of working with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane as the script editor. Wise took advantage of his time on that film, studying Welles’ and Greg Toland’s style and applying it to this B-film.
I’d recommend The Curse of the Cat People as one of the most nonsensical sequels you’ll ever see. All of the main characters are the same, and incidents from the first film are mentioned, but otherwise there’s no real connection between the two. You’re going to be scratching your head as to how this can be considered a sequel. It’s for the most part a wholesome family drama, but with ghosts, an eery mansion, and a room full of cat sculptures thrown in as an ineffectual attempt to validate the title.
For all its absurdness, if you watch it critically, you’ll recognize it’s a pretty well-made film. Wise films some scenes beautifully, and childhood is depicted nostalgically as a time of will-o-the-wisps and important fantasy lives.
Luckily, you can find the two films packaged together as part of the Val Lewton collection. I don’t know if I can recommend the entire collection, as I’ve only seen two other Lewton films, The Leopard Man (which is mostly ho-hum but has an inventive and frightening conclusion) and The Ghost Ship (spoiler alert: this has nothing to do with ghosts). So rent the DVD if you can, or even buy it if you have to, and watch the films for their entertainment value and also for their role in film history.
—–If you’re looking for an offbeat book to read, check out my book The Madness of Art: Short Stories available on Amazon in paperback and as an ebook.
What’s your opinion of Cat People or The Curse of the Cat People?