By the early 1940s, psychoanalysis became a thing that Hollywood used to create stories on a more cerebral level. Or rather, Hollywood used the doctor/patient talking cure in order to seem smart, but more often than not it became more of a general framework to propel narratives forward. By 1941, Ernst Lubitsch had Merle Oberon and Burgess Meredith visiting the psychoanalyst to highly successful comedic effect in That Uncertain Feeling. In 1945, Gregory Peck was fainting all over the place, with Ingrid Bergman’s Dr. Petersen coming to his rescue in Hitchcock’s Spellbound. In between, the Lewton/Tourneur picture Cat People has Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) as a plain old Americano husband sending his wife (Simone Simon) to the doctor in hopes of curing her frank beliefs that she has the ability to turn into a panther. While this premise may sound somewhat ridiculous, Cat People turns out to be an extremely complex and haunting 73-minute movie.
Cat People involves some highly potent issues about gendered difference and cultural assimilation in a genre-horror package that is an ideal example of effectiveness through subtlety and suspense. In regards to gendered difference, I am not implying some kind of bullshit about feminine intuition or mystique, but rather the film’s remarkable display of woman as Other, that French feminists such as de Beauvior, Cixous, and Kristeva would articulate philosophically in the coming decades. When it comes to cultural assimilation, Simone Simon’s Irena Dubrovna is shown in the odd, contradictory position of being an immigrant who wants to fit into US culture, but simply can’t. All of this is channeled through a picture in which our protagonist has the ability to shape-shift into a panther, although Tourneur’s direction always makes this transition oblique and poetic.
The new Criterion release of Cat People includes an informative commentary track by film historian Gregory Mank, among other worthwhile special features. At one point he discusses how producer Val Lewton, and others involved in the production of the movie, feared that the audience would find the film campy and amusing, but at the preview screening arranged by RKO pictures, Cat People “performed hypnosis” on the crowd, going on to be an unexpected hit during the World War II years. Released right after Citizen Kane, it actually had a longer run in theaters than Orson Welles’ opus. Indeed, watching the movie today, some of the dialog is borderline ridiculous, while also having the honest simplicity of a folktale. As the sun goes down during the first meeting of Irena and her future husband Oliver, she talks of the nearby zoo, stating, “The panther, it screams like a woman. I don’t like that.” Moments later she follows this up with, “I like the dark, it’s friendly.” Oliver sits attentively as Irena tells him the story of her Serbian ancestors, some of whom were Satan worshipping witches that escaped the wrath of Christian inquisitors. He doesn’t really seem to find anything wrong with this, and within a few scenes they are married.
Yet, their marriage is not as rewarding as imagined. Unable to consummate her love, Irena laments about the difference between herself and other wives she sees around her. This is where the confusion around assimilation is front and center. In regards to average American wives, Irena says, “They’re happy. They make their husbands happy. They lead normal, happy lives. They’re free.” This train of thought seems so distorted to a more liberated audience, seeing as how matrimony and making husbands happy is not often thought of as the ideal picture of women’s freedom. Oliver’s solution to Irena’s plight is a modern, 1940s way of thinking—she needs a psychiatrist. What makes Cat People notable as a feminist film is the fact that all attempts at “normalizing” Irena fail, including psychoanalysis. This is not surprising, seeing as how Freud was never able to answer his rhetorically obnoxious question of “what women want.” The United States of the 1940s was not a place where women with non-normative lifestyles—in this case, occasionally turning into a panther—could thrive in or even survive.
Another interesting tidbit gleaned from Gregory Mank’s commentary is that Irena is basically the embodiment of Val Lewton’s biggest phobias—he had a strong dislike for cats, and couldn’t stand being touched. Essentially, Irena becomes agitated and shifts into feline form when touched or put in intimate situations. Lewton compounded two of his own fears and infused them into Irena, an unexpected piece of trivia, seeing as how this Russian immigrant, B-movie producer decided to feminize the character who projects his fears. There is, of course, a much-speculated queerness associated with the film—Irena’s refusal to have sex with Oliver is often read as coded lesbianism. Also, films in which a human is able to transform into a different being can be viewed as a nod to the state of transgender people in contemporary society. In short, without even necessarily intending to or realizing it, Lewton created a character with socio-politically radical potential.
What makes Irena appear to be even further on the fringes of normative gender, sexual, and social economies is the inclusion of Alice (Jane Randolph) in a supporting role. In one scene she actually describes herself as a “new type of other woman,” and this is absolutely true. She works at a drafting company with Oliver, appears to live alone and support herself financially, and as far as the movie’s structure goes, her character is well developed. This type of independence in a woman character is usually not seen in film of the early 1940s unless the character is also somehow deviant—a femme fatale. Alice however, just seems to be a woman with a good head on her shoulders and an extensive collection of hats to go on top of it. In relation to Irena, she makes the latter seem even that much stranger.
Cat People is not just an example of the progressive and even radical nature that Val Lewton’s oeuvre possesses, but one that shows the power of B-movies in relation to Hollywood A-list pictures. In his book Icons of Grief, Alexander Nemerov writes that Lewton’s pictures “assert the value of a minor work of art to say things a major work can never say, to know things a major work can never know.” Criterion made a good choice in cleaning up Cat People and releasing it in 2K form. In addition to the commentary track by Mank, there is a feature documentary on the life of Val Lewton, and interviews with Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer John Bailey. The Tourneur interview is particularly amusing, in which he appears to be one of the nicest rich people of all time, humbly saying things like, “it’s a miracle I’m not more spoiled than I am.”
Cat People is doubtlessly one of the most important American horror films of the 1940s, and deserves to be examined, enjoyed and championed to no end.