Cat People from 1942 is a film noir disguised as a horror film. Filled with the same visual style and sense of fatalism that dominated film noir during the classic film noir (that would peak four or five years later especially at RKO), Cat People is the ultimate horror-noir.
When Val Lewton was made head of RKO's horror division, he immediately set out to make movies that were initially just attempts to cash in on Universal Pictures horror film resurgence during the late 1930s. Cat People was Lewton's first assignment.
With only a title "Cat People" and a limited budget to work with Lewton crafted a story based a short he had published in Weird Tales years earlier called The Bagheeta. Lewton isn't credited with writing Cat People (Dewitt Bodeen is) but Lewton's similar short story combined with rumors of the producer hard at work writing and rewriting the script after nearly every day of shooting on the RKO lot has convinced many that he was the most dominant creative force behind Cat People. Collaborator and writer Bodeen would go onto write (or more than likely help write with Lewton) other noir-tinged horror films including the sequel Curse of the Cat People.
Of course not all credit can go to Lewton. Jacques Tourneur is known today for helming the greatest film noir, Out of the Past. Almost ten years before that Tourneur struggled to work his way up the ranks in Hollywood. In 1934 Tourneur was hired to run the second unit for David O. Selznick's A Tale of Two Cities (1935), where he first met story editor and jack-of-all-trades Val Lewton. When Lewton was put in charge of RKO's horror unit years later he hired his old friend Tourneur. After the critical and commercial success of Cat People Tourneur was now viewed as the serious director that he envisioned himself after years of throw-away celluloid.
Cat People, starring Simone Simon and Kent Smith, is brilliant. Using some of the same crew members Orson Welles used before nearly bankrupting the company, Cat People was crafted with the same sort of shadowy brilliance seen in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons - but for far less money. Cat People - with it's entrapping shadows and cage-like imagery - is stunning to watch. Knowing that most of the film's expensive looking sets -including a zoo set from a Bette Davis film and a staircase from Magnificent Ambersons – makes the small film look much more expensive that it actually was. Every scene works. I think it was Roger Ebert who wrote that if a movie has three great scenes and no bad ones then it can be considered a great movie. Cat People passes that test. A stalking scene at a public pool, the first "bus effect" scene, and Irena (Simon) locking herself in the bathroom to keep her husband away -and safe- stand out as some of the best parts of the film.
Notoriously difficult and scandal-plagued star Simone Simon gives her best Hollywood performance as the European woman with a mysterious secret. She was cast by Lewton specifically because she looks so feline. Another cat-like actress Elizabeth Russell (Bela Lugosi's zombie bride in The Corpse Vanishes the same year) confronts Simone during an engagement party that is appropriately chilling – not to mention embarrassing for the young man in front of his co-workers.
Notice how Irena and Alice (played by Simon and blonde Jane Randolph) are still friendly at this point. It's clear that the two don't like each other. Their hatred for each other - apparently shared off camera between the two actresses - pays off later in the film.
Smith - highly effective in Nora Prentiss- plays Simon's husband and Randolph as his girlfriend. He's responsible for many of his troubles (just like in Nora Prentiss) in Cat People even though he is married to a “monster.” After finding out his new sexy young wife doesn't want to sleep with him he almost immediately starts an affair with the willing Randolph. To make matters worse for the young bride (Simon) her doctor seems to be more concerned with bedding his patient than finding out what's wrong with her. Tom Conway - who I last saw at Noir City 7 in Two O'Clock Courage - plays the duplicitous psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd - a role he'd return to in The 7th Victim.
The film is one of the early noirs but it feels more modern than some. Simon and Randolph are strong working woman in the big city – something rarely seen in 1942 films. The horror elements are there – eventually you do see a giant cat attack late in the movie. However, this only happened because of the insistence of RKO that it had to be in there. Interestingly, when Simon does turn into a leopard you don't see the transformation (unlike Dracula or The Wolf Man). Also notice when Irena turns into the large cat her fur coat and high heels are also morphed into the jungle cat as well. One scene shows Simon returning after turning into the animal and you see her fur coat torn and dirty. In the 1980s remake Nastassia Kinski would bare all after the transformation back to woman (which turned out to be the only highlight of the film and one I am grateful for).
Film noir fans should check out all Lewton's RKO “horror” films. The Leopard Man (based on a story by Cornell Woolrich), The Ghost Ship and The 7th Victim may have been marketed as “horror” but they're really suspenseful noirs years before the “film noir genre” had a name. I have no doubt in my mind that Cat People inspired the film noir style that would dominate RKO during the 1940s.
Cat People Trailer