This essay first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
The 1942 movie Cat People, the next film in our Third Floor Film Series, is a curious picture. The film is brief but beautiful, clocking in at only 73 minutes, and cheap but sumptuous, having been produced for less than $150,000. In 1942 RKO hired Val Newton to produce a series of low-budget horror films for the studio, and Cat People was the first movie he provided them. The studio gave him nothing more than the title, and from that a story was written. To helm the picture he hired Jacques Tourneur, who went on to direct such noir classics as Out of the Past, and over the course of three weeks the film was shot on a small number of cheap studio sets. Despite its low-budget production it went on to be RKO’s biggest money maker of the year. The film elevated horror films from b-movie status to the realm of legitimate cinematic art.
The film tells the story of a young woman named Irena (French actress Simone Simon) living in New York City. She falls in love with Oliver (Kent Smith) and agrees to marry him, but on their wedding night refuses to sleep with him. She tells him a legend about the Serbian village she is from, a legend about a curse that turns the women of her village into vicious wild cats when they are upset or aroused. Because she loves him, she refuses to consummate the marriage, fearing what will happen. Her husband is patient, though he dismisses her reasons and doesn’t take her seriously. He takes her to a psychiatrist who similarly disregards her concerns. In time Oliver strays, falling in love with a coworker, provoking Irena’s jealousy. Myth and reality blur and blood is shed.
Does Irena really turn into a black leopard like the one whose cage she returns to again and again at the zoo? Is she mentally ill, sexually repressed, or just your average beautiful Serbian werecat? Part of the reason the film works so well is that these possibilities are never fully resolved. Oh, we’re shown some images that seem to point to a resolution, but I don’t find them conclusive. The metaphors are too rich to dismiss as false leads.
Those first two possibilities are the two themes I want to explore during the discussion the night of the screening: Irena’s ailment as mental illness and as sexual repression. If we look at her predicament as that of a woman with a mental illness, the movie has much to say about the way individuals who struggle with such issues are isolated, shamed, infantilized, feared. She asks for help but isn’t taken seriously until it’s too late. If we look at the film as a commentary on female sexual repression the imagery is just as rich. We’ll explore that more when we discuss the film after the screening.
GPL’s Third Floor Film Series will be showing Cat People on Thursday, October 15, at 7:00 p.m. As always, free soft drinks, coffee, popcorn, and candy will be available for our guests. We’d love to see you there.