This film got to me. Not in a bad way, but it had a bit more force than I'm used to in my movie-watching. Undoubtedly this is in large part due to it catching me at the right time of life, when I can particularly identify with someone who's recently got married to someone whose first language isn't English. Naturally, this being a Val Lewton film, everything's been done with subtlety and surprising realism, thus ensuring the maximum emotional resonance with someone like myself. Nevertheless viewed objectively it's still an impressive piece of work.
The contemporary audience agreed, by the way. The film had cost $141,650 and made nearly four million in two years, staying so long in cinemas that some critics reviewed it twice. This was Val Lewton's first film for RKO and it saved them from financial disaster, which ensured that he could pretty much do as he liked from then on without studio interference, so long as he didn't go over budget. That's pretty impressive, actually. The executives hadn't been happy with Cat People, trying to replace Tourneur as director after only four days and ordering the inclusion of more panther footage. Lewton countered by turning down the lights so low in the drafting rom sequence that you couldn't see the animal in the shadows anyway. This is a film of darkness, suggestion and nothing much in the way of special effects, which was partly a consequence of the tiny budget and partly a stylistic choice from Lewton and Tourneur.
This is also the only Lewton film I know to have had sequels or remakes, no less than three in a 1982 erotic horror remake starring Nastassja Kinski and a brace of sequels in Curse of the Cat People and The Seventh Victim.
In summary, it's a tragedy. That's nothing particularly unusual in horror, but this isn't the usual grand guignol. "A monster built of corpses realises that he will never know love and destroys his creator," etc. You know the sort of thing. I love those films too, but this is much simpler. It's the story of a marriage. Two people meet, fall in love and get married, but in time the husband falls out of love with his wife and chooses another woman. (The husband's being played by Kent Smith, the wife is Simone Simon and the other woman is Jane Randolph.) What's painful about it is that everyone's being so nice about it. It feels natural. No one's trying to steal or cheat on anyone. Smith really does care about his wife and doesn't talk about anything but her when he's with Randolph, who on her side is being every bit as noble as him. She makes a confession of love, yes, but not with any kind of agenda. Even the break-up is handled delicately. Smith simply starts wondering about the meaning of love and whether he might have misunderstood his own feelings about his wife.
There aren't any villains here. It would have been easier to watch if there had been.
The problem is that Simon won't even kiss Smith, let alone go to bed with him. She's frightened of turning into a big cat and tearing him to shreds. (We'll be returning to that plot detail later.) The couple even have separate bedrooms. Even given that it's a 1942 movie, very little attempt is ostensibly being made to hint at sexual frustration on the part of Smith, but that just means they're doing it more subtly. This is a Val Lewton film, don't forget. In fact the hints in this direction are visual. The script's bending over backwards to seem chaste, but by the standards of the era there's a lot of flesh on show. We see Simon getting ready for a bath (and later even glimpse her in it), while one of the film's set-pieces involves Randolph in her swimming costume.
Jacques Tourneur was indeed French, by the way. Somehow I don't think they'd overlooked this angle.
If we're to talk about the performers, Simone Simon is extraordinary. In certain specific ways she's an excellent actress, but she comes across as having the brains of an ornamental cactus and she's doing unnatural things to the stress patterns in her sentences. At times it sounds as if she doesn't understand her own dialogue. This probably sounds as if I'm getting ready to slag her off, but in this particular case those are both positive qualities and I'd need to watch more of Simon's work if I wanted to be able to judge whether she's doing it all deliberately. Her performance works. It's distinctive, it's memorable and she's certainly got what it takes when it comes to communicating emotion.
Point one: her character isn't a native English speaker. She's Serbian and all that stuff about turning into a cat is one of her superstitions from the old country. Simon wasn't a native speaker either, by the way, being French. Point two: her apparent shallowness is appropriate since she's a cat person. She's feline. She reacts rather than thinks and is a creature of her moods, living in her own little world.
She's certainly unusual as lead actresses go, at first leading me to think she was merely the token victim who'll die in the first five minutes. Nevertheless she does well at being earnest and innocent, trying to be a good wife and obviously suffering from the knowledge that she's not pulling her weight in at least one department. When her husband suggests a psychiatrist, she doesn't take offence but agrees eagerly! She doesn't like being discussed, but you can't blame her for that. Simon's so effortless in the role that she makes it look simple, but underneath she's actually doing a lot with it. Her character's capable of cruelty in an absent-minded way that's utterly catlike, yet she never loses our sympathy. She makes the outrageous seem natural. She can be lightweight, but also dark. You know, I've just talked myself into wanting to rewatch the film just to study her work again.
Kent Smith does well, although he's marginally the weakest lead. He has chemistry with Simon, feels natural in the role and holds our attention. Jane Randolph is good too. She didn't have an extensive acting career, but she also did The Curse of the Cat People and Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein. I liked everyone, really, but the actors with the most screen presence are Elizabeth Russell in a small but juicy cameo and Tom Conway as the psychiatrist Dr Louis Judd. Both actors would appear in multiple Lewton films, with Conway even reprising his role of Dr Judd in The Seventh Victim. He's great, really bringing alive a character type who's guaranteed to be rationalist, wrong and in danger of losing the audience's sympathy. Naturally he thinks Simon's problem is all in her head. That's his job. Towards the end he has what looks like a nasty lapse of professionalism, mind you, which will probably make you wonder if the film's hidden sexual tension hadn't been going further than we'd thought. Equally it could have been attempted therapy. You'll hear a lot about the ambiguities in Val Lewton's films, but I think that might be the most inscrutable of all of them.
The film's first act goes perhaps a little too fast to be entirely convincing. Our heroes fall in love awfully quickly, although it helps that they're so natural together. However the narrative isn't afraid to skip great chunks of time and maybe we're just bad these days at watching a narrative in edited highlights. "We've been married almost a month." Eh? Oh, right. I was startled by Smith buying Simon a pet cat as a surprise present after having known her for almost no time at all, but maybe that used to be more acceptable. I hope not, though. Then at the other end of the film, there's an unconvincing dead panther, but that's the only time I can remember noticing the special effects in a Val Lewton film. They're normally too classy for that.
On the positive side, this is a genuinely stylish film that even invented a new trick in horror movies. Jane Randolph's being followed down a lonely street at night and we hear a panther hiss at us... only to realise a moment later that it was really the sound of a bus pulling up. The mythology of the Serbian cat people is elegantly done too. It keeps you watching the details.
I don't know if I'd call this film fun. At times I found it tense and almost scary, not in the usual way but simply because I was identifying with Kent Smith and following the progress of his marriage. This film felt right to me. The way they argue is spot on, for instance. There's also an unusual theme of unhappiness going on, with Simon having to avoid jealousy and unhappiness if she doesn't want to transform and Smith wondering if he doesn't understand himself because he's always been too contented. "I don't know what to do about all this; I've never been unhappy." I found this a sad film, but eventually not in a depressing way. It's the right ending for the characters.
I find it weird in the way it almost seems to be repressing its own themes, mind you. You could sex this story right up to eleven, although I'm not sure if you'd necessarily get a better movie by doing so. I guess I'll find out when I watch the Nastassja Kinski remake.