It's tough being a studio executive. A producer called Val Lewton makes you an elusive, ambiguous movie that's a million miles away from anything you'd call a blockbuster... yet it makes a ton of money and saves RKO from bankruptcy. Naturally you commission a sequel. It'll be called The Curse of the Cat People and you're probably dreaming of a franchise. Unfortunately Lewton completely ignores your title and gives you a film that doesn't seems to contain either (a) curses or (b) cat people. Instead it's a sweet, slightly uncomfortable exploration of the perception gap between children and their parents, in which no one gets killed and the lead actress is eight years old.
Naturally you shit a brick and ask for reshoots.
In certain ways it's a faithful sequel. All the main characters who didn't get murdered in Cat People are back. Kent Smith and Jane Randolph are married and have a daughter, Ann Carter. Simone Simon is here too, as Irena's ghost, but the most off-the-wall returnee is Elizabeth Russell, who may or may not be playing the thirty-second cameo character she played last time. Personally I think it strengthens the film to assume that they're the same woman, but there's nothing in the script to support that they are even if Russell's giving the same scary, intense performance in both films. I call her the Dragon Lady.. Nevertheless it's easy to see why RKO were flabbergasted, since it's hard to imagine a film with less franchise potential. Lewton wanted to call it "Amy and Her Friend". For him it was a deeply personal movie, including autobiographical elements from his childhood such as incidents like the party invitations, the lesson on numbers and the telling of ghost stories. It's a slightly uncomfortable, achingly delicate movie that lives outside genre definitions and these days is practically subversive.
RKO told Lewton to add in scenes like the one where boys chase a cat up a tree. The script contains not a single mention of cats, cat people or physical transformations, but at least for a few seconds at the beginning you can see a moggy. The scene doesn't even work visually, since it's obviously a soundstage and you can see the back projection. Significant details also got lost in the re-edit, e.g. a scene of Amy reading Sleeping Beauty. Fortunately the film survives this, but what sank it was RKO's advertising campaign. Hypnotised by the success of Cat People, they sold it as a creature feature with taglines like "The Black Menace Creeps Again!", "Strange, Forbidding, Thrilling", "A tender tale of terror!" and "The Beast Woman Stalks the Night Anew". Unsurprisingly it failed at the box office.
To make matters worse, the film's director, Gunther von Fritsch, had blown the shooting schedule and gone over budget, forcing Lewton to sack him and make the editor (Robert Wise) the new director instead. This movie had not one but two first-time directors. It's an extraordinary piece of work, though. I spent a great chunk of yesterday writing at length about what I thought the movie was about... only to realise afterwards that this was merely what it had been saying to me, whereas it can also be read in three or four different ways.
1. IT'S ALL ABOUT THE FATHER
This is a film about the perfect family. The parents talk to their daughter's teacher after school, monitor the daughter's behaviour and put the highest priority on making her happy, safe and normal. The subversiveness lies in the way Lewton's showing this to be basically child abuse. At times it's almost painful to watch. Kent Smith keeps telling Ann Carter what to think and do, yet he doesn't listen either to her or to himself. He'll tell her not to believe in fantasies, only to be tripped up by Ann's inconvenient recall of something he said when she was three. "Make a wish," he says shortly afterwards when she's blowing out the candles on her birthday cake. Can wishes come true? Of course they can! Smith's words are often self-contradictory or just flat-out wrong, but he doesn't have the self-awareness to realise this.
He's no villain, though. He's trying so hard that it hurts to do the right thing, but it's never even occurred to him that being a parent doesn't make you the ultimate authority on everything. I loved the scene where he's talking to a teacher and ends up jumping on her opinions because she doesn't have children, only to be told in well-chosen words that he doesn't know what he's talking about. "You haven't studied children. You design ships. You've got no qualification other than parenthood." This teacher can quote poetry by Robert Louis Stevenson and cite books on the subject. She mentions 'The Inner World of Childhood', for instance, which was written in 1930 by American psychologist Frances Wickes and was admired by Carl Jung. Eventually she persuades him that he's been wrong and that he needs to listen to his daughter more and trust her, but look at how Smith tries to put this into practice. It's the last scene of the film. He's trying so hard to be the good father, just as he has been throughout, so he asks Ann Carter if she can see her imaginary friend. "Yes," she says. "I see her too," he dutifully replies... but he's not looking! He doesn't even turn his head! Even right at the end, after he thinks he's learned his lesson, he's no better than he's always been. Alternatively, might there perhaps be meaning in him saying "I see her too" while looking into Ann Carter's eyes?
It's built on interesting psychology, too. Smith's obsessed with what happened to Irena in the first film and he's determined not to let his daughter fall into the same trap, but his interpretation is that Irena destroyed herself with fantasies. "You don't know what happened to her because she told lies to herself and believed it." He played his part in the tragedy by being too blinkered to believe what he was being told in the first film and the same pattern is repeating itself with his daughter here. This behaviour is also mirrored in the gothic old house with Julia Dean and Elizabeth Russell, the latter claiming she's the former's daughter and the former not believing a word of it. "I'm your daughter." "My daughter died long ago." "No, it's not true. Everything you say is a lie." They've grown old together, but they're bitter and they never listen to what the other is saying. We never even learn which of them is right.
2. IT'S ALL ABOUT THE DAUGHTER
Despite everything I've been saying Kent Smith isn't the protagonist. He's not even particularly unusual in not listening to her, since no one does. Her mother, her father and even their household servant (played by Sir Lancelot) contradict each other with their instructions, then ignore her when she tries to point this out. It's not even only the adults, since Carter isn't particularly close to other children and they aren't interested in letting her explain about the birthday party. The main reason Smith's lectures made me nervous was that Carter's an intelligent, serious-minded girl with an excellent memory, so there's no knowing what she might have done as a result of trying to take him seriously.
The bee in Smith's bonnet is about Carter's fantasy life. He wants her to be "normal" and play with other children, but what he's really doing is splitting her worldview in two in a movie that's blurring the boundaries of fantasy and reality. Everyone keeps telling her that wishes can come true, then a woman in a big house gives her a ring on which she wishes for a friend... and gradually, slowly, Simone Simon's ghost comes out to play. Yup, her father's dead first wife. The first manifestation almost passed me by, with my notes for that bit merely saying "what did I just see?" After a while we start getting shadows and sounds, but the first French lullaby gets sung so softly that I wasn't sure if we were really hearing it at all. It's rather charming. The film's doing extraordinary things with lighting, by the way, with the most startling being an effect I'd never seen before that has the sunshine turning up and down as if wired to a switchboard. It's been made possible by the fact that the family's back garden wasn't a location but a studio set, as was usual in this era, but the effect on the movie is magical.
Simon's lovely, of course. She never turns into a cat or does anything scary like that, but it's significant that it's her because she's a character from the past who can be recognised in old photos. The darker side of fantasies coming to life involves someone telling Carter the legend of the Headless Horseman. They live near Sleepy Hollow, you see. There's a point in the film where I wasn't sure if the Horseman himself wasn't about to swoop down and carry off Carter into hell. No, really. That's one of the freakier scares I've had watching movies, which is doubly impressive for something that isn't even really a horror film. Its supernatural elements can be taken either literally or as a subjective peek into a child's worldview, as was explained by that teacher with reference to 'The Inner World of Childhood'. The film's strong enough in that regard that it's been used as source material in college psychology courses, by the way. However that's an adult's take on it and while you're watching it happen to Carter, you're eight years old again.
3. IT'S THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE
No, hear me out. Admittedly this is a reading that depends on the Elizabeth Russell character being the same one we saw in Cat People, but if that's the case then we have what's probably an honest-to-goodness Cat Person in the cast. She was Serbian and she knew the legends. That doesn't sound much like a lady who lives with her mother in an old house in a small American town, but we've only her word for it that that's who she is. Julia Dean does keep insisting that she's an imposter, after all. This is a movie where one wants to take the children's side against the irrational parents, but it's also one where the parents often have a point.
Anyway, if that's the case then we have our protagonist being followed by two Cat People, one from beyond the grave and another in a big dark house she mustn't enter. It's thematically significant since that's an example of fantasy (according to Kent Smith) having been lethal reality. Finally there's the unusual nature of Carter's relationships with both of them, with Simon being motherly and Russell being the one who turns jealous and eventually promises to kill her. Of course we all know what happens when a Cat Person gets angry and this film's finale looked to me to be was playing on that, with the lights dying just as they did for Simon as Russell closes in. That's how we enter the world of fantasy and impossible things, which doesn't seem a bad fit for a woman who's also a leopard. It was always dark in the first film too when Simon went feline, although one wouldn't want to make too many comparisons since that film depended on adult emotions and this one's all about children.
Wow, I've said a bundle about what this film might mean. I could still say more, but there's other stuff to discuss too.
The acting's all good, with the most crucial player obviously being Carter. We know the others are solid, although Jane Randolph is perhaps less of an all-round actress than I'd taken her for and it doesn't surprise me now that her career didn't outlast the 1940s. Ann Carter was actually a child actress with a reasonable career, but it was cut short by polio in her early teens and she never did movies again. Apparently she bore a strong resemblance to Veronica Lake, whose daughter she played in I Married A Witch (1942). She's still alive today, by the way. I thought she was rather good, managing to get away with dialogue like "may I play too" and "I hate for you to fight". She sounds like the butler. She's not recognisable as any kind of child you could meet today, but equally she's not the "adult in a child's body" that you tend to get these days. The key is that they're not trying to make her a generic everychild. She's strongly characterised, but always convincing in the role. Carter's also capable of subtle reaction shots, as for instance in the scene where the mad old lady is opening her Christmas present of a 25-cent ring. That was proper acting, that was. I was impressed.
While we're talking of the mad old lady, by the way, she was downright great. The character had been a stage actress before she retired and Julia Dean plays her as a ripe old ham who's simply a joy to watch. "That woman is an imposter. She's a liar and a cheat. How do you like your tea?" I laughed at that.
The more I think about this movie, the more it impresses me. Notice how deftly Lewton establishes the passing of the seasons, with Carter not wanting winter to come one minute and then it being Christmas. Wow, that town has good carollers. Notice all the different fates that nearly befall Carter in the last act, with the film endangering her on every level on which the story has been operating. That's a lot of danger. Val Lewton isn't the kind of filmmaker you can trust not to kill the kid, so I wasn't sure if she'd get out of this alive. This is a fascinating film intellectually, but it's also all there on the nuts and bolts level of having strong characters, a story that moves forward at a good pace and a scary finale. The real reason to watch it though is... no, there isn't a single reason. Fantasy and reality? The study of parenthood? Val Lewton completism? They're all good reasons, but the film doesn't ring-fence anything. There's a door that can lock itself even with an adult about, while one could liken the fantasy elements to a Disney fairy tale. However at the same time, it feels truthful. It feels like the real world. The characters have psychological depth and inner lives, while the children really are children, despite Carter's vocabulary. I laughed at the bit where she's telling us about her dolls, for instance. It took me a little while to decide what I thought about this one, but now I think it's rather special.
Goodness knows what Val Lewton had done if they'd asked him to make Part 3, though.