Cat People (1942)

With love and passion comes sin and strife, this is the theme throughout Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People.  Is the curse of the cat people a figment of their imagination, are they alive and well, or is there a panther on the loose?  Cat People tells the story of Irene and Oliver as they fall in love and reconcile the difficulties of marriage.

Tourneur sets the tone right off the bat with a fabricated quote and credit to start the film.

  “Even as fog continues to lie in the valleys, so does ancient sin cling to low places,
the depression in the world consciousness” – Anatomy of Atavism, Dr. Louis Judd.

We soon learn that the author is in fact the therapist in the film.  The invented epigraph allows for the story to start with a hint of manufactured authenticity.  Atavism is “a tendency to revert to an ancient type.  Traits that reappear after lying dormant for generations.”1  I am not sure if this would have been common knowledge back in the 1940’s, but if you were aware of this it may have primed you for the story to come.

The film does not work “perfectly” as an allegory, however, it does cover some interesting material.  The major ones that I picked up on are the ideas behind a self-fulfilling prophecy, the hardships of marriage, and that life is full of temptation and sin.  It would be interesting to talk to someone from the era and see how some of the messages around marriage, infidelity, and psychiatry  were received at the time.

Irena’s deep-rooted belief that she is cursed clearly causes issues in her life.  The major crux of her alleged curse is that a kiss with someone she loves will result in her murdering them.  Her fear has caused her to be more withdrawn from interpersonal relationships in general and keeps her guarded in her relationship with Oliver.  This does not stop Oliver one bit as he pursues Irena and they quickly get married; presumably without ever kissing?  It could be argued that her fear and attempt to avoid the prophecy results in the actualization of the prophecy.

Regardless if the curse is real or not, the main focus of the film is the marriage of Irena and Oliver.  He lacks the ability to cope with any hardships of marriage and communicating his concerns to her in a constructive manner.  He is too quick to give up and finds an alternative solution that only makes the situation messy.  This is where the epigraph from the opening sequence comes into play.  Eventually the fog, seen throughout the film, leads the characters to sin; almost as if it is inevitable.

Sin is portrayed as all consuming in both mind and body.  The curse can be seen as an analogy for jealousy and lack of self-confidence on the part of Irene.  However, the curse is only part of the sin that is pervasive throughout the film.  The quote at the end of the film suggests the inevitable result of giving in to sin, “But black sin hath betrayed to endless night.  Holy world, both parts and both parts must die.”

Another common theme I seem to come across in old films is the unfavorable representation of psychiatrists.  Dr. Louis Judd seems to listen to Irena’s dilemma, however,  he is quick to disregard it and suggest institutionalization.  In the end there is not much he would have been able to do anyway and the film itself is short and the focus was not on mental rehabilitation.  So I should not give it a hard time in this respect.

The film itself kept a steady pace with engaging and quick editing and lighting.  The pacing and content of the film resulted in much more a thriller than a horror.  Prime examples of this can be seen in the few scenes surrounding Alice, the other woman.  These scenes are the most suspenseful of the film and still hold up.  The suspense, lighting and editing  can all be seen clearly in the pool scene.

Overall, the film succeeds in telling a “ghost” story with some interesting commentary on marriage and interpersonal relationships.  It is not a film that follows any template and keeps the viewer guessing.  Although, the film is a victim of the time in that it glosses over some story points to get to the suspenseful parts.  One aspect that I admire about the film is that it does not go for shock value or gore in any way and maintains a suspenseful nature akin to a Hitchcock film.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Directed by: Jacques Tourneur

Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca

Written by: DeWitt Bodeen

Music by: Roy Webb

Starring: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph

Runtime: 1h 13m

Genre: Fantasy, Horror, Thriller

Distributed by: RKO Radio Pictures Inc.

2- John Donne, Holy Sonnets V.

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