Friday, April 14, 2017

Seen These Eyes so Grey, or Thoughts on Val Lewton’s Cat People

A film noir romance with a dash of were-cat-ism, producer Val Lewton’s Cat People (1942) is an elegant black and white film with the same dark sexuality as the 1982 remake but subtle and nuanced, because this is 1942, and you couldn’t really say that sort of thing in polite society.  French actor Simone Simon is Irena Dubrovna, Serbian war refugee, New York fashion illustrator and were-cat, who won’t sleep with her new husband because she’s afraid she’ll turn into a panther and kill him.  It all seems perfectly reasonable in a stylish movie packed to the gills with great examples of mid-century wardrobe, architecture and interior design.
There is an Old World/New World juxtaposition between Irena and her superstitious ways and her all-American, Christian husband Oliver Reed, as portrayed with bland handsomeness by Kent Smith.  (His last movie was Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977), in case you care, and I know you do)  The economical transformations are largely implied with sound effects and shadows, paw prints that morph into footprints, proving once again that less can be more in the right hands.
From director Jacques Tourneur who would go on to make a couple other RKO classics, The Leopard Man (1943) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943), and legendary Hollywood producer Val Lewton.  Val Lewton, or Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon,  was the head of the RKO horror department and had three rules; he had to come in under $150,000 and under 75 minutes, and the title would be supplied by the studio.  The rest was up to him, and he used that freedom to create some brilliantly subversive horror movies.
It’s interesting how much the 1982 Paul Schraeder remake echoes the original film; the plot was updated but the names remain the same, in addition to key moments including Irena sketching panthers in the zoo and the swimming pool scene.  Do yourself a favor and watch both of them back to back.

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