Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Thirty-Seven

37 cat

#37 — Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942)

Lots of films have indelible images, those visual moments that don’t just endure in the memory but are so closely, solidly associated with a single work of art that any approximation that follows, no matter how tangential of glancing, automatically stirs comparison. There is no way, for example, for a horror film director to set a smart, evocative scene at an indoor swimming pool without calling to mind Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, at least for a certain breed of film fan. (Those who think the horror genre started with Friday the 13th likely escape this association entirely.) It’s not mere happenstance or even a history of the scene being endlessly repeated on various clip-based retrospectives that locks the sequence from Cat People into the imagination. It’s simpler than that. It is the pure perfection of the scene that elevates it. Best known for his collaborations with producer Val Lewton — who was indeed behind Cat People — Tourneur was a master of the spooky elegance of shadows on film, and the scene at the pool gives him a chance to show off that command, making the reflections of the water in a dimly lit space shimmer like a spectral omen. Especially considered against the context of the era, the whole scene leverages all of the possibility of cinema into a single unsettling set piece.

It takes more than one great scene to make a great movie, though. Happily, the scene in the pool is representative of the artistry spread across the entire film. Cat People explores a theme that is a Lewton-Tourneur specialty: the alluring foreign figure as a dangerous other. In this case, that figure is a Serbian woman named Irena (Simone Simon, possessed of an otherworldly beauty so distinctive that it’s challenging to see her in any other role), who is first encountered sketching panthers at the Central Park Zoo. She stirs the interest of Oliver (Kent Smith, stiff and stolid in a way that ideally suits the material), who rapidly falls in love and persuades her to become his wife. Any rapid courtship is sure to raise unique issues. Here, Oliver begins to suspect that maybe there’s something to Irena’s belief that she is descended from a a breed of people who are transformed into vicious jungle cats whenever they are too far into passionate abandon. it’s twisty, risky territory for a nineteen-forties film, and Tourneur effectively shoves back against the chasteness dictated by the time, relying on audience squeamishness over female sexuality to give scenes an extra shiver of anxiety.

I don’t really believe that Lewton, Tourneur, and screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen (adapting a Lewton short story) had much ambition for Cat People beyond making a pulpy piece of a spooky entertainment, something that would swirl the souls of audiences back when film was still a fairly disposable medium. Their shared ability to burrow toward base human instincts lends Cat People an added kick that allows it to endure. It gets at nervy truths about the changing times, particularly the emergence of women as something other than timid individuals receding into the background of a male-dominated world, waiting to be claimed by someone who found them making silly art in the park. Maybe it’s not incredibly profound in its insights, but it is fiercely truthful, making those moody, patriarchal fears into something capable of leaving deep, nasty scratches on the psyche.

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