Above: Cat People’s cinematography swings wildly between romantic and noir. This scene screams “Hitchcock.”

Cat People (1942)

😻😻😻😻 This low-budget, high-quality suspense film from 1942 blends jump scares with sexual anxiety and gender politics to create a deceptively simple movie people are still arguing about today.

Directed by

Starring

Content Warning

  • Sexual assault
  • Animal abuse

I find there are many movies from the 1930s and 1940s that seem far more modern than they are, and the 1942 film Cat People is one of those. Briefly: Irena is newly married to Oliver, but they cannot consummate their marriage. Irena is convinced—not without reason—that she will immediately turn into a panther and maul him. Oliver tries to be understanding, but denied physical and emotional intimacy with his wife, he begins to spend more time with his office-mate Alice.

Much of what I’ve read about Cat People focuses almost exclusively on its almost irresistible Freudian logic. Irena’s concern that she will turn into a panther and devour her lover represents the anxiety women feel about their sex drive, critics say. Which is, interestingly enough, basically Irena’s psychologist’s take on the whole thing.

No, says Irena, what worries her is she is cursed to turn into a literal goddamned panther and tear Oliver to shreds. Oliver and Judd both agree that the poor little lady is bonkers.

Stark shadows and sharp vertical lines define most of the imagery outside of Irena’s lavishly decorated apartment.

Which is also Alice’s take. Dr. Judd comes into the story on Alice’s recommendation, after all. But she changes her mind after Irena stalks Alice through the city streets and menaces her, as a cat, in her apartment’s swimming pool. She tells Oliver and Dr. Judd that maybe Irena actually can turn into a vicious animal. Nonsense, they say. Alice, you silly girl, you are letting Irena’s delusions get the better of you. Dr. Judd, eager to prove his point, summons Irena to his office under threat of involuntary commitment. Trying to prove that it’s all in her head, he gets a little too handsy and … well, the karma is pretty instant.

I am not a big fan of interpreting speculative fiction movies as metaphors, as many critics seem eager to do with this one. Often if you take the speculative element as a metaphor, you get one, relatively shallow take. But if you take those elements at face value instead, other compelling themes can emerge.

Oliver dismisses Irena’s concerns as a childish obsession with the stories of her homeland. Critics of the film make the same mistake.

For example: “if we have sex, I will turn into a panther and murder you” seems like a conversation Irena and Oliver should have had before the wedding. Or at least shortly afterward. Irena choosing to surprise Oliver with this news emphasizes the much deeper, more adult relationship Oliver already has with Alice. Alice and Oliver are comfortable together. Oliver even trusts Alice enough to share his frustration over Irena’s sexual disfunction — which infuriates Irena when she finds out. Irena and Oliver are constant drama, either high romance or slammed doors. Oliver and Alice act as though they’ve been happily married for years. I don’t think this is by mistake; I suspect it’s the central theme. Maybe that’s why the censors, who were very enthusiastic about their jobs in the 1940s, mostly left this movie untouched.

Although Cat People feels a little slow-paced for 2020, it’s a beautiful film with a definite noir vibe. The sets swing wildly between austere and lavish. The austere scenes are all high-contrast shadows with defined edges. Often the main characters blend into the shadows, giving some of the frames a flat, abstract quality. Cat People is also known for its excellent sound design, with one specific jump scare earning its place in film vocabulary. Here, on YouTube, is the iconic “Lewton Bus.”

So you can watch it for the themes, or you can watch it for the cinematography, or you can watch it for the sound design, or you can watch the movie for the Freudian debate. You can watch this movie for many reasons, which might explain why people are still watching it now. And why the Library of Congress added this one to the National Film Registry in 1993.

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