Sunday, August 14, 2011

Cat People (1942).

A full streaming copy of the movie may be found here.

One of the most memorizing films of the 40s era B-movies is Cat People (1942). Its one of Martin Scorsese's favorite films ever, an influential one in his career and one he references often in interviews. I think he may have single-handedly brought the spotlight back to this forgotten film, that received mixed reviews upon opening and tossed in the B-movie rubbish pile soon after. But the film ran so long in theaters as a late night thriller that many critics ended up changing their minds and rewriting the negative reviews they had given the film. Regardless what critics thought, the movie was certainly a box office hit. It was cheaply made and brought in so much money that it saved the studio from bankruptcy.

The film draws parallel between the 
jealous, predatorial, stealthy, solitary 
black cat and the tormented psyche of 
a woman haunted by her history. 
There are so many beautifully arranged shots and the cat subtext is done so hauntingly, so subtly. Large cats appear in the woman's dreams, in her sketchbook, in her face and the faces of the other Eastern European beauties from her village. The cat-like Serbian beauty, Irena, seeks to contain her wild desires, locked away in a cage rather than expose her torment to her doting, patient, new husband.
There are themes of psychological torment, 
jealousy & adultery, sexual desire, the 
burden of the past, legends and fables, 
emotional volatility, self fulfilling prophesy, 
and mental illness. 

Technically the film also broke a lot of new ground in the early horror genre with its innovative cinematography and editing. Director Val Lewton claims credit for inventing the popular horror film technique, the "bus". The term came from the scene where Irena is walking behind Alice; the audience expects Irena to turn into a panther at any moment and attack her. At the most tense point, when the camera focuses on Alice's confused and terrified face, the silence is shattered by what sounds like a hissing panther—but it is a bus pulling over to pick her up. After the excitement dies down, the audience is left uncertain whether anything supernatural or life-threatening actually happened. This technique has been adapted into a great many horror movies since then. Anytime a movie creates a scene where the tension rises and dissipates into nothing at all, merely an empty boo!, it is a "bus".

Much of the creativity of the film was due to budget restrictions from the studio. R.K.O. gave Val Lewton only $150,000 and 18 days to make the film, forcing him to get creative, requiring special effects to be done in shadows which many believe increased the suspense of the film. "When studio execs insisted that more footage of the panther be included in the movie, Lewton was able to maintain the budget and the suspense of the film by limiting how many scenes the panther could be visibly seen and told the cinematographer to "keep the panther in the shadows." Thus the panther was only visible in the office and zoo cage."

Cat People has since been preserved in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The New York Museum of Modern Art also holds a copy of the film in its collection. Along with Scorsese, Roger Ebert has included it in his list of "Great Movies". The film was so financially successful that it was followed up by a stellar sequel: Curse of the Cat People in 1944. Cat People has been referenced in many other films through the years. As a nod to Cat People, the DC Comics anti-heroine Catwoman uses the Cat People character name Irene Dubrovna as an alias after she goes into hiding. And, a remake of the 1942 film was made in 1982.

"Irena Dubrovna, a beautiful and mysterious Serbian-born fashion artist living in New York City, falls in love with and marries average-Joe American Oliver Reed. She fears that she will turn into the cat person of her homeland's fables if they are intimate together. Their marriage suffers though, as Irena believes that she suffers from an ancient curse whenever emotionally aroused, and will turn into a panther and kill. Oliver thinks that is absurd, so he sends her to psychiatrist Dr. Judd to cure her. Easier said than done..." Via IMDB


"The strangest story you ever tried to get out of your dreams!"

"The exciting story of a woman who kills the thing she loves!"

"A Kiss Could Change Her Into a Monstrous Fang-and-Claw Killer!"

"She Was Marked With The Curse Of Those Who Slink And Court And Kill By Night!"

Cast & Credits:

Simone Simon as Irena Dubrovna Reed
Kent Smith as Oliver Reed
Tom Conway as Dr. Louis Judd
Jane Randolph as Alice Moore
Jack Holt as The Commodore
Elizabeth Russell as Serbian woman at restaurant (uncredited)


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