Friday, June 12, 2009

The Three Lives of the Cat People

"Cat People" (Jacques Tourneur, 1942) The year after "Citizen Kane," RKO Studios declared war on Orson Welles by pressuring the ouster of President George J. Schaefer (whose motto was "Quality Pictures at a Premium Price") and installing Charles Koerner who trumpeted the studio's new philosophy "entertainment, not genius." In its zeal to create entertainment without genius, the Studio gave a freer reign to one of their house producers, Val Lewton, who created a series of sophisticated horror films on the cheap, among which was "Cat People."

The result was entertainment and genius of another kind.

Strictly B-movie material, the film nevertheless struck a nerve and did well at the box-office, despite some lackluster dialogue, sub-par performances (particularly by star Simone Simon, whose tortured English was left without extensive dubbing) and overall cheapness (transformed by brilliant cinematography); entering Irena Dubrovna's brownstone, the grand staircase from Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons" is there, recycled somewhat inexplicably for the movie. A grandiose stair-way like that sticks out as not belonging, in the same way that Irena (Simon) is odd—foreign, exotic, petite, and nearly incomprehensible—in the generic studio-city the film takes place in.

But it's the ideas and execution behind "Cat People" that twisted nerves. In as obvious a metaphor as you can have, Irena is a creature that, when sexually aroused, turns into a vicious panther that attacks and kills her partner, the result of her village being invaded and damned by devil worshippers in the distant past. The movie's a strange push-pull of ambiguity and obviousness. The delay of the creature's "appearance" makes Irena suspect, as all we have is her belief in a barbaric folk-tale. When it becomes clear that Irena is what she says she is, the image of her transformed is always suggested by shadow and sound, an off-screen presence that is unmistakable, but not to be seen directly.

The entire movie is a clever delaying tactic that entices and teases with our innate desire to "see the monster."
Man (the awkward Kent Smith)-meets-feline. Despite Irena's fears and protestations, they marry, but consumed with her past, Irena refuses to consummate the marriage. This leads to turmoil (and concern in the movie's principals that Irena is..."strange," but not in the way they think). The husband seeks counselling for her, but Irena's shrink becomes attracted to her instead. Ultimately, the husband files for divorce (irreconcilable differences?) Irena's fears proving too much for him. It isn't until near the end, when the rakish psychiatrist tries to have his way with her that the claws come out, and the rogue male is dispatched. Mee-ow.

It just sounds awful and, indeed, some of the acting is. But the story is provocative, setting up a situation where **warning, warning** sex is dangerous, even while the turning away from the act is considered unnatural and...well, as strange as thinking you're going to turn into a panther. Director Tourneur's handling of it by suggestion is awesome. One memorable segment has
Irena's rival for her husband's affections (Jane Randolph) trapped in a gym-pool while around her, guttural growls echo, and slinking shadows force her to the middle of the pool. And the director's low-budget suggestion of Irena turning into a cat, is also suggestive of her sinking to the floor to satisfy that randy psychiatrist. Many of those ideas would be recycled with the next life of "Cat People," but the sexuality and cat-transformations would be a lot more explicit. Did that make it better?


"Cat People" (Paul Schrader, 1982) A strict remake, but not an austere one, writer-director Paul Schrader took the original "Cat People" and updated it for the up-tight STD'd 80's. The performances are better, but the characters all seem a bit under-written and played. If you've seen the first, you'll see the same idea of a stark concrete zoo set. The same basic plot. The trick jump-shock of the bus is recreated in stereophonic sound and color. You'll even see what looks like a shot-for-shot recreation of the pool sequence, but as an indication of the puerile nature of the update, the figure trapped in the pool by the suggestive growls (Annette O'Toole) is topless this time.

Sure we might appreciate it, but it comes off as crass and cheap, compared to the original. In the same way, Schrader
adds some mythological hokum as a prelude and deepened the "cat-curse" to include an incestuous way to break it involving cat-brother and cat-sister (Malcolm McDowell, Nastassja Kinski) getting it on—something alluded to, but isn't seen. Like Schrader's other attempts to make "Cat People" more kinkified, it ends up feeling clawless. What's the point of having the "curse" if you can't use it for the story? And so it's alluded to, but never presented. Schrader also makes more explicit the cat-transformation making it a were-wolfish change that seems somehow less convincing than the suggestive original. And forgive me, but is it an improvement to have Kinski's cat-person spending the rest of her life in a zoo? Are we meant to be cheered by her apparent captivity, or is it merely the excuse to entertain a sequel?

For all its attempts to "
sex it up," the film actually comes across as more conventional than the 40's original. Hard to believe, but the more "sophisticated" 80's remake has less going for it as a thriller, horror film
, a Gothic love story, a romance, or even a cautionary tale.

"The Curse of the Cat People" (Gunther von Fritsch/Robert Wise, 1944) An odd sequel that is better than the original, "Curse" features the cast from the first but turns it on its tail. Oliver (Kent Smith) and Alice (Jane Randolph) are married and their daughter, Amy (the melancholy little Ann Carter) is troubled—attacking other children viciously and living in a fantasy world with an imaginary friend—who just happens to be Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon)! Is "cat-scratch fever" communicable?

Despite the characters from the first film appearing here, "Curse" has little to do with "Cat People"—all the "cat people" are dead and
Amy might be haunted by the reminders of her father's first wife (who is never mentioned in the house), so that she imagines Irena. Given the family history, Dad discourages her little flights of fantasy, thinking it could lead to the tragedy of the first film, a tactic that confuses Amy and distrustful of her own family. Then, she is glommed onto by a grasping older actress who lives down the street (Julia Dean). You know those older actresses, they can be pretty dramatic and this one favors Amy over her own daughter (Elizabeth Russell). Not a movie about monsters in the shadows, but the ones in our minds. Although one could make a case for for it being about possession, it's not a horror film, but instead an atmospheric fantasia about the dark side of childhood imagination and alienation, as potent and strange as "The Innocents" or "Night of the Hunter."

It also marked the directing debut of
Robert Wise, who had edited "Citizen Kane" for RKO and would become one of Hollywood's master craftsmen, working in a number of genres and winning Best Picture and Directing Oscars for "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music


Madame Enfer said...

I love both the 1942 and the 1982. It would take far too long here to explain all the things you're wrong about in the 1982 however. Like most people, unfortunately, you sell it rather shorter than it deserves.

Yojimbo_5 said...

It wouldn't take too long at all...if you'd like to make the attempt.