Movies We Like
"The enemy of art is the absence of limitations." — Orson Welles
“I like the dark. It’s friendly.” — Simone Simon as Irena Dubrovna
In 1942 at RKO Pictures, Orson Welles had been given the boot by the studio’s top brass because he cost the studio too much money, on movies they could not figure out how to sell to the public. It was a dismal end compared to the fanfare that greeted his arrival in Hollywood in 1939, when the sky was the proverbial limit to what he would accomplish. But RKO was battle-scarred having suffered the full wrath of the William Randolph Hearst publicity machine over their objections to Citizen Kane, while The Magnificent Ambersons was all but junked in a panic over its length and sophistication. RKO was now determined to do things differently—to rein in costs and start churning out movies without the controversial flair that Welles brought to his projects. The new motto at the studio after Welles left was “showmanship in place of genius” – a direct rebuke to Welles the troublemaker. Around the same time that Welles was finished there, a writer from New York named Val Lewton was hired to helm a string of B horror pictures to compete with the highly popular Universal horror films. These films would be made quickly, for very little money, and would have really silly titles whenever possible. But the ironic thing, and something that no one at RKO expected, is that Lewton was a serious artist, almost as revolutionary as Welles was, in terms of what he brought to a genre that no one expected anything from except cheap thrills and a good time.
Cat People was Lewton’s first film as producer at RKO and, working with director Jacques Tourneur, it is the most synonymous with his style. He took schlocky material and added shadings of psychological nuance that rendered it less comparable to Frankenstein or The Mummy and more of a precursor to the psychological thriller. The budgets were small for the Lewton horror films and it was this limitation that led to Lewton’s most successful trick: create terror from the artful suggestion of what you can’t see lurking in the shadows, instead of putting it all onscreen. It was this nifty idea which made his movies really pretty frightening.
Cat People is about a lonely Serbian expat living in New York named Irena, and played by a suitably kittenish Simone Simon. She seems to almost purr her dialogue. Irena believes that she is descended from a race of devil worshiping cat people and believes that evil runs through her veins. She lives in fear that, if sexually aroused, her true violent self will be unleashed. But she takes a stab at happiness when she meets Oliver (played by Kent Smith), a decent sort of guy who is instantly smitten with her. There’s a lovely scene where, early in their courtship, they sit in Irena’s living room with the lights off, just enjoying the tranquility of darkness. Irena loves to listen to the howls of the lions from the zoo across the street. But she hates the sound of the panther because she feels that it’s taunting her to submit to her true nature.
Irena and Oliver marry and Irena is introduced to Oliver’s happy office chums at the reception, but the darkness that Irena dreads seems to stalk her wherever she goes. A gorgeous woman with a feline stare, dressed in a glittering black gown, addresses Irena as “sister” in Serbian, sending Irena into a panic. She can’t get away. Before long she is testing Oliver’s patience, pleading for time to deal with her fears. She sleeps alone and keeps away from him. At one point, she sits in her bathtub sobbing because she can’t feel normal, can’t be happy. Soon the efforts of a psychiatrist who is infatuated with Irena, and the more-or-less conniving actions of Oliver’s best office mate Jane, drive Irena to embrace her worst fears about herself and she heads out into the night, a hunter looking for revenge. As previously mentioned, we don’t see a lot of horror in Cat People, but it always seems to be there, lurking in the shadows. One scene no one ever forgets is poor Jane leaping into an empty indoor swimming pool to get away from whatever is stalking her. As she floats helplessly in a pitch dark pool, screaming at the top of her lungs for help, we hear the feral screams of a feline predator inching ever closer, but nothing materializes until the lights come on and Irena stands at the edge of the pool, finally enjoying the fear she is putting into others.
RKO's agreement to release a movie about a would-be monster with clinical depression as a rival to Dracula and The Wolf Man might have seemed risky enough, but Lewton’s deeply personal take on horror was also their biggest box office hit for 1942. People flocked to it, sensing something new and off kilter. With one cheaply made B picture Lewton helped to bring existential complexity to the least respected of genres. During his short career, he left a lasting influence on what was to come, with film noir the most immediate and obvious descendent of his haunting work.