Sunday, October 07, 2012

I Like the Dark. It's Friendly.

Jacques Tourneur's Cat People (1942) is one of those movies that's so interwoven with my love of movies that I hardly know where to start with it anymore. Maybe with this:  my mother introduced me to Cat People on one of those late nights when my dad worked very late. As such, it's a movie that I treasure not only because it's a legitimately great movie (which it is), but because it has an intensely personal association in my mind. I probably can't be objective about it. Fortunately, Cat People's place in the canon of great horror movies is secure enough without my imprimatur.

The thing that strikes me every time I've watched Cat People as an adult is how much it looks like film noir, and not just because of the shadows with which Tourneur and cameraman Nicholas Musuraca have woven this movie. It also reminds me of film noir because it's a film about night in the city. It's set in after hours offices, late night cafes, and stylish apartments. It's a modern movie (in 1942), one that I imagine had a real immediacy when it was released, given that the audience of its day was used to horror movies set in some theme park version of Eastern or Middle Europe. Over time, its association with film noir has lent the film a kind of timelessness. Film noir is an idiom of nightmare logic and a poetry of shadows, both of which were pioneered by Cat People and the other noir-ish horror movies made by Val Lewton's b-movie unit.

I'm also struck by the frankness (for 1942) of its psychology. This is a movie about sexual dysfunction, and there's no need to decode this from a bunch of subtext. Not only is it up front, it's the driving engine of the plot. Martin Scorsese uses this film as a key example of a movie where the director has smuggled something past the studios and the censors, and I wonder if he's right. Cat People doesn't conceal what it's about. I can only assume that the film was considered such a throwaway by RKO, that it was such a vulgar little b-movie in the minds of the Breen office, that they didn't really care. It would come and go in a week in the theaters. Of course, it didn't. Cat People was a huge hit and a film of profound influence. It sends ripples through all of cinema to this very days.

One of the things that really stood out to me on this viewing of the film is the aftermath of the Lewton Bus scene. I had forgotten about the sheep in the zoo that have been mauled by a cat and I had forgotten about that traveling shot of Irena's footprints changing from cat to human. It seems inconceivable to me that I'd forgotten that stuff, but it's delightful to rediscover it.

I was more irritated by Kent Smith's Oliver this time round, but Oliver has always seemed like a stiff to me. I had an insane desire for Jane Randolph's Alice and Simone Simon's Irena to just chuck him and run off together. Oliver certainly doesn't deserve either of them. Lest one think that this is just some idle fanfic fantasy, I would point out that the movie itself has elements that are sometimes interpreted as coded queer subtext, particularly the "moya sestra" scene, which has a hint of repressed lesbianism. In any event, this is very much a distaff movie. The other prominent male character is Tom Conway's Dr. Judd, who is as sleazy as they come. It's the women who are the sympathetic characters, who provide the film with its primary conflict. If this hadn't been a horror movie, it could easily have been released as a women's picture, as they called them back then. The film is explicitly about female sexuality and female agency. It's a proto-feminist film, so it seems inevitable that the men must be pushed to the margins. It's not their story.

I don't think I'd seen Tourneur's The Stars In My Crown the last time I saw Cat People, so I maybe didn't realize then just how religious a director he is. This is very much a Christian film, which leaps off the screen when Oliver and Alice fend off the leopard in their office with a t-square that casts a huge shadow of a cross on the wall behind them. Tourneur doubles down on this when pagan symbols are on screen. These are almost all emblematic of death or evil. This shot, for instance.

The last time I wrote about Cat People, I ended up cataloging its influence on the rest of cinema (particularly on Alfred Hitchcock, who can be caught stealing from it). I'll refrain from that this time, because it's irrelevant to its greatness. Cat People is one of the four or five most influential movies in the horror genre, true, but it's a singular film, too, in so far as it weaves a spell out of its shadows and its melancholy that is entirely unique to itself. And that's enough.

Current tally: 6 film

First time viewings: 5

From Around the Web

Bob over at Eternal Sunshine catches up with the Challenge in his second dispatch, focusing on some early AIP Lovecraft and a certain dream demon.

Eric at Expelled Grey Matter explores the Curse of Alcatraz and finds it not worth the time served.

Meanwhile, Tim over at The Other Side goes for some vampire slaying badassery in Blade.

DeAnna at All Things Perfect and Poisonous discovers Haxan, that cornerstone of Scandinavian horror from the silent age.

Renee at Gaming as Women finds more gaming possibilities in her Challenge movies, though for some of them, she wonders if she should even bother.


Laura said...

I'm a lousy film buff because I didn't see Cat People until relatively recently. I promptly fell in love with both the movie and Mlle. Simon, thus the profile pic change.

I really admire how sympathetically Lewton and Tourneur portray Irina's plight. She's such a tragic character, a perhaps more sympathetic female equivalent of Lawrence Talbot. There's definitely some of that there symbolism attached to Irina not really being allowed to display her true colors or her true sexuality without stiffs like Oliver deeming her a beast.

One thing that bugs me is seeing what horrible conditions zoo animals lived in back then. That miserable little cage was the panther's entire enclosure?? Appropriately symbolic as a parallel to Irina's stifling life, but that doesn't make it right, '40s!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

My girlfriend had the same complaint. The motif of cages runs through the entire movie. The birdcage is another symbol.

Irena is totally sympathetic. I can't believe how utterly clueless Oliver is when discussing his marriage outside of their home. He brings a lot of what happens on himself.