Friday, October 18, 2013

Monster Serial: CAT PEOPLE, 1942

 Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!

“The strangely embarrassing predicament of a lady who finds herself possessed of mystical feline temptations, especially one to claw people to death, is the topic pursued at tedious and graphically unproductive length in RKO's latest little chiller, "Cat People," at the Rialto. Ladies who have such temptations—in straight horror pictures, at least—should exercise their digits a bit more freely than does Simone Simon in this film. And people who make such pictures should do so much more briskly than they have here. "The Cat People" is a labored and obvious attempt to induce shock. And Miss Simone's cuddly little tabby would barely frighten a mouse under a chair. Purrrr.” 
 - Bosley Crowther, New York Times, Dec.7, 1942
I’m really not sure that anybody named Bosley Crowther ought to be throwing stones at anybody else’s house, myself.  (Am I the only one else who imagines either Snagglepuss or Templeton the Rat?  Purrrr, indeed.)  If Mr. Crowther were a little less in love with his own convoluted sentence structure perhaps I’d have understood that by “exercise their digits” he was referring to the “temptations…. to claw people to death” and not, you know, exercise their digits.  If you know what I mean.  But by totally missing the point in so many different ways, Bosley-old-chum accidentally gets it right - everybody in this movie would be a lot happier if Irena the Cat Lady went to Good Vibrations and ordered herself a Hitachi Magic Wand.  Free shipping!

CAT PEOPLE is, at heart, a sad little domestic tragedy about sex.  Irena (Simone Simon), a Serbian fashion designer, is minding her own business drawing panthers at the zoo when she meets Oliver (Kent Smith), a naval architect.  She invites him back to her apartment for “tea.”  (Maybe things were different in the 40’s?)  She tells him a story from her homeland about King John of Serbia killing all the cat witches except the ones smart enough to escape, thus selecting for the smartest, meanest ones.  Good job, King John. 

Despite this all being kind of weird and awkward, Oliver and Irena seem to hit it off and he brings her a kitten.  The kitten makes it clear that it would rather be tossed in the Hudson with a brick than snuggle up to Irena, so they have to take it back.  (I was really worried about the kitten - don’t worry, the kitten is okay.  Nobody hurts the kitten.)  At the pet store, all the animals lose their shit and the shopkeeper displays totally awesome salesmanship by telling Oliver that it’s because they know when some people just ain’t right - while Irena stands out in the rain.  (And he still buys a canary from her!  The canary, by the way, does not have a happily ever after.)

So if Irena didn’t think she was Cat People before, she’s eyeing the Meow Mix at the grocery store a little harder now ... but she marries Oliver anyway, only to be ambushed at the wedding reception by an older Serbian lady of rather feline appearance who calls her “sister.”  So now she’s sure she’s a cat person and won’t have sex with her new husband because she’s scared she’ll turn into a cat if she gets all hot and bothered. 

This causes a certain amount of marital strife, which is not helped at all by Irena overhearing Oliver telling his office spouse Alice (Jane Randolph) all about it when she comes home from the shrink he sends her to.  Later she sees them at a restaurant (Alice is confessing that she’s got a thing for Oliver, but he’s not cheating on Irena) and follows Alice home.  Alice starts feeling a little … stalked by a werecat, I guess.  Which is not an entirely irrational feeling for her to have.

Anyway, evidently getting in touch with her animal nature, if you know what I mean, has made Irena a lot more confident about all her drama and she’s ready to get with Olvier, but by then it’s too late.  He wants a divorce because evidently Alice puts out, although I’d think a pet werecat would be way more awesome than a free personal secretary.  Irena attacks them at Oliver’s office and is driven back by a T-square (naval architect, remember) which of course is in the shape of the cross.  She does get to eat the shrink before slinking back to the zoo and dying in the panther cage, at least.

So what’s it all about?  There’s a lot to unpack in Cat People.  It’s not a coincidence that Irena is a European foreigner with an exotic accent - this is 1942, when all the available healthy young men were going overseas, and who knows what kind of tramps they have over there?  Foreign tramps, that’s what kind.  Oliver’s one of the few eligible guys left in New York and he gets snapped up by this leisured mysterious Serbian.  It’s also no accident that Irena’s rival, Alice, is a very American girl - no nonsense, employed, sensible in name and dress. 

So on the one hand the film is suffused with this Dracula-style fear of unknown sexual appetites from Continental Elsewhere. But, in an equal sense, it’s about Irena’s internal fear of her own sexuality; she’s quite literally afraid to let go and lose control.  She invites intimacy (up to her apartment, literally) but then shrinks away from it.  The psychiatrist who tells her that her delusions come from childhood trauma is totally wrong in a way (the film makes it clear that Irena actually is a cat person) but correct in that her mother seems to have killed and eaten her father, which must give you a pretty skewed idea of healthy relationships.  She finally starts to feel comfortable and in control once she starts prowling the streets of New York as a cat, but by then it’s too late.

The famous scene where Irena stalks Alice on her way home from the restaurant is fantastic.  It’s intense, it’s scary, and when it ends with a fakeout (the “Lewton Bus”) it’s the kind of relief you get at the end of a really good suspense scene.  You never see anything but shadows; all the heavy lifting is done by the sound design, editing, and little tricks like having Alice walk past the same stretch of wall more than once to add to the dreamlike tension.   The sound especially is the star here - the approaching bus makes a predatory growling noise, then the sound of the bus brakes punctuate the end of the sequence and figuratively wake you up from the dream.

The other great set piece also spins tension out of sound; when Alice is attacked swimming in her apartment building’s basement pool every sound breeds confusion and second guessing.  Is that a growl of a giant improbable werecat or a car that needs a tuneup?  Splashing or footsteps?  I almost wish that Alice didn’t find a shredded robe when she got out of the pool; I’d rather never quite have been sure whether she wasn’t just imagining it.  The lighting is also fantastic; it’s dark, but the reflections of the low light on the pool ripple on the ceiling and the whole thing has an overwhelming sense of disorientation.

The genius of Cat People is how it makes something out of nothing; there’s no gore, you never really see any sort of monster, and mostly it takes place in the minds and relationships of its characters.  It’s impossible not to feel sorry for poor lonely Irena.  She’s just so little and scared and sad, and none of this is particularly her fault.  Her husband betrays her, her shrink comes on to her, and all she wants to do is not eat anybody!  Hitchcock obviously took a lot of inspiration from this and other Lewton films, but his woman issues (well documented elsewhere) make him incapable of creating a character like Irena.  Oliver and Alice are only barely drawn as characters; the meat of the movie is Irena and the evocative atmosphere.

Cat People is a real gem; if you  haven’t seen it, don’t miss it (and don’t accidentally get the remake.)

Sara Shiver McBride is qualified to neither speak not write about film, but chooses to do so, anyway. She makes up one half of the podcast team of DAY DRINKING WITH SARA AND ALEXIS.


Miss Kitty Fantastico said...

This is a really well-done review of one of my favorite movies. Thanks!

Cousin Barnabas said...

Miss Kitty Fantastico! Willow's been looking everywhere for you!

Sara Shiver McBride said...

Thanks! It's hard to figure out what to talk about when you talk about Cat People because everybody's talked about Cat People. There's sooo much in there though - it's really ten movies in one!

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