With Cat People, what was to be an effort at cashing in on the lucrative wake left by Universal's big-earner The Wolf Man, Lewton and Jacques Tourneur minimized any Universal-style shocks (which also saved on the special effects) and instead tried to imply situations and the presence of the dangerous 'cat person' (Simone Simon) through lighting, camera-work and story tone.
Light-years ahead of the 1930's style scare tactics, either by design or accident, Lewton and Tourneur invented a new way of approaching a monster-movie subject that required the audience to participate by the suggestive manipulations from abstractions put upon the screen combined with story mood. Explained after the fact, the duo both described this strategy as the viewer would 'see' things that are not actually there in the ambiguity of the darkened screen.
To show how simply this was approached, director Tourneur achieved some shadow effects by just placing his hand in front of the arc-lamps used to light a scene while they were filming. The resulting vague shadow thrown into the scene could either be in motion or still, and either way the audience would be triggered by the suggestions within the story to interpret the shadow as the transformed "panther woman" that figures in the Cat People advertising (but barely appears at all in the actual film).
Cast and Story in Cat People
Viewed from the 21st century, the cast of Cat People seem wooden the way program pictures from that era often seem. Relatively stiff leading man Kent Smith is Oliver Reed, a "good plain Americano" as he calls himself, a boat designer who has a chance meeting with troubled fashion artist Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) at a zoo. A gentle romance strikes up between the two unattached young people.
Soon married, the relationship comes to a halt when Irena's peasant old-world fears about a village curse that will cause her to become a panther if she is emotionally aroused (love, anger or anything else) becomes a fear playing on her mind, and she refuses to consummate the marriage.
At first the "good Americano" is all understanding and patience, but it runs out once he starts spending time with the warm sympathy provided by fellow-boat designer Alice Moore (played by Jane Randolph) who has long harbored a secret infatuation for him where the two of them work.
It is Kent Smith's acting style (along with Jane Randolph as the 'other woman') that frames French actress Simone Simon as the 'Cat Woman.' Simone's exotic accent and more natural acting skill is that much more effective when contrasted with the particularly placid Smith.
Although Simon plays the monster of the film, she is the one being victimized, and Lewton and Tourneur (the script is credited to DeWitt Bodeen) have turned the usual Hollywood adultery on it's head: it is the foreigner who is being wronged by the average, well-meaning American lovers.
With the triangle established, Lewton and Tourneur put Irena through her paces with episodes of jealousy, sorrow, despair and anger. Actor Tom Conway is called in as psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd, providing George Sanders-like line delivery filled with sarcasm and innuendo (and why not? After all, he was Sander's brother!)
This classic romantic triangle has Dr. Judd trying to crash it with his frequent invitations to a refusing Irena to engage in emotional therapy of a more physical nature, a quest that ends up getting him killed when a vengeful Irena has finally taken shape as a lethal black panther.
Jane Randolph and Kent Smith are the next victims-to-be, but the avenging Irena/panther finally leaves them unharmed when confronted by Smith's pleading 'for God's sake, leave us alone'.
With imaginative cinematography and a small cast that works the story from beginning to end without generic horror-movie histrionics, it is Simone Simon and the tricks of light and sound that that help give Cat People it's special position as an innovative and high quality low-budget film.
About the making of Cat People
The story is that in 1942, after money-lost over Citizen Kane and other projects that didn't do well-enough at the box office, RKO was in precarious financial position. A new "B-Unit"was created by RKO executives to make inexpensive thriller movies, and they put Val Lewton in charge, and his first film Cat People went into theaters at the end of 1942. It was such a big hit that the profits eased the dangerous financial straits at the studio (some have claimed it saved the studio from bankruptcy), which was now being run by new President Charles Koerner after President George J. Schaefer had resigned in the wake of money lost over Kane and Magnificent Ambersons. RKO changed its concentration to churning out low-cost topical films, such as Hitler's Children (which was in the top ten earning films for 1943) and to not risk too much on 'artistic' endeavors, particularly since RKO has a limited star roster and was often contractually sharing what stars it could get with other studios.
Lewton was already in the throes of making his next movie for RKO when the news came in that Cat People was reaping strong grosses across the country. Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur knew they were on the right path with their methods for "psychological terror" and continued in this style with I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man.
Aside from overseeing title choice and marketing, RKO left Tourneur and Lewton alone. But after Lewton's third film Leopard Man also did stellar box office, RKO had the idea of making even more money by splitting up the Lewton/Tournier team and thus generating more titles faster.
Seen in hindsight, it can be argued this was a poor move in the artistic sense, as Tournier and Lewton were at their best together. Lewton's later titles for his unit (The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, Isle of the Dead, Bedlam, among others) usually did well in dollar grosses and were consistently successful critically (and are studied as a group today as 'Lewton films' because they all share similar aesthetic aspects despite being directed by 5 different men) but the inventive visual finesse changed noticeably with Tournier gone from the director's chair. (Tournier went on to have a long career, and is probably best known today for the noir Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum, aside from his three Lewton movies.)
Despite the infusion following Cat People's success, RKO didn't stay stable, a condition that haunted the studios fortunes almost its entire existence. When Koerner died suddenly in 1946, the long-promised promotion of letting Lewton step into straight-ahead "A-Picture" production didn't happen, and in the executive shake-up that followed, Lewton found himself out of a job and his B-Unit dissolved (there have been good arguments made that Lewton's "B-Unit" was in fact a "sub-A Unit" since Lewton was able to pull in better resources on his films than a typical B-unit. This is a matter for a different discussion).
The importance of Cat People
Cat People is unique in that it set off the cycle of Lewton movies at RKO, and also incidentally made (depending on your data source) between $2 and $4 million dollars against a production budget of $135K.
These profits to some degree insured Lewton's control over his film unit where he made 8 more films for RKO. Though he couldn't control the titles assigned him ("market-tested" was the claim the RKO leadership gave for the often-times ridiculous sounding titles). But Lewton did control the one thing where he had supreme responsibility: the story and selection of director.
Though other names are attached to the writing credits for his films, he is known for making the final revisions for his film's scripts and shaping (or reshaping) the stories to fit his own ideals for effective and quality showmanship. Lewton worked years for David O. Selznick as a story editor and talent scout searching for Hollywood-appropriate stories and prior to that a career as a novelist writing genre novels. This exposure to the pure exploitation side of Hollywood (and storytelling) was mixed with his higher literary attitudes and expectations. How he balanced these private demands for quality are what has made his string of RKO films stand out in such a unique way in Hollywood history, something that was noted at the time and has continued into this century.
Cat People - David O. Selznick
[Below] Congratulations to Val Lewton from David O. Selznick