There’s a genius to suggestive horror and it is not for the faint of heart.
She’s the “new type of other woman.” Alice Moore finishes dinner with co-worker, Oliver Reed, the man she’s also in love with. But he’s married. Alice leaves the restaurant and heads for home – with someone on her tail. She walks down a darkened, deserted street. Through lights and shadows as she moves along – street lamps illuminate here then there – Alice hears the footsteps behind her, as can we. Women’s shoes that click and clack as they approach. Suddenly the clacking stops. Complete silence. A deafening silence. Alice really grows weary now. She slows down, looks back slowly, deliberately, confused, scared. The menace, now silent, lurks ever more sinister. Alice picks up her step while looking back. There’s something there. Soon she finds herself running. Suddenly a loud hiss, which sounds eerily like a cat’s, but it’s a bus hissing as it pulls up to the curb beside her.
Nothing’s happened yet our hearts are racing.
The genius behind that scene in Cat People (1942) is Val Lewton. Typical Lewton. The sharp contrast of lights and shadows, sound and silence. It’s the darkness manipulated to the point of discomfort. The flashes of terror interjected into prolonged menace and danger. Lurking silences that build tension slowly and then a shock, which turns out to be something completely harmless. A style, a manipulation that came to be called, “Lewton bus” as a result of that famous chase scene. One that never fails to send chills down my spine. It’s difficult to explain just as it’s difficult to find precise words in describing really disturbing nightmares. Suggestive horror.
Universal Studios all but owned the horror film genre throughout the 1930s with their repartee of famous monsters – Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolf Man and The Mummy. Those films and characters so resonated with audiences that Universal thrived on new films featuring many of the same slew of monsters throughout the 1940s – sometimes teaming them against each other in new films. But while Universal had its built-in audience of horror aficionados, it was producer Val Lewton, working for RKO Radio Pictures, that breathed new life into the horror genre during the war years.
RKO Radio Pictures made a change in 1942 with the adoption of a new motto, “Showmanship in place of genius,” as noted by the studio’s production chief, Charles Koerner meant as a “dig” to Orson Welles whose famous struggles with RKO had come to a head. Val Lewton was brought in to represent, “showmanship” and set forth a new direction for the studio. Little did anyone know that Lewton’s work would too be considered genius in film circles, something that rings truer and truer with the passage of time.
I wrote an extensive paper some years back on film production during World War II and I thought then, as I do now, that a key mention should be given to Val Lewton for his major contribution to film at that time. To me, and perhaps some may disagree, aside from the artistry in the films he produced, Lewton plays the important role of bridging the gap in horror films between Universal’s golden era to the resurgence of the genre under Hammer Studios a decade later. While Universal continued to have occasional hits as was the case when they coupled the famous comedy team of Abbott and Costello with their famous monsters, Lewton’s new take on horror was an important side-step in artistry that advanced the genre. He was different.
With little money to produce films that scared people using Universal’s standards, Val Lewton was able to make intelligent, understated and moody films. These had very low production value, certainly considered B-pictures, that suggested evil and horror rather than showed it. (Scorsese, TCM) There were no recognizable monsters in Lewton films. Instead he used many of the cinematic styles used in the film noirs of the time, like strong contrast of light and shadow and subtle innuendos. Techniques that result in deepened terror because we are left to the devices of our own imaginations. Of Lewton’s films that feature the mastery of suggestive horror, my favorite is Cat People from 1942.
Cat People was the first film produced by Val Lewton at RKO Radio Pictures. He’d been working as a story editor for David O. Selznick who promoted him to producer specifically to make horror films on a budget of under $150,000 to cheap titles provided by the studio. DeWitt Bodeen, the writer of Cat People and Lewton’s friend at RKO, told a humorous story in an interview about Lewton’s promotion. Bodeen said that Lewton told him he suspected Selznick had promoted him as a punishment. It seems Selznick had never forgiven him for falling asleep at the dailies of Gone With the Wind. The story was true and although Lewton took his job as producer quite seriously, actually losing sleep over his “hands on” involvement in every step and aspect of his pictures, he also always felt insecure and somewhat unworthy of the position. In any case, Lewton delivered big time for RKO.
“Let no one say, and say it to your shame. That all was beauty here, until you came.” - Cat People
Cat People was the first production for Lewton, as mentioned above. It gave audiences just what they wanted even if the film’s initial reviews were mixed.
Variety, December 1942 – “This is a weird drama of thrill-chill caliber, with developments of surprises confined to psychology and mental reactions, rather than transformation to grotesque and marauding characters for visual impact on the audiences. Picture is well-made on moderate budget outlay.”
The New York Times (NYT), December 1942 – “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.”
With all due respect to Bosley Crowther who penned that NYT review, that “labored and obvious attempt to induce shock” does so quite effectively to this day. At least it does so for this viewer. I’ve seen Cat People many times and, although I know exactly what’s going to happen and the fact I don’t see any monsters, gore or blood, there are scenes where my heart does pitter-patter for reasons not related to love. That fact is why I enjoy watching this film so much and, I’d guess, why it has become so iconic. On the surface there’s no reason for the film to frighten – at least not in the traditional sense. But underneath, in the recesses of our own lights and shadows, it does so palpably.
Cat People is about a Serbian immigrant, Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), who believes she is a descendant of The Cat People, an ancient tribe whose members are cursed to become blood-thirsty animals (a panther in her case) when aroused. Although everyone I’ve ever read or spoken to state definitively that Irena turns into a beast when aroused sexually, which is why she keeps from consummating her marriage, the film shows she does so through jealousy as well.
Soon after arriving in New York, Irena meets and marries Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) whose relationship with co-worker, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) brings out the real beast in her. Concerned for their future and Irena’s mental health, Oliver insists she see a psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway). Irena gets treatment, or consultation in any case, but the Doctor is unable to help her. As a good doctor should, he takes risks to further the health of his patient. And…well..perhaps taken a bit by the fact Irena’s “so little, so soft, by the perfume in her hair” – his treatment doesn’t quite turn out well for Dr. Judd. In hopes of not spoiling anything, suffice it to say that whether real or imagined there is plenty that is disturbing in Cat People. Enough for several therapists.
The most fascinating thing about this film for me is that I am fascinated by it, by the fact that I cannot watch it objectively because it asks too much from my psyche. I have to say I’m not particularly impressed with any of the performances. They are all good but to me they’re quite incidental. As far as I’m concerned what works best about the film’s star, Simone Simon is her exotic look. The accent also helps add to her mystery. But the real star here is the film’s production, cinematography, which creates all of what’s worth seeing – or feeling.
This post is part of a blogathon event that is all about Val Lewton and by all accounts, he is largely responsible for all that I enjoy in Cat People. It’s worth noting again that the techniques used in this film became the signature for his other films. His is a body of work that became a unique genre within the wider world of horror, as I mentioned above. But I have to at least mention Director, Jacques Tourneur who, beyond his collaboration with Lewton had a long and distinguished career as a director. I think the director should get his/her due no matter what, but I admit I must mention Tourneur also because he happened to have directed my favorite of all film noir, the foolproof and beautiful, Out of the Past (1947). I would consider him a standout artist for that one alone. But it’s Cat People I must focus on…
The pool scene -
Alice, again. Poor Alice. She goes to the gym for a swim. After changing into her bathing suit she gets spooked. Rightfully so as we hear, or is it the suggestion, a growl of some kind. She throws off her robe and jumps into a swimming pool – as vulnerable as one can be. By this point I’m already a goner given I have a fear of water.
No music is playing. We hear only the sound of the water, Alice’s breaths and..oh yes, the growl. What we see is her desperation as she doggie-paddles helplessly against those sounds, the shadows cast by the water against an empty wall. The room goes dark at the “suggestion” something walks past the camera then we see what looks like the shadow of an animal. On all fours – it’s a panther. Another growl and a blood-curdling scream from the woman in the pool magnified by the echo of emptiness. Unharmed but scared. Then the lights come on. Irena stands there appearing rather sinister, yet innocent. But something just happened.
That may well be the most famous scene in Cat People, one of the affecting terror-filled scenes ever filmed. What’s astounding is that it is so without anything evil ever really happening. Or that the audience is allowed to see, in any case. And one could say that about the entire film as there are other scenes that scare the bejesus outta me, I must say. Like the one toward the end of the film, that finds Alice (again) and Oliver trapped in their dark office pursued by a panther we never quite get a good look at except in the shadows. Apparently it doesn’t matter because my heart pounds loudly in my ears regardless of what I’ve actually seen. Throughout this entire film that’s what Lewton does – ensures we never forget something lurks in the shadows, which is how the horror is suggested – and constant. All of that is aided by the fact the people in this story have amazing eyesight. Can’t cats see in the dark? Anyway, they never have all the lights on, preferring the moodiness of table lamps and spotlights and workstation lamps. It’s maddening – whether in casual conversation or in moments of deep concern, no one ever thinks to turn on all the lights. Except me, of course, while I watch the film. It’s all gorgeous noir – but oh so unsettling.
By the way, unique to this story as “horror” is the fact that the “evildoer,” for lack of a better word, is also quite sympathetic. Irena’s mental state, whether real or perceived, is front and center throughout the story. There are plenty of more traditional horror films that feature sympathetic monsters, but those are usually obvious outcasts who are recognizable at first glance. Here the “monster” is layered, deep in the soul – not easily (or obviously) labeled as a monster. It’s really quite an accomplishment, when you think about it.
Cat People was made for $130,000 and made over a million dollars at the box-office. Wartime audiences loved it. The film that was shot in 18 days had a longer run than Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Suddenly RKO Radio Pictures was in the black and Val Lewton had a long contract. Also worth noting is the fact that Cat People was in theaters for so long that many critics who had originally bashed the film saw it again and rewrote their reviews with a more positive spin.
One last thing about this film that I became curious about as I’ve watched the film through the years. The following quotation, which opens the film…
“The Anatomy of Atavism” noted here is a book created for the film supposedly written by one of the characters, Dr. Louis Judd. Neither the book or author exist although I did a quick query and there is a real psychiatrist by that name. It’s very clever to start the film with this notation in order to lend credence to the premise presented in the film – from the very first moment. It is an effective way to draw us in to the supernatural terror as though it were real. It works despite the fact that it’s a ruse. Atavism, by the way, is reversion to ancestral type or the reappearance of a characteristic in an organism after several generations of absence (Dictionary.com), or an individual embodying such a reversion. Interesting, to say the least.
Aside from Cat People, I also enjoy the Val Lewton-produced, Jacques Tourneur-directed, I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1942). Actually (and sadly), those are the only three Lewton films I’ve seen. But they all left an impression on me.
In 1993, Cat People was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Also, the famed Museum of Modern Art in New York holds a copy of the film in its collection, which is quite impressive. And therein lies this film’s magic, if you will. The low-budget standard this rather poorly titled film was forced to adhere to allowed for increased creativity, which coupled with a grand talent with unique vision made it art. As such it appeals to all manner of filmgoer – from casual fan of horror, to serious horror freak, to fans of psychological thrillers, to those that prefer the lights and shadows of noir.
“His philosophy, in addition to scaring the wits out of people, was that he had a responsibility to the millions who saw our pictures. He aimed at more than mere exploitable crook shows, and wanted their impact to result from legitimate psychological conflicts. Lewton’s pictures were cheaply made, but not cheap.” – Director Robert Wise, from an interview in Films in Review, January 1963
In remembrance of Val Lewton this October. A master of horror.
This entry is my contribution to the Val Lewton blogathon hosted by Stephen at Classic Movie Man and Kristina at the Speakeasy. Please visit the host sites for many great entries that discuss the life and work of the horror film master.
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