In 1942, Jacques Tourneur directed Simone Simon in an adaptation of Val Lewton’s short-story The Bagheeta. Lewton also produced the film, which was titled The Cat People.
The film’s core story centers on the struggles that Irena (Simon) has with her Serbian heritage. The major manifestation of this fear is Irena’s belief that she is one of a race of Cat People, Serbian witches who turn into large, vicious cats when emotions run high—either jealous and anger or, as the case may be, sexual arousal.
The film is a beautiful, heady mixture of B-movie horror and film noir. The shadows, in particular, are wonderful. (SN: I have a habit of watching the shadows in black-and-white films. They’re beautiful.)
We first encounter Irena in a zoo. She’s next to the panther cage, where a lone male panther prowls about. She has dark hair pulled away from her face, and there’s a cat brooch pinned on her suit;there’s a large sketchpad in her hands—she’s drawing the panther. We find out that her name is Irena when a young and handsome man introduces himself and she invites him home for tea.
As if this whole cats-on-clothes, fascinated-by-big-cats, brings-guy-home-after-one-afternoon wasn’t enough to start making us connect Irena with The Cat People, we get a super-dose when we go into her home, which is close enough to the zoo that she can hear the lions roar.
And then she explains this statue that we keep seeing close-ups of, a small figure that is sitting on a table in her home–the image of a knight on a horse riding with his lance held high, a cat impaled on it. Apparently, it is the image of King John of Serbia who drove from the land the evil witches who took the from of cats. And—well–Irena is pretty sure the legend is true.
When we see Oliver, the gentleman from the zoo, again, he’s at work, and he’s got a kitten with him. And apparently dating was reeeeeeally different in the 1940s, because it’s supposed to be just a present for Irena, and it seems like this is just the next day. Anyway Irena and the cat don’t get along well together—cats just don’t like her. Apparently, neither do any of the animals in the pet-store: she has to stay outside while Oliver goes in and picks out a canary.That same canary, poor thing, is fated later to die as we watch Irena unable to resist the temptation to open the cage and try to catch the little bird, killing it as she does so.
And then there’s a very fast courtship, and Oliver and Irena are married. At dinner with friends on their wedding night, Irena is called “sister” by a cat-like woman who speaks Serbian and speaks in a voice like Simon’s. Irena is clearly unsettled, and she and Oliver leave shortly after to go home. But we haven’t even seen them kiss yet. And even after they get married, it doesn’t seem that they’ve kissed. The marriage is certainly unconsummated, Oliver kept to a different bedroom than his wife. Irena becomes more and more convinced that she’s one of the Cat People.
He discusses all of these things with his friend Alice, who suggests . . . a psychiatrist. But that doesn’t really work, because Irena isn’t crazy. She’s jealous of Alice (and, well, let’s face it, she’s right to be), and she’s confused. But she isn’t wrong.
Eventually, Oliver leaves Irena for Alice, and the two decide that what Irena needs is help. But they discover that she isn’t crazy when they find a large, angry cat at home and are only able to make it go away by invoking the name of god. Irena later kills her psychiatrist after he confesses his love for her and tries to kiss her—she shifts to the shape of a cat and kills him.
Unlike the 1982 remake, the original version manages its horror through careful pacing and subtlety. When Alice (Jane Randolph) hears growling and snarling and jumps into the water and is treading water in a mostly empty natatorium, we’re almost as anxious as she is to see the unknown horror. But the horror is in the light flickering on and Irena leaning against the wall looking perfectly coiffed and in order. The horror lies in not knowing what’s going on when the lights are off.
Irena is made monstrous by what is inside of her. But she is also made monstrous by those around her who would rather believe that she’s crazy than believe in what she says. There’s so much to say about this one—repression and sexuality, desire and femininity, lust and religion and and and.
Irena is an interesting monster, indeed.