Today, Cody loves the visuals and hates the characters of Cat People (1942).
Hurting financially from the box office failure of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and with Welles' second film The Magnificent Ambersons looking like another disaster, RKO Radio Pictures figured the best way to recoup their losses was to make some horror movies. To head up the horror unit, RKO chose a man named Val Lewton and gave him three conditions for the movies he was to produce: they would provide the titles for him to make a story out of, the movies couldn't run over 75 minutes, and the budgets had to be under $150,000.
Provided with the title Cat People, Lewton is said to have based the story that was written into a screenplay by DeWitt Bodeen on his own phobias of cats and of being touched. Jacques Tourneur was hired to direct and the film went into production, making use of some Magnificent Ambersons sets that were still on the RKO lot. Faced with a large Ambersons staircase after entering an apartment building, a character notes, "I never cease to marvel at what lies behind a brownstone front."
With a running time just under 73 minutes and an estimated budget of $134,000, Cat People ended up meeting all three of RKO's requirements. But while what Lewton, Tourneur, and Bodeen were doing was perceived as just knocking out a cheap horror flick to make some quick cash, the resulting film is a masterfully crafted work of art, featuring a superb use of light and shadow that makes it wonderful to look at while it also delivers in the horror department, having some great suspense and stalking sequences.
On the downside, I cannot stand most of the film's characters.
The one character I do like is Irena Dubrovna, a nice young woman who has immigrated to New York City from a small village in Serbia, a village haunted by tales of its dark history. The people in the village are said to have once turned to evil, dark magic and Satanic practices, some of the women gaining the ability to, "in jealousy or anger or out of their own corrupt passions", turn into panthers. That's why where she comes from, cats represent evil. King John eventually rode in and cleaned up the village, putting many of the evil people to the sword, but some of the wisest and most wicked of them escaped into the mountains. The stories of the village's past weigh heavily on Irena, she was indoctrinated throughout her child to believe she is a descendant of the wicked ones, and it has severely affected her life. She alienates herself from society, doesn't allow herself to get close to people.
But then, while at the zoo one day, drawing a sketch of the zoo's panther - the panther that she is disturbed to hear from her apartment at night, making sounds like a screaming woman, the panther that even the zoo custodian claims is evil, citing a Bible passage as explanation for why panthers are the worst beast of all - she meets a man named Oliver. Oliver walks her back to her apartment, and by the time they reach her door, Irena is feeling that she might have just made her "first real friend".
Friendship quickly turns to love, and Irena and Oliver get married. That's when she really starts to worry. The legends say that if a cat woman falls in love and her lover kisses her, takes her into his embrace, she will be uncontrollably driven by her own evil to kill him. Irena can't bring herself to consummate her marriage to Oliver, she can't risk it. She asks him to be patient with her while she works through her issues, he promises her patience and kindness, says she can have all the time in the world if she needs it.
Irena tries to work things out so she can be happy and normal, and Oliver supports her. For a little while. If you've read my Let the Right One In write-up, you've seen me go on about a person with issues hoping for a relationship with someone who finds them feeling alone and messed up but still wants to be around them while they work things out, who'll be at their side rooting for them to stand up to their problems, and if their problems prove too great for them to handle on their own, "Then I'll help you. I can do that." At a point, Cat People becomes the antithesis of everything I love about the relationship in LTROI, turning into the example of the way a person with issues dreads things will go.
Oliver has never been unhappy in his life, things have always gone swell for him, so he has no concept of what Irena is going through and his patience with her emotional complexity soon runs out. He just wants to have fun. All this trouble has made him re-think his love for Irena, maybe he doesn't even know what love is. Seeing that Oliver is uncertain about his marriage, his co-worker Alice immediately professes her love for him and begins pursuing him, offering up the idea that they could live their lives together, happy and proud. "No self-torture and no doubt."
So while Irena continues to struggle, Oliver falls for the trouble-free Alice, who openly refers to herself as the "other woman". They spend more and more time with each other and the emotional affair is obvious to Irena, especially when the three go to an exhibit and Oliver and Alice send her away so they can continue to enjoy it together, just the two of them. By the time Irena feels she's had a breakthrough, Oliver tells her it's too late. So much for all the time in the world.
The cat women of legend transformed through jealousy and anger, and the people around her have now given Irena reason to be jealous and angry. Driven by misunderstanding, infidelity, and the antics of a sleazy psychiatrist (whose strongest suggestion is that she be committed to an asylum and her marriage to Oliver annulled), she's pushed to become the monster she feared she would. She needs someone to tell her, "Don't panther out, they're not worth it!" The final tragedy of Irena's life is that she's surrounded by despicable people.