Cat People (1942)

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Much as horror put Universal on the map in the previous decade, so it saved RKO in the early 1940s after the latter studio was left in dire straits by a variety of underperforming films, not least of which was Citizen Kane (and young Orson’s other early works, of course). Consequently, RKO turned its focus towards B films, more than any of the other “big five” studios of the period, and upcoming behind-the-scenes star Val Lewton was assigned to run the horror department, with three stipulations: make them for less than $150,000, make them run less than 75 minutes, and he’d have to make them according to the titles picked by the studio. Lewton’s first production returned $4m (or $8m, the film’s Wiki entry gives both figures) at the box office, overcoming the studio’s unhappiness with it and comfortably making up for the Orson Welles debacles (and reusing some of his sets in the process). Interesting to see Cat People again, I’d forgotten just how long it actually takes to start doing the “horror” business; most of the first half of the film really constitutes a rather uneasy love story between nice all-American boy Oliver Reed (no, that’s the character’s name) and nice Serbian immigrant girl Irena, who hails from a village where the women are said to transform into big cats when stirred by passion, and who’s oddly afraid of loving Oliver. We’re about 43 minutes into a film that runs just over 72 before the first suspense scene (where Irena stalks Oliver’s co-worker and other love interest Alice down the darkened street). It’s good but I found myself not loving it for some reason; I admire the technique involved (Greg Mank’s DVD commentary was exceptionally useful in highlighting a bunch of small cat-themed details I didn’t otherwise pick up on), the photography is excellent (by Nicholas Musuraca, who was one of the pioneers of film noir’s visual style), the acting is perfectly good, all of that… but I don’t know, just something about it didn’t click with me, I don’t know what. Incidentally, one thing in Mank’s commentary that amused me was the lesbian angle quietly introduced by writer DeWitt Bodeen, in the restaurant scene with the other Serbian woman and supposedly underlying Irena’s relationship with Oliver, her fear of falling in love with him really being a fear of men generally… it was amusing cos I’d completely missed this supposed subtext, which probably doesn’t say much for my gaydar, but I’ll take comfort from the fact that Lewton apparently never realised it was there either until he got letters applauding him for sneaking it in…

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