Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Litter Pan: "Cat People" (1942)

A cult classic deserves it's reputation...and doesn't.

Fashion sketch artist Irena (Simone Simon) is a Serbian fresh off the ship in America. She meets ship builder Oliver Reed (!) (Kent Smith) cute-like and the two quickly fall in love and decide to marry. Everyone is happy for the couple, including Oliver's lovelorn coworker Alice (Jane Randolph).

All is not blissful in the Reed home. Irena refuses to even kiss Oliver. Her reason? Due to some ancient Satanic practices by her village back in the homeland, if she submits to physical love, she will turn into a panther and devour her mate. Oliver thinks she is eccentric, and Alice recommends Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), a psychiatrist.

If anything, Irena believes her own story. Animals hate her, and she spends a whole lot of time down at the zoo, sketching the big cats. Soon, Oliver tires of his platonic marriage, Alice professes her love for him, and Irena gets more than a little upset.

For years, I have heard about this film second hand. The remake came out almost twenty years ago now, and was a failure compared to the original. I liked how this film looked, but didn't like what I heard. Everything you may have heard about the cinematography is true. It is gorgeous. For such a small film, atmosphere must be created using such everyday items as table lamps and cigarette smoke. The dark is both repellent and inviting (according to Irena), and the audience sees this. The scene where something in a darkened indoor swimming pool stalks Alice is so effective, it was copied for the remake.

While a beautiful film to look at, it is almost too bad it has sound. This is certainly one of the talkiest seventy-two minute films I have ever seen. The premise is set early, then expounded upon until you do wish Irena would either kill someone or put herself outside for the night. Oliver is too aw-shucks naive to be very believable. Alice seems the stronger of the two. Irena also does not convince, a beautiful woman like this has never had a suitor before? Oliver and Irena marry so quickly, does she simply hope her problem will go away? The two lead actors do not have enough chemistry to make us believe this is a relationship that can be risked, cat transformations be damned.

"Cat People" is a disappointment, script and acting wise. However, the mood is so striking, and the sheer framing of the film is so wonderful, I find myself slightly recommending it on those pluses alone. There was an in name only sequel that is supposed to be better than this, which is not too difficult to believe. (* * *) out of five stars.