Written by: Nathan Bartlebaugh
The Cat People is easily one of my top five favorite horror films. It doesn’t really feature much in the way of the supernatural and it’s amazingly short– it clocks in at just 73 minutes– but during that time it creates a spellbinding atmosphere of psychological fear and mounting dread. Really? Fear? In a black and white film over 65 years old? Absolutely. Most odd is that the potential victim in all of the film’s chase sequences, Jane Randolph’s Ann, isn’t the character we have sympathy for. That would be Simone Simon’s Irena Dubrova, a young, Serbian-born artist who meets the handsome Walter Reed and falls in love.
Irena and Walter marry but she can never bring herself to consumate the marriage because of an ancient curse tied to her familial bloodline; a curse that might cause her to transform from a human woman to a panther during sexual intercourse. Svelte and sexy, with a smoldering voice and big doe eyes, Irena seems every bit the femme fatale but instead she’s the film’s tragic heroine, slowly losing the man she loves to Randolph because of her paralyzing fear of what might happen after sex. Randolph plays Alice Moore as a 40′s working gal, reasonably independent and self-posessed and although she isn’t completely a wolf, when the cracks start showing in co-worker Oliver’s marriage, she insinuates herself between he and his repressed bride. The script downplays the two male roles, Oliver Reed and sinister Dr. Judd, and pits Irena and Alice against one another. Alice worries about Irena’s mental state but ultimately wants her out of the picture and Irena, hurt, angry and possibly psychotic finds herself following Alice and experiencing haunting dreams connected to her shape-shifting fears.
All of this leads to the film’s two central fright sequences, one on a darkened, lonely street and the other in an empty indoor pool, both connected to one another. At their center is Jane Randolph and one of the very clever things Lewton, Tourner and screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen do here is to melt Alice’s fiery independence down into a paranoid, all-consuming fear. They build the tension step by step and Randolph conveys Alice’s slow but sure unraveling as an unseen intruder invisibly stalks her.
The pool scene is a masterpiece of editing and sound design. It is really just a series of reactionary shots of Jane in the water intercut with the murky shadows of the pool house’s back wall and on the soundtrack we hear the stealthy breathing and low growls of a big cat. The cinematography never allows the viewer to see anything more than just Alice’s head bobbing above the water, and Randolph has to convey her fear via only facial expressions and gesturing movements. What she manages to deliver is a scene-specific performance that outdoes Janet Leigh and her infamous shower scene in Psycho.
The Cat People sets the template for every horror film to follow after that focuses on a young woman bathing alone but it handles the sequence with far more class and creepiness than any of its imitators. Still, its nothing compared to a the infamous chase sequence that finds Alice headed home on an empty street as an unseen pursuer follows her.
Lets take a closer look at it:
The scene begins with Irena watching Oliver and Alice leave work late at night. Oliver heads home and Alice sets off on her own. Irena waits until Oliver is gone and begins to follow Alice. The way moonlight is used in this sequence is quite stunning; the juxtaposition of light and shadow on Irena’s figure manage to create a feline illusion that is enhanced by her long furry coat and coiffed hair. There is no music on the soundtrack to let us know whether Irena is vengeful, feeling betrayed, or just curious. When she starts to walk behind Alice there is absolutely no sound at all and she seemingly floats off screen.
Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca treats each image of this scene as if it were an Edward Hopper still life. The winding sidewalk curving off to the right of the screen and the encroaching darkness drifting down from the upper right help create that Hopper-esque feel of loneliness, isolation and solitude. The lamp post divides the frame into two pieces and now there are two seperate worlds; the one with Alice in it alone, and one that harbors danger. Alice’s back is turned and so she is vulnerable. Still no sound. We wait for Irena to cross the barrier.
Its interesting to note that despite the deeper shadows in Irena’s scenes, she isn’t necessarily presented as menacing. She doesn’t look or behave as if she plans to harm Alice but for the first time since the pursuit began sound intrudes into the sequence in the form of Irena’s high-heeled footfalls.
Another lamp post and another barrier. First Alice walks by silently.
Then Irena, looking obscured and insubstantial like a shadow herself.
The footfalls have grown louder and on the soundtrack something funny is happening. The echoing of high heels is slowly giving way to something else. Alice is in the very forefront of the scene and her facial expressions suggest she wants to face her pursuer but might be too afraid. The form of the image has been laid out so we can see everything behind Alice and we know there is nothing there.
Just a long shot of the tunnel. We keep waiting for someone or something to emerge from it. They don’t. There is no one here at all. Then the footsteps pick back up.
Alice walks, glancing back behind her. On the soundtrack, the sound of high-heel shoes has changed and grown; it now sounds distinctly like the padding of a big cat, with low ominous growls coming from behind Alice. We don’t see Irena anymore this scene. The sequence makes it appear as if Irena has been absorbed completely by the cat persona. Alice runs and something pursues.
Suddenly, coinciding with a decidedly cat-like growl, a train rustles up and saves Alice from her nightmare walk. The scene holds on Alice getting on the bus confused before it returns to the sidewalk and shows a copse of trees blowing in the wind while animal growling can be picked up on the soundtrack.
And thats it. The anatomy of a truly creepy scene. It’s worth observing and studying and if you have never seen The Cat People it’s definitely worth seeing and enjoying.