Thursday, July 19, 2007

Cat People (1942)

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Take a wildly silly premise, add a melodramatic love story, mix it together with a talented director, and you’ll get Cat People. Director Jacques Tourneur always impresses me, even when the material he’s dabbling in seems less than interesting. He still manages to come up with original and genuinely haunting visuals amidst a muddled script. That’s really a testament to the directing style. It’s like if Picasso was handed some cheap-ass, broken paintbrush and instructed to make a work of art with only what he was given. A lesser artist would blame the tool or not fully put their heart into it, seeing that the project wasn’t worth their time. Tourneur looks at these stories and says, “I can work with this.”

Cat People revolves around a young immigrant named Irena (Simone Simon).While at the zoo, Irena encounters a man who she will later marry. Kent Smith plays her husband, Oliver. Irena is deeply disturbed by the ancient legend of the people she believes she’s descended from. The Cat People are a group of witches who can transform into deadly felines whenever their passions are aroused. Irena fears this, and keeps her distance from her husband, leading him to console in his co-worker, Alice (Jane Randolph). Obviously this leads to a love triangle, which isn’t probably isn’t the ideal situation for someone who’s emotions can lead them to turn into a large panther that lashes out at the people in its immediate vicinity. Irena attempts to solve her seemingly mental problem by consulting with a therapist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), to little effect. Dr. Judd also has some ulterior motives and turns the situation into a sort of love quadrangle. The whole melodrama weighs the movie down, and makes it fairly uninteresting. When Oliver explains to Alice that he’s not sure why he fell so madly in love with Irena, it offers an interesting but unexplored explanation for those “love at first sight”, instant movie romances. Something more was drawing him to her. The main reason for this movie’s significance is its style. Tourneur shines when he takes a standard romantic atmosphere and drains nearly all the light and sound from select scenes. There’s a scene where Alice goes swimming in an indoor pool late at night. The lights go out, and a panther’s growl is heard reverberating throughout the darkened room, although we never see the animal in question. Shadows are seen on the wall, but they're never distinct enough to see what’s actually threatening her. There's a chilling moment when Alice stares at the empty, shadowy staircase and hears a faint growl ominously approaching. It turns out that it was Irena, who wanted to confront Alice about her interest in her husband. In Tourneur’s films, there is always at least one scene that stands head and shoulders above the rest.
It’s quite silly to think that a woman who turns into a panther is terrorizing a girl in a pool, but if you put yourself in the moment without analyzing it, the scene works wonderfully on its own, as does the scene where Irena pursues Alice down a desolate sidewalk, ending with a great shock effect. Once again, these scenes are figuratively cut off from the rest of the feature by having their lighting and soundtrack nearly completely ripped away. I liked Simone Simon in her repressed sex-pot role, and I liked the suspense scenes in contrast with the other scenes. The problem is the story, which seems like it would be better suited for a daytime soap opera. The twists and turns, if there are any, seem uninspired and seem to come from nowhere. The characters' actions and emotions seem unmotivated and are only there to help the story chug along, as opposed to letting the characters affect the story in their own individual ways. I was actually kind of impressed with the amount of interesting material they were able to salvage from an ostensibly goofy and uninteresting premise, though. This was producer Val Lewton's and director Jacques Tourneur’s first in their series of suggestive horror films, and it pretty much seems like that. I Walked with a Zombie is probably a better vehicle for Tourneur's talents, but a definite style can be seen on display here.

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