The sad reality of Cat People (1942)


Last year’s Horror Month DOUBLE BILL focused on the similarities between The Invisible Man (1933, dir. James Whale) and The Wolfman (1941, dir. George Waggner). If one wanted to stretch that, Cat People (1942, dir. Jacques Tourneur) could have also been included. Larry Talbot, in particular, shares common traits with Irena Dubrovna that go beyond the obvious animal motifs and, in my opinion, there is no reason why Cat People shouldn’t stand proudly alongside The Wolfman as one of horror’s most interesting psychological pieces.

In Cat People, Serbian sketch artist Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) believes she is a ‘cat person’, who will turn into a black panther if she gives into her sexual desires. When she meets American engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), the two quickly develop feelings for each other and, after the initial courtship, she tells him about ‘the curse’. Despite this, the two of them decide to get married, and, sure enough, her biggest fears come back to haunt her…

A psychological thriller that makes the most of its stunning cinematography (Nicholas Musuraca, who else?) and trick visuals, Cat People is, above all, a tale of alienation, sexual repression, frustration and loneliness. Irena Dubrovna is surely one of horror’s best realized heroines, not least because she represents everything human beings fear. Her tortured, terrified nature, ‘foreignness’ and immense sexual desire for her husband, which she knows can never come to fruition, all conspire to make her the misunderstood oddity that she is; she harbours so many repressed emotions at once, it’s easy to see why this is such a poignant psychological thriller. When one considers, in particular, that the horror aspect of it comes from the fact that we don’t actually see anything at all, and that all of it is achieved through an impeccable use of lighting and powerful suggestion, this seems to fit into the whole ‘it’s all in your head’ motif. Irena seems to be in a constant struggle to overcome her own thoughts, to let go of her perceived notions about herself, and to be understood. She consults with Dr Louis Judd (Tom Conway), but sadly, nothing works. Her husband can’t seem to be able to figure her out and ends up giving up on her and going back to the ‘safe option’ that is Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), his co-worker. It is, of course, logical that the film’s two most iconic moments feature Irena stalking and mentally torturing Alice. The first one sees Irena following her rival through a park, in a chilling, prolonged moment, beautifully framed by Musuraca’s visuals, after which Irena wipes her mouth with a handkerchief, only to succumb to her guilt later. The second one takes place in a swimming pool. A cat eerily follows Alice through the dimly-lit pool area and, when she jumps in, she starts hearing growling noises. Shadows start to take form and Alice screams, horrified. Suddenly, the lights come back on and we see Irena standing over Alice on the edge of the pool, menacingly, almost threateningly. These two moments signify the shift, the thing Irena is afraid of, but can no longer fight. After this, Irena finally falls victim to herself…

Could all of this be but a strong finger-wagging at society and its rules? Most definitely. A nod at the consequences of isolation, repression and self-loathing through a surprisingly sympathetic main character? Certainly. Irena Dubrovna’s victimhood is a testament to horror’s brilliant takes on society, people and their shortcomings, and Cat People is undoubtedly among the very best of the bunch.

8 thoughts on “The sad reality of Cat People (1942)

  1. An excellent and very thoughtful article on this film Carol! As a matter of fact, I just watched if for the first time today! And I loved it! And I watched The Wolf Man yesterday because you had convinced me to see it with that blog article. I loved both films and agree with you that there are a lot of similarities between the two main characters. I thought The Wolf Man was very sad, but Cat People is obviously tragic as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mike Noonan

    Wonderful analysis Carol. Got to see it last week. Enjoyed it very much. So atmospheric. You’re right. So suspenseful but done with subtlety. Cinematography was excellent! Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

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