“Cat People” & The Fear of Sexuality

This movie is nearly 80 years old so if you haven’t seen it yet you’re extremely late to the party. Either way, you should know by now that spoiler warnings are in order. This film will certainly provide viewers with an excellent viewing experience. It is a fantastic departure from the gothic horror stylings of the 1930’s and creates a whole new horror landscape of its own. This film is aesthetically significate to the horror thriller genre. The stylistic influence of Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People can be seen in movies such as Jaws, The Blair Witch Project, and many of  M. Night Shyamalan’s early films such as Signs. Opposed to the lavish sets design and intricate costumes used in Universal Studio films at the time this movie used mood, tone, and atmosphere to create suspense.

The production studio for this film was RKO Radio Pictures the same studio that produced King Kong and during this time the studio was experiencing a financial crisis after the commercial failure that was Citizens Kane. Due to these financial pressures, RKO began producing a string of low budget horror films and hired Russian-American novelist, film producer, and screenwriter Val Lewton to do the job. The studio gave Lewton the creative freedom to create whatever he wanted and the only catches where that it would be created on an extremely tight budget and the studio would pick the name. The first of Lewton’s productions would be 1941’s Cat People!

Nice To Meet You

The film begins at the Central Park Zoo where Siberian born fashion sketch artist Irena portrayed by Simone Simon is struggling to find inspiration. Irena carefully observes the black panther exhibit creating sketch after sketch, discarding one and then another and another and another. During this she catches the attention of one handsome plain ol’ Americano Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) and the two strike up a conversation. The two walk back to Irena’s apartment for tea, but as they walk away from the panther exhibit the camera pans down to reveal Irena’s sketch of a panther being impaled by a sword foreshadowing events to come.


The Legend

While at Irena’s apartment Oliver becomes fixated on a statue of a man riding on horseback, impaling a cat with a sword. Irena explains that the statue is a depiction of King John of Serbia and that the cat is meant to symbolize the evil ways her people had once fallen into. When the Mamluks came to Serbia they made the people slaves and although they were once true Christians little by little the people turned to Satan and had become witches. When King John freed the people of Serbia and drove out the Marmluks he came to her village and saw awful things. He killed many of the witches but some escaped into the mountains. Those descended from those wicked witches are told to be Cat People – women who turn into great cats when aroused to great passion or jealousy.

The movie jumps through time unexpectedly at the beginning of the film. It is only through conversational context that the audience realizes that we have moved through time. During this time jump, we see Irena and Oliver’s friendship turn into a romance. We quickly learn that Irena believes she is descended from her villages mythical Cat Women.  


Sexual Frustration & Adultery

The events that follow will only infuriate you. She is clearly terrified that if she even kisses the man she is now engaged to that awful things will happen. Oliver is extremely dismissive of these odd beliefs of Irena’s yet still chooses to marry her. Once married things do not get better for the young couple. Oliver begins to grow increasingly frustrated within his marriage seeing as though she can be all the things a wife should be because of her “illness”. Irena and Oliver never even sleep together in the same bed yet despite his frustrations Oliver is very patient with her. Oliver attempts to remedy the situation by having Irena see a psychologist by the name of Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway).

Dr. Judd constantly makes sexual advances toward Irena and while there is some subtlety to his advances it even makes contemporary audiences feel uncomfortable. After her first session, Irena comes home and learns that her husband has been telling his co-worker Alice Moore(Jane Randolph) that she has been seeing a Dr. Judd. What’s worse is that it was Ms. Moore who referred the Doctor to the young couple. Irena is understandably upset by this after all private matters such as these shouldn’t be discussed with another woman. It’s not as if she is simply seeing a shrink but she is seeing this doctor because her superstitious beliefs are preventing the couple from having a physical relationship, and this is now common knowledge to another woman now! Irena had every right to be upset by this after all a few scenes later we hear Alice confesses her love to Oliver. Again this is a woman coming on to a married man!


The Cat Scare

One of the films most iconic scenes is when Irena is stalking Alice. After an intense argument between the couple, Oliver says that he is running back to the office late at night. Irena calls his place of work and hears Alice’s voice. Irena says nothing as Alice’s voice continues to fill her with rage. She leaves the apartment and chances upon Alice and Oliver in sitting in a restaurant together and follows the pair as they leave. Once they part ways she continues to follow Alice.

Alice and Irena are periodically obscured by darkness as they walk from street lamp to street lamp. The clacking of their heels on the concrete sidewalk gives the scene an added rhythm. The click clack click clack of their heels increases the tension, and we have no idea what to expect. Suddenly the sound of Irena’s footsteps behind Alice disappears. Something off camera is following Alice from the shadows. We as the audience can’t see it and Alice can’t see it quite clearly either, but what she can see frightens her enough to cause her begin running to her bus stop. For a split second, you can hear the deep low growl of a panther and suddenly the sound is interrupted by the screeching of the bus. The sound design and low key scene lighting effectively creates a dark eerie atmosphere and adds suspense as you wonder what is lurking in the dark.


The Gut Punch

Later in the film, Irena decides to not let her fears dominate her in favor of being the kind of wife that can satisfy her husband. Unfortunately, Oliver tells her that it is too late and reveals that he has fallen for Alice! Oliver intends to divorce Irena and be with Alice, and while Oliver’s frustrations are understandable it’s infuriating because he should’ve known what he was getting into when he married her. Watching Irena find out that her marriage is over creates a heartbreaking dizziness as you watch her world fall apart.

At the core of the film, it is a story about a girl who is scared of her own sexual desires. She constantly questions what will happen if she loses control in the throws of passion. While her husband was patient with her he never truly provides Irena with any form of comfort. Oliver dismisses her feelings and comes just short of ridiculing her beliefs. While believing that she transforms into a cat may be an outlandish claim, he still never makes an attempt to address what truly frightens her.

Final Thoughts

Sexual desire. It is a powerful force of its own. It is intoxicating, irrational and overwhelming. Everyone remembers the anxiety felt just before their first time and how those feelings of fear quickly turned to excitement and passion. While Irena may have been superstitious, her fears and beliefs surrounding her sexuality are no more ridiculous than the conservative views of many religious groups. Many religions teach young people that sex is something dirty and evil so it’s not that hard to believe that those beliefs would be carried into adulthood. Irena’s sexual repression is due to her upbringing. The fact that she grew up in a place where she was taught that her sexual desires made her unclean, and evil adversary effects her. Oliver fails to understand that working through that kind of trauma takes a lot more patients and understanding than what he was prepared to give. This film is a must see and I know that you’d all agree that Irena deserved much better.



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