While we sometimes mistakenly think of old Hollywood as being a relatively chaste place (compared to the modern film industry), where the Hays Code forced studios to self-censor sexuality and anything that bucked American social norms, that’s not at all the case.
Though the Hays Code was a powerful force from the mid-30s’ to the late 60s’, there was a brief period before it really started being enforced when films and the women starring in them were more free to be dynamic, multidimensional reflections of reality. Though director Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 film Cat People debuted in the thick of the Hays Code era, its focus on a young fashion illustrator navigating life as a single woman in New York City features many of the same narrative elements as pre-Code classics like Baby Face starring Barbara Stanwyck, and Thirteen Women starring Peg Entwistle. Cat People’s heroine, Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), enters the film as a mysterious loner who breezes through the world without a care for the many men who can’t resist throwing themselves at her, even though she radiates an unsettling aura.
Easy as it is for Irena to keep to herself and ignore her suitors, her chance encounter with engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) while she’s at the zoo sketching large cats leaves them both flustered and feeling the tinglings of romance. Irena’s hypnotic gaze is unnerving, but Oliver can’t help but be drawn to her in his free time, and talk about her obsessively to his good friend and colleague Alice (Jane Randolph).
What little Irena tells Oliver about her dark past in Serbia before she immigrated to the US is enough to explain some of the more peculiar details of her life, like why she doesn’t seem to have any other friends and family living in the city. When Irena describes to Oliver how, in her village, it is believed that King John of Serbia drove Satan-worshipping were-cats from the land, he interprets her story as an ugly bit of folklore reflecting whatever unrest or conflict in her homeland that she fled. But to Irena, the stories of women cursed to transform into murderous animals should they fall in love is all too real, and the main reason she can’t immediately admit her feelings to Oliver.
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As Cat People begins to maneuver its two leads into a relationship, the film briefly feels like it’s going to play its story straight down the middle and depict the everyday rhythms of an idealized, but prototypical couple locked in a normal drama. But the way Cat People glosses over certain moments, like Irena and Oliver’s marriage, is one of the first ways the movie lets you know that its story is, in part, a kind of commentary about our culture’s obsession with nuclear families and traditional gender roles. Cat People’s concept of people who can magically turn into panthers is introduced somewhat haphazardly, but explored from an interesting angle that underlines some of the movie’s larger themes.
Before Cat People properly becomes a supernatural thriller, it spends ample time depicting how Oliver takes to heart Irena’s earnest expressions of fear about an evil presence living within her. Oliver hears all of the reasons Irena gives him for why they can’t consummate their marriage, but rather than truly listening to her seriously, he takes her stories as a sign that she may need psychiatric intervention from Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway). The way that Cat People builds out Oliver’s social life at first makes it seem like the movie’s about him getting closer to discovering the secret Irena’s hiding. But the spareness of Irena’s characterization is gradually revealed to be more a statement about how, obsessed as men often are with women, they’re just as often uninterested in getting to know women as people.
Watching Cat People in 2021, the movie plays like a devastatingly stylish depiction of multiple women whose trajectories in life are being meddled with simply by the mere presences of emotionally immature men, who are simultaneously aroused and repulsed by women’s independence. Throughout Cat People, Irena isn’t wholly resistant to Oliver’s advances, but instead she repeatedly tells him that she needs time to figure things out, and it seems as if she’s telling the truth. Strange as Irena is, her genuine affection for Oliver is why she accepts his hand in marriage and makes a go at being a typical wife to him. Whether their relationship could have worked if Irena had more time is a question Cat People leaves unanswered, because it’s not something Oliver, Dr. Judd, and Alice consider as the three of them begin speaking about the transplant behind her back about her supposed mental illness.
Even by modern standards, the way Cat People goes about showing you its otherworldly elements is superbly stylish and clever. There are multiple shots of actual panthers in different scenes, of course, but the movie very carefully uses shadow, intensely dramatic lighting, and precise editing to both fudge around outright transformation sequences, and create a wonderfully foreboding atmosphere. In each of the handful of scenes in which a transformed Irena (it seems) attacks an innocent human, you’re not really meant to be focusing on the large cat, but rather the acute panic and fear the animal’s presence elicits in its prey.
The helplessness that Irena’s victims feel as she tears into them in her panther form is the feeling that nearly all of the movie’s characters presume she herself is defined by. Irena is anything but helpless against the real and imagined dangers the men in her life take it upon themselves to protect her from, but that same paternalistic concern for Irena’s well being ends up being the most significant and dangerous obstacle that Cat People throws her way.
Cat People is available to download now in most digital stores.
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