Director: Jacques Tourneur
Production: RKO Radio Pictures Inc.; black and white, 35mm; running time: 73 minutes. Released December 1942. Filmed 1942 in RKO/Radio studio in Hollywood; RKO-Pathe studio in Culver City; swimming pool scene shot at a hotel in the Alvarado district of Los Angeles; and zoo scenes shot at Central Park Zoo; cost: $134,000.
Producer: Val Lewton; screenplay: DeWitt Bodeen; photography: Nicholas Musuraca; editor: Mark Robson; music: Roy Webb.
Cast: Simone Simon ( Irena Dubrovna ); Kent Smith ( Oliver Reed ); Tom Conway ( Dr. Louis Judd ); Jane Randolph ( Alice Moore ); Jack Holt ( Commodore ); Elizabeth Russell ( Cat Woman ); Alan Napier; Elizabeth Dunne.
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While analysts of horror have long examined its psychological roots in a displacement of sexual drives and desires, few films made the link between horror and sexuality as explicit as Cat People (at least until the 1970s where the link becomes a central theme, as in Carrie , for example). The film's central conceit—that the arousal of emotion could turn a woman into a panther—is a dramatic literalization of a metaphor of sexual energy as a living force.
Yet Cat People represents no simple endorsement of a sexist stereotype in which feminine sexuality is connected to a notion of unbridled devouring animality (as is the case in film noir's figuration of the independent woman as a kind of spider). Quite the contrary, through a reversal of horror's usual convention where an ostensibly normal world is threatened by a monstrosity, Cat People puts the cat woman, Irena, in the position of a victim whose "monstrous" reaction to the encroachments of the world upon her is viewed by the film with a degree of pathos-filled empathy and even perhaps a positive envy.
Irena becomes a mark of difference, an exotic other, that bourgeois society cannot understand and so ignores, represses, or controls through a force of domination. As in Hitchcock's films where the villain is often more attractive than the boring good guys, so too in Cat People the middle-class world appears as a dull, dulling banality whose own self-confidence only partially masks an inability to recognize either its own problems or those of outsiders to its circumscribed value system. This process is most explicit in a painful scene where Oliver Reed and Alice Moore literally exile Irena from their company during a supposedly pleasant visit to a museum.
Moreover, the very force that promotes itself as a cure in such a world—that is, the force of medicine (here the psychiatrist, Dr. Judd)—reveals itself to be more of a danger than the supposed illness that it sets out to cure. Not only does Judd fail to recognize Irena's problem, but he provokes its continuation, betraying his ostensibly professional objectivity by an aggressive sexual desire. If we traditionally associate the monster with the freak, it is significant that it is Judd, not Irena, who comes off as the monstrous figure, his crippled gait a mark of deformity, an abnormality within the field of an imputed normality. Indeed, one can even suggest that the film portrays male sexuality as more dangerous than female sexuality, Irena at least tries to control rationally her own condition while the men around her advance heedlessly (for example, Oliver refuses her arguments against marriage; Judd refuses her protestations against a kiss). Thus, while Cat People has many of the conventional trappings of the horror film such as shadowy photography, a subtle creation of suspense (the panther's presence is often more felt than seen), and a concatenation of mysterious events, the film is finally most significant less as an efficient source of scary jolts than as a meditation on the very forces that menace us, that call into question the limits of the lives we construct for ourselves. It is also a dissection of the ways a supposedly normal world sustains itself by defining some other world as abnormal. Cat People is a tragedy about a world's inability to accept, or even to attempt to understand, whatever falls outside its defining frames.
—Dana B. Polan