November 3, 2013
Cat People (1942)
Grade: 74/100

Director: Jacques Tourneur
Stars: Simone Simon, Tom Conway, Kent Smith

What it's about. Hottie Serbian immigrant Simone Simon is a fashion designer who lives alone in the New York City. She is fascinated by black panthers, presumably why her apartment is adjacent to the big cat cages of the city zoo. Her winsome figure is noticed by Kent Smith, a dull but handsome nice guy.

Soon, they are married, even though she won't let him kiss her, much less sleep in the same bed. Fortunately for Smith, he has the shoulder of beautiful coworker Jane Randolph to cry on. Randolph suggests that Simon see a psychiatrist, namely, smug womanizer Tom Conway.

Conway doesn't buy Simon's notion that she is black panther in human form, and will turn into a panther when she becomes agitated. This proves his (and her) undoing when he makes a pass at her.

Conway was the brother of George Sanders, which explains the physical and vocal resemblance.

Followed by a sequel, The Curse of the Cat People (1944), which also featured Simon, Smith, and Randolph; and a big budget 1982 remake starring exotic young Nastassja Kinski.

How others will see it. One of Val Lewton's low budget productions for RKO, Cat People opened poorly but had a long theatrical run. It was ignored by the Oscars, but developed a cult following, helped by the quality of subsequent Lewton films, such as I Walked With a Zombie. In 1993, it was added to the National Film Registry, an indication of its lasting influence.

Today, the film has 10K user votes at, impressive given its seven-decade age, and has very consistent user ratings of 7.4 to 7.5 regardless of viewer age or gender. Message board chatter either marvels at Smith's patience with the sexless Simon, or blames him for having the affair with Randolph that undermines their marriage. Audiences view Randolph unfavorably even though she is far more open and even-tempered than the smoldering but mysterious Simon. Simon may never lie, but she withholds the truth, that she will become a serial killer unless she leads the life of a nun.

How I felt about it. Nearly all movies have been made in color since 1967. This is a shame, since black and white films are often more beautiful to look at. This is clearly the case with Cat People, which due to budget restraints relies upon shadows and sound effects to create the illusion of a black panther menacing our clueless leads.

Lewton films epitomized the non-horror horror genre. Nothing happens, really, except that a marriage fails, until the climax when two of the four leads die. This provides closure, as well as a happy ending for Smith and Randolph, who would be married in the sequel.

The Hollywood Production Code has its effect on the movie, but since it is much better than the 1982 remake, the effect is surprisingly positive. The panther emerges when Simon seeks revenge, foreshadowing the Hulk by several decades. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Kinsky had to get laid to transform, making the transition physical instead of psychological.

One wonders why Smith marries Simon in the first place, when he is working side by side with Randolph, who is willing, available, and compatible. It's as if he doesn't notice how hot she is until Simon shuts her bedroom door on him. Meanwhile, Randolph is first to know that Simon actually can acquire panther form, yet continues behavior likely to get herself killed.