Office Christmas Party
Another reminder that allowing your cast to madly improvise instead of actually providing a coherent script with a scintilla of inherent logic often leads to…
"Cat People" is constructed almost entirely out of fear. There wasn't a budget for much of anything else. It exists on eight or nine sets, the running time is only 73 minutes, it has few special effects, there are no major stars, the violence is implied or dreaded but not much seen. Yet the film, made as a B picture for only $135,000, became RKO's top grosser for 1942, bringing in $4 million, compared to the studio's "Citizen Kane" at $500,000 in 1941. It renewed the careers of its producer Val Lewton, its director Jacques Tourneur and its star, the French actress Simone Simon; it inspired 10 more macabre titles from Lewton's production unit and was copied all over Hollywood -- because it was scary, and because it was cheap. What was hard to copy was its artistry.
"Cat People" wasn't frightening like a slasher movie, using shocks and gore, but frightening in an eerie, mysterious way that was hard to define; the screen harbored unseen threats, and there was an undertone of sexual danger that was more ominous because it was never acted upon. Its heroine is a beautiful woman who never sleeps with her new husband (indeed she never even kisses him) because she fears that passion could turn her into a panther. The film magnifies her dread by exploiting the fear some people have of cats: They're sneaky and devious and creep up on you, and are associated with Satan.
These dark undertones are framed by a story of everyday life. Irena (Simon) is sketching a panther at the zoo when she meets the clean-cut and well-behaved architect Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). He walks her home, she asks him in for tea, and they fall in love. She talks of her village in Serbia, of the belief that it sheltered satanic cultists who could take the form of cats. Good King John tried to kill these cat people, but some fled into the mountains, where they are said to live to this day. Irena secretly fears she is one of those people.
The dialogue, a first screenplay by DeWitt Bodeen, contains lines that hint at the bizarre and the erotic. Oliver tells Irena her perfume is "warm and living." Irena says the roars of the big cats in the nearby zoo is "natural and soothing." As the afternoon lengthens, she finally turns on a light, after saying she finds the dark "friendly." Tourneur and his cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca, who also worked together on the great film noir "Out of the Past," are masters of light and shadow. They often place Irena in darkness, cast the silhouettes of other characters on the wall behind her, enclose her with shadows that work like a cage.