Overview: An immigrant begins to lose her mind worrying that she is doomed to become one of the Cat People of Serbian mythology. RKO Pictures; 1942; NR; 72 minutes.
Beginnings: When the Romans returned from their campaigns in Africa, they brought animals with them. The story goes that following the triumphant parading of the heroic troops, a troupe of animals were brought before the people of Rome. Consider what it would be like to be an adult and see a giraffe for the first time. Or a rhino. Or an ostrich. The story continues that these animals were greeted with silence or screams depending on the retelling, but all the stories end with the animals being fought by gladiators in the arena. (Gladiator 2 anyone?)
All movie clichés begin somewhere. An unfortunate effect of watching movies decades after they were made is sometimes their freshness has been tainted by repeats, homages, rip-offs, and imitations. David Mamet’s House of Games was probably a twisty, confusing con artist movie back in the day, but to watch it now, twenty years and a hundred con artist movies later, it is predictable and ridiculous that the protagonist falls for any of the schemes (surely at this point everyone knows not to trust Ricky Jay). All of this brings us to Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People.
Lewton Bus: 1942’s Cat People is widely regarded as containing the first iteration of the Lewton Bus. A Lewton Bus is a scene in which a character believes something is chasing them or hiding in the dark and they go deeper into the dark and the music swells and the camera cuts back and forth and the music swells and the character’s eyes go wide and then…a cat jumps down from the cupboard. The crowd jumps, the characters sighs, and the movie continues. Movie goers have seen this sequence play out again and again to diminishing returns. It all started with Cat People. In the movie a character, Alice, is walking to the bus and being followed by Irina, the scorned wife of the man Alice is in love with. We cut back between Alice’s feet and Irina’s as Alice realises she is being stalked and increases her pace. After a bit we stop seeing Irina’s feet and we focus upon Alice’s frantic flight to the bus stop away from whatever is stalking her. The cutting from shot to shot intensifies and gets faster and faster until there is a loud sound like a cat’s hiss which is actually the sound of the bus pulling up. Watching it in 2015, it’s same old same old, though very well made same old. Watching it in 1942 it would be revolutionary. It was the first time audiences had been baited and switched. They got the scare without the monster. They got the fear and the reassurance of a character saved, all at the same time. This whole sequence was the idea of producer Val Lewton, who gives his name to the trick of the Lewton Bus.
Overall: I focused upon one cinematic trick in this article but Cat People is rife with fantastic horror movie trickery that continues to be used today. The creators hide their monster in shadow, use music to create fear and the illusion of a malevolent force, and never give a full explanation for the supernatural events. It is an enjoyable movie that has aged well. Every character is glamorous and cool and there are some legitimate scares here. It also has that beautiful thing found in old movies in which when the story is finished the movie ends. There is no wrap up or epilogue. The movies ends, the credits roll – except they don’t because the credits come before the movie, but you get the idea.
Featured Image: RKO Radio Pictures Inc.