Friday, August 14, 2009


CAT PEOPLE (1942, USA, Jacques Tourneur, Val Lewton / DeWitt Bodeen screenplay)
I've tried to make you realize all these stories that worry you are so much nonsense, but now I see it's not the stories. It's the fact that you believe them. We don't need a King John with fire and sword, we need someone who can find the reason for your belief and cure it.

You're drawn to her. She's sexy, sure, but not like the mankiller in a velvet gown that's on the posters. She's petite, shy, unsure, gorgeous eyes. Kittenish. Lonely, there's a sadness there, some secret wound. You just want to help her, and she wants to be helped. She's hungry for it. If you go for that kind of thing, you're doomed from the start.

The artistry of this film is something nobody expected. RKO Pictures hired a producer cheap and gave him a tiny bit of money and said, "Here, nobody went to see CITIZEN KANE, it cost us a fortune and lost us a forture, make us some creature features, people go see those and they don't cost much. WOLF MAN made a pile: here's a title, CAT PEOPLE, see what you can do with that. If you make a few bucks, we'll want more. Now scram." You can almost smell the cigar smoke.

So Val Lewton hired himself a like-minded director, and they set out to make some art, which nobody expected. It's gorgeous to look at, it's moody, it's understated, it's troubling: it's what horror might feel like in real lives. These two take seriously what this kind of movie usually just exploits, and the result not only sold a million tickets, it earned itself pages and chapters and volumes of commentary, and (fifty years later) a place in the National Film Registry. CAT PEOPLE is psychologically complex, it's geniunely sexy and hauntingly sad, and when it comes to the creepy stuff you gotta have in a picture like this, it plays for keeps.They're not called "supernatural thrillers" for nothing: when the subject is treated with this kind of respect they're not only thrilling but theological: the supernatural is rendered spiritual, grounding otherworldliness in this everyday world, and taking seriously things like sin and the human condition.

Lewton and Tourneur's artistry and integrity make this an unexpected classic, a movie to return to over and over again. But I think what really sets the hook is Simone Simon's presence in the central role. It's not a perfect performance: at times she's making faces, just a bit, at times she's pouting or indulging or playing it up ever so slightly. But you know, maybe even that contributes to the power of her work here – who is it that's self-consciously manipulating her own emotions, the slightly stagey actress or the slightly off-kilter young woman she's playing? If at times the effect is calculated and slightly false, is it the audience or the "good plain Americano" in the picture that she's performing for? (Is it part of the "not-quite-rightness" the pet store animals pick up on?)

Those slight (and I suppose delicious) false notes aside, Simon creates a portrait of troubled desperate-to-be-goodness you won't easily shake. "You might be my first real friend." The damaged loneliness she embodies – partly it's that accent, so softly exotic, distinctly other – is something contagious, like a plague. Perhaps it matters that the terrible evil she flees is placed but not named: she comes from Serbia, where she has witnessed (or taken part in?) terrible things, and even this scrap of geography roots her not in generalized horror movie evil, but in specific atrocities a modern viewer can all too readily bring to mind. She is fleeing not just something spooky but something specific, and something specifically evil, a legacy of very real human horror.

She has a horror of drawing close to anyone, of knowing or – mostly – being known. Her isolation is for protection. But the power of the film lives in this ambiguity: does she fear for herself, or those she might come to know? Saint Paul – that hard-shell New Testament bastard – breaks your heart when he pours out his own: "The thing I do is the thing I don't want to do, the very thing I hate. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" He doesn't name the sin, or the thoughts that haunt him, but I wonder what memories and impulses rise up even now, in this new life he clings to with such ferocity. What residue remains of the man so driven and steely he'd reveled in the deaths of so many of Jesus' followers?

It's all there in Irena, in the way she draws close to this man who walks into her life, draws him close but won't be known. The talisman she makes of that bizarre statue in her apartment, the way she says "Christian" and the way she says "Satan," the fear in her eyes as she crosses herself when the cat-like woman calls her "sister." It's the white-knuckle Christianity of one who knows the darkness, has loved the darkness, but now resists its pull like a recovering addict fighting the compulsion to use. No wonder the film's abiding feel is more of melancholy than terror.

Irena isn't the film's only memorable character. Kent Smith is a more wooden performer – definite B-list forties performance, here – but whether the screenwriters wrote for what they knew they could get, or the director cast well, or whether everything about this unlikely miracle of a movie was blessed by some all-pervading cinematic good fortune, he's the utterly perfect counter-force to Irena's urge-and-emotion exoticism. And the beautifully shaped contour of his story eovkes such a complex response: at times we feel he's just the sort of guy she needs, we're grateful for his feet-on-the-ground common sense, yet it's shot through with something that grows increasingly repellent, a sort of fundamentalist materialism that begins to smell like arrogance or willful ignorance. He's smitten, we feel his tenderness toward this frightened kitten in our bones, so we feel his frustration and disappointment just as tangibly when she is unable to draw close, even after their marriage: the moments when we see each of them on the opposite sides of a door – once on their wedding night, once on the night when she weeps alone in her bath – are scenes of unshakeable poignancy. And when (Paul) is increasingly drawn to his co-worker – Irena's opposite, thoroughly American and straight-forward, a little bit pretty and a little bit tough, she says what she feels and goes after what she wants – we both understand and don't. Irena warned him things would take time, he promised he'd wait, but when he's faced with a bit of unhappiness that goes on a bit longer than he's used to, so much for the promise. He's a faithless lover, he's not the self-denying knight on horseback we all wanted him to be – he's just a perfectly normal red-blooded schmuck like any one of us. We understand, we ache for him – hey, a guy deserves a little happiness, this is America after all! – but we see the self-first-ness that eventually borders on cruelty, and we partly figure whatever might happen to him, he's got it coming.

"Less is more" say the artists, and the Lewton/Tourneur CAT PEOPLE could serve as Exhibit A if they ever have to defend their claim in court. (Paul Schrader's remake could be called to the witness stand as some sort of proof by contrast. Or maybe his movie is the crime?) Rather than monsters and hideous bestial transmogrifications and explicit violence and gore, we get shadows and silence and precise edits and carefully calibrated, utterly mundane sound effects: the sound of high heels on pavement, a braking bus, the shrill distortion of a woman's voice in an indoor swimming pool. (One is reminded of that other minimalist Frenchman who grounds his spiritual transcendence in the sounds and textures of everyday physical observations, Robert Bresson. And by that comparison, and the fact it's not dismissable out of hand, we recognize how very unusual a monster movie this truly is. More Bresson to come in the boys' next outing…)

So how does the story end? Happily. The cheapy horror thriller made back all the money CITIZEN KANE lost, it ran so long that the critics who dismissed it opening weekend had to go back for second looks and rave reviews, and the money-minded studio chiefs came up with a bit more money and another swell title ("I Walked With A Zombie. Think it'll sell?") to see if Val and Jacques cold come up with another high-class supernatural thriller.

To be continued.


Available at Videomatica

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