Producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur reached immortality within seventy minutes during their first collaboration together. 1942's Cat People is today noted as the first in a series of nine films Lewton churned out as head of RKO's horror unit. But this isn't the sort of genre film that contemporary audiences have been trained (bludgeoned?) to expect from Hollywood. Even by Production Code standards, Cat People appears scarce of genuinely shocking imagery. But what the film lacks in discernible horror it makes up for in psychological assaults. See, for Tourneur and Lewton, there's no greater terror than that which can be imagined by the viewer.
Tourneur's aesthetics reflect this belief, and the sinister atmosphere that he conjures up is all the more remarkable given the financial limitations imposed on a B-picture of this ilk. To watch Cat People is to experience a bravura demonstration of stylistic economy, where simplicity reaps huge rewards. Consider the verticalized decor of (anti-)heroine Irena's apartment, which creates a veritable human cage that's intrinsically bound to the animalism that plagues her. Or how about the masterful editing displayed during the sequence where Irena stalks her nemesis, Alice? Expertly-modulated cuts give the impression of diminishing time, a sensation that's heightened by the expressivity of the director's favoured low-angle shots. All the while, Tourneur's deployment of realistic sound effects (clicking heels in the aforementioned sequence, screeching animals at a pet store) ratchets up the tension to near breaking point.
Nothing evokes invisible menace quite like his manipulation of light, however. The majority of the film's scenarios occur during nightfall, with darkness subsequently posing an omnipresent threat to the characters' everyday lives: it haunts them, it envelops them and, ultimately, it entraps them. Theirs is a world engulfed by shadows - and it is precisely these shadows that allow Tourneur to substitute visible monsters for intangible abstractions. As a result of their malevolent presence, the director is able to sow the seeds of fear without ever resorting to shock-mongering. One recalls the memorable swimming pool scene, where reflected light creates a phantasmagorical backdrop against which glowering silhouettes induce the most piercing panic attacks. This is atmospheric horror at its finest.
One could be forgiven for expecting the simplicity that characterizes Cat People's style to concurrently infiltrate its thematic content. But this is a film that surprises the viewer with its psychological density (in spite of its inherent ambiguity). Although its subject matter appears somewhat lurid on paper, Tourneur's sensitive approach to the material enables him to transcend his settings, with Cat People ensuingly morphing from pulp fiction to pulp poetry. Simone Simon's awkward but intuitive performance as the conflicted Irena undoubtedly plays into this filmic elevation. In her near-literal embodiment of the femme fatale, the actress deftly subverts the archetype and tentatively guides the film towards an examination of female sexuality, a satire of middle-class conventionality and an exposé of the transgressive - but in her hands utterly humanistic - impulses that torment the individual. Granted, the story performs its own part, populating the film with characters of questionable motive (husband Oliver included), but the vulnerability that Simon reveals in her social alienation, not to mention the desperation with which she attempts to fend off her supposed destiny, consolidates her right to reside in our affections.
The film arguably loses a fair amount of dramatic steam during its later scenes, where the presence of the smarmy psychiatrist Dr. Judd both convolutes and nullifies its thrilling potency. And yet conversely, it's in these moments that its at its most beguiling. Irena is a character that seems ripe for Freudian analysis, but Cat People contends that rational thought is of little use when attempting to comprehend the complexities of the human psyche. Dr. Judd's inept counsel has the ironic power to repel the viewer into an acceptance of the supernatural. As the film swiftly brings the curtain down upon its narrative, one message reverberates above all else: some matters will forever remain beyond our grasp. Fortunately, the spiritually-deformed beauty of Cat People doesn't have to be one of them.