Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Cat People

“I have never liked Cat People (1942). The film is an attack on people who are 'different'. The film treats anyone who is different as psychologically disturbed, vicious, and a threat to others. It states that people who are different need psychological treatment by psychiatrists.” Yes, this film does try to portrait Simone Simon (Irena Dubrovna/Reed) as some sort of protagonist, but it fails miserably. Irena, a shy young lady, is pictured at the start of the film intently drawing at the zoo, when a young architect (Kent Smith, Oliver Reed) decides to get to know her. After a short introduction Oliver decides to escort Irena to her house, all the time explaining that he is a clean cut all-American boy. He learned that Irena is from the old country, Serbia, to be exact. Oliver who is intrigued by this young beauty imposes himself on her even further, wanting to know more about her, Irena invites him to her apartment. They enter through the double doors of her building and Oliver was pleasantly surprised with the size and the grandeur of the interior. After climbing the stairs Irena stalls before opening the door to her apartment, and stresses that she has never before invited anyone to her home. She said that he was the first friend she had made in the city. “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’.” A little bizarre maybe, but erotic, I didn’t get that from those scenes. The subtle quirk of Irena in liking the roar of the big cats is explained by the nature of humans to adapt to their surroundings, particularly with her mystical background in the old country, soon to be explained. A love of the dark is another natural quirk that many fail to understand. Do we not turn off the lights to sleep; dim the lights to create a more relaxing atmosphere? Does the darkness not bring about a calming effect enabling us to gather our thoughts, or am I just as bizarre?  The only protagonist or predator at this point is Oliver who pursues Irena with an almost stalking quality. He makes his presence felt at the zoo. He then proceeds to follow her home and spends the evening in her apartment smoking on the sofa.

Oliver sees a statue on the table and asks Irena to elaborate on the meaning it portrays, Irena cautiously tells the tale of her village in Serbia. A long time ago her village was in chaos; the women in the village made a pact with the devil, which turned them into witches who could change into big cats that could exact wrath. That was the nature of her village until a great king, King John, attempted to kill the witches, but a few fled to the mountains bring peace and order, and a new life for the people of the village. Oliver sees the fear in her eyes and comforts her, reminding her that she is no longer in the old country but in a new world, America. The couple become close, each declaring their love for each other. During Their courtship a few clues begin to emerge that link Irena to the supernatural past of her village. Oliver buys her a pet cat, which takes an immediate dislike to her, so Irena and Oliver go back to the pet shop to replace it with a bird. The couple enter the shop causing the animals to go wild, but on exiting with the proprietor the animals resume to a more sedated state. With Irena aware of what is going on she stays back when Oliver and the proprietor re-enter the store. With the animals’ heightened senses picking up on Irena’s inner beast, a panther, they realise a predator is amongst them and become naturally alarmed. Irena, very self-conscious of who she is decides as always to step back; not to cause any discomfort for those around her. After a couple of days Irena and Oliver announce their engagement in a restaurant; it is a joyous occasion with all of Oliver’s friends there. Irena is in high spirits until she is greeted with the word ‘sister’, in Serbian, by a woman cunningly cat-like. She responds with a look of terror, while the woman continues her greeting, but her frightened expression is her only response. With that the woman leaves with a stern expression, as if to say you have no business getting married, are you not one of us? Irena cannot shake the impression the woman has had on her, later relaying to Oliver what she had said and her belief that the curse of the cat people also applied to her. The couple now man and wife have difficulties with Irena’s past - Oliver unable to believe her and Irena unable to consummate the marriage for fear of the old Serbian legend that she might transform and kill her husband. From here on the film becomes much more atmospheric and tense, with Oliver suggesting Irena visit a psychiatrist recommended by work colleague Alice (Jane Randolph) who has also fallen in love with Oliver. Irena agrees and starts up a rapport with the doctor (Jack Holt, The Commodore), divulging everything to him, as he dismisses it as a mental illness. ”The heroine's condition is in some ways a code for being a lesbian. The film endorses the complete run of prejudice gays and lesbians faced in that era: the condition is seen both as a sin against religion, and a mental illness that needs to be treated by a psychiatrist. This is one of the worst cases of homophobia in 1940's film.” I understand what the reviewer is getting at, but I don’t agree with attaching a homophobia to it, and if I wanted too I could attach a racial phobia, or a cat phobia, and the list could go on and on. So let’s deal with the phobia that is at hand, religion, Christian monotheism against the pagan polytheism, with Oliver representing the new world of Christianity – his initial reaction being to denounce his wife’s beliefs as a sort of mental illness. And Irena the beauty from the old country who embodies ancient pagan practices of witches and Satan. Irena’s journey from Serbia to America represents her desire to leave behind the old pagan ways; her falling in love and marriage is the aim to adopt the new Christian belief. The old ways appear as facts, with laws that cannot be broken; they are not represented as a belief. The story builds on this struggle between the couple’s relationship and the husband’s separate needs. The husband’s needs overcome him as he believes he is being deprived of Irena’s physical love. Oliver’s perceived neglect leads him to strikes up a more intimate relationship with Alice, Irena becomes aware of his infidelity, as Oliver inadvertently keeps dropping Alice’s name into every conversation. Irena struggles to control her emotions, and does for the better part of this film, only letting her true jealous rage through on a few occasions without hurting anyone. On one occasion Oliver and Alice are cornered in their office by Irena who has transformed into a panther Oliver shouts at Irena begging her to leave them alone, but Irena still approaches. Oliver reaches for a T-square on the desk to defend Alice and himself, with the office bathed in darkness and only the street lights shining through the window casting obscure shadows. Oliver and Alice position themselves in a corner in front of the window; he raises the T-square in the air as if to swing at the inevitable danger, casting the shadow of Christ holding the crucifix and shouting “in the name of god leave us alone”. Irena retreats after hearing this, obviously being reminded of her desire to shed her old pagan ways.

The power of suggestion is the true master in this film allowing atmosphere, dialogue and great camera work to post images into the mind, to achieve a sense of terror although we couldn’t physically see any, as we wait in anticipation for the panther to pounce but it never does, well almost never the sleazy commodore goes one step too far and forces himself onto Irena, causing the ill-fated transformation into a panther. This makes Cat People a real classic; it doesn’t matter which side of the fence the audience sits on, whether you are pagan or Christian, the pros and cons are there for us all to see.

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