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Cat People

The subtlety of Lewton’s production of Cat People becomes very evident when the forties classic is compared with Paul Schrader’s eighties remake, which clumsily explicates all the elementsosexual anxiety, folklore, bestial violenceothat remain intriguingly equivocal in the original. As critic Robin Wood has commented, Lewton’s Cat People represents ‘life itself as a shadow-world in which nothing is certain, no issue is clear-cut, nothing is what it seems.’

The film explores a conflict central to its genreothat between rationality and irrationality. Irena (Simone Simon), whose work as a fashion designer is intertwined with her superstitions about cat people, voices that latter. The less imaginative nature of her husband, Oliver (Kent Smith), corresponds with his job as naval architect (an opposition between aesthetically creative and technical drawing being established). Yet the behaviour of Oliver and the film’s other charactersoAlice, his colleague, and Dr. Judd, a psychiatristois primarily governed by the irrationality of their sex drives: when Irene refuses to sleep with Oliver (because she fears turning into a panther and killing her partner), he deserts her for Alice; Judd’s interest in Irena is more lecherous than psychiatric.

The psychological and sexual estrangement between Oliver and Irena is symbolically underlined by the scenes in which they are separated by a door, through which they attempt to communicate with each other. Also significant is the door of the panther’s cage at the zoo; it is locked, emphasising that Irena is no more able to release the animal half of herself (symbolised by the panther) than she is able to live as a woman. Like the panther, Irena is ‘caged’ by her home (an implication strengthened by the scene in her apartment which links her with the caged birds she has there). In the climax of the film, Judd obtains the key to her flat, and waits for her return. When Irena enters, he arouses her sexually, causing her to turn into a panther and kill him. Unlock the door (to one’s subconscious?) and the result is a chain of death. The film suggests that if we attempt to resolve the inner conflicts which cause so much trouble in our lives, we may no longer have life at all.

U.S.A., 1942.
Director: Jacques Tourneur.
Black and white.
71 min.

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