weekly inspiration #2 CAT PEOPLE (1942)
Updated: Nov 6, 2019
The 1940s and Hollywood's Reinvention of Horror
In Vincent Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Kirk Douglas plays Jonathan Shields, a film studio mogul who starts as a B-movie producer. He begins the narrative discussing the visual approach to transform a suspense picture about cat-men into a masterpiece of terror for the screen. He argues that the viewer who pays to go to a “cat horror film” does not want to see men dressed as cats - which he considers to be ridiculous. What the viewer would gladly pay for are the scares. And what really scares the human race? The dark! And that is because the dark has a life of its own. Inside the darkness, all things and anything can come alive. When he inquiries his interlocutor what he can place in the dark to terrorize the audiences, his own answer is quite simple: “two eyes… shining in the dark”. This assertion was not only simple, but quite intelligent and effective. This strategy to ignite fear on the audience by using the silver screen as a black (“blank”) canvas where it could project their own inner fears was actually developed by the real producer that inspired the character played by Douglas. One decade earlier, in a period of time when horror meant having a man dressed as a monster on screen, following the Universal formula for scares, this writer-producer developed a sophisticated way of presenting horror through lighting. Or the total lack of it. The visual style he created alongside the director he hired for three major collaborations that would pave the way to how we interpret horror until today was based on an elegant use of darkness. Not only to hint at suspenseful moments, but also to represent concepts. For these two men there was more to the genre than simple, cheap, in-your-face-entertainment. To them, real life presented more horrors than any fiction could conceive or encapsulate. Therefore, for their first collaboration they infused a “cat horror film” dictated by the studio with their own fears and shaped them into the black screen. That exploration of darkness is what first shone a light on the names of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur. The movie was 1942 Cat People.
In the beginning of the 1940s R.K.O. was in bad shape financially and couldn’t attract more audiences with their A-pictures. However, it was noticed that their B-films department was still running smoothly and collecting steadily at the box office. Head of B-movies at the studio, Charles Koerner, wanted to come up with a strategy to augment the cash influx. Also in financial trouble, a couple of years earlier, was a Los Angeles theatre on Wilshire Blvd., that decided to put up a marketing gimmick to attract summer viewers. They offered a double-bill of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) and dared audiences to be brave enough to attend it. The call to courage was successful, for when it opened in August, 5, 1938 it was sold out and continued to generate profits. Dracula and Frankenstein had been made almost a decade earlier and were already classic (or pop) characters by this time. The surprise of success upon re-release not only made movie theaters offer the Universal well-known monsters of the 30s as an event every year, but also made Universal itself rush new monsters into production. This explains the late releases in the series: The Wolf Man (1941), Phantom of the Opera (1943), and later on Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Not mentioning by name all the sequels and variations to the already known The Mummy, Dracula, and Frankenstein.
At the rival studio, R.K.O., Charles Koerner realized that his B-department could benefit from a horror devoted unit of production. Horror movies could be made inexpensively and marketed under the umbrella of a well-received genre of entertainment. He could just copy the Universal style, which actually published a so-called “formula” for horror - analyzing, according to their own creations, the list of “must haves” of a suspenseful story. Thus, Koerner just needed somebody to take the challenge of getting that formula to be mass produced quickly at R.K.O. Little did he know that he was about to offer the challenge to a man who would be vehemently opposed to that idea, but who would render hi - if not cinema itself - the most original visual style for horror filmmaking.
Val Lewton, was at that time working for David O.Selznick, who by the beginning of the 1940s was already the biggest mogul in Hollywood, after the release of Gone with the Wind (1939). Why would Lewton leave that opportunity to answer the call from R.K.O.? Because he had spent eight years with Selznick, going from assistant, to story editor, to heading the second unit of most of his productions, all with little to no credit. In reality, Lewton came up with sequences and visual improvements he would never get recognition for and would be considered part of Selznick’s brilliance. The most famous instance of that happening is in Gone with the Wind. Lewton devised the famous craning shot that starts on Scarlett O’Hara’s face and moves back, hovering over a sea of wounded soldiers. In this case, the crane shot represents Scarlett’s puny position against a life changing event as the war - the clear mark of a Lewton design is present since it portrays visually the analysis of a reality.
He thought that with R.K.O. he would have the opportunity to create using that type of visual representation. For Koerner gave him carte-blanche as long as he could obey a set of ‘financial’ rules: each film he was hired to produce should run no more than 75 minutes, designed to be placed in a double feature, never exceed US$ 150,000, and even if they were not considered to be scary they were always going to be marketed as horror. This later guideline would prove to be beneficial, for Lewton would be able to analyze the complex themes he was drawn to and offer a social critique wrapped up by the audience friendly horror genre. On par for the corse, his innovation for horror storytelling, playing with barely lit sets and darkness as a main villain, gave the audience the scares they were paying for and “obscured” the shoe-string budgets he needed to comply with.
Charles Koerner asked Lewton to familiarize himself with the Universal recipe for horror. Over at Universal, for years president Carl Lemmle, had been welcoming fellow German emigres to the movie working lines. Therefore, many of their monsters were developed by men who already had an idea of how horror should look like based on their German visual background. Lewton, a novel writer and literature aficionado, felt that his literary sensibility was different than a German’s, as well as it was his immigrant experience. Being that the case, he decided to organize his own set of rules to explore human fear inside the realms of horror pictures.
As mentioned before, for his first three ventures at R.K.O., Lewton hired director Jacques Tourneur, an immigrant he felt he had a closer connection to in terms of sensibility, especially regarding storytelling. The atmospheric pieces they created together were Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1943) - all box office hits! The duo basically used creative visual depiction for horror as their shield. Against that, no argument disregarding the “rules” of B-class filmmaking could pierce through. In fact, these creative minds were heading an artistic break with what was considered to be “correct” in movie-making for little money in Hollywood, and would ring the future for imagery later used by independent filmmakers in Europe. Here were two immigrants imprinting their own visual sensibility in stories they were shaping to represent the experience of the foreign, of the “other”, of the one who is unwanted or not understood. Those immigrant artists - such as many others in Hollywood's infancy - would carve the pictorial elements that would raise the banner for a visual revolution in movies.
I wish to dedicate a whole article to analyzing the background of both Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur and how their upbringing shaped their creative minds, impacting their filmmaking later on. For now, I will restrain myself, in this already long piece, to discussing the immigrant experience as it was molded for the camera in Cat People.
Cat People and the Lovable Outsider Antagonist
Val Lewton arrived in the U.S. as a child but was always marked by his upbringing in a superstitious community, back in Yalta, Ukraine (still part of the Russian Empire at the time). He had an absent father, that his mother finally left, fleeing to New York with him and his sister. Her sister, Val's aunt, super star actress Alla Nazimova, was receiving the family to leave in her house. Being brought up only by women was another mark on Lewton, who was then in a foreign land, in a household with three women and no father figure. He would start to look for it in the books he would incessantly devour. This can maybe explain the decision to re-create Cat People's screenplay around a female protagonist.
For his first creation at R.K.O. as a story editor, producer, and head of Horror Pictures for the B-department of the studio, Lewton presents Irina, a Serbian illustrator living in the U.S. The viewer understands early on she immigrated by herself, and carries with her many of the elements that populated Lewton’s upbringing: such as folklore and superstition, the idea of clashing with western Christian beliefs, being separated from the sense of community, departing mother land, and being a “foreign” in a new culture.
Besides the movie’s main underlying theme - the isolation being presented as the immigrant experience in America - it also tackles an important aspect of dissonant cultures: it shows the clash of folklore tradition and Christian faith. The superstitious mindset Irina brings with her into the marriage and shares with her new American husband goes completely against the religious faith that is engendered in social practices. This is clearly shown through images. I would like to point out three manners in which the idea of good versus evil is explored. First, Irina is mostly portrayed surrounded by darkness in contrast to Alice, a fellow architect in the company her husband, Oliver, works at. The dialogues between Irina and Oliver are also drenched in darkness, whereas his conversations with Alice, who is clearly romantically interested in him from the beginning, and eventually confesses her love, take place in well lit spaces. Alice is the American answer to Irina, the sympathetic working girl during a period of war. Secondly, Irina is associated with the belief she can become a panther through some sort of black magic, which combines two unholy ideas: bestiality and a pagan practice. Thirdly, the image of the cross is employed by the third act to hammer down the Christian lesson that religious belief is the only weapon against darkness.
Moving on to the image analysis, I would like to start with the representation of dark versus light through the movie's cinematography to separate the two main female characters, and what they represent to the male character. The depiction to be employed for Irina is pointed out right in the beginning of the movie, when Oliver visits Irina’s apartment for the first time. She is bringing him into her home, shares the folklore and history of her people - which frightens her so -, and delivers the classic line “I like the darkness. It’s friendly”:
This line proclaiming her predilection for the dark has a visual response, as it dictates most of the framework around Irina's character: she is constantly surrounded by darkness:
The images below showcase the dialectical imagery used to differentiate Irina and Alice, and their interactions with Oliver:
Second recurrent image work used to separate Irina from Christian faith is her connection to bestiality. She is continuously connected through the text and through visual storytelling to the beast she fears so much she would become if she gives into sex, even being married already - which should sanitize her desires.
Even Irina's apartment is filled with imagery:
The movie actually opens with a panther caged in the zoo and moves back to reveal Irina outside the cage drawing the animal. With this movement, the camera connects both Irina and the self she fears becoming within the frame. It is valid to say that the composition traps Irina inside her fate. As usual to Val Lewton's creations, his characters are haunted by the past which dictates their unscalable future. It is also significant to mention that the movie opens with the protagonists. The first close up is that of the panther, reveling right away to the viewer Irina's real self:
Finally, the third visual manner by which Cat People condemns Irina is through the use of Christian imagery. The cross is the only useful weapon Oliver and Alice find to protect themselves agains the beast they believe Irina has become:
Irina should be revealed more and more as the film’s villain, the “monster” of this horror so to speak. And, indeed, this happens. She continues to be portrayed by actress Simone Simon as an innocent, lovable woman, but increasingly framed as a villain, and as a watching presence - as would be done with the character of a ghost or monster. Curiously enough, even though she must be sold as the film's antagonist it is very easy for the viewer to sympathize with her, rather than with the other two main characters, Oliver and Alice, as well as with the Psychiatrist who tries to take advantage of Irina.
In a final analysis, it is important to mention that the immigrant is not shown as a naïve, simple-minded person, gullible to any children’s tale, but a marked character that arrives to a new life already scarred since early age by the crude stagnated social order in which he or she was brought up. It is my understanding that Irina is presented with a set of superstitious beliefs, contracted in infancy at her village, but those might as well be the representation disguise in a movie for a very real life inner trauma a woman from an unprivileged background or any immigrant from a country ruled by clear class system divide could bring with them when moving to a reality with more social freedom and opportunity. In the same vein of the horror cover as a wrapper for filmmaking about social themes, Lewton could as well have used the influence of superstition (in Cat People) or voodoo and black magic (in I Walk with a Zombie) to represent traumatic events as verbal or physical abuse, the ever strong patriarchal ruling - including through violence - in cultures around the world, or the social dynamics in lower classes.
To conclude in a scary but fun note, here's the sequence that turned shadow-play into the setting for a horror villain to hunt down their victim. This sequence echoes the theme behind The Most Dangerous Game (1932), and is a good example of the visual style presented in Cat People, to be employed until today by slasher movies and indie features, such as A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014). Here's Cat-Woman Irina going after damsel in distress Alice though a dark alley. Taking advantage of all possible tools in the filmmaker's arsenal, as common practice for Val Lewton, he not only continues to evoke suspense through lighting and editing, but also enlists sound to play a trick on his character's and the audience's mind. Alice walks home alone at night. She starts to hear footsteps behind her, but she cannot see a soul on the barely lit streets. The footsteps approach and then stop. Alice's blood freezes - the silence is even more terrifying than the menacing sound. Finally, a cry that resembles the panther shriek we hear in the beginning of the movie emerges from stillness, startling Alice. As the sound progresses, it turns into the breaks of a bus that stops in front of her. Both character and audience are tricked into thinking Irina was actually pursuing her prey in her beast form. Which is a silly idea, right? As silly as confusing the sound of a bus breaking with that of a panther. Now, is it that silly? Or is there more in the darkness? More than we believe possible. Maybe exactly what our imagination is projecting on the dark screen