Bared Claws: Cat People and Truly American Horror

“I have found little that is ‘good’ about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash, no matter whether they publicly subscribe to this or that ethical doctrine or to none at all. That is something that you cannot say aloud, or perhaps even think.”    

—Sigmund Freud

For me, Cat People is to horror what Double Indemnity is to pure noir. That is to say, they’re filmic wrecking balls that shatter our fondest notions, shatter them beyond recognition. Both movies take ordinary places and transform them into nightmarish landscapes of imminent violence and unreality. Both movies take “normal” people and watch them do awful, petty things as they remain utterly blind to their own actions. I’d also contend that these equally disillusioned movies have a lot to do with the fact that their auteurs, Wilder and Lewton, were outsiders and immigrants who could cut to the quick of the alien culture that surrounded them. If they take our illusions, though, they give us something hallucinatory and beautiful to fill the void.

Cat People crumples up and dismantles just about every post-Enlightenment notion we might have about a rational universe and the intrinsically good nature of mankind. Producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur disfigure the American Dream and don’t even leave us with a concrete ending. And yet, we enjoy the film. I’ve seen it more times that I can count. It’s one of my all-time favorites. It’s a classic example of art being able to make bearable those festering layers of human experience.

I started this blog post with a quote from Freud, because, actually, so does Cat People. Well, sort of. This epigraph that begins the film is either a quote from Freud (as Letwon scholar J. P. Telotte claims, although I have not been able to locate the translation) or Lewton’s reworking of a passage from Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents.

Now, think about how unusual it was to have a bloody epigraph at the start of a Hollywood film in the 1940s. The choice to open the movie in this manner has three purposes:

  1. The shot sets up the central imagery of the film, with the statue of King John of Serbia spearing a cat.
  2.  The quotation introduces the theme of the evil lurking at the heart of “civilized” humanity.
  3. The psychoanalytic context invites the viewer to ponder the film. Don’t just watch, Lewton and Tourneur seem to instruct us, analyze, dissect, scrutinize. 

Well, that’s exactly what I intend to do.

The Happiest Place on Earth

Cat People pivots around on two sets of opposites: foreign versus American, superstitious versus rational. Irena is superstitious. The other three main characters, Oliver, Alice, and Dr. Judd all maintain their rationality (or not really, but I’ll get to that). Two of these characters are foreign: Dr. Judd, with his continental habit of kissing hands, and, of course, Irena.

The spaces of the film also easily fall into these categories. With a multitude of patterns, clutter, and bric-a-brac, the mise-en-scene of Irena’s apartment is coded as “other”. The low-key lighting even pays tribute to European expressionism.

By contrast, the offices of the C.R. Cooper Ship and Barge Construction Co., where Oliver and Alice work, comes across as a refuge of order and reason. Neatly stacked file cabinets, drafting tables, ladders, an abundance of straight lines and right angles, and the comparatively high-key lighting present a strong opposition to the shadows and busy patterns of Irena’s apartment. Moreover, the employees participate in the development of the economy, enabling naval commerce and even imperialism, and thus uphold the capitalistic system. This location, thus, ties together one thematic axis of the film, representing native-born American logic, industry, and temperate emotions.

In Robin Wood’s marvelously concise “Ideology, Genre, Auteur” (a really great piece to which I owe a debt of ideas for this post), the scholar identifies a set of classic Hollywood gender types which applies nicely to Cat People. Alice, through her brassy attitude, even temper, and American origins, represents the ideal domestic partner, whereas Oliver fits the “dependable, but dull” criterion of the family man figure. Unsurprisingly, the foreigners, Dr. Judd and Irena fill the more challenging and sexually charged roles marked out by Wood, the “man of action” and “erotic woman”, respectively.

Ironically, “the erotic woman,” Irena craves a pure, peaceful American life, far away from the European sin that she’s fled. She eagerly marries Oliver in good faith and views marriage as a kind of freedom, even going so far as to envy all happily married women, “they’re happy and they make their husbands happy…they’re free.”

The imagery of Cat People, however, contradicts Irena’s fantasy. Notice how often doors separate Oliver and Irena and construct their domestic space as a cage—not unlike the cages where the panthers pace and prowl interminably.

After a bad row with Oliver, Irena paces in front of the cat cages.

I realize that Oliver and Irena’s marriage does not fit the mold of a normal, functional one, but even so, this shot of Irena sobbing, alone in the bathtub (Tourneur, in a typical touch, tilts up from a clawed foot of the bathtub) conveys both animalism and all-too-familiar domestic despair. I wonder how many unhappy or even happy wives can relate to this scene. Humans are animals. I do believe in successful marriages (I’m the product of one!), but that doesn’t change the fact that the wedded state parallels, in a way, life lived within the boundaries of a cage.

Poor Irena strives to conform to the structures of American ideology and affirms her desire to play the role of dutiful wife, only to face disappointment. Even though she attempts to assimilate and rid herself of her European neuroses, as soon as she announces that she’s cured, Oliver leaves her and unleashes her primal wrath.

Cat People presents an inversion of the myth of America as “the land where everyone is or can be happy”, in the words of Robin Wood.  Rather than native-born Oliver catalyzing Irena’s transition to a sane worldview and to a life of fortuitous domesticity, his interactions with the immigrant female shatters his own peace of mind and plunges him into confusion and irrational belief. As he states, bewildered, “I’ve never been unhappy before.”

Beyond Reason

First off, I think it’s important to consider how much doubt Lewton and Tourneur cast as to the existence of the literal, physical woman-to-panther transformation. We never see the cat clearly—and let’s face it, audiences in the 40s couldn’t pause the DVD to check on what they actually just saw. I’m not arguing that Irena is or is not a panther woman.

I do want to note, though, that Lewton and Tourneur never concretely present her as one, which they could have done in a number of ways. This choice breeds uncertainty, especially since, in cases of an almost “attack” by the cat, the camera mostly focuses on the fear of the victims rather than the feline. The deliberately vague portrayal of the cat, in the shadows and off-screen, begs the viewer to wonder if the characters are really seeing something… or if their imaginations are running away with them.

Thus, Cat People ascends to the realms of cinematic genius through visually bringing together two poles of human experience. The film scrambles rationalism with superstition, sanity with madness.

For instance, Dr. Judd purports to cure people through modern science… yet, in Irena’s dream, he appears as King John of Serbia, bearing his sword to punish heathens.

The first time we see Irena in his office, as well, the audience has little context for the scene, and this shot of Irena’s face as she speaks under hypnosis reminds me more closely of black magic or witch hunt interrogations than of logical, clean analysis.

In other words, Lewton and Tourneur powerfully hint that, no matter how much man’s mind will want to govern itself, a bestial darkness will continue to haunt mankind. We have constructed all that which we call science, method, decency, modernity—and let’s face it, we create our culture in our own image and that image is pretty damn flawed.

The most prominent instance of this crossover from logic to fanaticism occurs when Oliver and Alice work late in their office.

Notice, first off, how the previously neat, well-lit, professional space of earlier in the film has totally shifted into a shadowy, obscure place that looks much more like Irena’s apartment. Her superstition, her darkness have infected the office as well as Alice and Oliver.

When this pair hear noises and see the faint silhouette of cat (forgetting, apparently, that a cat lives in the office!), they cower in a corner of the office. Suddenly, Oliver grabs a T-shaped ruler off of the wall and holds it in front of him, imploring Irena to leave them, “in the name of God.”

Wow. Using a ruler—a precision instrument—as a cross, one of the ultimate symbols of mysticism! Talk about giving in to irrationalism. Oliver brandishes a tool of logic as crucifix and the abstracted, timeless quality of this shadow shot from below deepens the sense of regression to a medieval mentality of blind fear of the supernatural.

So much for beating this unknown, foreign evil with the power of the mind. The mind has turned against Oliver and revealed him for the old fashioned knight-in-a-pin-striped suit that he is, and I don’t mean that in a positive way. Despite Oliver’s pretense of sensible, reasonable manliness, he’s just as much of a relic of superstition as Irena. He only hides it better.

Death Drives

Film historian Gregory Mank has described Cat People as “erotic.” I agree, but it’s erotic in the same way that Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Poe’s Annabelle Lee are erotic—in that all three of these works take the human death drive, Thanatos, and fuse it with our desire for sex, procreation, and that thing we call love, Eros. Freud held that these two impulses conflict and contrast, but Lewton (and, in the psychoanalytic world, Jacques Lacan) shows that sex and aggression, love and death often intertwine.

Uh-huh. This angle really says, “Happily ever after…” 

How, in the end, can we describe Irena’s neurosis, if not as an equation of sex and aggression? Passion, for her, engenders destruction. And she seems not to be the only character who feels this way. Oliver runs into the arms of the vaguely sinister chick who says at their first meeting, and I quote, “I like the dark. It’s friendly.” Um, red flag, anyone? Come on, Oliver, you fool? Can’t you see the high angle shots? Your love is doomed!

As for Alice, Miss Goody-Two-Shoes… will someone explain to me why she doesn’t express her emotions to Oliver until he’s married to a mentally unbalanced woman? Man, for an all-American sweetheart, Alice possesses a streak of perversity that, if you believe the logic of Irena’s delusions, nearly kills Alice and the man she loves. She only wants what she cannot have. She doesn’t just want Oliver, she longs to steal Oliver from Irena.

Most of all, Dr. Judd obviously follows a death wish. Now, as a woman, I don’t want to find a ludicrously unethical embrace between a domineering psychiatrist and his patient so damn hot, but let’s face it, that kiss at the end is exactly that. It smolders, because it’s not Judd kissing Irena, it’s a man kissing his own death. His perverse desire for Irena betrays the desire for destruction that he projected onto her in the scene where he points out the key to the panther cage to her.

That kiss-and-die scene brings the film to its aesthetic apotheosis. The most famous sequences of Cat People, the pool and the Lewton bus, stand out for sheer fright value. However, I insist dance of death between Irena and Judd manifests what the doctor himself describes as the temptation to unleash evil on the world. He brings out the panther in her and she kills him.

He knew this already, no matter what he says to her. You can tell that he had an appointment with fate by the way he paces in her apartment, playing music, tendrils of smoke curling from his nostrils as he chain-smokes like a nervous newlywed.

Then comes that kiss, which is so very wrong, in so many ways…

As Judd kisses Irena, we get a cut to this mildly surrealist shot, with Irena’s one open eye looking coldly past him.

This intimate intrusion has awakened her, as he goes about his business. But then, Judd draws back first. He felt something that frightened him.

And then the “transformation” shot as stars form in Irena’s black eyes and her head bobs out of the camera. She moves slowly in a manner that recalls the fluid motions of the panthers in the cage.

The fact that she leaves the frame, slips right out of sight, gives me chills. Whatever’s happening escapes my knowledge and my comprehension. The only person who gets to provoke Irena into her panther woman mode will pay for that pleasure with his life.

Judd wanted Irena’s passion? Well, he’s about to get it.

Cat People characterizes Dr. Judd its most symbolically potent male character. The fact that he’s a foreigner also undermines the virility of the American male. Oliver and Irena never consummate their marriage or even kiss, but the foreign interloper asserts his masculinity with regards to Irena.

He usurps Oliver’s position, embracing Irena and, when she recoils in rage, he stabs her with his sword-cane. Yet, this gruesome act of intimacy not only brings about Irena’s death, but also Judd’s demise and emasculation, underscored by a close-up of his lifeless hand clutching the broken sword.

Even if I don’t believe that lust can turn a woman into a panther, Cat People gives me something to really fear by exposing the evil that passion can summon. Lewton ironcally validates Irena’s superstitious fears in another blending of logic and belief: sexual desire does call forth the the hidden aggressions and rivalries of the characters which lead them to tragedy. Rather than spooking us out with a fake monster, which we can all shrug off, the film forces us to look at the monstrous drives that drive us all.

It takes great artists to tame the beast in us, put it on display for all, and circumscribe it in a cage of beautiful visions. Cat People does.