Directed by Jacques Tourneur from a script by DeWitt Bodeen in 1942 for producer Val Lewton, Cat People opens with a scene in which a man named Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) meets a strange but beautiful woman at the exotic cat exhibit at the city zoo. This woman, a Serbian immigrant named Irena Dubrovna Reed (Simone Simon), has recently moved to New York City to work as a fashion artist. She invites Oliver back to her apartment where he takes interest in a statue. She tells him its history and in doing so, relays to him an old Serbian folk story about how her ancestors were, years back, involved in witchcraft.
Regardless of Irena's quirky, sometimes unusual, behavior she and Oliver are soon married. This doesn't stop her from often visiting the large cats at the park zoo or finding comfort in their roars as she hears from them the apartment late at night. Intimacy is a problem for them, however, and soon enough Oliver's beautiful new bride tells him that she's worried some of her ancestors' ancient evil could very well live inside of her. Oliver pays no attention to her old world superstitions and figures she's just nervous. He has a doctor named Louis Judd (Tom Conway) talk to her, but it doesn't seem to do too much good. As time continues to pass, Oliver starts to fall out of love with Irena, things just aren't going the way that he had hoped they would with her. When his beautiful co-worker, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), confesses her love to him, he's interested… but what to do about Irena? Soon enough, Oliver and Alice are both experiencing some strange encounters in the dark, and hearing cat noises at unusual times…
Despite running a fairly short seventy-two minutes in length, Cat People might not necessarily appeal to those looking for cheap thrills. Rather, this is a superb exercise in the slow burn style of filmmaking, creating suspense not with jump scares or loud musical stings but with deliberate reveals and rich atmosphere. The more we get to know Irena the more unusual her behavior becomes and while it's hardly a shock to find out that she may in fact be more than she would seem on the surface, we still feel for her. She cares for Oliver, even if she knows she can't love him the way that he wants her to. This is demonstrated in the scene where, when she is confiding to Judd, about their intimacy issues. He encourages her to kiss him, not just for her benefit but obviously for his own (he's clearly attracted to her). She tells him she doesn't want to, but we know from the look she gives him that even if she did, she couldn't. This curse upon her prevents her from doing so. It's in scenes like this, quieter and more subtle moments, that the gorgeous Simone Simon is at her best. She's able to convey a believable sadness with her facial expressions and eye movements far more effectively than any dialogue that could have been written for her.
The rest of the cast are fine. Kent Smith is dashing and charming and Jane Randolph quite good as the woman who just can't get over him. Tom Conway steals a few scenes as the psychiatrist looking into Irena's case. Really though, it's Simone Simon who leaves the lasting impression by the time that this picture is over.
Aside from an unusually trippy sequence involving some animated effects, most of the film's horror elements come from what we don't see more so than what is actually shown to us. The best example is the scene where Alice goes for a late night swim at the pool in her gym. Here she starts off by enjoying herself but soon begins to scream for her life as the lights go black and we hear the eerie howls of a cat. All we see is blackness, which is exactly what Alice would see, and it's perfect. The cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca frames all of this with some fantastic use of light and shadow. Roy Webb's score accentuates the drama, the romance and the horror perfectly.Video:
Cat People arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded transfer framed at 1.33.1 fullframe on a 50GB disc from a new 2k master taken from "a 35mm safety fine-grain master" and it looks excellent. The black and white image shows frequently very impressive detail throughout the duration of the film. Grain is present but there isn't really any obvious print damage, the picture is incredibly clean and very film like. There's good depth to the image, even in some of the darker interior scenes and night time scenes, and the image demonstrates good shadow detail throughout (you'll notice this during the night sequences that take place at the zoo, for example). Contrast is perfect, so we get nice, bright whites alongside rich, deep blacks and a pretty full grey scale covering everything in between. Compression artifacts are never a problem and the picture is free of any obvious noise reduction or edge enhancement. Fans of this film should be very pleased indeed with how good it looks on this release.Sound:
The only audio option for the feature is an English language LPCM Mono track, while optional closed captioning is provided in English only. For an older single channel mix, this track sounds very good. The score has good range and depth to it and the dialogue sounds nice and natural. The track is consistently well balanced and free of any audible hiss or distortion. Sound effects have good strength to them too, especially the roars that you'll hear in a few scenes.Extras:
Film historian Gregory Mank's commentary track that was recorded for the Warner Brothers DVD release some time back has been ported over to this release. For those who haven't yet given it a listen, it's quite an informative discussion of both the film itself and the people involved in its production. There's quite a bit of talk here about Jacques Tourneur's directing style and what he was able to bring to the production and so too is there a lot of insight into what Val Lewton brought to the movie as well. Along the way we get some interesting information about where RKO was at this point in the company's history, plenty of interesting trivia about the cast assembled for the picture, some notes on the score and the commentary and more.
Complementing this quite nicely is the inclusion of the seventy-seven minute feature length documentary, Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, which was made in 2008 by director Kent Jones. Narrated by Martin Scorsese, this fascinating piece gives us a very thorough overview of Lewton's career covering his career in film from the early days right through the end. Along the way we touch on many of the pictures he had a hand in making, including Cat People, and learn about some of the people that he worked with on various projects like Tourneur and Boris Karloff.
New to this release is a seventeen minute interview with cinematographer John Bailey, the man who shot Paul Shrader's Cat People remake. Here Bailey talks quite enthusiastically about the work that Nicholas Musuraca did on the original version of the movie, expressing his admiration for the way that shadow and light combine in the film to create some impressive atmosphere. He also shares some insight into the influence that other cinematic trends had on this picture and how elements from this original version of the story worked their way into the remake. Also included on the disc is a twenty-seven minute episode of a French television show called Cine Regards from 1977 in which Jacques Tourneur is interviewed. Here he speaks about his early days in film, moving from France to the United States and working on some of the films for which he remains best remembered.
the disc also includes the film's original theatrical trailer, menus and chapter selection. Included inside the clear Blu-ray case along with the disc is an insert booklet that folds out to reveal and essay on the film by Geoffrey O'Brien as well as some credits for the film and the disc itself.Final Thoughts:
Cat People remains a genuinely great film, one that simultaneously brings things to a logical conclusion while still leaving plenty of ambiguity up in the air for us to think over long after the film finishes. The performances are great but it's the cinematography and art direction that really seals the deal, and the film has never looked better on home video than it does on this Blu-ray release from The Criterion Collection. Add to that the excellent array of supplements and this disc is a winner. Highly recommended.