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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

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My name:  Brian Martin

Cat People (1942), directed by Jacques Tourneur

Cat People -

When newlywed Oliver Reed tells his best friend and co-worker, Alice, that his marriage has made him unhappy, Alice starts to cry. And with her tears, civilization falls. For hers are not tears of support, but rather, as she soon confesses, of love, and Oliver is a married man, a man married, in fact, to a lovely but decidedly strange woman who withholds her body (even her kiss) for fear of summoning chaos with her passion. And what is jealousy, if not a form of passion?

Val Lewton produced Cat People and DeWitt Bodeen wrote the screenplay, which was based on a short story, "The Bagheeta," written by Lewton and published 12 years earlier in Weird Tales. Story and film are vastly different, but common to both is the conflation of shape-shifting women with sex. In the story, a virgin woman who "died from wrongs inflicted upon her by sinful men" returned as a black panther, one capable of assuming the shape of a beautiful woman to seduce and kill sinners. In the film, the legendary cat people are supposedly descended from inhabitants of a Serbian village who turned to witchcraft and devil worship. Simone Simon plays Oliver's wife, Irena Dubrovna, who believes she is one of the cat people and that, if once her passion is aroused, she will turn into a panther and kill.

The movie is famous for its use of suggestion, but it works because all those shadows actually represent something: the dividing line between civilized repression and primitive abandon. The marriage between the two worlds is made when Alice reveals her illicit love for Oliver in a brightly lit office, and it is consummated soon after when Alice is stalked by someone or something lurking in the flickering shadows around a basement swimming pool. The monster, whatever it is, is loose.

Director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca give the images their rich, evocative eloquence. Simone Simon, an exotic French near-beauty, complements the story perfectly, exciting both sympathy and fear in her creepy obsession. We feel for her when, in a restaurant after the wedding, a strange woman approaches her, repeating only two words -- moya sestra. But at the same time, those words make us wonder. "My sister." Can these odd women really be cat people?