© 2019, by M. Keith Booker
When Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People was released in 1942, the term “film noir” had yet to be invented, and the particular style that would come to be associated with that term was still evolving. And yet, as shot by Nicholas Musuraca (who would become one of the greatest of all noir cinematographers), it already contains some of the most striking examples of noir style. Cat People is also quite possibly the greatest horror film of the 1940s, the first in a series of high-quality horror films produced in the 1940s by Val Lewton for RKO Radio Pictures, the studio that would ultimately come to be associated perhaps more than any other with film noir. If nothing else, Cat People served as an ample illustration of the use of low-key, low-angle lighting and dramatic shadow effects to create an atmosphere of tension, mystery, and moral ambiguity.
That the visual style we have come to associate with film noir should be so effective in a horror film should come as no surprise, given that this style has such extensive roots in the 1920s German Expressionist aesthetic, an aesthetic that was itself largely defined through its use in horror films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922). This style, of course, was already a notable influence on RKO films such as Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) and even Citizen Kane (1941), so its adaptation for use in what would ultimately become known as film noir was already underway when Cat People was made. And American Gothic horror films such as Frankenstein and Dracula had drawn upon the style as early as 1931. It was, however, in Cat People that a clear convergence of horror and film noir fully began to take shape—in terms not only of the visual style, but also the thematic content of the film.
Cat People, based on a short story written by Lewton back in 1930, centrally depends on both a long tradition of associating cats with evil magic and an Orientalist vision of the Balkans as a primitive land mired in superstition, but one in which those superstitions might, in fact, have some basis in fact. This problematic depiction of “exotic” foreign cultures is shared by a number of noir films, of course; this depiction of the Balkans, in particular, is also closely related to the notion of Dracula coming from Transylvania. Thus, in Bram Stoker’s original novel, Jonathan Harker travels by train in the beginning of the film to meet with Dracula in the latter’s Transylvanian castle. On the way he passes through Budapest, a sort of transition point between the civilized world of Western Europe and the darker and more mysterious world of the East, envisioned that way in the Western imagination partly because it was under Ottoman Muslim rule through much of its history. As Harker puts it in his narration, “The impression I had was that we were leaving the West and entering the East; the most western of the splendid bridges over the Danube … took us among the traditions of Turkish rule.”
In the case of Cat People, ancient evil (or at least superstition about ancient evil) emanates from Serbia, which is quite near to Transylvania and also has a tradition of “Turkish rule.” Tourneur’s film features a young Serbian woman, Irena Dubrovna (played by French actress Simone Simon), who has recently come to New York, where she is working as a fashion illustrator. The modern New York setting already sets the film apart from most American horror films to that time, which tended to be set in Europe, in the past, in the remote countryside, or in some combination of the three. And Irena, on the surface, is a modern young career woman, looking very professional in her tailored suits. Though she is an artist of sorts, she is makes it clear from the beginning of the film that she regards her work as being part of a business, not a pursuit of artsy, bohemian nonconformism. Beneath the surface, though, Irena does not fit well in this modern world, because she carries a deep secret. She comes from what she believes to be a haunted Serbian village, and her lineage suggests that she herself might be bearing an ancient curse, one that will transform her into a large, killer cat if she ever experiences anything approaching sexual passion, causing her to strike out at the man who has activated this curse.
Though the film’s epigraph does not specifically mention Serbia, the film’s vision of Serbia as one of the dark places of the earth is made clear in an opening on-screen epigraph, which reads, “Even as fog continues to lie in the valleys, so does ancient sin cling to the low places, the depressions in the world consciousness.” This evocation of “ancient sin” and of “depressions in the world consciousness” is pretty overt, and seems consistent with most of the film, though we should also note that the quote is attributed to a book entitled The Anatomy of Atavism, by one Dr. Louis Judd. Judd, however, is not a real-world doctor but is in fact a character in the film (played by Tom Conway). Meanwhile, it might be worth noting that Judd turns out to be a figure so smarmy that it is almost a compliment to be insulted by him.
In any case, fear of the cat curse has seriously curbed Irena’s social life in New York, to say the least. In the beginning of the film (while she is sketching a particularly vicious black leopard in the Central Park Zoo), Irena meets another young professional, in the person of engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). They immediately hit it off and are soon married after a whirlwind courtship—though one that is notably free of physical passion. Irena, meanwhile, opts not to tell Oliver about the curse, but instead merely projects a virginal shyness, asking Oliver to be patient with her. Completely smitten, he agrees, though the lack of physical intimacy in the marriage obviously helps to create an atmosphere in which a longtime (unspoken) sexual tension between Oliver and his co-worker, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), can bloom into mutual love.
To complicate matters further, Oliver sends Irena to a psychiatrist to try to get at the root of her intimacy issues. This psychiatrist (Judd, of course) seems a bit oily and pretentious from the very beginning. However, as he gets to know Irena, he becomes creepier and creepier as he shifts into all-out sexual predator mode. His increasingly aggressive advances ultimately lead to a final confrontation in which he and Irena are both killed—but exactly what goes on in this final confrontation is actually left quite vague, as befits this entire film, a highly atmospheric work that poses more questions than it answers and that intentionally leaves many mysteries unsolved.
The atmosphere of mystery and potential doom that pervades the film begins in the very first scene, as Irena and Oliver meet in what seems like it could be a meet-cute scene from a light romantic comedy. The only problem is that, when they depart the zoo, we see a sketch that she accidentally left behind, blowing in the wind (and unseen by Oliver). In the sketch, the leopard is ominously being pierced by a sword, suddenly casting a different light on the entire opening scene. Then Oliver and Irena walk together to her well-appointed apartment, in a stylish brownstone. As it gets dark out (and inside the apartment, where the lights are still off), Oliver discovers that the roar of lions can be heard from the nearby zoo. She notes that many people in the people have complained about this noise, but that she finds it “natural and soothing.” Then she tells him that sometimes, at night, one can hear the panther, screaming like a woman, which she finds disturbing. She does, however, have a large painting of a black panther on a folding screen in her apartment—possibly executed by her from sketches made at the zoo.
Realizing how dark it is getting, she tells him, “I like the dark. It’s friendly.” Meanwhile, he also spots a statuette of Serbia’s King John, riding on a horse with his sword lifted into the air. Irena explains to Oliver that John “was a fine king. He drove the Mamelukes out of Serbia and freed the people.” Oliver nods, but is somewhat taken aback by the fact that a large cat is depicted as impaled on King John’s sword, a fact that perhaps seems even more significant to viewers, who have seen the drawing Irena made at the zoo. “It’s not really a cat,” Irena explains. “It’s meant to represent the evil ways into which my village had once fallen.”
Jeff Kuykendall, writing for the website Midnight Only, identifies this statuette as actually being of one Jovan Nenad (1492–1527). Nenad, also known as “Jovan the Black,” is a somewhat legendary figure in Serbian history. Bjelajac, for example, notes that “whole legends spread concerning his origins. He continually claimed that God had appointed him to convert the pagans and unbelievers to Christianity, and to root out the Muslims and ‘other sects’” (9). On the other hand, his insurrection against the Ottomans, however heroic, was ultimately unsuccessful and had little lasting influence on politics in the region, so he was not quite the liberator described by Irena, who characterizes him as a sort of Serbian George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.
In any case, Irena then goes on to give Oliver a mini-lecture on the history of her village, noting that the “Mamelukes” enslaved the local people, who were initially devout Christians, but who—in response to the conditions of this enslavement—eventually turned to Satan worship. By the time King John arrived to liberate them, Irena notes, “he found dreadful things.” King John (who, by this account, seems to have been a rather problematic liberator) then put many of them to death in an attempt to wipe out this evil, though the “wisest and the most wicked” of them escaped into the surrounding mountains. Their legend, she notes, still haunts the village where she was born. In particular, though she does not say so at this point, legend has it that evil “cat people,” descended from these escapees into the mountains, still live in the area.
This narrative has only a weak basis in historical reality, drawing upon the fact that Serbia was conquered by the Muslim Ottomans during a bitter, century-long struggle between the middles of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It then remained under Ottoman rule until the Serbian Revolution of 1804–1815. Reports of atrocities committed by the occupying Ottoman forces during the centuries of their occupation of Serbia are legion, though the exact nature of their rule in the Balkans has been widely disputed. The basic legend at the heart of Cat People seems to derive from myths and legends surrounding this area and this period, though it is mostly fictional. Most importantly, the legend is consistent with the reputation of the Balkan region as an area of darkness, and so functions as a believable premise for Western audiences.
Irena does not reveal to Oliver her personal fears concerning this legend, which helps their relationship to proceed smoothly (and quickly) to marriage, though there are continual hints of sinister forces at work along the way. At one point, for example, Irena warns Oliver that she is dogged by “evil things” that he couldn’t possibly understand. Oliver tries to be diplomatic, but he clearly dismisses her concerns as so much Serbian nonsense, confidently assuring her that she is in America, thus clearly implying that America is a modern, enlightened place where primitive superstitions have no power. Here, he assures her, she can live a “normal” life. There are signs, though, that he might be wrong. Early in their courtship, Oliver buys Irena a kitten as a gift. This kitten, by the way, seems quite fond of Alice when Oliver brings it by the office on the way to giving it to Irena, helping to establish her as the “good” woman of the film. Unfortunately, the cat—clearly thinking it senses something disturbing about Irena—becomes so agitated when it is presented to her that they decide to return it to the pet store to exchange it for a different animal. By this time, it is clear that there is something out of the ordinary going on in terms of Irena’s relationship with cats, though it is not at all clear just what that might be. Meanwhile, it turns out that other animals react negatively to her as well: when they go back to the pet store, all of the animals there become frightened and agitated when Irena walks in, though Oliver finally manages to procure a canary by having Irena wait outside while he completes the transaction.
After their wedding, Oliver and Irena have dinner with some friends at a Serbian restaurant in New York to celebrate the event. While they are there, a decidedly suspicious-looking woman (who is described by one of the attendees as looking like a cat) suddenly confronts Irena (who is sitting beside Alice). “Moia sestra,” (“my sister” in Serbian), says the woman, in a tone that obviously seems fraught with significance. There is, of course, nothing particularly extraordinary about finding a Serb in a Serbian restaurant. Nor does it seem all that surprising that this woman might recognize Irena as a countrywoman and address her as a sister Serb. But the scene clearly implies that there is something more, something potentially sinister about this moment. Irena herself clearly senses this, making the sign of the cross as if to ward off evil.
The plot thickens as Irena attempts to handle the canary given her by Oliver, only to have it die of fright. Then Irena, acting under the power of a strange compulsion, takes the bird’s body to the zoo and feeds it to the panther. When Irena confesses this act to Oliver, he concludes that it is time for her to seek psychiatric help and send her to see Judd, who places her under hypnosis, during which she reveals the whole story of the cat curse and her village, including a personal detail, suggesting that her own mother might have been a cat woman who killed Irena’s father in a fit of passion.
The strange scene of this hypnosis, in which Judd darkens his entire office except for a light focused on Irena’s face, provides another enhancement to the eerie atmosphere of the film, while also providing an early hint that there might be something a bit sinister about Judd himself. He also seems surprisingly handsy in dealing with his patient, which will later come to fruition in an all-out (and highly unprofessional) sexual advance, leading to the altercation that ultimately kills them both. Meanwhile, we soon learn that Alice was the one who recommended Judd to Oliver, even though she admits to finding his flirtatious behavior off-putting. “The way he goes around kissing hands makes me want to spit cotton,” she admits, but then suggests that his psychiatric knowledge seems impeccable.
In the first sign of friction between the two women, Irena is clearly upset to learn that Alice recommended Judd, feeling (understandably) that her husband should not have discussed her personal problems with his co-worker. Oliver, who is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, then makes matters worse by extolling Alice’s virtues when Irena continues to complain about this betrayal of confidence. Then Oliver proceeds to continue to discuss Irena’s problems with Alice while at work, despite the fact that he knows Irena does not approve. When Oliver reveals how unhappy he is in his marriage, Alice bursts into tears, declaring that she can’t bear to see him unhappy, revealing (apparently for the first time) that she is in love with him. Then she apologizes (perhaps doing a little fishing) and acknowledges that he must be in love with Irena. Oliver responds that he really doesn’t know if he loves Irena, or if he even knows what love is. Love, Alice calmly explains to him, “is understanding. It’s you and me and let the rest of the world go by.” She then goes on, waxing more and more poetic about her “you and me against the world” vision of love. “That isn’t the way I feel about Irena,” Oliver explains. “There’s a warmth from her that pulls at me.” Oliver, in short, is drawn to Irena by a strong sexual attraction, her magnetism presumably being enhanced by the power of the cat curse, though he also admits that he really hardly knows his wife and that they are largely still strangers to one another. Clearly worried about Oliver’s description of his attraction to Irena, she seems to sense an opening here. “You and I will never be strangers,” she announces, bouncing to her feet and weirdly shaking Oliver’s hand.
Of course, Alice is on unsteady ground (especially with the Production Code) given that Irena and Oliver are married, thus making her the dreaded “other” woman. Even the slow-witted Oliver realizes a potential problem here and compliments Alice for being “swell” when she encourages him to try to work on his problems with Irena. “That’s what makes me dangerous,” she responds. “I’m the new type of other woman.” Exactly what she means by “dangerous” is never quite stipulated, but she certainly does seem to be playing Oliver like a fiddle. By this time it seems clear that this film is thoroughly shot through with moral ambiguity, especially in the good woman/bad woman opposition between Alice and Irena, which is surely more complex than one between a mad, destructive Serb carrying an evil curse and a fine, rational, good-hearted American. Meanwhile, can Oliver really be as dumb as he seems when he can’t stop mentioning Alice in his conversations with Irena? Isn’t Irena completely justified when she begins to suspect that there is something going on between Alice and her husband?
I might also point out that Irena never actually attacks Alice, though she does begin stalking her, with the clear suggestion that the jealousy Irena feels might activate the curse. In one of the film’s key sequences, Alice walks home alone late at night after a relatively innocent encounter with Oliver in a restaurant has been observed by Irena, who follows her. We hear the sounds of the footsteps of both women, but then the sound of Irena’s footsteps stops, though we don’t see her. Has she simply stopped following Irena? Has her jealousy turned her into a panther, so that her footsteps are now silent? Sensing danger, Alice speeds up, even breaks into a run. Suddenly, we hear what seems to be the growl of a panther, followed by a sudden hissing noise that at first appears to announce the strike of the big cat, but that is in fact the air brakes of a bus that stops to pick up Alice just at this moment. We never see a panther, though something does shake the bushes near where Alice had been standing. It’s a masterful sequence that produces what many have regarded as the cinema’s first true jump scare, while at the same time contributing to film jargon: an situation in which a sudden fright is triggered by something that turns out to be harmless (especially a cat) is now known as a “Lewton bus” moment. Meanwhile, even though all turns out well for Alice in this particular moment, the level of tension in the film has been raised substantially.
The tension is ratcheted up still further in the next scene of the film, in which a shepherd tending his flock in the Central Park Zoo near the cat cages finds that something has killed some of his sheep. The zoo’s cats are all still in their cages, so the implication seems to be that some other sort of animal has killed them—possibly Irena in panther mode. Of course, it makes no sense whatsoever for a shepherd to be tending his flock in the Central Park Zoo in the middle of the night, so by this time it is fairly clear that this film is more concerned with building atmosphere than in telling a coherent story, a characteristic it shares with many noir films, as well as many horror films.
In any case, the shot of the dead sheep is followed by a tracking shot of a trail of bloody footprints, apparently of a large cat. Then, as the shot continues (with an almost unnoticeable cut), we see Irena walking along crying, suggesting that she has just transformed back to human form. Then she takes a cab home, where Oliver greets her and assures her, cluelessly, that “what happened tonight happens in every family.” He asks her to forgive him, and she says she does, though it is not at all clear that she has any idea what he is talking about. Then she takes a bath and goes to bed and to sleep, leading to a dream sequence that adds still more to the strange ambience of the film. She has a nightmare, to be precise, involving Judd dressed as King John, doing battle against a group of evil black cats.
This nightmare essentially identifies Judd as Irena’s nemesis, possibly because he has literally been stalking her since she stopped attending sessions in his office. This identification, meanwhile, foreshadows the end of the film, as well. But first, Tourneur presents us with some more key scenes that build tension. In one, Oliver and Irena go to a museum. However, not only does Oliver thoughtfully invite Alice to come along, but he and Alice blow off Irena so that they can entertain their mutual interest in an exhibit built around sailing ships, with which they have a professional concern. Irena sadly leaves the museum on her own, ominously pausing (and posing) for a moment beside a statue of Anubis, the ancient Egyptian god of death, in one of the film’s many striking visuals.
This moment is worth commenting upon in detail. That Anubis is the god of death obviously has dark implications that enhance the horror-film feel of Cat People. In addition, Anubis traditionally (and in this shot) has a canine-like head (variously identified as that of a jackal or a wolf), which might make him a natural enemy of Irena, though the head looks almost catlike, which might align him with Irena, making the implications of the head ambiguous. Perhaps what is most important, though, is that, as an ancient Egyptian god, Anubis serves as an emblem of both exotic foreign cultures and ancient superstitions, which definitely places him in the same symbolic position as Irena. In this shot, then, we have the two “exotic” foreigners, Anubis and Irena, standing side-by-side, while the “normal” white Americans, Oliver and Alice, nuzzle together upstairs.
The tension in the film will then reach its peak in the next sequence, as Alice arrives at her apartment building and decides to try to relax by taking a swim in its basement swimming pool, stopping on the way to affectionately pet a black kitten, which then follows her downstairs to the pool. After a quick swim, Alice prepares to leave the pool area, then notices the kitten hissing and arching its back, as if frightened by something. Alice turns out the light and heads toward the stairs, whose railing casts a classic noir shadow pattern on the far wall. She hears a snarling growl coming from up the stairs and sees a fleeting catlike shadow on that wall. Irena as a panther? Alice dives back into the pool, where she continues to hear mysterious animal noises and to see fleeting shadows amid the dim, reflected light from the pool. Finally, she starts to scream for help, drawing the attention of the desk clerk and a maid. As they head down the stairs, Irena suddenly steps out of the shadows beside the pool and nonchalantly turns on the lights. Has she just transformed back from her panther form? “What is the matter, Alice?” she asks, almost tauntingly. Then, when Alice goes to put on her robe, she finds that it has been ripped to shreds, as if by the claws of a large cat.
Deeply troubled by all this, Alice calls on none other than Judd for help. She asks him what he thinks of Irena’s story about the cat people, whereupon he starts to give her all sorts of details about what he thinks is going on in Irena’s mind—in a clear violation of proper professional discretion. Alice, though, tells him that she thinks the story is real and that Irena has been stalking her in the form of a cat due to Alice’s love for Oliver. Judd offers to check it out with Irena, and assures Alice (somewhat condescendingly) that he will take his trusty sword cane with him for protection.
Judd somehow manages to get Irena to come back to his office, whereupon he questions her about her fear that one kiss from Oliver might turn her into a ravening beast. Then he leans rakishly toward her and says (in what he apparently thinks is his sexy voice), “And if I were to kiss you?” “I only know that I should not like to be kissed by you,” she responds, coldly. Clearly disappointed, he pulls back and tells her she is on the verge of total insanity; he advises her to forget about her obsession with cats and to start living a normal life. She thanks him for his advice, which she genuinely appears to find helpful, even though it is little more than a classic sexist “calm down, don’t be hysterical.” He then responds that he is glad to help because “you interest me.”
Irena rushes home to Oliver to tell him the good news that she is cured of her fear of passion, to which he simply responds that he’s decided he loves Alice, instead of her. He generously offers her a divorce, at which she apparently spirals toward madness and rips up a couch cushion with her fingernails as Oliver departs. Then he heads straight for a meeting with Judd, accompanied by Alice, as all involved once again prove to be masters of the inappropriate. Judd advises Oliver to seek an annulment, on the basis of the fact that it will be legally impossible to divorce Irena if she is committed to a mental asylum. Oliver, trying to play the good guy, opts to have her committed, anyway, and Judd agrees to draw up the papers, leading to one final teaser in which an animal, apparently a panther, stalks Oliver and Alice as they again hang out together in their office at night, before finally taking us to that confrontation in which Judd and Irena apparently kill each other–though Judd would inexplicably reappear as a character (still played by Conway) a year later in the Lewton-produced The Seventh Victim.
Both of these last two scenes are narrated in semi-darkness, their stories told largely in shadows, thus creating an air of ambiguity and mystery. In one key moment in the office, for example, Oliver somewhat lamely threatens the panther with a T-square, which then casts the shadow of a Christian cross on the wall behind him, together with the shadows of Oliver and Alice. That’s apparently powerful enough a talisman to drive the panther (Irena?) away into the night. Meanwhile, after Judd once again starts with his oily version of would-be sexy talk back in Irena’s apartment, the final battle between the two of them is presented almost entirely as a shadow show, clearly implying—though not actually showing—that Irena has once again taken panther form (though a panther is shown leaping onto Judd for a split second in the scene’s last shot). The wounded Irena then slips away to the zoo to die there in the fog, meanwhile releasing the panther from its cage only to have it hit and killed almost immediately by a passing cab.
Oliver and Alice then show up on the scene to find Irena’s body, which, in the final shot, is shown in an ambiguous way that makes it look very much like that of a panther, though it could just be Irena in her voluminous fur coat. It’s a perfect ending for this film, which features so many ambiguities, especially of a visual variety. Indeed, few films—even in the later heyday of noir—have made such effective use of low-key and low-angle lighting, which is constantly casting prominent shadows in virtually every scene. Indeed, the effectiveness of the visual texture of this film helped it to become a major success and to inspire the string of horror films for RKO that Lewton produced over the next few years. The film’s visuals also made an important contribution to the developing noir style, while the film itself provides a particularly good demonstration of the overlap between film noir and horror.
Argiro, Thomas Robert. “Mapping the Unassimilable: The Balkan Other as Meme in Val Lewton’s Cat People.” European Journal of Cultural Studies (2015): 1–16.
Bjelajac B. “Echoes of the Early Reformation in Serbia.” Journal of European Baptist Studies 10.2 (2010): 5–21.
Kuykendall, Jeff. “Cat People (1942).” Midnight Only (July 21, 2013). Accessed July 23, 2019.
 For more on the problematic engagement of the film with traditions of negative stereotypes about Eastern Europe, see Argiro, who sums up the engagement thusly: “Cat People’s ethnic factors establish a psychic, cultural and political relay between history, stereotypes, regional legends and religious conflicts while insensitively reducing a Serbian woman to a reductive portrayal of an inscrutable cultural other, a member of an ethnic group that still retains an ancient curse from medieval times” (13–14).
 This same animal is interchangeably referred to in the film as a “leopard” and as a “panther,” though the latter is used more often.
 This allegorical reading of the cat in the statuette invites us to apply a similar reading to all of the cat imagery in the film. Are we dealing with “real” cats, or “allegorical” cats that stand in for things such as repressed sexual impulses? This undecidability runs throughout the film.
 I have been unable to confirm Kuykendall’s identification of “King John” as Nenad: there are several references to this identification on-line, but the references are circular and all seem to draw upon each other. Argiro, for example, references Wikipedia, which references Kuykendall, who gives no source for the information.
 The term “Mamelukes” has actually been used in a variety of contexts, most of them not related to the Ottomans. In fact, the most prominent use refers to the Mameluke Sultanate of Egypt, which was a rival to the Ottomans, until it was finally defeated by them in 1517. However, the term “Mameluke” has sometimes been used as a general designation for Muslim-led military forces and seems to be used that way in Cat People.
 Compare the similar creative use of Balkan legends in Gary Shore’s Dracula Untold (2014). Here, rather than serving in his original role as a sinister figure who threatens to bring the darkness of the East into the civilized milieu of the West, Dracula is depicted as a self-sacrificing champion of Western values who serves as a bulwark against violent intrusions from the East (specifically from the Ottoman Empire). Willing to do anything to protect his Transylvanian homeland from conquest by the evil Turks, Dracula essentially sells his soul to the devil, agreeing to become a vampire so that he can gain the superpowers needed to defeat the invaders.
 As one might expect from a French actress, Simon executes this cross Catholic-style, completing it from left to right. As a Serb, though, Irena would be expected to complete the cross from right to left, in the Orthodox Christian manner. This is probably a simple mistake. On the other hand, one could argue that, if Irena is, in fact, a cat person invested with Satanic evil, she might be expected to employ Christian iconography in inverted form.