You fear the panther, yet you’re drawn to him again and again.
Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) is a Serbian national and a fashion sketch artist. She is new in New York. While sketching a panther at the zoo she meets a marine engineer, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). They fall in love and get married but all is not well. Irena is haunted by an old tale from her country.
It tells how the people of her village were believed to be witches and devil worshippers. The story talks about ancient residents being driven into witchcraft and evil doing. Some managed to survive by escaping into the mountains. She believes that, under strong emotions like jealousy or anger, they can change into a panther. She calls them 'cat people.' Oliver believes it as a folktale. Irena believes it for real. Because of her belief she refuses to sleep with her husband. She believes she is a cat person and that she might kill him.
Oliver arranges for Irena to see a psychiatrist. He believes Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) can help her to find the reason for her superstition. In therapy, Dr. Judd, learns of her fear of being a cat person. He thinks that there may be some childhood trauma that brought on this fear.
Eventually things get worse. Oliver and his co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph) fall in love. Dr. Judd wants to have Irena committed. And Irena? Is she really a shape shifter? Does she really turn into a panther?
“Cat People” was released in 1942 and was directed by Jacques Tourneur. It was the first movie produced by Val Lewton. The movie is not only a supernatural horror story but also a film noir. It incorporates both the original ‘cat people’ myth from a short story written by Lewton called “The Bagheeta”, and Lewton’s fear of cats. “The Bagheeta” was published in the July 1930 issue of Weird Tales. Cats were one of Lewton’s fears. The other was being touched. He never shook hands with people. This fear is also incorporated in the movie as Irena’s fear of being touched by men. She refuses to have sex with her husband. I’m not aware that she ever even kisses him. The only time she is ever kissed is when her letch of a psychiatrist kisses her. Any that doesn’t end well.
This is what is meant when one talks about a ‘classic horror’. Shadows and rustling branches cause more haunting nightmares than any panther ever could. It’s a good lesson on what an artist can do with a “B” budget and a studio mandated title. It’s an evocative film filled with sexual tension.
**From The Bagheeta-Again he rode through the wood. Again he peered right and left for some sign of the beast, fearful always of seeing golden eyes glow at him from the pitch blackness of the night. Every rustle of the wind, every mouse that scampered on its way, flooded his heart with fear, and filled his eyes with the lithe, black bulk of the Bagheeta, stalking toward him on noiseless paws. With all his heart he wished that the beast would materialize, stand before him, allow him opportunities to slash and thrust and ward. Anything, even deep wounds, would be better than this dreadful uncertainty, this darkness haunted by the dark form of the were-beast.** Val Lewton
The panther’s name was dynamite.