Val Lewton's career is proof that a big budget is not necessary to make excellent fright films. A former poet who became a journalist before ending up as a pulp novelist, Lewton (real name Vladimir Leventon) always brought a very literary sensibility to his cheap quickies for RKO Studios. Cat People, which was Lewton's first film for RKO as a producer, is the apogee of his career. For under $15,000, Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur took a slightly ridiculous story idea and made a groundbreaking film.
Like most of Lewton's later pictures, Cat People is a simple story told in a turbo-charged manner. It's only 73 minutes long, which means that it's barely longer than most television shows. On top of that, Cat People is the first on-screen example of Lewton's interest in warped psychology and the blurry boundaries between the supernatural and common neuroses. Irena Reed (played by Simone Simon) spends a lot of time straddling this line, but ultimately, Cat People makes it clear that the poor Serbian girl is in fact a monster.
After a chance meeting at the Central Park Zoo, Irena and a handsome marine engineer named Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) soon find themselves madly in love with one another. Despite this, Oliver and others can't help but to find Irena a little odd. You see, during their first date (which consisted of tea and listening to the big cats of the nearby zoo roar in the night), Irena tells Oliver a story about her native village. According to legend, after King John (Jovan Nenad) drove out the Turkish occupiers, he discovered to his horror that the locals had descended into witchcraft and devil worship. For these crimes they were banished into the mountains.
Centuries later, Irena believes that she is a descendant of these blasphemous peasants. As such, she must refrain from kissing Oliver so that she doesn't transform into a large beast. For a blissful few months, everything is fine and dandy with the young couple. Then, during their reception at The Belgrade restaurant, a feline-faced Serbian woman approaches Irena and says the word "Sister" in their native tongue. A clearly upset Irena retreats back to her apartment and falls asleep alone.
In order to quiet Irena's fears, Oliver and a mutual friend named Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) suggest to Irena the services of a psychiatrist named Dr. Louis Judd (played Tom Conway). During their first session, Irena tells Dr. Judd all about her superstitious beliefs and why they trouble her so badly. As this unfolds, the audience begins to recognize that Alice and Oliver might be more than just work chums. Indeed, after Oliver learns that Irena has skipped out on numerous therapy sessions in order to spend time at the zoo's panther cage, he admits to Alice that he no longer loves Irena. Alice ups the ante by confessing her love for him. We now officially have a love triangle.
Obviously, Irena is not going to allow such infidelity to last. She begins following the pair as they work late in the office or have pie and coffee. During a very famous scene, Irena methodically stalks Alice down a sporadically lighted street. As their footfalls mingle, then cease, Alice begins to hear the low rumblings of a large cat behind her. Although the cat is never seen, Alice knows for sure that something is after her. The tension builds and builds until the timely arrival of a city bus breaks the strain. This moment has become known as the Lewton Bus and millions of horror and thriller films have borrowed the scene's mechanics for their own jump scares.
In another equally famous scene, Irena follows Alice to her apartment's basement swimming pool. Disturbed by the sounds of an approaching panther, Alice dives into the empty pool and watches in horror as the shadows begin to form the shape of large predator. She screams. The panther screams. Then, when help arrives, the only people either near or in the pool are Alice and a smirking Irena. Alice dries off knowing that she was almost dead meat.
The final push over the edge for Irena comes when Oliver admits that he loves Alice and would like a divorce. Incensed, Irena returns to their apartment later that night. Instead of either Oliver or Alice, Irena finds the slightly slimy Dr. Judd, who just days prior had suggested kissing Irena during one of their sessions. This time the bad doctor gets his kiss and pays for it. With a sharp twinkle in her eyes, Irena transforms into a black panther and kills Dr. Judd. However, before his death, Dr. Judd manages to stab Irena several times with his sword cane. Wounded, Irena retreats to the panther's cage at the Central Park Zoo and releases the animal. Not long after the animal is crushed by a passing taxi, Oliver and Alice find the dead body of Irena. Instead of a woman, they see a black panther. Irena had been telling the truth all along.
Despite its hokey name, Cat People is a beautiful mixture of film noir and horror. Not only that, but the film helped to save the fear genre during the slump of the 1940s. Without question one of Lewton's best productions, Cat People not only etched his legacy in stone, but it also guaranteed more work for Tourneur, a brilliant director who would later film I Walked With a Zombie and Night of the Demon. What Universal was to the early 1930s, Lewton and RKO were to the mid-1940s. Without Cat People, that might never have happened.