In the 1930s, Universal Studios was the undisputed king of horror in Hollywood, with their back-to-back successes of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931 kicking off a trend of horror films both within Universal–such as The Mummy and The Invisible Man, and non-monster-franchise flicks like The Old Dark House and The Black Cat–and without–Paramount’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and United Artists’ White Zombie being notable examples. While some of these imitators often gained some measure of commercial and even critical success (notably, Fredric March winning a Best Actor Oscar for Jekyll), none of them have garnered the pure pop culture penetration of the classic Universal Monsters. Nevertheless, even Universal’s brand of creaky gothic horror began to lose popularity by the mid-’30s and they stopped production on monster films with 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter. However, a smash hit second run of a double feature of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1938 put the monster machine back in motion, starting with 1939’s Son of Frankenstein and reaching a fever pitch with 1941’s The Wolf Man.
Meanwhile across town, RKO Pictures was reeling from the huge monetary losses from Orson Welles’s epic opuses, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Although Kane would go on to gain the reputation as perhaps the greatest film ever made, at the time of its release it was the subject of a smear campaign by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, who took the character of Charles Foster Kane a little too personally. Subsequently, Ambersons had about an hour edited out of its original run time by the studio for fear that its original length would be uncommercial. These commercial flops at the hand of an auteur cost the studio millions of dollars and the studio head was forced to resign. When Charles Koerner took over as the head of the studio in 1942, RKO decided to focus more on the production of B-pictures, as these presented greater return on a smaller risk than large affairs the types of which Welles had produced. They were especially looking to draft somewhat on Universal’s success in the horror genre by latching on to that style of movie.
This was the situation when a young producer and writer named Val Lewton was brought on to head up RKO’s newly formed horror unit in 1942. Prior to this, Lewton had worked almost a decade as the right-hand man of David O. Selznick, a producer at MGM perhaps best known for a low-key indie flick called Gone with the Wind (Lewton worked on this film uncredited; he was responsible for the famous crane shot in which the camera pulls back to reveal the wounded soldiers in Atlanta). But now he was given a chance to head up his own unit and do things his way.
Kind of. Having been burnt in the past by visionary geniuses, RKO set up three rules that Lewton and his unit had to follow: 1) Each movie must be made for under $150,000, 2) Each movie could be not one minute longer than 75 minutes, and 3) RKO would assign Lewton the titles of his movies based on titles that had already tested well with middle America. Lewton was fine with the first two rules, but the third rubbed him the wrong way. He wanted to make his kind of horror, which was in stark opposition to the kind of movie Universal was putting out. To Lewton, a shadow was much more frightening than an actor covered in yak hair stomping around a sound stage.
But he acquiesced and agreed to make a movie called whatever RKO wanted. The first title he was given was Cat People, obviously an attempt to hit the same market as The Wolf Man, but with a feline spin. Lewton, however, had other plans in mind. Taking his own short story The Bagheeta as a loose inspiration, Lewton and screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen and director (and Lewton BFF) Jacques Tourneur created something that could not possibly be more different from Universal’s trademark gothic horror.
For one thing, Cat People was set in modern times, with modern people with real jobs. Irena Dubrovna (played by Simone Simon), Serbian immigrant, is a fashion designer. Average American boy Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) works as a marine engineer together with Alice Moore (Jane Randolph). They live in New York. They see and do New York things. They don’t live in imaginary, vaguely European villages where the people still wear lederhosen and use torches. We see them go to work and their homes and work spaces look lived in, cluttered in just the right ways.
Further, Lewton and Tourneur were adamant that there would be no actual cat person seen on screen. No costume or effects department could compare with the imagination of the audience, especially at a budget of $150,000. Lewton used his fear of shadows to good effect by hiring Nicholas Musuraca as director of photography for his horror unit. Musuraca had basically invented the visual style of film noir with his work on 1940’s Stranger on the Third Floor. His shadows were so rich and black that anything could have been hiding in them. A woman? A cat? A monster? By hiding things in shadow, Lewton and his audiences were working in tandem, collaborating on a monster that could not otherwise exist.
The film is based on real anxieties: a young woman who worries about giving in to her sexual urges, afraid of what they will do to her. She believes she is descended from a race of people who turn into murderous werepanthers when they give into sexual passion or jealousy. Despite all this, she falls in love with Oliver Reed and the two live a chaste marriage until Oliver turns to his co-worker Alice for comfort, inciting Irena to a passionate jealousy.
This scenario leads to the film’s two most famous scenes: in the first, Irena stalks Alice down the city streets at night, her footsteps getting closer and closer. A cat-like growl is heard, focus shifts to Alice’s face and then a loud savage hiss! Which is then revealed to be merely a city bus applying its air brakes as it stops to let Alice on. This technique of building up tension to an unbearable pitch only to relieve it by revealing something harmless subsequently came to be known as a “Lewton bus.”
The second iconic scene of the film involves Alice going swimming in a hotel pool, only to be stalked there by Irena as well. Alice dives into the pool to try to escape whatever is lurking in the shadows, hissing and growling, but which is revealed to be merely Irena when the lights are turned back on. Both of these scenes rely very heavily both on the use of shadow and the intentional ambiguity fostered throughout the movie. Is Irena right or is she crazy? This, like the look of the potential cat beast, is for the audience to decide.
In the end, Cat People is a masterpiece of tension, subtlety, and understatement. Rather than a schlocky creature feature, Lewton and his crew had delivered to RKO a psychological horror about a love triangle, religious faith, and sexual repression. Fortunately, the film was an enormous hit, earning almost thirty times its initial budget at the box office. This meant that Lewton and his crew could continue producing their brand of horror, for example somehow managing to turn the pulpy title I Walked with a Zombie into a voodoo-tinged take on Jane Eyre. They even make a sequel to Cat People called Curse of the Cat People that somehow manages to have even less cat people in it than the original, but which nevertheless is considered by some critics to be superior to the original (it is, notably, the directing debut of Robert Wise, who would later direct the horror classic The Haunting as well as the decidedly non-horror West Side Story and The Sound of Music, both of which won Best Director and Best Picture Oscars).
Altogether Lewton would produce nine horror films for RKO, and every one of them is a psychological masterwork, amounting to the best corpus of horror work of any studio in the 1940s, certainly surpassing Universal’s output in the same time period in terms of quality. For more information on Lewton and his life and work, the podcast The Secret History of Hollywood has a currently still in progress (as of this writing) series on Lewton called “Shadows” that is an absolute must-listen. If you’ve never been exposed to Lewton’s brand of horror, that podcast will definitely convince you to give it a try.