Cat People (1942)

dir. Jacques Tourneur. Originally from Serbia, Irena Dubrovna is a fashion illustrator with a cat obsession, filling her apartment with feline imagery. Irena’s obsession stems from her belief that she is descended from Satan worshipping witches, banished from Serbia hundreds of years ago. Irena fears that if she makes love, or even kisses, she will transform into a ravenous wildcat and devour her lover – this makes dating complicated. The black and white cinematography is rightly famous and stunning. Roger Ebert called the filmmakers the masters of shadow and light, and this is borne out in not only the stunning aesthetics, but also in how the shadows communicate the psychological state of the characters and serve as portents of what may come. The film re-uses the amazing wooden staircase from Orson Welles’ THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, made earlier in the same year. The film does a clever job revealing the ambiguous nature of the supernatural element; this is no gender-flipped Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The blunt title makes it sound like a B-grade horror movie, but it’s much more of a suspenseful psychological thriller. There is also some subtle worldbuilding, including a haunting greeting in the Serbian restaurant, and the unremarked appearance of the Egyptian cat god, Bastet. It’s never clear how much Irena understands her own curse (and powers). She shifts believably from confused and upset, to menacing. This ambiguity is fascinating and rewards multiple viewings. The film does a remarkable job of imagining the consciousness of a cat, especially this line which Irena sobs into her sofa, “There’s only silence. But I love silence. I love loneliness. And they… they are in me…”.

By Nicholas Hudson-Ellis

Co-Founder & Film Programs Manager of Bangkok Screening Room.