Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 2, January 2001

 

 

David Annandale

_Cat People_: A Screening with Commentary

 

 

 

Kim Newman

_Cat People_

London: British Film Institute, 1999

ISBN: 0-85170-741-6

79 pp.

 

Anyone searching for a suitable image to define the word 'encyclopaedic'

could hardly do better than provide an X-ray of Kim Newman's brain.

Newman's knowledge of popular culture generally, and of the horror film in

particular, is positively intimidating. The enormous breadth of his reach

has served him well, both in his novels (especially the _Anno Dracula_

trilogy, populated by every conceivable character from popular culture and

history, real or fictional, famous or forgotten), and in his non-fiction

surveys _Nightmare Movies_ (1988) and _Apocalypse Movies_ (1999). With the

monograph _Cat People_, part of the British Film Institute's Film Classics

series, Newman finally has the opportunity to go into depth on one film.

 

Newman structures his examination of _Cat People_ around a viewing of the

film. He begins before the credits by outlining the film's production

history, then works his way through in a scene-by-scene breakdown,

examining how each scene functions in relation to the film as a whole, but

also discussing influences and controversies related to that scene. He

ends, post-credits, with a consideration of the film's financial and

critical success, and subsequent legacy. Thus Newman moves beyond _Cat

People_ to take a broader look at Val Lewton's oeuvre, and the long-term

impact of _Cat People_ on the horror film. Here his encyclopaedic side

takes over again, embracing such disparate films as Mike Nichols's _Wolf_

(1994) and the pornographic effort _The Cat Woman_ (1988). This impulse

breaks through earlier too, when Newman's discussion of the film's title

allows him to invoke _Blood Orgy of the She Devils_ (1973) and _Stuff

Stephanie in the Incinerator_ (1989) -- surely the only time these two

epics will be mentioned in the context of a Val Lewton study.

 

Among the successors, Newman looks most closely at _Cat People_'s immediate

offspring: _Curse of the Cat People_ (1944) and _The Seventh Victim_

(1943), both of which feature characters from the first film. He discusses

the underreported presence of Dr Judd (Tom Conway) in _The Seventh Victim_,

significant not only because of the tie to _Cat People_ but because Judd

dies at the end of that film. Newman considers two possibilities: one that

_The Seventh Victim_ takes place prior to _Cat People_, and the other that

there is no actual connection, that it occurs 'in a side-stream of time'

(67), one where Judd has survived his encounter with Irena. Newman leans

toward the second explanation, arguing that the Dr Judd who browbeats

Satanists with a recitation of the Lord's Prayer displays a depth of

conviction and feeling impossible to imagine prior to his experiencing the

soul-shaking events of _Cat People_. Fair enough, but personally, I do

prefer to read _The Seventh Victim_ as occurring prior to _Cat People_,

especially since, as Newman points out Lewton 'evidently had a mistrust' of

psychiatrists (35). Given the utter bleakness of _The Seventh Victim_'s

ending, the Lord's Prayer sequence sticks out like a sore thumb. To those

who remember Judd from the previous film, however, his speech comes across

as the worst kind of smug hypocrisy, completely undermining its message,

and I doubt that Lewton and DeWitt Bodeen (who scripted both films) could

have been unaware of the possible effect.

 

Newman's style, light and breezy, makes the book an active pleasure to

read. There aren't too many critics who are actually *fun*, but Newman is,

and could probably make an in-depth study of bus transfers entertaining. He

has particular fun with Tom Conway, whom he introduces as 'George Sanders's

less-expensive brother' (34). Later, describing an exchange between

Conway's sleazy Dr Judd and Simone Simon's tormented Irena, Newman tells us

that Judd, after having been rebuffed, subsequently 'suaves up again' (55).

The use of 'suave' as a verb is a nice touch, and is nicely concise both as

an accurate portrait of Judd's character and as a refusal to cowtow to

excessive formalities of style.

 

Newman's sense of humour does not, however, mean that he is sacrificing

critical rigour. Not one of the many myths surrounding _Cat People_ goes

unexamined. Most are deflated, such as the standard cant that the Lewton

films stood out from other horror films of the period because of their

restraint. While it is true that little is shown by way of monstrous

transformation, Newman reminds us that the violence in Lewton's films, when

it happens, is far more brutal and disturbing than anything on display in

_The Ghost of Frankenstein_ (1942). Newman is particularly dogged in taking

on one of the most persistent stories: that Lewton reacted with disgust

when given the assignment of making a film with the title _Cat People_.

Newman argues that the tale does not hold water, if for no other reason

that the title is hardly lurid by the standards of l940s horror films.

Newman places the blame for the story's perpetuation at the feet of those

critics who admire Lewton's work, but cannot reconcile themselves to the

idea of his working in as disreputable a field as horror. He must, the

thinking goes, somehow be permitted to transcend (and there is a terrible

word) the genre, and so is depicted as a weary aesthete, resignedly

accepting his assignment but determined to subvert his masters' intentions

by producing a film utterly at odds with its supposedly sensationalistic

title. Nonsense, Newman retorts. Lewton's background as a writer of pulp

novels and pornography makes the premise rather dubious in the first place,

and Lewton himself is not on record as reacting negatively to the title.

 

To be fair, Newman is as biased in favour of the horror genre as Lewton's

embarrassed fans are against it. He makes no secret of his enthusiasm,

however, and of course the mere knowledge that there *is* such a movie as

_Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator_ is the mark of a true fan. He is not a

blind fan, though, as his sometimes gloomy musings on the future of horror

in _Nightmare Movies_ show. Here, he provides a valuable corrective even to

historians such as Denis Gifford, who also felt it necessary to provide

Lewton with an escape hatch from the genre.

 

Newman's myth dissassembly requires a fair amount of historical background,

and his work here appears very solid. He quotes extensively from actual

interviews with Lewton, director Jacques Tourneur, and others involved in

the making of the film, pointing out, where necessary, the discrepancies

between the various participants' memories, accounting also for *when* the

interviews were made, whether close to the film's release or long after.

Occasionally, Newman's secondary sources threaten to take over: the section

on _Cat People_'s box office success kicks off with a block quotation from

Joel E. Siegel's _Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror_ that spreads out over

three separate pages -- rather a lot in a volume this slim. The quotations

are never less than useful, however, and the information succinct.

Furthermore, the digging that Newman has done here will prove invaluable to

future students of the film. While this 79-page book is not the definitive

study of _Cat People_ (nor does it claim to be), its compact marshalling of

sources make it a vital jumping-off point for anyone wanting to explore

further.

 

Readers not planning to go further are still well served. Newman is writing

for both the general reader as well as the scholar. He assumes an interest

in film, but not does not expect any kind of in-depth knowledge. His prose

is straightforward and almost completely jargon-free. On any important

point, Newman does not presume that the reader has seen _Cat People_ or any

of the other films that come in for tangential discussion. His plot

summaries are clear, and the time he spends describing each scene should

make the subsequent analysis comprehensible to readers for whom this is a

first encounter with the film. (The copious stills, always placed near

their associated passages in the text, are a big help here too, though the

first two stills showing Irena's transformation and attack on Dr Judd are

in the wrong order.) For those who already know the film well, Newman's

prose should zip them through the familiar information without losing their

interest. When he does bring up the obscure film titles mentioned earlier,

it is not for illustrative purposes beyond the titles themselves, so again,

one doesn't actually have to own the director's cut of _Blood Orgy of the

She Devils_ to get the point.

 

Newman's reading of _Cat People_ likewise has the general audience in mind.

Anyone approaching this book hoping for much by way of theoretical or

philosophical discussion is going to be disappointed. Newman contains his

study within the limits of, on the one hand, the circumstances in the

industry both leading to and following from the making of _Cat People_,

and, on the other, a close reading of the film. He explores the symbols on

display in a given scene, and shows how they relate to the film as a whole.

He also looks at how different scenes work to set _Cat People_ apart from

other horror films of the period (such as Irena's footprints transforming

from paws to shoes, rather than the barefoot marks left by Lon Chaney Jr's

Larry Talbot in _The Wolf Man_), and how others clearly mark it *as* a

horror film. Again, all of these readings are more suggestive than

definitive, briefly marking out a general map of the territory rather than

exploring it exhaustively. Since most of Newman's detail is reserved for

the actual scene descriptions, the book serves less as an actual

interpretation than as an aid to such.

 

Similarly, there is some technical analysis, but it does not play a huge

role. Newman includes such information when discussing some of the more

striking effects in the film, but does so almost in passing. For example,

when Irena attacks Dr Judd, her face darkens, and a quote from a technician

informs us that this was accomplished through 'a complicated application of

density manipulation and masking' (59). And then Newman moves on. Likewise,

again in passing, we find out, in a lengthy quote from Tourneur, that the

panther shadow that threatens Alice in the YWCA is actually the director's

fist.

 

All of this information, again, comes from secondary sources. Does Newman

dig up any new information? Not really. But what is new is, as mentioned

earlier, his clear-eyed, unapologetic, impassioned defence of _Cat People_

as a horror film. This approach informs the entire book, and governs much

of the way Newman presents his material to us. The book is thus not just a

primer on the film, it is a primer with a sharp purpose and focus. But even

readers who disagree with Newman's views should get much value out of the

book. For readers new to the film, it is an excellent introduction. For

those familiar with _Cat People_, it is a fabulous reminder. As I read the

text, the film unspooled once again in my mind. The only way Newman could

have made his commentary more vivid would be to have included it on a DVD.

 

University of Manitoba

Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

 

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001

 

David Annandale, '_Cat People_: A Screening with Commentary',

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 2, January 2001

<http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol5-2001/n2annandale>.

 

  

 

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