Criterion Blu-Ray Review: Val Lewton & Jacques Tourneur’s ‘Cat People’

Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) thinks she can walk down a dark street safely. But the audience knows all too well that she is not safe. We know Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) is following her. We know Irena is going to turn into a panther and yet, we see as much as Alice does. The fear is created by our knowledge that something has to happen – this is a movie, after all – not by what we see. Producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur created this sense of dread in Cat People, with one of the most famed sequences in horror.

Cat People, Cat People Criterion, Bill Sienkiewicz

The scene comes to a shocking end, with a grumbling sound that comes from a bus, not a panther. It’s not the only great sequence in the original 1942 Cat People, but it sums up the movie perfectly. Less-is-more dominates the 73-minute movie, making it even more disturbing. Is there horror in the film because a woman can turn into a cat, or is it because we can’t avoid our destiny, no matter how hard we try?

Cat People centers on Irena, a Serbian-born fashion designer who meets Oliver Reed (Kent Jones), a stereotypical American man, at a zoo where she’s studying a panther. The two fall in love, despite Irena’s warnings that she believes even kissing a man will force her to turn into a cat. Oliver brushes off these warnings as some crazy superstition and, as if in some sick attempt to prove her wrong, makes her jealous of Alice, a woman he works with every single day. He might not know it, but Irena’s jealousy of Alice is what will ultimately drive her to become the panther she hoped to avoid. If Oliver was a real loving husband, the whole thing might have been avoided.

What makes Cat People work is that it might not even be a real horror film. Lewton didn’t even have the money to make that big-budget “money shot” we all expect to see – the moment where Irena would transform into a cat. Set the fact that she can transform into an animal aside, and you have an almost standard story of a love triangle and how it can meet a violent end. On another plane, it’s a film noir, with the other woman coming in to crash dreams of a happy life for a tortured soul.


The Blu-Ray

On September 20, the Criterion Collection, as part of their suddenly happy relationship with Warner Bros., will release Cat People on Blu-ray for the first time. The new 2K restoration is absolutely beautiful, with little damage to get in the way of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca’s beautiful photography.

Supplements:

  • The extras start with the 2005 commentary included on Warner Bros.’ DVD release, with historian Gregory Mank and interview excerpts with Simone Simon.
  • Next up is Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, the 77-minute film by Kent Jones that was included in Warner Bros.’ Val Lewton box set. It was narrated by Martin Scorsese and provides an excellent look at Lewton’s life and career. Lewton died in 1951 at age 46.
  • Following that is a half-hour French interview with Jacques Tourneur from 1979. Excerpts from the interview are included in Jones’ film. While most labels would probably leave it at that, kudos go to Criterion for digging up the entire interview. After all, what’s a Criterion release without a French TV episode?
  • Lastly, Criterion recorded a 16-minute interview with cinematographer John Bailey, who shot Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake. This was the highlight of the set, providing insights into Musuraca’s unique use of lighting in the film. Next time you watch it, pay attention to how nearly all interior scenes are lit from below, rather than above.
  • A beat-up trailer for an RKO re-release is also included.
  • Geoffrey O’Brien, who is also featured in the Jones documentary, wrote the included essay.

If there’s one disappointment about this set, it’s Criterion’s decision not to include the 1944 sequel The Curse of the Cat People. I’m not sure where this movie would be released otherwise. Warner Bros. must not have any intention of upgrading their entire Val Lewton set, which would explain why the marquee title was licensed to Criterion. Would Criterion release The Curse of the Cat People by itself? Would Warner Bros. really release a Lewton set without the original Cat People? It would just be easier for Warner Bros. to keep the Lewton DVD set in print. You can still get the TCM collection that includes Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People, The Body Snatcher and I Walked With A Zombie.

All that aside, Criterion’s Cat People release is a pleasing set and works as a great introduction to Lewton’s work. It also includes some brilliant artwork by comics artist Bill Sienkiewicz.

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