See these eyes so green? I can stare for a thousand years. Colder than the moon. It’s been so long.
As David Bowie sang. But that was for the remake of the 1942 classic Cat People, done by the always creepy Paul Schrader and starring the equally creepy Nastassja Kinski (daughter of the apex creep, Klaus Kinski) and Malcolm McDowell. Actually Nastassja and Malcolm probably aren’t as creepy as Schrader. Maybe only Klaus and Paul are on the same levels, creep-wise. But Nastasaja and Malcolm are actors, and they were actors working for creepy people at a time when creepiness was coming down from the all-time Creep High of the ’70s. And they turned this shall-we-say-“difficult” story of sexual repression into one of incest, which was forgotten almost as soon as it was released—leaving only a memorably chilling Bowie song in its wake.
Back to the topic of today’s movie-going venture, to wit, the 1942 film which is pretty damn edgy for its complete inability to be explicit.
Simone Simon plays Irena, a Serbian immigrant in New York who has “no friends” when she meets the glib and handsome Oliver (Kent Smith) who charms her pants off—almost. Taking a fancy to the odd Irena, he woos and pursue and becomes absolutely smitten with her while she, slowly, becomes taken with him. It is through this process that we learn of her dark family history. This is dealt with rather circuitously in the movie, but I’m just gonna spell it out here because otherwise you can kinda find yourself going “Huh?” a lot.
Basically, Irena is part of a Serbian tribe that turns into panthers, but only when they have sex. (This is where the incest in the ’82 version comes into play, presumably, but that film is just straight up muddled as opposed to the 1942 version’s coy avoidance of censorship.) Oliver is a modern New Yorker—synonymous in every era with “know-it-all who gets himself into trouble because he’s a know-it-all”—and naturally considers Irena’s history a fairytale designed to keep young Balkan women chaste. So he pursues aggressively and even gets her to marry him.
But as the marriage wears on and there’s no connubial bliss (and not even Manhattan’s finest Freudians can help!), he begins to weary of her antics, finding her increasingly less charming as the days pass. Meanwhile, Oliver’s office “chum” Alice, while a decent enough sort to not push her affections on a married man, is increasingly looking like a more attractive partner on a number of levels. Irena, having a female’s uncanny sense of competition even before any males of the species are aware of it, was already suspicious of the whole relationship.
In a classic moment, when Oliver’s deciding to leave Irena, he says something to the effect of, “The thing is, I’ve never had any trouble in my life. I don’t know if I’m unhappy because I’ve never been unhappy before.” Realizing that he prefers his old life of zero trouble and unhappiness, he rather casually tosses Irena to the side.
(See, that’s a callback to The Mummy review.)
Of course, part of what makes this whole movie work is its acute awareness of all the limitations placed on it. They can’t really spell any of this stuff out, on the social level. They can’t show any cat persons because, c’mon, it’s 1942 and low-budget and even the ’80s version didn’t really do a good job with the whole were-panther thing. So it’s all done with shadows and implications and dramatic lighting, and director Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton would become the stuff of legend for how successful this approach was. (The story of the film’s making was inspirational to the Kirk Douglas chapter of the 5-Oscar winning The Bad and the Beautiful.)
Like The Mummy, this was more low-key and moody than shocky and schlocky, but it’s one of those films (at a scant 73 minutes) you can watch again and again and appreciate more every time you see it.