Simone Simon stars as Irena Dubrovna, a young dress designer obsessed with a legend from her native Serbia that she may be a witch who turns into a black panther when sexually aroused. Unlike Paul Schrader's 1982 remake, which focuses on Nastassja Kinski's sexual allure, Tourneur emphasizes Irena's seemingly irrational obsession with the legend.
While drawing pictures at the panther cage in the zoo, Irena meets and falls in love with Oliver Reed, a stereotypical apple-pie-eating American male played by Kent Smith. Irena is so consumed with her fear that she won't let Oliver kiss her even after they're married. (Maybe in 1942 that was realistic, opines my wife.) The ever patient Oliver sends Irena to a psychiatrist, who thinks all this legend stuff stems from her childhood. It seems that her father was killed mysteriously in the woods by her home, and her mother was branded a witch. Of course, Dr. Judd can cure her. Unfortunately for him, he kisses her and is soon ripped to shreds by a black panther.
Tourneur never shows us Irena's transformation, using shadows and sounds to evoke Irena's fate and the impending danger. When Oliver comes home with a kitten for Irena, the cat recoils in fear. So they go back to the pet store to exchange the cat for a parakeet. When Irena tries to pick the parakeet up one day, it dies of fright. She puts it in a box and feeds it to the panther in the neighborhood zoo. She tells Oliver, "I had to. I had to."
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