Danger and desire
by Dan Moray
There's a new film group on campus thank god that calls itself Projectorhead. On Halloween, at the Modern Languages Building, it will screen the 1942 Jacques Tourneur classic Cat People.
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."
Starved for intimacy, Oliver starts hanging around with Alice, a coworker who pities and has fallen in love with him. She starts to notice strange sounds following her home at night and hears the muffled
growl of a panther. In one fabulous scene, Alice goes for a late-night swim in the basement of her apartment building. As she prepares herself we hear the low growl of a panther, whose shadowy presence is blended with the shadows of the water on the walls, and whose sounds are muffled by the screams of a terrified Alice, who is treading water in the center of the pool. When the desk clerk and janitor come running to Alice's aid, they turn on the lights, and there stands Irena, who apologizes for scaring Alice and leaves. Alice gets out of the pool and finds that her bathrobe has been ripped to shreds.
Though the acting may be stiff and the plotline somewhat childish, Tourneur's Cat People effectively evokes a sense of the danger in sexual desire.
[Originally published in October, 2002.]