Even with very little money at their disposal, producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur still managed to turn Cat People into a runaway hit for RKO studios in 1942. It would be the first of nine horror films Lewton would produce for RKO, most of which told similarly dark tales, and while there would be a few gems among them, none matched the richness and intensity of Cat People.
One day at the zoo, Irena (Simone Simon), a fashion designer born in Serbia, meets Oliver (Kent Smith), a marine engineer. She invites him back to her apartment, and before long, love is in the air. But Irena is hiding a dark secret from her past, one that would awaken if she and Oliver ever expressed their love physically. The two are married, and Irena, fearing what might happen if Oliver even so much as kisses her, begs her new husband to be patient. Oliver agrees at first, but slowly begins to grow restless. He eventually confides in his co-worker and good friend, Alice (Jane Randolph), who suggests that Irena pay a visit to noted psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway). But when therapy fails to do the trick, Oliver is at his wits end, and Irena, sensing her husband's irritation, begins to grow jealous of his relationship with Alice, so much so that the secret she's been trying to suppress breaks free, spelling danger for anyone who gets in her way.
At first, Cat People tackles the subject of Irena's “curse” in very subtle ways, dropping hints to the audience that all is not well with this pretty young woman from Serbia. When Oliver buys Irena a cat, the animal wants no part of her, so they decide to return it for another, more agreeable pet. But when Irena walks into the pet shop, the animals go wild, scratching at their cages and making all sorts of noise. The shop's owner (Elizabeth Dunn) tells them that the animals haven't carried on like that since the last time an alley cat was loose in the store, a more than subtle hint as to the nature of Irena's secret. Of course, subtlety gives way to the extreme once Irena's jealousy rears its ugly head. One night, she finds Oliver, who told her he was returning to the office to catch up on work, sitting in a coffee shop with Alice. Angry and hurt, Irena waits outside so that she can follow Alice home. In a terrific scene, Alice is walking along the darkened street, completely unaware that Irena is behind her. Soon, Irena's distant footsteps are replaced by a frightening growl, and Alice begins to fear for her life. The scene is tense, and ends with a very clever jump scare that I won't spoil for you here.
Whether the scene is indoors or out, Cat People takes full advantage of the dark. There are shadows aplenty in this movie, all of which work towards building a truly eerie atmosphere, leaving the viewer with the sense that there's something evil lurking just out of sight, watching at all times. In Cat People, the darkness takes on a life of its own, and while I realize many modern film fans prefer their movies in color, Cat People is one motion picture that's much better in black and white.