Val Lewton's and Jacques Tourneur's RKO horror classic CAT PEOPLE finally hits Blu-ray courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
When architect Oliver Reed (Kent Smith, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE) meets Serbian fashion illustrator Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), he is at first charmed by her slinky accent, withdrawing manner, and the credulity she gives to the superstitions about shapeshifting cat people in the village in which she was born. When they marry, however, Oliver discovers that Irena's superstitions have reached an almost pathological level where she believes that physical intimacy could cause her to transform into a panther and kill the ones she loves. Oliver seeks help for his wife but psychoanalyst Dr. Judd (Tom Conway, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) seems destructively more interested in probing her psyche than curing her; and it seems that Irena's growing jealousy over Oliver's friendship with co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph, RAILROADED!) – who laughingly describes herself as "the other woman" – is just as capable of bringing out the animal in her.
The first of RKO's low-budget horror films mounted in the wake of the financial failure of Orson Welles' CITIZEN KANE marking a change in studio ethic to "showmanship over genius" (which also lead to the studio not only taking the final edit of Welles' THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS out of the director's hands but even denying the request to strike a print of his cut) with Val Lewton at the helm, CAT PEOPLE turned out to be a more artful effort than expected by the studio while also being a sensation upon release. Not only did the suggestive horror approach thrill and frighten audiences, they also read into sexually suggestive interpretations of the story. In the disc's included documentary, Lewton is quoted as approaching the horror element – with screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen (I REMEMER MAMA), whose script he rewrote along with all of the scripts for the RKO horrors – as if it could just as likely be insanity or a "social disease" but apparently had not accounted for what the audience interpreted as lesbian fears. Although the direction as handled by Jacques Tourneur (THE COMEDY OF TERRORS), the auteur of the film and the other more well-regarded RKO horrors has been regarded as Lewton who supervised all aspects of the film in the style of his mentor David O. Selznick for whom he had worked as a historical researcher and script editor. However suggestive the horrors are in the film due to the interplay of light and shadow in the cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca (OUT OF THE PAST), the film also was an early genre effort that exploited sound to frighten its viewers from the growls and roars of the panther to the ambient sounds of the first "Lewton walk" (the stalking of Alice) to the bus that comes into frame startling Alice with the screech of its breaks. When RKO promoted Tourneur to their A-pictures, Lewton promoted editor Mark Robson to director with THE SEVENTH VICTIM. In 1982, the film was given a sexed-up, gory, stylish remake from RKO and Universal Pictures by Paul Schrader (HARDCORE) as part of an early-1980s slate of horror films from Universal that also included John Carpenter's THE THING and GHOST STORY.
Released in the early 1980s on VHS by King of Video and then in 1986 by RKO Home Video on tape and on laserdisc by Image Entertainment, CAT PEOPLE received its first special edition treatment from Criterion in 1994 with a commentary track by Bruce Eder, and then a year later as part of the six-laserdisc set THE VAL LEWTON COLLECTION by Image. In 2005, Warner Bros. finally brought the film to DVD in a double-feature with CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, both with commentaries by Gregory Mank, and in THE VAL LEWTON COLLECTION five-disc DVD boxed set with new transfers and commentaries (along with the feature-length documentary SHADOWS IN THE DARK: THE VAL LEWTON LEGACY. In 2008, the set was supplemented with a bonus DVD featuring the Martin Scorcese-produced documentary VAL LEWTON: THE MAN IN THE SHADOWS. Warner also reissued CAT PEOPLE in a two-disc set with THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, and THE BODY SNATCHER in 2013 as part of their Turner Movie Classics line minus the extras.
The remake beat the original to Blu-ray stateside, and Tourneur's film made its HD debut in Japan last February through IVC utilizing a transfer from French materials. Criterion's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed transfer from Warner's materials is virtually spotless apart from slightly grainier opticals during the titles and transitions. Blacks are satisfyingly inky, drawing attention to Musuraca's use of shadows particularly during the pool sequence, while the resolution is clear enough to question whether the shadow of the panther during the aforementioned sequence is really the shadow of Tourneur's hand of a bit of animation. The LPCM 1.0 mono track gives a new appreciation for the film's sound design and the recurrence of Irena song in Roy Webb's score. Optional English SDH subtitles are included but there is no menu option for them (as has been the practice for Criterion since the DVD days for English-language films).
Although Eder recorded a commentary track for the Criterion laserdisc, their Blu-ray ports over the Warner 2005 DVD track by film historian Gregory Mank, with excerpts from an audio interview with actor Simon. Mank discusses the context of RKO creating a B-picture unit to compete with the Universal horror films, the recycling of set elements from THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, the cage effect created by projected shadows throughout the film, as well as the cats that figure into artwork and props throughout the film. He traces the plot to a story Lewton wrote for WEIRD TALES about a leopard women and also points out some of the supporting cast, including Alan Napier (better known as Alfred in the BATMAN TV series) and Jack Holt (the visual inspiration for Chester Gould's DICK TRACY). Simon discusses the various rumors in the press surrounding her early days in Hollywood – including being the lovechild of William Randolph Hearst – and the publicity department having her walk around town with a leashed panther (long before CAT PEOPLE). She also speaks warmly of Lewton and Tourneur, noting the director using his hands to project the shadow of the panther on the wall during the swimming pool scene.
Ported over from the Warner set is the 2008 Turner documentary "Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows" (76:04) in standard definition, covering his childhood in Yalta (now Crimea) and his mother taking him and his sister to Berlin and then the United States where she worked as a story editor, his work for Selznick, and his tenure at RKO. All nine of the RKO horrors are discussed with the participation of son Val E. Lewton, ICONS OF GRIEF author Alexander Nemerov, PSYCHIATRY AND THE CINEMA's Glen Gabbard, collaborators Tourneur (through extracts from the 1979 interview included elsewhere on the disc in its entirety), editor-turned-director Robert Wise and actress Ann Carter Newton from THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, along with commentary from Roger Corman on low-budget genre filmmaking and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (PULSE) on Lewton's style. The program also covers his non-horror work for RKO during the war as well as his unfortunate experiences at other studios with many developed projects abandoned by the studios and former protégés Wise and Robson removing him from a partnership they had formed to produce films independently, and his untimely death at age forty-six. No audio recordings or home movies survive of Lewton, but quotes from him are voiced by actor Elias Koteas (CRASH).
Also included is a 1979 interview with director Tourneur (26:37) in which he discusses coming o America first with his director father Maurice (SPORTING LIFE) and the returning when he decided to go into filmmaking himself. He recalls his early work as an editor and then his opportunity to direct shorts, and how he familiarized himself with all of the French classics he neglected in his youth while waiting for the studio to call with his next assignment. Of CAT PEOPLE, he discusses the importance in horror films of showing just enough to stimulate the mind of the viewer. He makes light of the production code during his heyday but also notes that a total lack of censorship can be a bad thing when the filmmakers have no taste. He decries the lack of conflict and contrast in modern films and notes how in his films conflict could be enhanced through the creative use of light and shadow as well as the choice of set decoration.
The CAT PEOPLE remake cinematographer John Bailey (16:36) is on-hand to discuss the look of the film, and no fluff-piece is this: Bailey makes the case for prolific Musuraca as being just as influential on the look of film noir as John Alton (THE BIG COMBO) and discusses the differences in technique between them. Bailey also compares the chase and swimming pool scenes between the original and remake, not making the case that one is better than the other just discussing the differences. The film's theatrical trailer (1:04) is presented in standard-definition and ragged condition, although it does reveal the title as THE CAT PEOPLE. An essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien is included on the reverse of a fold-out poster rather than Criterion's usual booklet. While a BD of THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE would be a nice follow-up, I'm actually hoping Criterion will tackle I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and THE SEVENTH VICTIM first (along with THE THING to name a non-Lewton RKO film). (Eric Cotenas)
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