Lewton at RKO

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Cat People

Film Review by Dean Duncan Mar 26, 2015

I want to call your attention to that scene in the restaurant: “Moya sestra”—wow!

Cat People‘s three most famous sequences—walking, swimming, draft-room—are so justifiably famous, so exquisitely executed! They’re effectively suspenseful, too, even horrific (ca. 1942, anyway). But that’s not really what makes them so special. Their exactitude, their chaste restraint that is yet so full of feeling, are practically Greek in their magnitude, decorum and perfection.

The extraordinarily elegant climax at the conclusion of this last sequence is especially admirable. Instead of crass violence, or gross sentimentality, there’s a quiet confrontation that is practically Biblical. The man and the woman begin to fear exceedingly, and whisper a vulnerable appeal. “In the name of God, leave us in peace.” And a remarkable peace does immediately follow. We ought not to get carried away, but this quiet cadence actually brings to mind an episode in I Kings, 19. The greatest power is not always in the wind, the fire, or the earthquake!

Cat People’s conclusion does actually pull out the stops, as what has been a surprisingly explicit and compassionate portrayal of marital sex woes (and no one blamed!) gives way to some really satisfying, though always indirectly rendered, violence.

Does anyone try to make this argument anymore? This little classic is another demonstration of how, when the elements align, B&W beats colour silly.

P.S. This is an RKO production. Note the year of release. Irena is living in what had very recently been the Ambersons’—as in Booth Tarkington, adapted by Orson Welles, 1942—family mansion. It’s Athens. It’s Babylon. It’s Athens again!