Cat People was the first production from B-movie producer Val Lewton, who throughout the 1940s oversaw a series of widely acclaimed low-budget horror films which Lewton and his crews helped elevate above their humble origins. This film, directed with characteristic visual flair by Jacques Tourneur, takes a sensationalist horror story and, with minimal effects and deliberate pacing, turns it into a dense psychological study in forbidden emotions and primal fears. When American everyman Oliver (Kent Smith, who looks like a more baby-faced Richard Widmark) falls for the Slavic beauty Irena (Simone Simon), he is unwittingly cast under the shadow of an ancient curse that may be affecting his new bride. Irena fears falling in love and is unwilling to submit to the throes of passion, because she is convinced that she is a descendant of Satanic witches, and that their curse would transform her into a vicious panther in moments of erotic bliss or jealous anger. This obviously creates tensions between the newlyweds, and as Oliver struggles to find a way to "cure" his wife of her sexual reticence, he finds himself increasingly remote from her and drawn towards his co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph), more of a girl-next-door type with no dark curses hanging over her head.
The film's horror works only intermittently at the superficial level on which such B-grade horror films usually stay. The suspense and growing dread that suffuse the film emanate, not so much from the admittedly effective few scenes of conventional horror, but from the tangible psychological stresses within the characters. The panther ready to burst out and devour one's lover is an obvious metaphor for restrained sexual passion, a strain that is writ large right on the face of the film. This strain exists also in the 1940s Hays Code morality that keeps the film's depictions of sexuality forcibly chaste. Irena's self-restraint mirrors the restrictions of the Code. When the couple first meet, Irena invites Oliver to her apartment for tea, and the scene quickly fades to much later in the evening, as darkness descends on the apartment and Oliver is still lounging on the couch, and yet nothing happens between the couple. This perpetual lack of consummation in the central romance arises simultaneously from the requirements of cinematic morality at the time, and from the fears of Irena, whose internal panther might as well be the cultural forces that forbid her from having or especially expressing strong sexual feelings. The film plays off of this sexual terror, the fear of losing control of one's own emotions.
The terror in the film also arises from a simultaneous attraction to and repulsion from the unknown and exotic. Oliver is as American and "normal" as they come, which the script keeps driving home by having him order apple pie every chance he gets he even rejects an order of chicken gumbo from a black Cajun waitress, another signifier of foreignness in the film. And yet, despite his all-American demeanor and normal desires, Oliver feels himself magnetically drawn to the very foreign Irena, with her lilting accent and old-country superstitions. He describes his attraction to her as a compulsion, a need to touch her and look at her whenever she is near. And yet Irena's foreignness, so attractive to Oliver, also creates doubts in his friends, some of whom call her "odd" and worry about Oliver's marriage. Irena represents the unknown in all its forms: the foreign intruder, the most unrestrained erotic urges, and the superstitions of the old world carried into the modern city. The film suggests that some things cannot be explained, and blatantly rejects the attempts by psychoanalysis to explain and demystify human sexuality. Oliver sends Irena to the psychiatrist Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), who tries to delve into her past through hypnosis, and explains her current psychological state, somewhat predictably, as a result of childhood trauma. Irena dismisses him, though, telling him that he cannot help her: "When you speak of the soul, you mean the mind." It's a great, telling line, perfectly encapsulating the film's emphasis on the mysteries of psychological and sexual states, cutting right to the ineffable core of humanity.
If the film's growing psychological terror is effective in creating suspense all on its own, the way Tourneur films the actual scenes of suspense and horror only adds to the film's atmospheric horror. Both Lewton and Tourneur became famous for creating a horror aesthetic founded on visual restraint and minimalism, influenced in equal parts by budgetary constraints and a belief that the unseen is often more terrifying than the seen. To this end, Tourneur crafts a handful of shadowy, wonderfully evocative scenes of almost unbearable suspense as Irena, possibly transforming into a panther, stalks her prey. As Oliver and Alice grow closer over the course of the film, Irena's anger and jealousy accumulate, and in one scene she stalks the other woman through dark city back-roads lit only by street lights creating puddles of light in the darkness. Tourneur films this pursuit with clever use of misdirection, always filming the two women separately as Irena follows Alice. Their high-heeled feet on the cobbled sidewalk form the only soundtrack, creating echoing patterns of percussive clicks. At first, Tourneur cuts back and forth between the two women, but then he subtly puts the focus almost entirely on Alice as the intended victim, letting Irena drop into invisibility, creating fear through absence nothing is ever shown but the suspense is palpable anyway. This is equally true of an unforgettable sequence at a pool, where Alice jumps into the water to escape an indistinct shadow that she sees running towards her with a growl. As she treads water in the middle of the pool, desperately turning in a circle to look all around the room, Tourneur continually cuts to her point of view, showing the dimly lit nothingness of the room outside the pool, in which shadows moving on the walls occasionally suggest a panther-like form. Cat People is an incredibly effective piece of psychological horror, rising far above its low-budget genre origins and creating an enduring work of psycho-sexual exploration.