After entering the nondescript door to her building, ordinary Oliver Reed follows Irena Dubrovna as she ascends the ornate stairs that lead to her front door. He hovers at the foot of the stairs, and rhetorically admits: “I never cease to marvel at what lies behind a brownstone front.” Behind each façade lies something hidden. What lies hidden from Oliver Reed in Cat People (1942) are the dormant stories waiting behind each door.
This article is based on my presentation at the 2009 Double Dialogues Conference,Hidden Stories, held in Melbourne, December 2009. In the Conference presentation, the early scenes from Cat People were screened with the film sound interspersed with my commentary. This article uses still frames from the film, descriptions from the original screenplay (in courier font) and the storyboard layout for a DVD commentary.
|Film Image||Film Sound/Commentary|
|At the beginning of 1942, RKO Studios were in trouble after the scandals and expenses associated with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941).|
The Studios wanted and needed something to save it.
|Cat People saved it.|
Shooting at the RKO Studios in Hollywood occurred over 3 weeks from 28 July to 21 August 1942.
It was completed ahead of schedule and under the $134,000 budget.
The film opened on 16 November 1942 and grossed an estimated 4 million dollars in its first two years.
The stories circulating around the genesis of the film indicate that someone suggested the title to Charles Koerner, the head of the Studio, at one of those Hollywood parties. The next day, he rang Val Lewton and asked him to make a film – his first film. The only proviso, the only clause, was the title: Cat People.
|Behind the title, the first image on the screen is a screen: |
a three-panel depiction of a panther pouncing in the jungle, with teeth and claws bared. As a screen, it divides one part of a room from another, and on the screen, like a curtain in the theatre, it separates the factual world of the cast and crew (and their credits) from the fictive world that RKO Radio Pictures ‘presents’ (or re-presents).
The actors are listed with the same font size and similar billing, although Jack Holt occupies significantly less screen time than the other principals.
|The opening credits are accompanied by a one-minute overture, that alternates between film noir brooding and a folkloric, nursery rhyme motif. These aural motifs will be re-instated, with variations, throughout the film, to provide clues about when the main character is vacillating… between black-fur coated Irena and prowling panther.|
|After working as a story editor for producer David O. Selznick, Russian-born Val Lewton (Vladimir Leventon 1904-1951) joined RKO studios as a Producer in March 1942. |
Nine of the fourteen films he produced were referred to as ‘B’ grade horror films. This ‘B’ grade epitaph is something of a misnomer, as Lewton’s production unit were required to produce films quickly with small crews and smaller budgets, to be screened as the main feature of a double bill.
|DeWitt Bodeen was a stage actor and playwright before becoming a scriptwriter in this, his first film. According to Mark Viera, Bodeen wrote the first draft of the script ‘inspired by a magazine layout that showed fashion models wearing cat masks’. (Viera, 2005)|
Bodeen has indicated that after this initial spark, the re-drafting of the script was the result of a creative ensemble:
Cat People was a group project. Val had the initial idea, then I did the story on it, and then the screenplay co-operating entirely with Val and Tourneur, and then Mark Robson…[Editor] and later with Roy Webb [Music] ….We all talked about it and I put it down on paper. (Brosnan, 1976: 77)
|Jacques Tourneur refers to the collaborative and evolutionary process of devising the storylines: ‘We started reading and talking and then invented this story, out of whole cloth you know’. (Siegel, 1973: 24)|
|Over the image of a small statue of a knight on his steed, spearing a cat with his heroic sword, is what looks like a quote from a scholarly tome written by a credentialed professional. In the original screenplay, this quote was attributed to Sigmund Freud. We will discover that Dr. Louis Judd is one of the characters in the film: a diegetic psychiatrist trying to make sense of his patient by looking for the key that will unlock her hidden stories. Like America itself, in 1942, he is also trying to make sense of World War II, and the ancient sin that had descended (once again) like a fog in the valley, clinging to the low places. |
As we will see in the opening shot of the film, New York will be represented as a zoo: a barely contained civilization, where caged species are on the verge of tearing each other apart.
|EXT. ZOO PROMENADE - PARK - AFTERNOON|
Fade up (from black) to a caged black leopard prowling behind bars. Whilst it might initially appear as if the respectable citizens are also behind bars, as the camera tracks back, it reveals the citizens observing from behind a separate distanced barrier. The low afternoon backlighting creates shadows that stream towards us, whilst at the same time providing another layer of bars within the cage.
The music has shifted from the mysterious tones of the credit sequence overture to an organ-grinding melody. Counterpoised to the initial image of the lethal cat, the fairground timbre provides a sense of lightness and re-assurance, by situating us (with the patrons in the public zoo) within the seemingly harmless world of sideshow entertainment.
As the panther continues to pace, the camera smoothly tracks back to reveal a woman sketching from behind a (barely) protective barrier. The initial singular focus on the caged cat has been duplicated. This has not been achieved through an obvious edit from one to another, but through a stylistic piece of camera choreography, where both figures are established in relation to each other, within the space created by the moving frame.
Both figures are protected from each other, by two sets of vertical bars. Whilst the bars only symbolically restrain and provide a disincentive to tactile contact, both of these untameable, wild beasts are able to see, hear and smell each other. Scent is a significant characteristic of the ancient animal instincts that pervade this film.
By not initially seeing all of her face, we are drawn into the other similarities between the two figures. The hard edge lighting on her tailored two-piece suit accentuates her shape against the darkly-dressed citizens in the background.
The camera keeps tracking back to reveal some soft-focus fernery in the foreground. We are reminded that the cinema is also a zoo, where we are able to observe the world (caged within a frame) from what seems to be a safe distance.
|In the next shot, a ribbon lassoes her shoulder-length dark hair to aptly provide another cat-like reference.|
Unhappy with her attempt at sketching the panther, we see her kitten-like visage seeking a place to deposit her discarded sketch.
|Cutaway to an open bin in the shape of a hollowed out log. Like the zoo itself, this prop signifies an attempt to tame and civilize a jungle.|
|Cut back to her single-minded pitch.|
|Cut to wider shot of the bin with two characters at a drinks trolley. The discarded paper misses its mark, and inadvertently hooks a bigger fish. It is both an unintentional accident and an inevitable consequence of uncontrollable forces. Where the opening shot used mise-en-scène and camera movement to connect the panther and Irena in the same space, this series of shots, joins two characters in two different spaces, through editing. The movement of her flying refuse, from her shot into his, links these characters for the first time. It also shows that Irena and her refuse cannot be regulated by local by-laws or contained by kitsch symbolic props.|
Oliver interrupts his soda siphoning to pick up and deposit her trash. He also attempts to correct the error of her ways by self-righteously pointing towards a nearby sign: ‘Let no one say, and say to your shame, that all was beauty here before you came.’ Was New York so innocent before Irena started to transgress?
|Her nod of recognition can be a polite ‘thank you’, a sublime brush-off, and, at the same time, an invitation to the dance.|
This opening scene is more that another playing out of ‘boy meets girl’. By putting one thing next to another, the cinema is a powerful and poignant machine for creating relations.
The film has connected these two souls in separate spaces; now it will find ways in which they can try to relate to each other within shared spaces.
|Oliver munches on his chewing gum and slings his sensible overcoat over his sensible shoulder.|
Interestingly, the film has not shown him conversing with his companion at the refreshments trolley. Only after Oliver is smitten, will we be introduced to Alice – his ‘swell’ work colleague. For the moment, she has now been erased, or at least obscured by Oliver’s movement: out of one world and towards another.
There’s a continuity error, as he leaves this shot from right to left...
|...and enters the next shot from left to right.|
|Unbeknownst of his presence, and as proof of how much Irena has taken notice of Oliver’s previous reminder, she gets ready to return to her recidivist littering.|
|He interrupts her. This time, it’s not to educate or chastise, but to complete her intention and become an accomplice. It seems permissible to ‘chance one’s arm’ in the safe confines of a fairground attraction or in the all-American sanctity of baseball pitching. He shows that he’s prepared to ‘play ball’ and take a few mild risks. Either that, or by stepping out of his previous world, he has returned to a previously repressed childhood.|
Oliver lands the pitch in an action that begins with baseball and ends with basketball. He is pleased with himself and his prowess.
However, by returning to her sketching, and by turning her back on him, Oliver realizes that she hasn’t witnessed his mating-dance display of plumage.
Without (the need for) dialogue, these opening shots pay homage to the grammar of the silent film.
But now, Oliver is impelled into language.
You won't believe this, you've probably heard it a dozen times before ... but I've never known any artists.
I'm not an artist...I do sketches for fashion drawings.
|With his first sentence, Oliver has assumed that Irena is a weekend amateur sketching in a public place. From the beginning, he gets her wrong. Her story is, and will always be, different, and he will never be able to understand her.|
Whilst Oliver tries, once more, to lecture Irena about the sins of littering, she turns to hear the organ grinding music as it becomes louder. (Is this the signal that the zoo is about to close?)
In a frozen moment, Irena is almost on all fours, as she bends to collect her artistic accoutrements. Oliver, mesmerized, is also frozen in the frame: he cannot stop watching her every movement. Eventually, he springs into action and helps her with her trappings.
The organ grinder swirls into the foreground, and the music covers the niceties Irena mimes. As Irena and Oliver walk out of frame, another couple enter in the opposite direction.
|This cues a matching cut, where Irena’s final discarded sketch sweeps across the frame. Oliver had asked whether he could see what Irena was sketching, but he never saw what we are about to see. We may have assumed, like Oliver, that it was a sketch of a panther. Now after some time, we see the sketch that Irena has torn and discarded. It is a panther torn and speared by a heroic sword.|
The abandoned sketch will be left,
like the fate of the newly-formed couple,
to the winds.
|EXT. STREET - AFTERNOON|
TWO SHOT of Irena and Oliver as they walk down a street. Irena is looking ahead, amused.
Oliver is doing his best to get acquainted.
Irena Dubrovna -- is that a Russian name?
No...I am from Serbia.
In an attempt to understand her, Oliver leads with his chin and makes another assumption about her, and her origins. Again, her story will be different. Oliver continually makes assumptions about Irena. Sometimes they are culturally inappropriate assumptions; sometimes they will be typical of the mischievous risk-taking that characterise the early stages of cat’n’mouse foreplay.
|In the tradition of old world chivalry, Oliver walks on the street side of the pavement. As a cinematic convention, when Irena walks slightly in front of Oliver, it creates a strong diagonal (aided by the angle of his hat) emanating from the top left hand corner of the frame. As she is the object of desire, we see her via Oliver’s open-eyed gaze. Her positioning also makes sense, because he doesn’t know where he is going (in every respect), and because she is leading him to her lair.|
Perhaps, Mr. Reed, you would like to have tea in my apartment.
Oh, Miss Dubrovna, you make life so simple!
|INT. GROUND FLOOR HALLWAY – |
IRENA'S APARTMENT HOUSE - AFTERNOON
MED. SHOT of Irena and Oliver as they enter the building from the street. It is the ornate, elaborate interior of a brownstone mansion converted into an apartment house.
|Doors start to open for Oliver.|
Whilst sketching at the zoo and whilst striding with Oliver towards her apartment, Irena acted with bold self-assurance. The veneer of confidence concealed her timid vulnerability and fear of contact with others. Fear of intimacy is a hidden story: a story of repressed desire.
They walk the few steps of the short hallway to the stairs. Oliver looks at the enormous staircase.
I never cease to marvel at what lies behind a brownstone front.
They start up the stairs.
Oliver’s self-revelation is delivered rhetorically, and almost like a real estate mantra. Once again, Oliver is surprised, and reminded that things are always more than appearances. The timing of this ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ line provides a poignancy that echoes throughout the film. He delivers it after watching her ascend the stairs. As ever, he is referring to her, as much as to the lavish, curved staircase.
|INT. HALLWAY OUTSIDE IRENA'S APARTMENT - AFTERNOON|
MED. SHOT. Irena has inserted the key in the lock of her door. She turns it, but before she opens the door, she looks up at Oliver.
What's the matter?
But you looked at me in such a funny way.
I've never had anyone here. You're the first friend I've met in America. I know lots of people in business...editors, secretaries, other sketch artists...you know. But you might be my first real friend. (pauses)
Irena pauses before opening the door to her apartment. Until now, the door, lit with the vertical shadows of a cage, has protected her from others, and others from her. Until now, her story has been hidden. What happens when she decides to open the door?
|When the door to her flat opens, Oliver smells the perfumed filled lair as he steps inside.|
The perfume I use. I like it, perhaps too well. Maybe I use too much of it, living alone like this.
Oh, I like it all right. It's hard to describe ...not like flowers ...it's like something warm and living.
Ancient olfactory instincts are re-kindled. Once again, he is presented with something other than what he’s used to: something almost beyond his comprehension.
As he goes on into the room, she closes the door.
Whilst an opening door arouses expectations, it also presents the possibility that we may not be permitted to cross the threshold. As Irena closes the darkening door, we are reminded, once again, of our voyeuristic position.
At the same time as the door closes, in a mix of cinematographic theatricality, there is a fade to black.
A cinematic ‘fade to black’ traditionally signifies a shift in time and space: it literally places us in the dark and in limbo. At the time of the fade, we never know for how long (in time) and how far (in space) we will be submerged into the black. A fade to black signals an ellipsis where moments will be lost to us forever. In Cat People, for a moment, we are in an ambiguous liminal space, on this side of the door.
When the door closes on us, we feel, in that moment, as if all will remain concealed or hidden.
In the black, we search for clues and cues, about where we are, what is happening, and what might be next. In the cinema, film noir, and this exemplar in particular, the image and the sounds move in and out of the black. Cinema is a dance from the black and from nothingness into varying pockets of light. In the grey scale between absolute black to blinding white, there are many gradations and shades of grey, as there are places to hide.
The momentary black image is matched by a momentary blackness on the soundtrack, as the music fades towards silence.
INT. IRENA'S LIVING ROOM – TWILIGHT
The next scene begins, almost immediately, with a cross-dissolve through black to the image of a cruciform-shaped window, a small statue of a horse and rider, and a table lamp, lit by the light of the moon or by an external street lamp. (This is the statuette behind the film’s opening quotation.)
From the quiet humming of a woman’s voice, we deduce that we have been invited inside Irena’s apartment – to the other side of the door. Our momentary anxiety has been granted a temporary stay.
The cross-dissolve through black has not only signalled this change of space, but also the passing of time. How much time has passed? The shadows were lengthening when they met at the zoo. And the light was still present as they walked to her building and entered her apartment. The lighting now depicts a gentle cloak of friendly darkness. Irena’s mystical lullaby also entices us into quietude and suggests that the world of the film has fallen under her spell into a catnap.
On this side of the door, many things will be revealed, but much will also remain hidden in the shadows – until the next scene, which, in turn, will open and close other doors.
Whenever what once was hidden emerges, another concealment is ready to take its place: like an understudy waiting in the wings....
Cats in the dark
Amidst many other things, Cat People is a film about fear. It is a film about the ways in which fears multiply and connect: fear of cats; fear of the dark; fear of dark cats; fear of dark cats in the dark – and the fear, that at any moment, our dark sides will turn us into cats. Val Lewton had a thing about cats.
Lewton suffered from bouts of anxiety, hostility to authority figures, and a number of phobias – including, most significantly, an aversion to being touched and a terror of cats. These obsessions coalesced into the thematic centre of Cat People(Weismann, 2007).
Ruth Lewton believed that her husband’s fear of cats was influenced by the fairy-tales told by his Russian peasant nurse.
He had a folk fear – an atavistic kind of fear of something going way, way back. Of course, he knew better – he was a very intellectual man and not a superstitious person — and so he was both frightened and fascinated by his fear (Siegel, 1972: 28).
DeWitt Bodeen has written of Val Lewton’s fascination with fear and darkness.
The stories he produced are dramatizations of the psychology of fear. Man fears the unknown – the dark, that which may lurk in the shadows. . . . That which he cannot see fills him with basic and understandable terror (Bodeen, 1963: 215).
Referring to Lewton’s fondness for telling stories in the dark, Bodeen also recalls that, ‘He would move to the light switch of his office, turn off the lights quickly, and continue recounting the story in the darkened room’ (Bodeen, 1963: 215). In Cat People, the audience is continually placed in the dark – where less is more. In the dark, the less we can see, the more we try to see. The film plays in, and with, the dark: the black and white chiaroscuro cinematography, the dark brooding of the pacing panther, the shiny darkness of Irena’s fur coat, the darkness of her troubled soul, and the dark mysteries that surround her hidden stories.
Irena prowls through Cat People with a hidden story. She is haunted by fears inherited from her ancient Serbian past. The one thing she understands of these mythological legends is that arousal will transform her into an uncontrollable beast. After initially frightening a kitten, a canary, and a menagerie of animals in a pet store, Irena’s passions are eventually aroused by her feelings of jealousy towards Alice: Oliver’s work colleague. Irena transforms into her predatory form in order to stalk her rival. The psychiatrist also hatches a plan to arouse her. It all ends in tears and torn furniture.
Irena has been described as a ‘doomed’ and ‘cursed protagonist’ (Weismann, 2007). Her ‘curse’ circulates around her uncontrollable desire and her fear of unleashing herself. Her ‘curse’ is initially treated as a psychiatric concern. It is much more than that. She is cursed by her otherness as a human/animal/monster. Our fascination with her otherness lies with the recognition of our own identity struggles and our own inherited, insatiable desires.
Irena, like Lewton, who devised the plot, is the personification of passive/aggressive. The only way she can convince she is dangerous is by allowing her animal self to be aroused. Her aversion to touch is, in this sense, a protective move. Meanwhile, she is full of stories, secrets, legends that she longs to relate, but that no one takes seriously. (Weismann, 2007)
Isn’t this also part of our story with/in the Cinema? Under the protective cover of darkness, we allow ourselves to become aroused animals (again). The Cinema is a protected and protective space, where we can, once again, exercise our ancient longings. In the Cinema, we can project ourselves and identify with the shadows on the screen: those surrogates who (are allowed to) let havoc loose on the reel world, without real repercussions. At the end of the film, one cat escapes from its parallel prison-house apartment to help another escape from its prison-house zoo. They both experience a brief moment of freedom and ecstasy, in flight, in the dark.
Our ancient fears are based on our inherited fear of the unknown and what may lie hidden in the dark. To reveal what once was hidden is to disclose the previously invisible, unknown connections between things. In A Lover’s Discourse, Roland Barthes writes that (for the lover) it is not a matter of whether or not ‘to hide’ or to reveal, ‘but to what degree he should conceal the turbulences of his passion: his desires, his distresses, in short, his excesses’ (Barthes, 1978: 41). Irena tries, as often as possible, to keep her stories and her passions hidden, in order to protect herself and Oliver from the unleashing of her hardly containable excesses. As Barthes writes,
I tell myself: the signs of this passion run the risk of smothering the other. Then should I not, precisely because of my love, hide from the other how much I love him? (Barthes, 1978: 42)
Irena reveals to the audience, but hides from Oliver, how much she yearns to be with him. Sometimes, she is on the other side of a locked door; sometimes she spies on her husband meeting with Alice (the other woman). Unable to explain, and unable to act, she resists heroically, for a time, until she can hide her story no longer.
Yet to hide a passion totally (or even hide, more simply, its excess) is inconceivable: not because the human subject is too weak, but because passion is in essence made to be seen: the hiding must be seen […]. (Barthes, 1978: 42)
Although she tries to explain her hidden stories to him and to others, Irena never shows what she is hiding from Oliver. However, she does, eventually, show the hidden and the hiding to us. When it is obvious to all but Oliver, it is also too late for him to understand. From the beginning, when she referred to the statuette of King John, he only knew of the Bible, and not the (mythical) cat slayer of Serbia. In 1942, America hoped that by remaining isolationist, it could distance itself from Europe and its primeval tribes. From the beginning, Oliver never really understood.
One of the not-so-hidden texts in Cat People is the not-so-hidden context in which the film was made and received. In 1942, the fear of global conflict was a dark cloud hanging over the world. In an early storyline draft of Cat People, Nazi tanks invade Irena’s Serbian village, and the invaders, in turn, are attacked by a posse of were-cats(Newman, 1999: 10). There are haunting associations between the fears of cats and Nazism: the fear of the return of ancient enmities; the fear of the animal lurking within; and the fear of our own untameable drives. The tagline for the 1982 remake of Cat People was ‘An erotic fantasy about the animal in us all’.
At the end of the first shot, a few branches in the foreground remind us that we are in the cinema, watching Irena sketching the panther from a safe distance. At the end of the third scene, the closing of the door to Irena’s apartment, matched with a fade to black, reminds us again of our distanced position. In the cinema, there is always the possibility that we may be left in the dark. These reflexive cinematic gestures remind us that as each shot reveals, at the same time, it conceals. In the movement from shot to shot, when one frame replaces another, each shot shows it’s showing, like a magician’s flourish, providing a momentary distraction, in order to hide the hiding. In Cat People, Irena’s hidden stories are part of a continuous process where one revelation generates another concealment.
Ancient secrets haunt our daily toils. With fascination and trepidation, we are taunted by our desires. Our fascination with Irena’s otherness lies with the recognition that we, too, are descendants of a mystical inherited culture in which we are slaves to unfathomable desires.
We all keep a part of our selves and our stories hidden. Our stories need to remain secret, for our own survival. We also need to protect our stories, if they are unable to endure the stark glare of daylight. Some of our stories prefer to reside in the shadows, where, like Irena, for a time, they feel protected and safe, under the cover of darkness.
Our lives and our dreams, start and end, like the Cinema – in the dark.
Bodeen, DeWitt (1963). “Val Lewton”, in Films in Review, Vol. XIV, no. 4, April 1963: 210-25 .
Bodeen, DeWitt (1942). The Cat People, The Val Lewton Screenplay Collection,
http://www.whiskeyloosetongue.com/scripts/catpeople.html [accessed 12.10.2009] .
Barthes, Roland (1978). A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang) .
Brosnan, John (1976). The Horror People (London: Macdonald).
Newman, Kim (1999). Cat People (London: British Film Institute).
Siegel, Joel E. (1972). Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror (London: Secker & Warburg) .
Siegel, Joel E. (1973). “Tourneur Remembers”, in Cinefantastique, Vol. 2, No. 4, Summer 1973: 24-29.
Telotte, J. P. (1985). Dreams of Darkness: Fantasy and the Films of Val Lewton(Chicago: University of Illinois Press).
Viera, Mark A (2005). “Darkness, Darkness: The Films of Val Lewton”, in Bright Lights Film Journal, Issue 50, Nov. 2005, http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/50/lewton.htm[accessed 12.10.2009] .
Weismann, Brad (2007). “Cat People”, in Sensesofcinema, Issue 44, July-September 2007, http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/07/44/cat-people.html [accessed 12.10.2009] .