Cat People, as Val Lewton noted in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, served almost as a blueprint for the series of horror movies that followed in its wake. 'Our formula', he said, 'is simple. A love story, three scenes of suggested horror and one of actual violence. Fadeout. It's all over in less than 70 minutes.'
Of course there is more to it than that, first and foremost the fact that in Lewton's films a basis of ordinary, everyday reality is carefully built up that provides a correlative for the horror elements. Irena works as a fashion designer, and the course of her obsession is vividly illustrated by the sketches she makes of the big cats at the zoo; Oliver works in a drawing-office, and it is one of the homeliest objects there, a T-square, that reveals the extent to which he has been driven to share Irena's superstitious fears, when he uses it as a crucifix to ward off evil.
Settings are casually cluttered and lived-in, like Irena's flat, the pleasant little restaurant where the wedding reception is held and the pet shop to which Oliver takes Irena to choose a present. Yet in this bland, day-light banality a streak of darkness is present. Tell-tale details of décor in the flat, such as the bath with feet in the shape of lion's paws, gradually increase in significance; in the restaurant, a casual encounter with a cat-like woman arouses Irena's recognition of her own nature in the pet shop, the frenzied commotion of the birds and animals when Irena enters intimates that she possesses some peculiar power.
The audience's sense of apprehension is given an agonizing turn of the screw by Lewton's knack of 'fleshing out' his own phobias (in this case, his fear of cats) with the traumas of others. The scene in which Alice is threatened while taking a dip in a basement pool was inspired by an experience of the director Jacques Tourneur, who once almost drowned while swimming alone at night. The sequence is made doubly terrifying by the complete vulnerability of an unclothed, unarmed swimmer.
More conventional, but equally nightmarish, is the previous 'scene of suggested horror', which shows Alice walking alone along a road through Central Park at night. The pool of light thrown by each street lamp becomes an island of safety surrounded by menacing blackness; Alice's hesitant footsteps seem to be echoed by stealthily padding paws and the rustle of stirring branches. The denouement, in which the anticipated doom finally materializes as a screeching feline hiss - made by the opening pneumatic doors of a bus as it pulls up alongside her - is justly celebrated as one of the cinema's most heart-stopping moments.
The pity of Cat People is that Lewton and Tourneur were prevented from following through the premise that Irena is probably no more than a psychologically disturbed woman, nursing an obsession originating in either frigidity or repressed Lesbianism. The studio insisted on the insertion of a shot of a black panther, glimpsed slithering under the drawing-tables in the office where Alice and Oliver are at bay. This shot, together with one (probably also inserted by the studio) in which the paw-marks leading away from the mutilated body of a sheep suddenly turn into the prints left by high-heeled shoes, edges an otherwise 'psychological' thriller towards fantasy horror, indicating clearly to the audience that the film is a variation on the werewolf myth.
Elsewhere, however, the film enjoys the best of both worlds, with moments of marvellous ambiguity like the scene in which Irena smiles enigmatically as she paws at her canary's cage; it is impossible to say whether she is trying to release the bird or deliberately tormenting it. When she slashes her sofa with claw-like nails in an outburst of jealous rage, it is not difficult to credit that she herself, not a mythical monster, is responsible for all the murderous violence, and that she has been driven to it by a general lack of understanding of her particular problem and frustrations. It was not until The Curse of the Cat People (1944), with its tender plea of sympathy for its strange, lonely, misbegotten protagonists that Lewton's intentions in Cat People became fully apparent.