Blu-Ray Review – Cat People (1942)
I avidly watch the physical media space with both curiosity and skepticism. Increasingly I find myself less and less drawn to discs when watching movies. The benefits such as better visual quality and additional special features just aren’t necessary most of the time (or appealing depending on the release). There are few groups left, such as the Criterion Collection and Shout! Factory, that really do a great job of honoring the film through these releases, and give reason enough to go out and continue to buy physical discs.
A prime example of this is the new release of Cat People, by Criterion. This film has a significant place in American cinematic history, but has largely been forgetten outside of the world of cinemaphiles. Released immediately after Citizen Kane, little was expected from it but its massive success helped save RKO Pictures. The success of this film ultimately inspired RKO’s horror brand in response to the success of the Universal monster movies. Since then many filmmakers have been inspired by the movie. Notably, this was one of the films that Christopher Nolan screened for his cast and crew before they started film The Dark Knight.
The story centers around the relationship between Irina Dubrovna (Simone Simon) and Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). After an abbrieated courtship and quick marriage, she tells him of her fear that she will turn into a cat and kill him once they consumate their marriage, based on a fable from her homeland. This leads to tensions in the relationship and eventually Oliver falls for his co-worker and friend Alice Moore (Jane Randolph). The love triangle ultimately pushes them into danger as Irina’s repressed fears and emotions come to the surface.
Cat People is a marvel in many ways, from its comparatively low budget for the time ($134,000), to its extremely tight shooting schedule of 18 days, and that it was done with a the cast of only a handful of people. The most ingenious aspect of Cat People is that it makes its low-budget into a strength by having the horror elements entirely leveraged on the viewer’s imagination. There is no actual horror shown on screen, it is simply done off-screen or through implication. This provides both a satisfying and cost effective approach to making horror movies. This film also marks the first collaboration between director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton, who would have many notable collaborations together, who were responsible for putting the film together.
One area that this release really excels is in the beautiful new 2K digitally restored film transfer. This film is from the work of noted cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, and this video transfer helps reinforce the beautiful craftsmanship that went into the production. With the powerful shadows and sharp ambient lightling, it really reinforces Musuraca as being one of the most prolific cinematographers in film history, and provides a masterclass in working with lighting. Considering it was only filmed in only 18 days it seems prosterious that it could be done this well.
This is one area that Criterion continues to be one of the strongest. Not only does this make the physical version of the film more appealing than a digital release, but I would highly recommend getting the blu-ray release for those who have the option. This is the kind of film that helps you appreciate the true power visual imagery in storytelling.
This release features an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. For a film that utilizes silence as part of its horror, the sound is an incredibly important element since everything you hear has significance. The sound effects are crisp which works especially great in the scenes where they need to build up tension, like the chase scene with Simone Simon and Jane Rudolph, or when Jane Rudolph is being tormented in the pool.
The special features on this Cat People release are a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand the they are pretty entertaining but on the other this is not one of the more feature loaded releases from the Criterion Collection.
The most notable special feature is the inclusion of the documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, from director Kent Jones and narrated by Martin Scorsese. The first thing that stands out about this is that the documentary has a longer runtime than the primary film itself (77 min. vs 73 min.), but it does tell a fascinating story. Lewton was a visionary producer, helping to create the streamlined low-budget model which has been the foundation for many incredibly successful filmmakers, such as Jason Blum. A maverick and genius storyteller Lewton lived a remarkable, albeit short, life.
Another treat is the audio commentary from film historian Gregory Mank. It is rich in information and includes many great anecdotes about the cast and crew. Unfortunately since everyone connected to the project is dead, only snippets of an interview with Simone Simon are included in the commentary, but it still provides good insight into the production of the film.
Beyond the documentary and commentary track, the special features are a little lean. There is an interview from 1971 with director Jacques Tourneur that is interesting, though a bit brief at around 20 minutes. The last major special feature is a 16 minute long interview of cinematographer John Bailey, who worked on the 1982 remake of Cat People, discussing the original film and its inspiration in the remake. Amusingly, watching the original trailer, which is included, you can see that Hollywood has always been including the best scenes in trailers, so that isn’t as recent a problem as you might believe.
Looking back on the entire release, this is a solid addition to any film collection. The film is a classic, the restoration is impeccable, and the special features do a solid job of adding context for the production. The only downside is that I am left wanting more. Highly recommended for cinephiles or those looking to learn more about the history of American cinema.