While sketching a panther at the Central Park Zoo, in New York City, a young, fashion artist, and Serbian immigrant, meets an architect and draftsman for a maritime design firm. The attractive, mysterious, Irena Dubrovna, is portrayed evocatively by Simone Simon. The man she encounters by chance, Oliver (Kent Smith), takes his opening to talk to her, when she litters by throwing some of her sketches that she’s not happy with, onto the ground. Oliver gets her attention, and points to a sign which reads:
“Let no one say, and say it to your shame. That all was beauty here, until you came.”
Walking over to her, he engages her in conversation. Sensing that the clean cut, well dressed, Oliver is a nice guy, Irena allows him to walk her home. As the two leave, it is revealed to the viewer, that one of Irena’s sketches, that she threw on the ground, depicts the panther being impaled by a sword.
Oliver and Irena arrive outside her door; she doesn’t live far from the zoo. In fact, she is close enough, so that she can hear the roaring of lions, something which the neighbors complain about when they’re trying to sleep. Irena has no problem with the noise the lions make, she finds it soothing. The panther, however, which she can sometimes hear, she states sounds like a screaming woman, and it disturbs her. Oliver asks Irena how to spell her name, because he wants to write her a letter to ask her out on a date; the end result is that Irena asks him in for tea. Irena lets Oliver know that she has never invited anyone into her brownstone before, because she has no friends in America.
Once inside, Oliver comments on the smell of Irena’s perfume which permeates the place. She admits to him that she uses it liberally, the scent of which, he remarks, smells warm and living; something else catches his interest, a statuette. Oliver inquires as to what it represents, as he looks at the piece, which shows a man, on horseback, striking a spear through a large cat.
Irena begins to relate to Oliver about the village where she came from. Her people believe that during medieval times, amongst their number, were witches, who worshiped Satan, anyone of whom, could transform themselves into a cat. King John of Serbia, who the statuette is a likeness of, freed the people of the village. He and his men, were said to have killed off most of them, however, according to Irena’s story, some of them got away and fled into the mountains. Finished with his tea, and not wanting to overstay his welcome, Oliver gets up to leave. He asks Irena to have dinner with him the following evening, she agrees.
When Oliver comes to take Irena out, he brings a present for her, a kitten. He tries to give it to her, but the kitten acts alarmed, hissing and squirming. Oliver is surprised by the pet’s behavior. In an earlier scene, his co-worker, Alice (Jane Randolph), played with the kitten, and the pet showed no signs of agitation. Irena dismisses the kitten’s behavior, stating that cats don’t seem to like her. She asks Oliver if he has the receipt from the pet shop, and suggests that they go there to exchange the kitten for a different pet.
As soon as Irena enters the pet shop, all of the animals in unison act upset, and begin to make an assortment of noises. The owner of the shop can’t hear what Oliver is trying to tell her, so the three of them step outside. The woman apologizes for all of the noise, stating that she can’t imagine what caused the pets to act like that. She gives the example, that the last time the animals were so disturbed, was when an alley cat got into the store, and killed one of the birds. Irena opts to stay outside, so Oliver and the owner, step back into the store, to make the exchange, when they do, all is quiet. Oliver gets Irena a canary. While making conversation with Oliver during the exchange, the store owner espouses her opinion that animals have psychic powers, that they know when there is something not right about a person.
After a brisk courtship, Oliver proposes marriage and Irena accepts. Their wedding reception is held at a restaurant, an otherwise happy event, which ends on an ominous note. A woman (Elizabeth Russell), who no doubt is human, but gives off a feline vibe from both her attire and mannerisms, approaches the couples table. She speaks to Irena in her native tongue, calling her sister. Irena is uncomfortable with the woman’s acknowledgement, and doesn’t wish to have a conversation with her. Afterward, the woman leaves, and does not reappear in the film. During that same night, and subsequently thereafter, Irena not only will not consummate her marriage to Oliver, but goes so far as to refuse to even kiss him. Irena believes in the stories of her people, which state, that a woman, who is a descendant of the witches, if she were to fall in love, and give into her passion, will be driven to kill. Irena asks Oliver to be patient with her, as she tries to come to terms with her beliefs.
Irena’s superstitious thinking, and her refusal to let herself give into her desires, causes Oliver to re-think their relationship. The formally happy go lucky, Oliver, begins to question if he even understands the true nature of love. During his contemplations, he realizes, he is actually in love with Alice, the feeling is mutual. She has confessed her love for him, and begins to not only pursue him, but to delineate the differences between what having a relationship with her would be like compared to his marriage to Irena. Alice and Oliver begin spending more time together. Their desire to be with one another, becomes obvious to Irena. For example, during a trip to a museum, while the three of them are looking at one exhibit, Oliver suggests to Irena that she should go off on her own, to view another part of the museum, and he and Alice would catch up with her later. In addition, Oliver begins to work more late nights at the office, always accompanied by Alice. One evening, Irena confirms her suspicions, when she follows Oliver, and sees him with Alice, they are getting something to eat. Irena becomes jealous, which is supposedly also a mechanism, which can bring about her transformation
What will become of Irena? Are the tales of her village just stories, which have no basis in fact? Can she really transform into a cat, if sexually aroused or brought to an emotional state, such as jealousy? Will she take out her vengeance on Oliver and Alice, if she does transform?
The atmospheric, suspenseful, and psychologically suggestive film was directed by Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past). The movie which has a runtime of 73 minutes, was written for the screen by BAFTA nominee, DeWitt Bodeen (Billy Budd). The film which is parts noir, horror, and thriller, premiered on December 6, 1942, in New York City. Made for an estimated budget of $134,000, the movie went onto gross approximately $4,000,000 dollars, and saved RKO from bankruptcy. Tourneur and cinematographer, Oscar nominee Nicholas Musuraca (I Remember Mama) make outstanding use of light and shadow to heighten the tension of certain scenes; sound effects are also utilized to great effect. In particular, two scenes that involve Alice: One where she is being followed home at night, while walking alone, and another where she is terrified while taking a swim. Expanding on those two scenes with details, would ruin it for people, who have not yet, but do want to see the movie.
A bathrobe in tatters, paw prints, which look as if they’ve turned into high heel markings, well timed music done by Oscar nominee, Roy Webb (Marty), the previously mentioned scene in the pet store, are all examples of what makes this slow paced, subtle film, a horror classic. In 1988, the Library of Congress passed legislation creating the National Film Preservation Act, and established the National Film Preservation Board. The boards job is to select twenty-five films a year to be added to the National Film Registry. In 1993, “Cat People” was selected for preservation as being deemed to have fallen under the criteria of an aesthetically, culturally, or historically significant film.