We must be cautious of the two types of cat people. The horrors of a pet owner treating their cat with human-like vernacular and sensibilities is just as threatening and nail-biting as the horrors found in this piece from director Jacques Tourneur. Make no mistake, he finds comfort in the terror of the latter, for at least it is fiction. We may know someone out there who does, indeed, treat a cat as a person. God help that soul, and God help those within Cat People, who are challenged by a strange marriage contract, where Irena Dubrovna Reed (Simone Simon) fears she will turn into a vicious, killer panther should she sign a solid contract of holy matrimony. There are easier ways to tell a potential spouse that you have no interest in them.
Much of Cat People depends wholly on a suspension of disbelief. If we are to thoroughly believe Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) would bring his promising date a cat so soon into their relationship, then we must allow ourselves several lapses of human judgment and error. Perhaps the cat is a test, to see how committed Dubrovna is to these cats and panthers. Very, would be the answer to that. Her bond with animals, specifically that of the feline variety, is promoted frequently by the strong performance from Simon, and the lingering notes of this characters’ wickedly strange ways are presented with confidence and descriptive, flowing scenes.
But the horror of Cat People depends much on what we hear, not what we see. Implications of death and misery are found within but are never the fixation of Tourneur’s journey through this strange link between person and felids. Dubrovna is clearly not to be trusted in the presence of locked doors or killer cats, for her inability to believe she is not, in fact, a cat, becomes some form of twisted downfall. It is odd, but Cat People gets away with it by not letting this vice out of the bag too early. By the time it does reveal itself, much of the heavy lifting is done. Damage control is on the mind of Tourneur, whose direction is solid, but far from emotionally capturing or divinely unique.
Fear the black cats. It is either lucky or unlucky to cross paths with one, I forget whether it is a stroke of good fortune or a superstitious threat. Either way, it is best to avoid them, certainly if they are to be confined in cages as a concern for human safety. Nobody ever quite gets that message across to the characters found within this solid, albeit stuttering horror. Its set-pieces and core values are not solid, nor are they of any tremendous depth or courage, but Cat People does coax much out of its feline fascination. It is a warning to cat lovers and reassurance for those who do not find themselves a mate of any cat around.