The Curse of the Cat People
Reviewed in January 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Directors: Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise. Cast: Ann Carter, Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Julia Dean, Elizabeth Russell, Eve March, Sir Lancelot, Nita Hunter, Joel Davis, Sarah Selby. Screenplay: DeWitt Bodeen.

Photo © 1944 RKO Radio Pictures
Fair warning to viewers who cannot wait to see Simone Simon, or anyone else, transmogrify into a hungry panther and then back into her saucer-eyed, simpering self: that never happens in this movie. In fact, aside from one ill-tempered and inevitably black kitty, hissing at some school children from an improbable perch at the top of a woodland tree, there are no cats in this movie. If you know one thing about The Curse of the Cat People, that one thing might be that the film bespeaks an unusual kinship structure with producer Val Lewton's more famous 1942 breakthrough, Cat People. People like to say that this isn't a sequel despite the title, since the style of the film diverges so fully from the earlier one, and the story is oriented around a brand new character named Amy Reed, described by her teacher as "a very sensitive and delicately adjusted child," but responded to by her classmates as a moony weirdo when she isn't an active pain in the ass, ruining their games by walking off in the middle, or else just slapping them in the face. Amy's mother, though, is Irena Reed of the earlier Cat People, and her father, for better or worse, is still Kent Smith's Oliver (yes, Oliver Reed), and over the course of The Curse of the Cat People, it stops being the sort of movie that relies on portentous dialogue to cover over the notable absence of the prior film's central character. Suddenly, Simone Simon is right back there on screen, expressing strong narrative and thematic continuities with the Tourneur movie—so really, the only way in which The Curse of the Cat People has nothing to do with Cat People is the feline drought.

Amy has her own problems, and since she lives in Tarrytown, New York, the hamlet formerly known as Sleepy Hollow, you can mostly guess what they are, but even the stomping tread of the Headless Horseman stays fairly peripheral to the picture. One senses that the filmmakers, including upstart co-director Robert Wise, would dispense altogether with the supernatural elements if they could finagle the budget and the Lewton brand name to make a movie that stays entirely within the subtextual realm of his other films: evoking fragile feminine psychologies, captured just as Amy acquires knowledge of the outside world that is just as discomfiting as the forms of self-knowledge they trigger or disturb.

From the thin but glaring key light that limns Amy's silhouette to the way she seems to embody the light source in many of her shots, it's clear that The Curse of the Cat People is more interested in her spooky introversion and in her affectingly ordinary juvenile confusions as it is in the spectral stuff: whether involving Simone Simon's ghost, or some macabre uncertainties about whether the local eccentric and retired actress Julia Ferrin (Julia Dean) lives with her adult daughter (Elizabeth Russell), or the adult ghost of her dead daughter, or a hateful-looking impostor pretending to be her daughter. Ultimately, either screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen or the double-team of Wise and Gunther von Fritsch or producer Lewton or whoever called the ultimate shots on The Curse of the Cat People elected to crystallize the film's fluctuating interest in these threads by quite literally dispatching them in a single image of otherworldly superimposition that answers a lot less than you're expecting, even in a film that's obviously drawn toward open-ended mystery rather than open-and-shut plot. Equally unresolved is the massive gulf between the keen, rueful sincerity of Amy's lifeworld, the gruffly amateur textures of Smith's performance as her concerned father and a cadre of Amy's other guardians and caretakers, and the towering camp of the scenes with the old actress, who likes to intone lines like, "I don't hate the storm, it blows beyond me..."

Happily, Curse is one of those movies that coheres more interestingly because of its own odd heterogeneities, largely because the brio and friskiness of the filmmaking remain fairly constant over the short 70 minutes, even as the idioms keep moving around. One father-daughter dialogue about a bundle of undelivered party invitations is given just the right edge of fairy-tale charge by the dark, punctured trunk of the tree leaning into the left edge of the frame. Extended depths of field juxtapose evocatively to the sharp lines and silvery shimmer of the photography, and the combination of Gothic shadows, comic frippery, and silly-scary, straight-to-camera confidences about the Headless Horseman make the actress's mansion a more interesting space than Amy's decent but dull home ever is. That phantom of her mother that keeps popping up in the backyard serves the structural purposes both of Mary Poppins, buoying a downcast child and repairing her relationship to her confounded dad, and of Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw, luring a troubled tyke away from more solicitous figures and having lots of abuse-coded conversations with her, about how the young girl must never speak to anyone of this very special and clearly illicit friendship, etc. So even though Simon the actress and Irena the character sort of struggle for anything memorable to do, The Curse of the Cat People exploits their appearance in ways that always arc back to the obvious heart of the movie: a compassionate empathy, variously expressed, for Amy's oddness and her loneliness.

There's a vague chill to the otherwise sunny ending. Amy does not achieve a better relationship with her father or her world so much as she passes from a phase of being explicitly worried over and second-guessed to one of being indulged with whatever the well-intentioned grown-ups think she wants to hear. Not for us to conjecture how well this will ultimately work out for Amy, or whether The Curse of the Cat People might have summoned more tension and organization in its middle passages, so that the ironies and ambiguities of the ending had even sharper payoffs. Still, the sanctified film critic James Agee, in his lukewarm year-end review of 1944, lamented that even the films he admired, like Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, tended to fall a bit short of what they were cracked up to be, or what they cracked themselves up to be, whereas The Curse of the Cat People has the heavy advantage of being fresher, spryer, and more insinuating than you have any reason to expect. I can agree with both sentiments, I'm sure, while still finding the Wilder film easily superior to this one, and wondering if Agee isn't underselling the aspects of Curse that feel weakly drafted, flatly played, or under-imagined. But it's a memorable little shard of a childhood both unusual and not, and it's no surprise to me that after a year of Wilsons and Going My Ways and ghastly Mr. Skeffingtons, this peculiar exercise, plummy and chilly at the same time, would look even better than it already deserves to on its own intriguing, inconsistent merits. Grade: B

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