Cat People (1942 film)

Cat People is a 1942 American horror film directed by Jacques Tourneur, produced by Val Lewton, and starring Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph and Tom Conway. The plot focuses on a Serbian fashion illustrator in New York City who believes herself to be descended from a race of people who shape shift into panthers when sexually aroused or angered. DeWitt Bodeen wrote the original screenplay, which was based on Lewton's short story The Bagheeta,[6] published in 1930.

Cat People
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJacques Tourneur
Produced byVal Lewton
Written byDeWitt Bodeen
Music byRoy Webb
CinematographyNicholas Musuraca
Edited byMark Robson
Distributed byRKO Radio Pictures Inc.
Release date
  • December 25, 1942 (1942-12-25)[1]
Running time
73 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget~ $135,000[2][3]
Box office$718,000[4] or $8 million[lower-alpha 1]

Shot in Los Angeles, Cat People premiered in New York City on December 5, 1942, and was given a wide theatrical release on Christmas Day. The film was a moderate critical and commercial success at the time of its release. It was followed by one sequel, The Curse of the Cat People (1944). In the intervening years, Cat People was subject of critical reappraisal, and noted for its visual influence, particularly the work of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca.

In 1993, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."[7] The film was later acquired by The Criterion Collection and released on Blu-ray in 2016.


At the Central Park Zoo in New York City, Serbian-born fashion illustrator Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) makes sketches of a black panther. She catches the attention of marine engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), who strikes up a conversation. Irena invites him to her apartment for tea. At her apartment, Oliver is intrigued by a statue of a medieval warrior on horseback impaling a large cat with his sword. Irena informs Oliver that the figure is King John of Serbia and that the cat represents evil. According to legend, long ago, the Christian residents of her home village gradually turned to witchcraft and devil worship after being enslaved by the Mameluks. When King John drove the Mameluks out and saw what the villagers had become, he had them killed. However, "the wisest and the most wicked" escaped into the mountains. Oliver is dismissive of the legend even though Irena clearly takes it seriously.

Oliver buys her a kitten, but upon meeting her it hisses. Irena suggests they go to the pet shop to exchange it. When they enter the shop the animals go wild in her presence, and Irena becomes uneasy. Irena gradually reveals to Oliver that she believes she is descended from the cat people of her village, and that she will transform into a panther if aroused to passion. Despite this, Oliver asks her to marry him, and she agrees. However, during the dinner after their wedding at a Serbian restaurant, a catlike woman (Elizabeth Russell) walks over and addresses Irena as "моја сестрa" (moya sestra, "my sister"). Irena never consummates the marriage, fearful of the consequences. Oliver is patient with her, but eventually persuades her to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway). Judd tries to convince her that her fears stem from childhood traumas.

Meanwhile, Irena is unhappy to discover that Oliver has confided in his assistant, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph). Alice confesses to Oliver that she loves him. When Irena chances to see Oliver and Alice seated together at a restaurant, she follows Alice home. Just as Alice hears a menacing sound, a bus pulls up and she boards it. Soon after, a groundskeeper discovers several freshly killed sheep. The pawprints leading away turn into imprints of a woman's shoes. Irena returns to her apartment looking dishevelled and exhausted; she is shown shortly afterwards weeping in the bathtub. Irena dreams of Dr. Judd dressed up as King John speaking of "the key". She later steals the key to the panther's cage in Central Park.

Irena, Oliver and Alice visit a museum, and Irena is angered when the two virtually ignore her. That evening, when Alice decides to use the basement swimming pool of her apartment building, she is stalked by an animal. When Alice screams for help, Irena appears, turning on the lights, and says she is looking for Oliver. Alice later finds her bathrobe torn to shreds. After an appointment with Dr. Judd, Irena tells Oliver she is no longer afraid, but Oliver tells her it is too late: he has realized that he loves Alice and intends to divorce Irena. Later at work, Oliver and Alice are cornered by a snarling animal. Oliver and Alice manage to get out of the building but not before smelling Irena's perfume.

Alice calls Judd to warn him to stay away from Irena, but he hangs up when Irena arrives for her appointment with him. He kisses Irena passionately, resulting in her transformation into a panther who attacks and kills him. When Oliver and Alice arrive at Judd's office, Irena slips away and goes to the zoo. There, she opens the panther's cage with the stolen key and is struck down by the escaping panther, which is accidentally run down and killed by a car. Next to the panther's cage, Oliver and Alice find a dead panther lying on the ground. Oliver says, "She never lied to us."




Cat People was the first production for producer Val Lewton, who was a journalist, novelist and poet turned story editor for David O. Selznick. RKO Pictures hired Lewton to make horror films on a budget of under $150,000 to titles provided by the studio.[8]


The Los Angeles Times reported in August 1942 that Jack Holt had been cast in a supporting part, after Simone Simon's casting as the lead.[9] Simon was cast in the role of Irena Dubrovna by producer Lewton.[10] Simon, a star in her home country of France, had recently garnered fame in the United States for her role in The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941).[10]

Opposite Simon, Kent Smith was cast as Oliver Reed, a ship draftsman who falls in love with Irena, while Tom Conway was cast as Dr. Judd, a psychiatrist who evaluates Irena, and initially believes her fears to be delusional.[11] Jane Randolph, then a young actress who had recently begun her film career, was cast as Alice Moore, a woman vying for Oliver's affections.[12]


The film was shot from July 28[12] to August 21, 1942, at RKO's Gower Gulch studios in Hollywood.[3] Sets left over from previous, higher-budgeted RKO productions—notably the staircase from The Magnificent Ambersons—were utilized.[13] The total budget was $141,659 ($7,000 under budget).[3][14] Additional photography took place at the Royal Palms Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, where the film's swimming pool sequence was shot; the location was chosen by the production team as the indoor pool had an appropriate claustrophobic atmosphere.[3]

It has been documented that Simon frequently clashed with co-stars as well as Tourneur during the shoot, and displayed a significant temper.[15] Actress Jane Randolph recalled that Simon frequently upstaged her during their scenes together, to the point that Tourneur confronted Simon: "He really bawled her out—in French," Randolph recalled. "And she didn't like that either."[16] Randolph also recalled Simon intentionally pouring coffee on one of her costumes in order to halt the production for the day.[3]

Near the end of the filming of Cat People, two crews were working to finish the picture on time, one at night, filming the animals, and one during the day with the cast.[8]


Cat People was the first collaboration of director Tourneur with cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. Their later collaboration on RKO's Out of the Past (1947) would again be regarded as seminal for its genre,[17][18] in this case the film noir.

Much has been said of Lewton and Tourneur's use of shadows in lieu of an actual monster in the film. This is very much in contrast to competing horror films being produced by Universal at the time. J. P. Tollette in his book Dreams of Darkness: Fantasy and the Films of Val Lewton speaks to the meaning of the extensive use of shadows in the film:

While engaging our imaginative participation, the absence marked by those dark patches speaks of a fundamental – and disturbing – relationship between man and his world: it signals a black hole or vacant meaning in the physical realm which, in spite of man's natural desire to fill it with consciousness and significance, persistently and troublingly remains open.[19]


Cat People had its premiere at the Rialto Theatre in Manhattan on December 5, 1942.[20] It was released regionally the following day in New York City, on December 6, 1942, before expanding wide on Christmas Day.[1] It held its Los Angeles premiere on January 14, 1943 at the Hawaii Theatre.[20] It was reissued theatrically in 1952 by RKO Pictures.[21]

Box office

The picture's box office receipts are disputed. Film historian Edmund Bansak has estimated the box office for Cat People at $4 million domestically and $4 million in foreign markets, almost 60 times its estimated budget of $134,000.[5] Film historians Chris Fujiwara and Joel Siegel also put the domestic box office at $4 million.[4] Variety estimated its rentals in 1943 as $1.2 million.[22] But film historian Richard Jewell specifically dismisses the claims by Bansak, Fugiwara, and Siegel, saying the film had a domestic gross of $535,000 and a domestic profit of $183,000.[4]

Critical response

At the time of its original release, the reviews for Cat People were mixed.[21] A critic of the Monthly Film Bulletin stated that Cat People had "A fantastic story, reasonably produced and directed."[23] Variety stated that the film is "well-made on a moderate budget outlay" and relies upon "developments of surprises confined to psychology and mental reaction, rather than transformation to grotesque and marauding characters for visual impact on the audiences."[24] Variety also added that the script would be "hazy for the average audience in several instances, [but] carries sufficient punch in the melodramatic sequences to hold it together in good style," elaborating that Tourneur "does a fine job with a most difficult assignment."[24] The Monthly Film Bulletin complimented the photography and acting, noting that Simone Simon "only partly succeeds in interpreting the part of Irena, but lighting and camera work and sound recording help to make her performance adequate".[23]

Wanda Hale of the New York Daily News was unimpressed by the film, writing that it "tries hard to be a melodrama...  but it doesn't try hard enough."[25] Bosley Crowther (The New York Times) described the film as a "labored and obvious attempt to induce shock" and said that its themes are explored "at tedious and graphically unproductive length." Crowther commented on Simon's acting, stating that actresses who are trying to portray "[feline] temptations – in straight horror pictures, at least – should exercise their digits a bit more freely than does Simone Simon."[26] A reviewer at BoxOffice found the film "grim and unrelenting...  a dose of horror best suited to addicts past the curable stage" and noted that the film was "definitely not for children, young or old...  Potent stuff, straight from the psychopathic clinic."[21]

Modern appraisal

In 1981, Richard Combs of the Monthly Film Bulletin compared the film unfavorably to other Lewton productions, stating that "it is perhaps easier to prefer the more mellow, less heavily fingered fantasy of Curse of the Cat People, and even the reconciled ambitions of The Ghost Ship".[27]

Critic Roger Ebert included the film in his list of "Great Movies" in 2006.[28]

Home media

In the United States, Cat People and its sequel, The Curse of the Cat People were issued in 2005 as a double feature DVD or as part of the Val Lewton Horror Collection DVD box set.[29] In December 2016, Cat People was reissued on DVD and Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection.[30] Foreign DVD editions have been released in France (as La Féline), Spain (as La mujer pantera) and Germany (as Katzenmenschen), while in the United Kingdom the film has been licensed and released on DVD by Odeon Entertainment (OEG).

Sequel and remakes

Lewton accepted the assignment of producing a follow-up film called The Curse of the Cat People, which was also written by DeWitt Bodeen and released in 1944. This follow-up film retained Kent Smith and Jane Randolph's characters, and showed Simone Simon either as a ghost or else as the imaginary friend of the couple's young daughter.

A remake of the first film directed by Paul Schrader and starring Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard and Annette O'Toole was released in 1982.

In March 1999, a second remake of the film was announced as a co-production between Universal Pictures and Overbrook Entertainment. The proposed remake, to be written by Rafael Moreu, would be updated to the present day and set in New York.[31]

Other films

Another Lewton/Bodeen film, The Seventh Victim, was produced in 1943, and features Tom Conway as New York City psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd. In The Seventh Victim, Judd recounts to a poet that he once knew a mysterious woman who was in fact a "raving lunatic" (thought to be a reference to Irena Dubrovna), even though Judd's character died in Cat People, making the relationship between the two fictional narratives incoherent.[32] In memos and early drafts of the script, Conway's character was referred to as "Mr. Siegfried"; film scholars believe that the character's name was changed to create continuity between the two films in order to capitalize on Cat People's success.[33]


Cat People is contemporarily acknowledged as a landmark in the horror genre, and considered by scholars such as Chris Fujiwara as "the master text" of Tourneur's filmography.[34] Fujiwara suggests that the film is "so famous that it has, inevitably, suffered a backlash, and now it might even be called underrated."[34] The film has been credited for inventing a narrative technique known as the 'Lewton Bus', deriving from the scene in which Alice is stalked by Irena on the street—at a peak moment of tension during the scene, the silence is shattered by what at first sounds like a hissing panther, but is revealed to only be a bus stopping.[35] The term 'Lewton Bus' has come to describe moments in which tension is dissipated by a startling moment.[35]

On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, Cat People holds an approval rating of 93%, based on 46 reviews, and an average rating of 8.4/10. Its consensus reads, "Influential noir director Jacques Tourneau infused this sexy, moody horror film with some sly commentary about the psychology and the taboos of desire."[36] William K. Everson dedicates a whole chapter to the film and its successor The Curse of the Cat People in his book Classics of the Horror Film.[37] Paul Taylor in Time Out magazine remarked Lewton's "principle of horrors imagined rather than seen", its "chilling set pieces directed to perfection by Tourneur" and Simon's "superbly judged performance".[38] TV Guide's review of the film praised the film's cast:

Superbly acted (with Simon evoking both pity and chills), Cat People testifies to the power of suggestion and the priority of imagination over budget in the creation of great cinema. The film was Lewton's biggest hit, its viewers lured in by such bombastic advertising as "Kiss me and I'll claw you to death!" a line more lurid than anything that ever appeared onscreen.[39]

Bravo awarded the film's stalk scene the 97th spot on their "The 100 Scariest Movie Moments", while Channel 4 awarded the scene the 94th spot on their "The 100 Greatest Scary Moments" list.[40]

In 1993, Cat People was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[7] Also, the New York Museum of Modern Art holds a copy of the film in its collection.[41]


  1. The box office data for Cat People is disputed: Lewton biography Edmund Bansak estimates a $4 million gross in the U.S., and a $4 million gross internationally, making a total of $8 million.[5] Historians Chris Fujiwara and Joel Siegel corroborate this.[4] However, film historian Richard Jewell dismisses this data, claiming the total domestic gross was $535,000.[4]


  1. "Cat People". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Los Angeles, California: American Film Institute. Archived from the original on December 4, 2018. Retrieved December 4, 2018.
  2. Jacobs 2011, p. 297.
  3. Mank 2005, p. 140.
  4. Jewell 2016, pp. 19–20.
  5. Loftis 2016, p. 319 fn. 147.
  6. Lewton, Val (June 1930). "The Bagheeta (short story)". Weird Tales.
  7. "Films Selected to The National Film Registry, Library of Congress 1989-2007". Library of Congress. Retrieved May 5, 2011.
  8. TCM Notes
  9. Schallert, Edwin (August 4, 1942). "'America' Gets Signal; Spencer Tracy to Star". Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, California. p. 15 via
  10. Mank 2005, p. 116.
  11. Fujiwara 2015, p. 73.
  12. Mank 2005, p. 139.
  13. Kent Jones. Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows documentary film, 2008. Broadcast on Turner Classic Movies on January 14, 2008.
  14. Vieira 2003, p. 122.
  15. Mank 2005, pp. 139–140.
  16. Fujiwara 2015, p. 28.
  17. Silver & Ward 1992, p. 218.
  18. Narenmore 2008, p. 175.
  19. Tollette 1985, p. 22.
  20. Mank 2014, p. 262.
  21. Pitts 2015, p. 58.
  22. "Top Grossers of the Season". Variety. January 5, 1944. p. 54. Retrieved July 8, 2016.
  23. "Cat People". Monthly Film Bulletin. Vol. 10 no. 109. British Film Institute. 1943. p. 27.
  24. Variety Staff. ""Cat People"". Variety. Penske Media Corporation. Archived from the original on October 27, 2016. Retrieved December 11, 2017.
  25. Hale, Wanda (December 6, 1942). "'Cat People' Claws Nerves at the Rialto". New York Daily News. New York City, New York. p. 98 via
  26. Crowther, Bosley (December 7, 1942). "' Cat People,' With Simone Simon and Jack Holt, at Rialto -- New Swedish Film at 48th Street; Purrrr". The New York Times. Retrieved July 29, 2016.
  27. Combs, Richard (1981). "Cat People". Monthly Film Bulletin. Vol. 48 no. 564. British Film Institute. p. 144.
  28. Ebert, Roger (March 12, 2006). "Cat People (1942)". Chicago Sun-Times. Chicago, Illinois.
  29. Erickson, Glenn (September 9, 2005). "DVD Savant Review: The Val Lewton Collection". DVD Talk. Archived from the original on July 28, 2012. Retrieved December 5, 2018.
  30. Macek III, J. C. (January 9, 2017). "The Criterion Edition of 'Cat People' Leaves an indelible Impression". PopMatters. Archived from the original on December 5, 2018. Retrieved December 5, 2018.
  31. Petrikin, Chris (March 29, 1999). "'Cat' scratch again". Variety. Penske Media Corporation. Retrieved June 20, 2016.
  32. Christopher 2010, pp. 216–218.
  33. Snelson 2014, p. 179.
  34. Fujiwara 2015, p. 83.
  35. White & Buscombe 2003, p. 562.
  36. "Cat People (1942) - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved July 10, 2019.
  37. Everson 1974, p. 181.
  38. Review of Cat People in the 1999 edition of Time Out Film Guide. London: Penguin Books, 1998.
  39. "Cat People (1942)" TV Guide
  40. "The 100 Scariest Movie Moments". Archived from the original on October 30, 2007. Retrieved July 18, 2012.
  41. Cat People in Museum of Modern Art collection.


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