Cat People (1942)

Cat People (Tourneur, 1942) is a forerunner in the early B movie trend towards “suggestive horror” and a departure from the Monster-driven horrors of the day.  This essay will explore how Tourneur creates suggestive horror through juxtaposition and contrast, in particular through the use of sound and mise-en-scene.  The essay will also illustrate how Tourneur tapped into the zeitgeist to create a heightened state of anxiety for the contemporary audience.

Tourneur creates suggestive horror through the use of contrast in sound by utilising an orchestral score for the film and opting to create scenes in which only diegetic sound is present. Tourneur’s use of contrast in sound is best illustrated in the now famous “Lewton Bus” scene.    The clicking of heels on the pavement is all that can be heard for a large part of the scene.  The diegetic sound of heels is used to convey movement with Alice’s pace remaining constant and Irena following with her footsteps quickening.  The turning point of the scene is marked by the sudden cessation of Irena’s footsteps.  Here, Alice becomes acutely aware that she is being pursued as shown by an increase in the rhythm of her heels.  It is not until the climax of this scene that a new sound is introduced as, at an increased volume, the growl of a big cat can be heard off screen.  This contrast between the harmony of vision and sound encapsulated by footsteps and the incongruity of a disembodied growl heightens the effect of the supernatural ‘other’s’ introduction.  It is the idea that sound is actually nothing but the pneumatic brakes of a bus that places the sequence in the realm of the psychological.  While audiences may jump at the sudden scare the growl produces, that an everyday object suddenly becomes frightening has the effect of leaving the audience uncertain as to what to trust.  Cat Peoplewas the first film to employ this technique, where an ordinary object is used to shatter a build up of tension, as being referred to as “Lewton Bus” technique across the film industry (Lee 110)

The use of chiaroscuro lighting is another way in which Tourneur utilises contrast to create suggestive horror.  Throughout Cat People the style of film noir lighting allows the use of high contrast light and shadow to create vertical lines representative of bars on a cage.  An example of this is when Irena and Oliver stand outside Irena’s apartment and her front door is overlaid by shadows, which hark back to the zoo cage of the opening scene.   The use of shadows also exaggerates the cage-like bars of the steps up which Alice peers before jumping into the swimming pool.  The repeated imagery of the cage or caged animal is constant throughout the film and symbolic of Irena’s struggle between the desire to set free her wild side and the need to keep it repressed. Further use of high contrast light and shadow to create suggestive horror is present in the climatic scene in which Alice dives into the swimming pool. The walls of the pool are dark and light, almost in equal parts.  The darkness of the wall functions as the shadow here, providing the cover from which an unseen threat may spring.  While Alice turns all around her, frantically seeking the source of the growls, we are shown, by contrast, only one particular corner of the room. This juxtaposition induces a foreboding as it serves to point out the exact source of the unseen threat yet also implies that Alice is utterly trapped.  Further to this, the scene is thrown at intervals into total darkness as if the thing that is menacing her is large enough to block out the entire light source.  The rippling light which plays all over the room further uses suggestive horror to create an other worldly atmosphere.   

In addition to lighting, the use of contrast also serves to create suggestive horror throughout the mise-en-scene of Cat People.  In contrast to the demure long coats Alice wears throughout, in the pool scene she is wearing only a bathing suit. The bathing suit is light colour, close to that of her skin, which heightens the stakes by portraying Alice’s vulnerability.  The use of clever lighting, as previously discussed, to imply a supernatural threat combined with Alice’s vulnerability intensifies the horror through the powerful use of suggestion.  As Worland (184) suggests Tourneur prefers compositional tension to physical action to create horror.

Tourneur leverages the knowledge and awareness of the contemporary audience and utilises mise-en-scene to further create suggestive horror. An example of the use of this is before Irena begins to pursue Alice in the Lewton Bus scene.  Irena stands in Wide Shot, pulling tight her black, all-fur coat with a prominent street lamp behind her.  Tourneau conveys the significance of the moon-like qualities of the lamp by positioning Irena in such a way that the lamp is at the same height as her and as close to the centre of the frame.  Tourneur capitalised on the popularity of Universal’s The Wolf Man(1941) (Meehan 53) and the audience would have been well versed in the significance of a full moon and its heralding of a ghastly transformation.  A further way Cat Peopletaps into the awareness of the contemporary audience is the on screen Freudian imagery coupled with psychotherapy present in the narrative. In the 1940’s psychoanalytic psychotherapy dominated the American field of psychiatry and Freud’s name had become a household word (Thompson 52). I would argue that Dr. Judd’s interpretation of Irena’s case in the light of Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex (Humphries 48) plays on the anxieties of the contemporary audience. Tourneur further taps into the zeitgeist through the use of mise-en-scene associated with Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. An example of this is Alice “diving into the water becomes coming out of the water, in other words, being born” (West 10) the knowledge of which serves to create a heightened state of tension.

In summary, Tourneur effectively uses contrast in the combined elements of sound and mise-en-scene to manipulate the focus of the audience’s attention.  These shifts in focus are at times subtle, at times obvious but always implicit rather than explicit. Tourneur also used the awareness of the contemporary audience to further create tension and anxiety through intertextuality and symbolism. Humphries (48) elaborates that the audience is left to interpret whether the suggestions of Irena’s supernatural powers is sufficient evidence to be convinced of her transformation.

Works Cited

Cat People. Dir. Jacques Tourneur. Prod. Val Lewton. Writ. DeWitt Bodeen. Perf. Simone    Simon, Tom Conway and Kent Smith. 1942. RKO Radio Pictures, 2005. DVD.

Humphries, Reynold. “Val Lewton Productions.” The American Horror Film: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002. 40-55. Print. 

Lee, Michael. “Sound and Uncertainty.”  Music, Sound and Filmmakers: Sonic Style in Cinema. Ed. James Wierzbicki. New York: Routledge, 2012. 107-122.  Google e-book. Web. 25. Aug. 2014. 

Meehan, Paul. Horror Noir: Where Cinema’s Dark Sisters Meet. North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc. Pub, 2011. Google e-book.26. Aug. 2014.

The Wolf Man.  Dir. George Waggner. Prod.  George Waggner.  Writ.  Curt Siodmak. Perf. Claude Rains, Warren William and Lon Chaney Jr. 1941. Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2001. DVD.

Thompson, Marie L.  Mental Illness:  Health and medical issues today. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., 2011.

Towlson, Jon. Subversive Horror Cinema: Counter Cultural Messages of Film from Frankenstein to the Present. North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc. Pub, 2014. Google e-book. 26 Aug. 2014.

West, M.  Understanding Dreams in Clinical Practice. London: Karnac Books, 2011. Google e-book. 1 Sept. 2014.     

Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: an Introduction. Malden: Wiley, 2006. Print.

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