Cat People was Val Lewton’s first film released at RKO. Rick Worland notes Lewton’s films have “[…] long been a source of discussion and praise by assorted critics for its combination of sophisticated visuals and Freudian undertones” (Chapter 7 Section 1, para. 1), as well as their ability to deliver fright during the era of Hollywood censorship. While the syntactical and dialogical elements of Cat People comply with the Motion Picture Production Code’s moral framework, the semantic elements – drawing from Expressionism and Freudian theory – subvert the Code’s intent for thematic and moralistic clarity.
The Motion Picture Production Code, or the Hays Code, was Hollywood’s guide for industry self-censorship. The Code was written by “a small cohort of Catholic men, who gathered together in the fall of 1929 to compose a formal document that would lay out definitive moral rules for Hollywood filmmakers to follow” (Gilbert 8). These men – Father Daniel Lord, Father FitzGeorge Dineen, and Martin Quigley – aimed to make sure “[no] picture [lowered] the standards of those who see it” (Doherty 351). The guide expanded on rules regarding sex, nudity, violence, religion, state institutions, and morality. It even went so far as to explicitly ban dances “with movements of the breasts, excessive body movement” (Doherty 358). There were rules for the structure of film plots – they were never to “side with evil against good” nor could they present scenarios where “right or wrong in doubt or fogged” (Doherty 352). Will Hays, the head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, published the Code in 1930, and it was used to officially certify films for exhibition beginning July 1, 1934.
The Code’s rules primarily factor into Cat People’s treatment of passion and adultery. Irena, the film’s main character, believes she is descended from evil witches because of legends from her home in Serbia. She works as a fashion designer, and meets an American engineer named Oliver while drawing at a New York zoo. They begin dating, and after some time it is revealed that the two have never kissed. Irena tells Oliver she will become a panther if they do – from a psychoanalytic perspective, this conflict is an exploration of the impact of upbringing on sexual repression in adulthood (to quote the film’s psychiatrist, Dr. Judd, “childhood tragedies are inclined to corrode the soul, to leave a canker in the mind, but we will try to repair the damage”). Oliver tells her not to fear fairy tales, declares his love for her, and they are married by the next scene.
Regarding the presentation of material related to sex and passion, the Code says, “Pure love, the love of a man for a woman permitted by the law of God and man, is the rightful subject of plots. […] Even within the limits of pure love” sex could only be referred to in appropriate courtship or “after marriage is perfectly clear” (Doherty 354). Once marriage has entered the equation, an appropriate scene of passion could occur. Her scene of passion comes later and does indeed lead to monstrous results because of its “impurity.”
Oliver discusses his marital problems with Alice, and, unbeknownst to Irena (as well as the audience), she suggests that Irena go see Dr. Judd. As the film’s conflict carries on, Oliver spends more time with Alice. He eventually expresses his intent to divorce Irena because he’s in love with Alice. If it weren’t for the dialogue it could be easy to mistake Oliver and Alice’s relationship as a platonic friendship. The Code had three rules for adultery: “(1) It should not appear to be justified; (2) It should not be used to weaken respect for marriage; (3) It should not be presented as attractive or alluring.” Oliver seeks to repair his relationship with Irena through most of the film, and there is no immoral action between he and Alice to be justified.
As the exposition and structure dole out these moral facts, semantics give the audience context for thematic questions of “good” and “evil.” Animals fear Irena, acting as omens of evil. Irena’s drawing of the panther pierced by a sword shows her greatest fear and foreshadows the end of the film. Another frequent symbol is her statue of King John of Serbia, the Christian patriarch who purged her village of the Mamelukes and panther witches. Even dialogical imagery paints Irena and the panther in a negative light – the zookeeper’s interpretation of the panther as the beast of Revelation, and the contrast between the panther witches and the good Christians of Serbia, serve to place the film’s monster into the Code’s understanding of “evil.”
The suggestive horror scenes both add the fear factor and express the power of the mind. As Irena’s anxiety grows, she begins stalking Alice and Oliver. After seeing them in a café, she decides to follow Alice. The audience then watches Alice walk to the bus to get home. Alice walks down a lamp-lit road, emerging from and disappearing into shadow while the camera is aimed at her feet. She hears footsteps, hurries in fear, and mistakes the sound of a bus for the roar of a panther. This thrilling scene shows the power of the human imagination to create fear without ever showing the monster.
The final scenes illustrate the importance of the convergence between the Code and the suggestive style. Dr. Judd tells Irena that he doesn’t fear her. His words and actions express the emotion, while his words are poetic and truthful – he doesn’t fear her. Irena’s concerns aren’t real. Their act of passion, in an impure context, leads to the film’s final confrontation. The fight between panther and man is carried out in shadowy shapes on a wall, never truly answering the question of whether she is a panther. What is clear is that she has been killed by the sword for her sinful nature. Irena crawls out to the panther cage at the zoo, a sword through her body like the King John statue. “Evil” has been defeated, allowing Oliver and Alice to live happily ever after.
Hollywood syntax allowed users to navigate the film’s moral terrain: “Understood as a classic-style horror film, Cat People makes Irena the monster […]” (Worland Chapter 7, Section 1, para. 7). Despite this understanding, the suggestive storytelling and imagery show the folly of the Code’s expectation of clear distinctions between “right” and “wrong.” Irena’s conflict is told through feelings and dreams that are interpreted through the frameworks of myth and psychoanalysis, while the Code applies a patriarchal, Catholic framework to the text. Applying a feminist approach reveals a film that questions the religious standards of repressing sexuality. Irena was told by the good Christian people of her village that she was a witch, and that acting on sexual desire would turn her into a panther. A male mental health specialist made inappropriate advances towards her and threatened to commit her to an asylum for insisting on the truth of her fears. The panther ceases to be a beast of Revelation and comes to represent Irena’s agency, or self-assertion.
Cat People offered a different experience to viewers when compared to other mainstream horror films. Works like Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy showed their monsters, and the questions of “good” and “evil” have clearer answers when confronted by the corrupt antagonists of those films. Suggestive style and Expressionism invite subjectivity, demonstrating the psychological strengths and ideological weaknesses of symbolic communication. By following the Code and catering to its ideological framework, Lewton and his team were able to craft a film that scares viewers and invites them to question the nature the assumptions at the core of America’s approach to women’s issues and representation in film.
Doherty, Thomas. “The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930.” Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934, Columbia University Press, 1999, pp. 347-67.
Gilbert, Nora. “Introduction: The Joy of Censorship.” Better Left Unsaid: Victorian Novels, Hays Code Films, and the Benefits of Censorship, Stanford University Press, 2009, pp. 1-14.
Worland, Rick. “Cat People (1942): Lewton, Freud, and Suggestive Horror.” The Horror Film: An Introduction, Blackwell Publishing, 2007.