The first of the horror films producer Val Lewton made for RKO Pictures redefined the genre by leaving its most frightening terrors to its audience’s imagination. Simone Simon stars as a Serbian émigré in Manhattan who believes that, because of an ancient curse, any physical intimacy with the man she loves (Kent Smith) will turn her into a feline predator. Lewton, a consummate producer-auteur who oversaw every aspect of his projects, found an ideal director in Jacques Tourneur, a chiaroscuro stylist adept at keeping viewers off-kilter with startling compositions and psychological innuendo. Together, they eschewed the canned effects of earlier monster movies in favor of shocking with subtle shadows and creative audio cues. One of the studio’s most successful movies of the 1940s, Cat People raised the creature feature to new heights of sophistication and mystery.
The Criterion Collection presents Jacques Tourneur’s and Val Lewton’s classic psychological “creature feature” Cat People to Blu-ray, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 with a new 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation. It comes from a new 2K restoration scanned from a safety fine-grain master.
Like most of the other Warner titles Criterion has worked on this too looks very good. The digital transfer itself is sharp and clean, free of noise and other digital issues. Detail (unless limited by a slight softness more than likely inherent in the source materials) is incredibly clear, delivering superb depth and textures, while contrast looks very spot on, handling the film’s whites and blacks beautifully, all of this maybe best showcased in the night sequence where Alice (Jane Randolph) fears she’s being stalked by something; the background wall looks spectacular. There are scenes with strong light sources but the whites don’t bloom, and the blacks, though deep, don’t drown out detail. The film takes place heavily in the shadows but the black levels are strong enough to not wash out the details, and the gray scale smoothly transitions. And of course this all plays beautifully in the pool sequence, where the light reflects from the water to the surrounding walls. The image as a whole looks like a photographic image, ultimately.
The restoration work is also very thorough and damage is very minimal, limited primarily to faint scratches. The previous Warner DVD, though still good for the time, presented damage like dirt and scratches, as well as jumps in the frame. This restoration wipes all of that out, even stabilizing the image in the process, offering a far smoother presentation. It looks very clean and, in the end, is a beautiful looking black-and-white presentation that improves an incredible amount over the previous DVD.
The mono track shows its age but is still fine enough. Delivered in lossless PCM 1.0 mono it’s a bit flat and presents some background noise, but music sounds fine and dialogue is easy to hear. The film has a very creative sound design to it, with plenty of background sound effects, but they can sound flat and hollow at times, but this is more a product of the time and the age of the film; I don’t feel it has anything to do with any sort of restoration. At the very least I didn’t notice any severe damage like pops, clicks, or drops.
I would have expected a rather stacked special edition for such a high-profile title (maybe even the inclusion of the “sequel,” Curse of the Cat People) but it’s a little disappointing to see that most of it is recycled material, and one feature that would seem obvious is not here. At any rate it’s at least a decent collection of features, starting with the 2005 audio commentary with film historian Gregory Mank, which was originally recorded for the Warner Bros. DVD. I hadn’t actually listened to the track prior to this release but it’s a decent scholarly one, Mank recounting how this film came to be and how producer Val Lewton’s career in horror films took off, both rooted in RKO’s financial troubles further hurt by Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons (pieces of the set from that latter film were reused here), the failures of which would lead to RKO’s new mantra: “Showmanship over genius.” This film, made on a modest budget, would become a gigantic hit for the studio and would open the door for more of its type. Mank also talks extensively about the construction of the film, from its wonderful black-and-white photography to its unique sound design, creating suspense and chills without showing much, born more out of necessity, though, thanks to the film’s low budget. While also covering themes within the film and giving backgrounds to the performers and members of the crew, Mank also plays pre-recorded phone conversations he had had with actor Simone Simon, who recalls her work on the film and then shares her thoughts on the film and the character, and what it was like working with Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur.
I liked the track, which is pretty rich for only 75-minutes (the addition of Simon also makes it a strong piece), but I was a bit upset Criterion still didn’t include Bruce Eder’s commentary track from their original LaserDisc edition for the film, which I almost feel would have been obvious inclusion. Criterion stated they felt the newer Warner track was better (probably because it features Simon) and more up to date (Eder’s track would have been recorded over 20 years ago) and that may be the case, but I always liked Eder’s tracks and even if he and Mank talked about the same things it would have been nice to still have it if just for posterity. Despite this, I still enjoyed Mank’s track and think it’s worth the time to listen to.
Not new but certainly a nice addition is the 76-minute documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, which was only available previously in Warner’s Val Lewton box set or on its own as a lone DVD release from Warner’s. Narrated by director Martin Scorsese (with actor Elias Koteas appearing as Lewton in voice overs) it gives a very thorough background to Lewton and his horror films, focusing specifically on a few of the titles, which include (but are not limited to) Cat People, I Walk with a Zombie, The Seventh Victim, Ghost Ship, Curse of the Cat People, and films he did with Boris Karloff. Through interviews (both new and archival) it offers a glimpse into his working process and how these films have influenced future filmmakers, while also covering conflicts he would eventually have with the studios he worked for. If you haven’t yet picked this up in one form or another it’s a nice addition to the release and certainly worth watching.
Criterion next digs up a 1977 interview with Jacques Tourneur recorded for the French program Ciné regards, and runs 27-minutes, offering a general overview of his career. He covers his early French work (which was through various jobs) and then his move to Hollywood, where he would become a director, and working with limitations set in the country. Censorship was an issue, though he openly questions a complete lack of it in modern American cinema, saying that a lack of censorship is only “good with good taste.” But he does talk about his work with Lewton extensively, covers various details in filmmaking, lighting, properly presenting horror, and so on, even commenting on some set photos that are presented to him. It’s a fascinating interview, particularly where he talks in detail about his way of making a film.
Criterion then gets cinematographer John Bailey to talk about the film’s photography and look in a new, exclusive interview. Bailey, who has actually participated in interviews with Criterion on other releases, is an even better candidate here for this film since he actually did the photography for Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake. Interestingly he hadn’t seen the film until he began working on that film and admits he didn’t have high expectations for it but was taken aback by how poetic it was. He studied it pretty thoroughly and here he shares his comments on the film’s look and the lighting, addressing a number of scenes. He even compares a couple of scenes from the original film and the remake. He points out how he and Schrader chose to do some sequences differently (in the original there is one sequence takes place at night on an empty street, while the remake has a similar scene take place in daylight in a crowded park) but admits to the pool sequences being the same between the two films because he and Schrader just couldn’t figure a way to do it better. Despite whatever feelings people may have towards the remake I think Bailey offers a fine analysis of the film’s look, benefitting from him studying it for the remake. The interview runs about 16-minutes.
The disc then ends with the film’s trailer, while Criterion then includes a large fold-out insert, featuring a nice poster image on one side (the shadow of a giant cat over the young couple of the film) and then an excellent analysis of the film by Geoffrey O’Brien on the other side.
The material is ultimately fine, but again, for a big title like this one, it is one of those cases where the supplements are a bit underwhelming. At the very least, though, I enjoyed going through all of them, and they still make for a solid primer to Lewton’s work.
Even if I felt a little underwhelmed by the supplements it’s still a strong release from Criterion. What we do get in features is still very good and worth the time going through, while the release offers a sharp and clear upgrade over the previous DVD edition in terms of its presentation. Certainly worth picking up, even if you own the Warner DVD already.