If not for a fortuitous decision made in the fall of 1941, the name Val Lewton might never have been known in Hollywood. Lewton, who began his career as a newspaper hound, fired for fabricating a story about a bunch of crated Kosher chickens prostrated and dying in the heat, eventually found more lasting fame as the author of a lurid novella, No Bed of Her Own. It was exactly the sort of dime store pulp that sold copy and caught Hollywood’s attention. More sordid fiction quickly following it. A bit of a dreamer, something of a wanderer, and thoroughly bored in general with the stalemates in his life, Lewton’s initial hope was to live the sort of romanticized exoticism his woolgathering – if highly literate and star-struck – mother had encouraged throughout his youth. Lewton was blessed with a fanciful imagination to be sure, and the gumption to pursue every avenue opening up before him. But he was equally as short-fused and prone to bouts of deep depression when those around him failed to share his interests. Lewton would have rather a bad time as story editor to impresario, David O. Selznick, famously calling out Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Gone With The Wind a “ponderous piece of trash” during an editorial tête-à-tête with Selznick (and this, after the producer had already made the decision to film it); Lewton, suggesting Selznick he would lose the shirt off his back if he proceeded to ignore his advice.
Naysaying and this one miscalculation aside, Lewton was not very happy working for the fastidious Selznick and elected in the fall of 1941 to make his move to RKO – then, a beleaguered poor cousin virtually on the verge of financial ruin, thanks to back-to-back misfires from their young protégé, Orson Welles. To Welles, RKO’s executive brain trust had thrown open their gates, effectively handing over the keys to their kingdom. But that was before Welles had effectively bankrupted their coffers. Now, from Lewton management expected something quite different; an acolyte to fulfill their newly ensconced edict of “showmanship in place of genius”. Indeed, RKO had had quite enough of the latter with Welles’ flops; Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Worse, they had lost all faith and respect in the industry; crooner, Bing Crosby famously quipping, “In case of an air raid, head to RKO…they haven’t had a hit in years!” But lest we forget RKO had once been the fairy land of Astaire/Rogers art deco musicals; the place where Charles Lawton’s Quasimodo swooped down from a belfry to spare Maureen O’Hara’s gypsy girl a fate worse than in The Huchback of Notre Dame (1939), and where Cary Grant and Kate Hepburn chased a playful spotted leopard in Bringing Up Baby (1937), and, Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer had had their ‘Love Affair’ (1939) for director, Leo McCarey. Point blank: a lot of very iconic product had come down this pipeline. And with Lewton, RKO sincerely hoped for more on the way, only this time made more cheaply and invigorated by the popularity of Universal’s monster mashups. To this end, they assigned their newly ensconced, if as yet untested romanticist a series of ‘presold’ titles. Lewton was expected to craft a string of B-horror movies from these to make up for Welles’ lost time and some quick cash to shore up the hemorrhaging of these badly needed funds.
Unable to change his destiny outright, Lewton would instead elect to toil within its seemingly implausible framework, drawing inspiration from his own prose; The Bagheeta, first published in Weird Tales in 1931; the story of a grisly black leopard that morphs into a highly sexualized woman on the prowl for virgin male blood. In his youth, Lewton had been reared on such sensational Russian fairy tales; dark, doomed stories he would now bring forth on the screen with remarkable proficiency, and, a tinge of the damned, while ruthlessly exploring his own phobias and dread under a thinly disguised veil of uncharacteristically adult and provocative fiction. With Cat People (1942), Lewton’s first pre-orchestrated title, the psychological horror/drama was born. Gathering a small entourage of hand-picked talent, including writer, DeWitt Bodeen and director, Jacques Tourneur, Lewton set about exploring all the reserves the studio had to offer, unapologetic in reusing sets and costumes from its illustrious past. As example, the gargantuan staircase, built for Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons, would figure prominently in not only Cat People, but, ever so slightly redressed, and appearing again in The Seventh Victim (1943). While RKO’s newly elected President, Charles Koerner championed these cost-cutting measures, he was as unimpressed by what he saw in Lewton’s rough assembly. Cat People was not a blood and guts, salacious scare-fest, but a psychological drama about repressed human sexuality; too subtle, too intellectual, and too ‘over the heads’ of most movie goers to be effective box office...or so it was then thought.
And Lewton, as yet untested, equally feared as much when, at the Hill Street Theater sneak peek, the studio elected to precede his feature with a Walt Disney cartoon featuring a precocious cat; the audience meowing and purring with laughter. However, no one was laughing after the opening credits to Cat People. Instead, the auditorium fell silent, and for the next 70 minutes stirred only when shaken to its core by the carefully wrought suspense Lewton had concocted, both through meticulous staging, but also carefully selected performers who had given Cat People an unanticipated air of legitimacy. It also helped Lewton had set his story in a then contemporary – if idealized New York, electing during Cat People’s early stages to jettison a prologue depicting a Serbian village, overrun by Nazi Panzers, only to have its town’s people transformed by a vengeful curse into panthers that murder their attackers in the middle of the night. One of the escaped cats is Irena Dubrovna, played by France’s up and coming ‘tender savage’; actress, Simone Simon, whom Lewton had dreamed to cast, but never thought it possible. He was overjoyed when Simon accepted the part; her only ‘starring role’ in American movies.
However, the only part of this ‘history’ to vaguely survive in the finished film is a statue of King John of Serbia astride his noble steed in Irena’s apartment; Irena, regaling her future fiancée, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) with the tale of the King’s ousting of the Mamluks. The statue, depicting John with a panther impaled on his sword, was actually a prop, fabricated by RKO’s plasterers at a cost of $60; the artisans also recreating a famous Goya painting with a trio of wild-eyed house cats ready to pounce on an unsuspecting bird. The painting, first glimpsed as backdrop in Irena’s apartment as she tells King John’s story to Oliver, would later be exploited by Lewton to showcase Irena’s feline predilections as she terrorizes a canary in its cage until its little heart explodes. Even today, there are those who will suggest Simone Simon ought to have become a big star in Hollywood following the success of Cat People. But whether realizing it or not, the actress had already sullied her reputation in Hollywood; thanks in part to her cleverly timed ‘illnesses’ that precluded her from starring in two rather second-rate features under contract to Darryl F. Zanuck at 2oth Century-Fox. Although Simon would make her debut in a Fox picture, Girls’ Dormitory (1936), opposite the studio’s up-and-rising leading man, Tyrone Power, by then Zanuck had all but lost interest in promoting her as a leading lady. And despite exceedingly positive reviews, Cat People would do absolutely nothing to advance Simon’s career. After only two more features, both made for Lewton, the perennially single (and never to be married) Simon retreated to her native France, continued her career in movies there, and carried on a rumored love affair with a millionaire, said to have lasted for more than fifty years.
On the surface, Lewton’s premise for Cat People is both bizarre and progressive; a seductive minx lures an unsuspecting male back to her apartment after only their first ‘cute meet’, then marries him, but refuses to consummate the union, fearing transformation into a black leopard that will destroy him. Lewton would have to face the censors for these sins; governing head, Joseph Breen, most adamant no overt suggestions be made to correlate Irena’s sexual frustration with her morphing into a ravenous beast of the jungle. Even under such scrutiny, Lewton would mostly have his way with these ‘implications’; as in the scene where Simon’s Irena, falls to her knees on her wedding night, separated by a locked bedroom door from her husband, caressing the knob while a panther from the nearby zoo is heard yowling in heat. Much later on, we get another palpable interpretation of this frustration: Irena, crouching on the couch, her steely cat-like eyes peering just over the edge of the sofa’s back, her blood red finger nails clawing apart the cushion fabric as she desperately orders Oliver to leave the room. Interestingly, Lewton had a sincere phobia of cats, despite keeping one as a house pet for his children. He also had an intense fascination with probing his own psyche in the hopes to better understand his failings. Arguably, in this endeavor he would not triumph, suffering from crippling bouts of depression and bad health, dying at the age of forty-six in 1951.
But in Cat People, Lewton would experience his first flourish of the success that had eluded him for so long and would continue to buoy his reputation as ‘the sultan of shudders’ through eight more movies produced at RKO. Still, Lewton harbored a certain modicum of contempt for his superiors. Ever too much the gentleman to defy their edicts outright, Lewton instead chose to wear an ugly mauve tie which he considered ‘insulting’ to anyone who affected ‘good taste’. He was also fond of glibly suggesting his boss, Charles Koerner had shortened his title at the studio from Associate Producer to ‘Ass-prod’. But Lewton could take immense comfort and even precipitous pleasure from the fact he had stolen RKO’s thunder, circumventing their authority to establish his own and create an enduring masterpiece on his own terms besides, and this, out of an ostensibly embarrassing and utterly worthless title. In hindsight, Lewton was very fortunate in his casting choices, particularly Simone Simon and, Elizabeth Russell; an actress with a queerly pinched kitten-face who, in only a minute’s appearance, coolly coming on to Simon’s bride on her wedding night, inquisitively uttering “Moja sestra” or ‘my sister’, manages to establish a demonic lesbian presence, later to infect and pervade the rest of the movie.
The other great ‘find’ for the film is Tom Conway, as the libidinous Dr. Louis Judd. In fact, Lewton opens Cat People with a quotation attributed to Judd – “Even as fog continues to lie in the valleys, so does ancient sin cling to the low places, the depressions in the world consciousness” – actually, belonging to no less an authority on the human psyche than Sigmund Freud. Conway, the brother of Fox contract player, George Sanders, would ironically inherit his brother’s character part as ‘The Falcon’ in RKO’s serialized crime-fighting film franchise. Reportedly Sanders, tired of the role and ready to make the leap to Fox, told Koerner, “I’m going to send for my brother.” When questioned as to whether Conway could act, Sanders condescendingly replied, “No…but that shouldn’t matter…he has the right build.” Given Sanders proclivity for being arrogant to a fault, Conway would quickly establish a reputation for exactly the opposite, so nicknamed ‘the nice George Sanders’ by his peers.
Nevertheless, Conway’s later years would be marred by extreme alcoholism that wrecked both his good looks and second marriage, and, caused his brother to ostracize him. By 1964, Conway was ill and living in a seedy L.A. flophouse. Failing health led to repeat hospitalizations: his empathetic sister-in-law, Zsa Zsa Gabor, taking pity on Conway with a $200 stipend, “…to tip the nurses so they’ll be good to you”. Not long thereafter, Conway succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver. He was just sixty-two. Cast against type in Cat People, Conway portrays a psychiatrist with less than altruistic motives, steadily eroding Irena’s faith in humanity while gaining her confidences almost exclusively; much later, to be fatally misused in a grand seduction. This unexpectedly turns lethal when, in awakening Irena’s hidden sexual desire Judd also involuntarily triggers her penultimate transformation into a leopard that mauls him to death. Cat People is known for four superb ‘transformation’ sequences; ingeniously staged with maximum effect while showing very little if, in fact, anything at all. The first of these so-called metamorphisms from female to feline has since become more widely known as ‘the bus’ – a term figurative, but also literal in Cat People, as Oliver’s co-worker, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) is stalked by Irena through a spookily lit facsimile of Central Park; cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca concentrating on each women’s pair of feet in high heels, clickety-clacking on the damp pavement, cutting from Irena to Alice then back again; then quite unexpectedly, revealing Irena’s sudden and inexplicable absence; the low rustling of tree branches and then – ‘the bus’; the appearance so startling with its hiss of steam-piston shock absorbers and brakes grinding in unison, that even now, from the vantage of our contemporarily jaded ‘been there/done that’ culture, it can still cause theater patrons to jump out of their seats.
Of the three remaining transformations, Irena’s cornering Jane inside the moodily lit interior swimming pool of her apartment complex ranks among the all-time truly innovative frights; ambient reflections cast from the underwater lighting in ripples bouncing off the dark walls and ceiling, an almost cage-like atmosphere as Jane sees (or does she imagine?) the shadowy outline of a panther slinking about the tiled parameters. Lewton would later explain the oblong shadow momentarily glimpsed along the walls was actually his own clenched hand placed close and in front of a light source. Whatever the prop, the effect is uncanny and terrifying, capped off by Jane Randolph’s harrowing screams before the overhead lamps are switched on to reveal Irena casually leaning against the wall with a look of absolute satisfaction written across her face. Neither of the two remaining ‘stalking’ sequences rivals this moment in Cat People; the first, completely relying on the reactions of Dr. Judd who, having passionately kissed his patient on the lips, becomes paralyzed with fear over a transformation we never witness; Musuraca using a diffuser to create a thatched lighting effect reflected in Irena’s cruel stare before the inevitable. In the second sequence, Jane and Oliver find themselves cornered inside the dimly lit drafting room of C.R. Cooper Ship and Barge Construction Co.; their place of employ. But this big reveal uses a real leopard, ever so briefly glimpsed rummaging in and out of the shadows, topped off by Oliver’s tender pleas for Irena to leave them alone, holding up a T-square; Lewton ingeniously drawing on religious iconography, the implement casting the same shadow as a crucifix on the wall directly behind Oliver and Alice.
Cat People opens with the aforementioned Freudian quotation, the main credits laid over an art deco screen depicting a panther in Irena’s apartment. At just over 70 min. Lewton wastes no time arranging his protagonists to meet; architect, Oliver Reed eyeing the attractive fashion designer, Irena Dubrovna with her sketchbook in hand near the panther’s cage at the zoo. It does not take much for Oliver to get interested in Irena. After some polite banter, he takes her home and the two get to know one another better. In response to Oliver’s fascination with a statue of King John proudly hoisting a sword in the air with a dead panther impaled on its spike, Irena regales her new boyfriend with a brief history. Lewton avoids the usual clichés here; no groundswells of music – romantic, ominous or otherwise; just a moodily lit room with Oliver and Irena lying in repose, the reflected flicker of flame from the fireplace grate intentionally creating a sense of claustrophobia. The next day, Oliver decides to surprise Irena with a present; a Siamese kitten from Mrs. Plunkett’s (Elizabeth Dunne) pet emporium. Alice, who has harbored feelings for Oliver for some time, thinks the pet an excellent idea. Alas, Irena is not as convinced. In fact, the kitten responds to her advances with violent hisses, an unexpected behavior Oliver did not witness earlier when sharing the kitten with Alice.
Oliver and Irena elect to trade the kitten in for a pet she would prefer. However, upon entering Mrs. Plunkett’s establishment, virtually all of the pets panic. Leaving Irena outside, Oliver trades the kitten in for a canary; Irena, overjoyed to possess a bird. A short while later, Oliver and Irena are wed. But the intimate reception, given at a small Italian eatery, is intruded upon by ‘the cat woman’ (Elizabeth Russell), who acknowledges Irena as ‘her sister’ – a subliminal acknowledgement of the curse shared between them and to which a startled Irena crosses herself to ward off the potential evil. While the rest of the gathering is moderately amused by this kitten-faced female, who slinks off without further delay and never to be heard or seen from again, Irena is deeply troubled by the encounter, and, upon arriving at her apartment, confides to Oliver she cannot consummate their marriage just yet. He is marginally disappointed, but nevertheless understanding; the couple spending their first night as man and wife in separate bedrooms. In submitting the script to the Breen Office for censorship considerations, it was made clear to Lewton he must not infer sexual relations of any kind; Lewton, sidestepping the code by having Irena crouch down and placing her head against the bedroom door, her fingers bundled together as a claw as she slowly caresses the door knob while Oliver, fully clothed, patiently waits and listens for any sign of encouragement from his wife on the other side. Despite these concessions, the moment is fraught with a sort of uninhibited sexual rigidity, made all the more tantalizing by the subtle echoes of a panther in heat, meowing from just beyond the open window.
As it becomes quite clear Irena has no intensions of sharing a marital bed, Oliver encourages her to seek the counsel of a respected psychiatrist, recommended to him by Jane. Dr. Louis Judd listens to Irena’s fantastic story, her fears of transforming into a ‘cat person’ that will murder the man she loves. But Judd does not believe her for a moment. However, later that afternoon, while Irena is sketching in her apartment, she is drawn to Oliver’s pet canary; restlessly enjoying its beating-winged fear as she waves her hand about inside its cage until it dies from fright. Hurrying to the zoo, Irena tosses the dead bird inside the panther’s cage, taking notice of a key left in the cage door. She returns it to the kindly zoo keeper (Alec Craig), who assures Irena no person in their right mind would dare unlock the cage or risk being mauled. Oliver tries to develop a friendship between Jane and Irena. But Irena is extremely jealous of Jane’s breezy good nature. That evening, as Jane meets Oliver for a coffee in the shop at the base of their work building, Irena waits outside; observing their conversation through the curtained window. She stalks the unsuspecting Jane, walking alone through Central Park, but is unable to do her harm before the arrival of a bus Jane willingly boards, suspecting something is afoot in the shadows and the bushes. Thwarted in her revenge, Irena, presumably in cat form, slaughters several sheep at the nearby zoo, returning lightly disheveled to her apartment hours later.
Oliver is beside himself, and quite unable to reach his wife, who masks her tears of regret in a bathtub. Once again, Jane is targeted by Irena, this time stalked inside the basement pool of her apartment. Frantic, Jane screams for help, her cries heard by the front desk attendant and housekeeper, Mrs. Agnew (Dot Farley), who find Jane and Irena alone. Oliver is mystified. Irena’s sessions with Dr. Judd seem be getting them nowhere. Irena is more remote than ever and, perhaps, for good reason, as Judd is slowly oiling his way into her good graces for his own sake rather than to help save their marriage. But Irena continues to have hellish nightmares; in them, pursued by a pack of hissing black cats. Despondent, Irena returns to the zoo and manages to steal the key from the panther cage, fulfilling Judd’s prophecy of ‘unleashing evil upon the world’. That night, as Oliver and Jane prepare to leave the drafting room after a late night’s work they suddenly realize they are not alone in the darkened room; both seeing the shadow of a panther slinking about and preparing to pounce. Believing Irena’s story at last, that she and the cat present are one in the same, Oliver begs for his and Jane’s life, holding a T-square before him to cast the prophetic shadow of a crucifix on the wall directly behind them.
To Oliver’s amazement, the panther is vanquished. Alas, Judd is not so lucky. Waiting for Irena inside her apartment, Judd makes a passion play for the troubled woman, unaware of the curse he is about to unleash. In a transformation witnessed only from Judd’s perspective, Irena, now a full-fledged panther, lunges and attacks; the rest of the assault, played in violent shadows upon the wall; Judd, striking out in a failed defense and wounding Irena in the shoulder with his metal-tipped cane. A short while later, Judd’s mangled body is discovered by the curious neighbors under a pile of turned over furniture. Oliver and Jane arrive, but fail to see Irena looming in the shadows. She skulks off to the zoo with the key to the panther’s cage in her hand. For a moment, the panther and Irena regard one another as contemporaries; Irena, unlocking the cage to allow the cat to maul her to death. The panther lunges, knocking Irena down, before leaping onto the wall but then, unexpectedly, to its own death as it is struck by an oncoming taxi. Reasoning where Irena has gone, Oliver and Jane hurry to the zoo. They are too late. In place of Irena’s body lies the carcass of a dead panther with Judd’s broken cane still protruding from its shoulder blade. Our tale ends with yet another quotation (Lewton was rather big on these); this one excised from John Donne’s Holy Sonnets V – “But black sin hath betrayed to endless night my world, both parts, and both parts must die.”
Cat People is delicately constructed and utterly delicious psychological horror; a manifestation of Val Lewton’s own feline phobias turned wickedly fetishistic. There seems to be some discrepancies as to what the overall mood was like on the set. While, Simone Simon would suggest a perfectly equitable relationship, capped off by her admiration for Lewton, in later years, Jane Randolph would infamously criticize her co-star as being wholly unprofessional; prone to bouts of jealousy and giving director, Jacques Tourneur a very tough time. Perhaps, Simon was wary of Randolph’s billing as RKO’s Cinderella starlet, and equally unware of the impact her presence in the movie was having. Whatever her penchants, Simon would remain aloof toward Randolph (a quiet animosity that bode well for their respective characters), but would continue to express warmth and confidences to both Lewton and Babe Eagan – the wardrobe woman who, owing to a loss of fortunes, confided in Simon she could not sew a stitch. Undaunted by this revelation, Simon – an adequate seamstress in her own right – kept the old woman’s secret, electing instead to do her own costume repairs.
Ironically, Simone Simon might have still harbored a bit of angst and insecurity over the ramifications derived from what affectionately came to be known as ‘The Gold Key Scandal’. In 1938, Simone Simon charged her personal secretary had siphoned off some $15,000.00 from her personal bank accounts. Combative, the secretary spun a tale in the tabloids of Simon as an incurable epicurean prone to wild parties. It was rumored Simon had had little gold keys made to her home and boudoir and indiscriminately given these out to a lover – possibly, ‘lovers’. While Simon’s reputation survived this scandal, her secretary was sentenced to nine months in jail and ten years’ probation with the codicil that if any further rumors leaked out to the press she would have to serve out the full term of incarceration. Whatever the truth to these veiled innuendos, no more salacious tidbits emerged and Simon, who would leave Hollywood before the 1940’s were out, never spoke of the incident again to anyone. Viewing Cat People today, it is virtually impossible to imagine any other star as the doomed Irena. With her kittenish mannerisms and uncannily feline physical flavoring, Simone Simon is at the pinnacle of her prowess as the prowling and self-destructive cat woman. Jane Randolph’s rather worldly counterpoint is the perfect foil, with Kent Smith and Tom Conway representing two sides of masculinity; Oliver’s naïve, flawed innocent, akin to fidelity, offset by the perversity in Dr. Judd’s oily charisma.
Having gone five days over schedule and considerably over budget, Val Lewton was prepared to take his lumps at the Hill Street prevue. Mercifully, he had absolutely nothing for which to apologize. On the relatively miniscule budget of $135,000, Cat People proved a mega hit for RKO, earning by conservative estimates, several million dollars in its initial release and affirming for Lewton that his integrity as a storyteller could overcome practically anything; even a bad title, and worse, atrocious studio marketing: one unintentionally hilarious ad campaign suggesting, “…lovely woman…giant killer cat – the same person! It’s super-sensational!” Lewton was faced with a few light slaps on the wrist from the censors for hints of ‘lesbianism’ (which Lewton readily denied, though, in retrospect, are plainly there to see); also, for invoking religious iconography (in some communities, the moment where Oliver raises the T-square, casting a giant shadowy crucifix on the wall, was excised). But Cat People would debut all across America and the world, mostly without being eviscerated by unnecessary cuts: the net result – Lewton was off and running with a formula for making very scary pictures under some extreme cost-cutting and otherwise unwarrantedly silly working conditions. Today, Cat People survives as an exceptional piece of noir-ish horror. Like all truly great masterworks of the genre, it suggests far more than it shows and essentially keeps the audience guessing as to what they are actually witnessing; the connectivity of the human imagination presiding over the most darkened recesses and absences in Nicholas Musaraca’s cinematography where the genuine dread truly resides.
Lewton would make eight more movies in this ‘horror cycle’ for RKO; achieving a level of unimpeachable and bone-chilling uber-sophistication with The Seventh Victim, I Walked with A Zombie (both made and released in 1943), and, The Curse of The Cat People (1944). That Lewton ultimately fell prey to studio tinkering and was plagued by successive waves of ego and crippling depression, each to take a devastating toll on his all-too-brief life, is one of the great tragedies in Hollywood. For here was a genius to give most toiling behind the camera a real run for their money; doing it quicker, cheaper and arguably better, and, in the final analysis, achieving a sort of disturbing immortality as brilliant, doomed and legendary a genius in his own right. In 1982, director, Paul Schrader tried to bring Cat People up to date; his gumbo of SFX, nudity and gore suffering egregiously from the woeful miscasting of Nastassja Kinski. The remake showed more flesh, to be sure, though hardly more proficiency or professionalism. Personally, I have never cared for this remake. Want to truly be unnerved? See Lewton’s masterpiece instead. It scintillates, sizzles and scares the living be-geezus from even the most sophisticated viewer and it works like gangbusters – every time!
Criterion’s new Blu-ray deserves very high praise indeed and so does Warner Bros. Home Entertainment for licensing the rights with this new 2K digital restoration that looks positively marvelous. Some may recall WB’s DVD release of the Val Lewton horror classics left much to be desired; two features compressed onto a single-sided disc, with scant extras and a lot of compression-related challenges to overcome. Cat People on DVD also showed considerable wear and tear from decades of mismanaged and sloppily archived elements. Most, if not all, of these age-related issues have been resolved; specifically, the distracting water damage and inconsistent image flicker that was really disturbing in spots, but appears to have been eradicated from this almost pristine 1080p presentation. I have said it before so I will say it again: I would have preferred Warner to be more proactive here and scan these elements in at 4K resolution before dumbing them down for this video presentation – chiefly, for longevity’s sake. I also should add, I am exceedingly happy with what I am seeing here; some exceptional tonality in the gray scale and lots of deep, rich and enveloping black levels. I won’t even comment on the Japanese Blu-ray release, which I own but was thoroughly disgusted with, enough to avoid adding it to my roster of reviews. Suffice it to state, Criterion’s release is the preferred home viewing format. We get a 2.0 PCM soundtrack that is remarkably clean and intense, with zero hiss or pop and uncharacteristic depth and clarity, particularly in Roy Webb’s haunting underscore.
Criterion’s extras are more scant than anticipated, but once again, exceptionally well selected to satisfy. Directly ported over from the 2005 DVD is historian, Gregory Mank’s efficient and informative audio commentary, infrequently interrupted by excerpts from a phone conversation he had with actress, Simone Simon. I will just put in a personal plug here for Mank, whom I could sincerely listen to for hours and hours. He gives us thoughtful insight and not just reflections of what we are seeing on the screen – although, he gets around to making those too. But Mank’s genuine gift is his easy style, his wit and he preparedness. Although I am certain he is cribbing from notes, he gives the impression of offering up just some good ‘off the cuff’ conversation pieces about the making of the movie. Truly, wonderful stuff. Arguably, the most impressive extra herein is Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows: a 2008 documentary hosted by Martin Scorsese that at least makes the attempt to fully explore the life and career of its legendary Hollywood producer. This documentary was a part of the Warner/Lewton box set 2.0 reissue, done nearly a year after the initial release (though with zero upgrades to the films themselves). It is a fabulous companion piece. We also get a 26 minute 1979 interview with director, Jacques Tourneur (in French with optional English subtitles). Last, but certainly not least, Criterion has included a newly produced 16 minute interview with cinematographer, John Bailey commenting on Nicholas Musuraca’s extraordinary work. This package is capped off by a spooky theatrical trailer and historian, Geoffrey O’Brien’s astute liner notes. A brief word about the cover art: it’s creepy, but in a way that stoops and panders to the obviousness of the horror in a way the movie itself never does. I could have done with a more mysterious and elegant cover, incorporating something of the movie’s original panther art. But hey, opinions will differ. I suspect when this disc officially streets it will be one of the irrefutable highlights of the fall season. You are just going to love this – trust me. The good stuff is on its way! Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)