The original 1942 Cat People (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) was made on a low budget for RKO’s B-movie unit, the first in an amazing series of B-horror films from producer Val Lewton that transcended its origins. It’s a masterpiece of mood and psychological ambiguity masquerading as a cheap exploitation knock-off. Cheap it is, but Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur create mood not out of what is seen, but what isn’t.
Simone Simon is a kittenish young artist from a rural Siberian village who has moved to urban America but still believes in the legends and superstitions of her homeland. Kent Smith is the generically charming American engineer who meets her in the zoo, where she obsessively sketches the black panther prowling its small cage, and they marry, but her fears prevent her from consummating the marriage. She believes that she comes from a cursed bloodline of the devil-worshippers and that any form of romantic passion will transform her into a jungle cat. That’s not exactly how the film frames it—she won’t even allow a passionate kiss out of her fear—but the film slyly makes the connection between sex (both repressed and unleashed) and horror. Smith sounds more parental than partner as he dismisses her superstitions and fears with a superiority that comes off as insensitive as best and arrogant at worst. The only transformation we see is in the character of the suddenly aggressive Simon when she becomes jealous of her husband’s coworker (Jane Randolph). Everything else is left to suggestion and imagination, using feline snarls and shadows on the wall and ingenious art direction (her apartment is filled with art featuring cats) to hint at transformation. Tom Conway is both slickly sophisticated and a little sleazy as a psychiatrist who becomes too interested in his troubled patient.
Ostensibly a remake of the 1942 classic by the same name, Paul Schrader’s 1982 Cat People is a cat of a different species entirely. At the time, it was accused of being garish and gory and literal in its exploration of sexuality as an animal impulse, in contrast to the shadowy psychological suggestions of the Jacques Tourneur-directed original. Schrader, who was a brilliant film critic before he turned to writing scripts and then directing films, had written Taxi Driver and Obsession and Raging Bull and came to Cat People after American Gigolo, his third film as a director but his first big success. Cat People was the first project he had not written himself, a script that had been developed by other directors, and while he had screenwriter Alan Ormsby significantly rework the script with his own ideas, Schrader took no screen credit for it. Yet Schrader himself remarked years later that “when I look back on it, I see Cat People as being almost the most personal film I’ve done.” He reunited much of the creative team from American Gigolo–director of photography John Bailey, composer Giorgio Moroder, and most importantly visual consultant Ferdinando Scarfiotti–and transformed a sleek, sexy horror remake into a Paul Schrader film.
The film opens on a dream-like scene in a desert of blowing amber sand where young women are sacrificed to leopards. It plays more like myth or metaphor than literal flashback, a beguiling, beautiful, terrible fantasy of sex and magic and flesh and fur in what could be the most magnificent cinematic snow globe ever shaken on screen.
Sunrise (Fox, Blu-ray) – A deliriously romantic fable on a magnificent scale, F.W. Murnau’s 1927 Sunrise is a story of reconciliation and renewal and a Utopian vision of paradise lost and regained. A strapping young farmer (George O’Brien) under the spell of a sexy vamp from the city plots to kill his innocent Madonna of a wife (Janet Gaynor), but just when it seems to be playing out An American Tragedy, fate sends them on a second courtship through the bright lights and busy culture of the big city. It’s subtitled “a song of two humans” and it plays as much like verse as it does a story.
German master Murnau was lured to America by William Fox to give his studio class (Fox had money but he wanted was a masterpiece) and the director let his imagination loose upon the machinery of Hollywood to create the most beautiful piece of cinematic poetry to come out of America. There may be no more beautiful shot in all of cinema than the creeping prowl through the swamp, the camera pushing through leaves and branches and breaking through the mist, subtly shifting perspective without ever breaking it’s measured pace or floating gaze. His big city is like Metropolis for the jazz age, but invested with a benevolence that American filmmakers save for their small town portraits, and his storytelling is as unabashedly romantic as it is sophisticated. Sunrise reminds us of the silent cinema dream worlds lost in the new realism and visual literalness of the sound revolution. Almost a century of sound filmmaking has never equaled its emotional power or the cinematic purity. If there is a single essential silent classic, this is it.
Though produced as a silent film, it was released at the dawn of the sound era with a synchronized score by Hugo Reisenfeld in the U.S. and the disc features the original Reisenfeld soundtrack (with sound effects but no dialogue) and a subsequent score composed and conducted by Timothy Brock for the home video release. The disc presents two editions of the film, the original American release and a European silent version discovered a decade ago, created from alternate takes and sometimes different shots (a common practice in the silent era). The European print has a stronger image while the American version, mastered from an archival print (the negative was lost in a studio fire decades ago), is as close to the director’s definitive version we’ll find. Both are mastered in HD and debut on Blu-ray in the U.S. (many American collectors picked a British Blu-ray release few years ago; this is produced from the same digital masters).
Also features commentary by respected ASC cinematographer and cinematography historian John Bailey, outtakes with commentary by Bailey, the original scenario by Carl Mayer with annotations by F.W. Murnau, the original screenplay, and note on the restoration.
Cat People: Collector’s Edition (Shout Factory, Blu-ray) is not the 1942 classic of shadow and suggestion and Freudian sexuality clawing its way out of a virginal young woman but the 1982 remake directed by Paul Schrader. Nastassja Kinski, in her second American film, is entrancing as Irena, who arrives in New Orleans to be reunited with her brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell) only to discover that she belongs to a race of shapeshifters who turn into leopards when they have sex. Unless, of course, they keep it in the family.
Calling this a remake isn’t really accurate, I confess, even with the homages to the original film. Alan Ormsby’s screenplay doesn’t just update the story, it reimagines it with a backstory mythology that is both more literal and more dreamlike than the original and Schrader paints it with a palette of old world atmosphere and modern, unreal colors.