Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

WHO: Val Lewton produced, and contributed quite a bit to the screenplay of, this picture.

WHAT: This is a beautiful film with a terribly inappropriate title. Though it is a sequel to Lewton's 1942 atmospheric horror picture Cat People in that it shares characters from that film (including Irena, again played by the always-luminous Simone Simon), it does not involve them in a horror situation this time out, and instead focuses on the inner life of a little girl, played by child actor Ann Carter. The picture has been annoying genre purists and enchanting more open-minded audiences ever since.

Among the first to be enchanted was the great critic James Agee, who declared it one of the best films of 1944 despite its flaws (it was completed on an incredibly low budget and time-frame, re-using sets from A-pictures like the Magnificent Ambersons as Lewton's productions were wont to do.) Agee particularly singled out the performances of Simone and, though unnamed in his review, Carter and another actor, Sir Lancelot (also seen in Lewton's I Walked With A Zombie and The Ghost Ship), whose role was re-fashioned by Lewton from that of a "middle-aged female Down Easter housekeeper" found in DeWitt Bodeen's original written treatment. Here's an excerpt of Agee's article as re-published in Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism:
I wish that the makers of the film, and RKO, might be given some special award for the whole conception and performance of the family servant, who is one of the most unpretentiously sympathetic, intelligent, anti-traditional, and individualized Negro characters I have ever seen presented on the screen. And I hope that producer Val Lewton, and rest of the crew may be left more to their own devices; they have a lot of taste and talent, and they are carrying films a long way out of Hollywood.
WHERE/WHEN: Screens today and tomorrow at the Stanford Theatre at 6:10 and 8:55 PM.

WHY: Sequels are always better than originals, right? Okay, maybe not. But in a summer in which nearly all the top moneymakers have been sequels, reboots, or sequels to reboots, and in which even a nigh-upcoming film that shares cast and crew but not setting or character with two other features, is being promoted (at least jokingly, to fans) as the third part in a trilogy, it seems clear that moviegoers like sequels.

I generally don't, I must confess. I usually feel like, if I wanted to get enjoyment out of recurring characters, I'd watch television shows instead of movies. But who am I kidding? I know I love to see my favorite classic film stars portray the same sorts of roles again and again, even if they don't reuse the same character names and back-stories. And I love to watch recurring characters in short cartoons. Anti-sequel snobbery would shut me out from watching The Godfather Part II (at the Castro this Sunday, for instance) or Gods of the Plague (part of the Pacific Film Archive Fassbinder series in October) or next week's Stanford Theatre offering Three Smart Girls Grow Up. And it would blind me from an appreciation of a magical little film like The Curse of the Cat People as surely as horror fans have been blinded by their preference for one genre over another.

HOW: The Curse of the Cat People screens from a 35mm print, on a double-bill with Cat People.


  1. Writer DeWitt Bodeen (his name appears on some other interesting films) was a helpful contributor to the magazine Films In Review in its best years, and would turn up occasionally at screenings of rarities in Manhattan that I was at in the 70s and 80s.

  2. Apparently he traveled to the Sleepy Hollow area to do research, and wholly approved of Lewton's change of the servant character to include Sir Lancelot in the cast. Agee's comments on the characterization seem a bit over-the-top after re-viewing the film last night, but I have to remember it was 1944.