There’s a lot to love about Cat People. How the film came to be is a compelling underdog story involving a shoestring budget and a producer given the task of crafting a movie around a cheesy title. The fact that producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur managed to wring so much out of so little is nothing short of a cinematic miracle.
However, what I’d like to focus on here is not the film’s back story, but its truly gorgeous visual elements.
The film is characterized by low-key lighting and heavy use of stark shadows. In fact, the monster pursuing our protagonists is seen only in silhouette for the majority of the film. While it’s certainly possible that Tourneur immersed most of the film’s shots in darkness for economic reasons, the effect he creates by doing so is palpably terrifying.
Cat People wears black and white well. As I mentioned before, shadows are an integral part of the plot, as they hide the primal beasts that the characters fear and flee from. The film’s shadows are harsh and convey terror and looming danger terribly well.
Also, a color palette limited to black, white, and gray allows for the director to create easy nonverbal distinctions between the characters. For example, the main character Irena (Simone Simon), who is haunted by an ancient family curse, is always clothed in black. Her dark clothes (and hair as well) serve as a constant visual representation of her family’s dark history.
The other female protagonist (and the other love interest of the leading man), is a perky, all-American girl named Alice that sparks feelings of jealousy in Irena. By contrast, the flaxen-haired Alice (Jane Randolph) is clothed in light colors and emanates an angelic glow compared to the brooding, slinking Irena. These visual dichotomies in the film make for an undeniably rich viewing experience.
Cat People uses expressionistic, noir-like lighting and deep contrasts to create a truly beautiful black and white picture. If you haven’t seen this classic B-horror film, I definitely recommend you give it a watch.