July 9, 2018
Stars Simone Simon, Ann Carter, Kent Smith, Jane Randoph.
One can assume that even had The Godfather or The Sound of Music carried a moniker like The Curse of the Cat People, most of both Oscar winners’ huge “bases” (as our president likes to say) would have rather cleaned hair out of sink drains than see it. And yet, even viewers without the slightest idea of who producer Val Lewton was have stumbled into Curse while channel surfing and found this haunter about a lonely young girl and her unusual made-up friend (even as these things go) to be surprisingly schlock-less, thoughtful, and in its own hallucinatory way, psychologically credible.
The reality was, however, that RKO wanted a cash-cow sequel to 1942’s Cat People after that one’s prodigious (and surprise) box office returns had helped offset the rude revenue losses of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and especially The Magnificent Ambersons (pause here to throw your arms up in negative wonderment). Thus, some title-oriented carnival barking was thought to be in order as a reminder to audiences that the new picture had at least a tangential relationship with the previous Lewton-Simone Simon-Kent Smith-Jane Randolph collaboration, which remains one of the true Hollywood milestones of the war years, on its way many decades later to 2016 Criterion treatment.
The ploy, alas, didn’t work — something that picture-stealing Ann Carter notes herself in Scream Factory’s bonus section radio interview with the actress, recorded not too long before her death. Those expecting cats, curses and at least a little terror got instead a story about a quiet youngster residing with her mother, father and housekeeper/cook in a manicured back-lot kind of neighborhood apparently untouched by World War II (the movie came out about two months before D-Day). She’s hardly a rebel yet more times than not is shunned by other kids in the neighborhood. Aside from the housekeeper (played by major real-life calypso figure and activist Leftie of the day, Sir Lancelot), her two friends are a borderline batty former actress (Julia Dean) who’s about eight times her age — and an imagined friend (or is she?) with the looks and physical form of a photo subject Carter’s Amy character found in the house. In other words, she looks just like Simone Simon, an actress who had by far her most famous role in the original Cat People, despite a filmography that also included Renoir’s La Bete Humaine and two for Max Ophuls: La Ronde and Le Plaisir. They’re quite a visual pair: Simone with dark hair and with looks that used to be called “silky” against Carter, who was so blond that she previously played Veronica Lake’s lookalike daughter in Rene Clair’s comic fantasy I Married a Witch.
As the child’s parents, Kent Smith and Jane Randolph return from the Cat People original, where they had to deal with the stress of Simone being possessed by cats (interpreted by plural critics as a possible sexual hang-up) before and during Smith’s first marriage to the latter before her death. Smith is likely to come off as stiff and unfeeling to some (he’s also a tad dull here, which wasn’t always so with the actor), but let’s look at it from his character’s point of view when he blows a couple fuses. Your daughter is already showing signs of being out there in squirrelly-land, and now she’s hanging out with an apparition of your deceased ex-wife when, just to pile on, the two cannot possibly have ever met. These are domestic problems that never afflicted Ozzie Nelson, who mostly had to fret about guitar picks clogging up the Hoover.
There’s also an arresting subplot involving the old woman and her sadly ignored daughter (Elizabeth Russell) who is certainly pathetic-with-a-cause. Russell’s creepy eyes and high cheekbones were made for supernatural movies, and she made several more with Lewton during the latter’s comet-like career that established him as the all-time master of low-budget psychological horror; I can really imagine her as a regular at one of Dracula’s Hefner-like bashes at his mansion. Beyond Carter’s marvelous workhorse performance (I think she worked all but one day of the shooting schedule), Curse gets to me most as a movie of mood, with Nicholas Musuraca photography and Roy Webb music again helping to define ’40s RKO. And so soon after seeing spectacularly sparkling black-and-white recent Blu-rays of Gun Crazy and Criss Cross, here’s another release whose images just jump off a large home screen. If I’m not mistaken, I think this is the first time that either Shout! or Scream Factory has taken a flier on a super-vintage title that Warner controls. Here’s to collaboration.
There’s a heavy dose of real-life melancholy hanging over this picture, which I suppose perversely adds to the mood. Lewton’s commercial touch began fading around this time, and within three years, his career would be all but over. Carter developed polio, which curtailed her career, though she apparently had a happy life as wife, mother and teacher. Simon, who felt indebted to Lewton, turned down the lead in a more prestigious picture (Douglas Sirk’s Summer Storm, I think) for basically a small-ish role here and was soon gone from Hollywood. Even the fact that onetime editor Robert Wise got his big break by being asked to make his directorial debut here came at a price; the initially hired Gunther V. Fritsch was doing a good but snail’s-pace job and had to be replaced, which is why Curse has shared director credits. (Pretty seamless, too, gotta say.) So with two commentaries (including a new one), a half-hour Simone portrait and the Carter radio interview … well, let’s just say that every cult movie deserves this kind of TLC, though I Walked With a Zombie and The Seventh Victim top my own wish-list of Lewton’s I’d love to see on Blu-ray.