October 19, 2016
This was the last book that I wanted to read for Raquel's Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge, which ended on September 15th. But in a beautiful fusion of procrastination and serendipity, I didn't get around to reading it until this week, when leaves are falling, the wind is starting to moan --not quite howling just yet-- and Halloween is definitely in the air. It's the perfect time of year to dive into a book about one of my favorite spooky movies!
I've read a handful of BFI books now, and Cat People by Kim Newman is my favorite. I've really enjoyed all of them, but some can get so caught up in the production details that they don't really spend too much time on the film itself. The bulk of this book devotes itself to deconstructing each scene, and it's absolutely fascinating. Production details can be interesting too (and this book isn't lacking in that department) but I'm personally way more interested in the actual film than the budgeting details. There's a reason I chose to read a book about a movie instead of a book about economics, haha :)
The author is a huge fan of the movie, which comes in handy when you're talking about a film that some people might not appreciate. He defends it valiantly from its detractors and diligently answers critiques with reasons why its supposed shortcomings make the film even better. He even included a particularly spiteful review from Stephen King and rebutted the complaint that the film was too obviously shot on a soundstage ("When I was supposed to be worrying about whether or not Jane Randolph was going to be attacked, I found myself worrying instead about that papier-mache stone wall in the background." UGH. For someone renown for his wild imagination, King certainly had a hard time using it when watching this movie.)
One interesting observation that really stuck with me was about which characters the audience is supposed to sympathize with. Modern audiences like Irena, Simone Simon's character, and feel sorry for her. But at the time of its release, did audiences instead see themselves in the milquetoast Kent Smith and All-American but nevertheless brazen husband-stealer Jane Randolph? Was French Simone Simon (playing Serbian here) a foreign, unfamiliar character whose exotic appeal had lured Kent away from his waspy Girl Friday? Newman writes in the book that the film is clearly trying to switch heroines halfway through the film -- in the scenes in which Randolph's character is in danger, we are supposed to be rooting for her. But do we? My heart is still with Irena, the poor romantic girl stuck in a body that she can't control.
Newman also gives us some background information about the sets used (or I should say, re-used) in the film. Val Lewton was an ace at recycling old sets, and here there are quite a few that will look familiar to you once you know where else you saw them! The inside of Irena's building with the giant ornate staircase is from The Magnificent Ambersons. Kent Smith's workplace is from The Devil and Miss Jones. The park is from an Astaire-Rogers musical (not sure which one.) For the infamous pool scene, they actually used an existing apartment building that had the right claustrophobic feel, with eerie underwater lighting. (On location shooting, take that, Stephen King!)
I've seen the film countless times so I didn't feel like I needed to revisit it before reading the book. However, now that I've learned so much about the film, gained so many insights into the characters and the psychology of the movie, I'm eager to watch it again with a newfound understanding.