October weekends here at Antagony & Ecstasy can mean one thing and one thing only: it's time for a classic horror retrospective. This year, we've got the nine films produced in the 1940s by the RKO Radio Pictures B-unit headed by Val Lewton, formerly an attaché of megaproducer David O. Selznick. Lewton, the genius executive, who was for a brief span given near-absolute control over RKO's entire horror movie output; a period during which RKO was the great horror film factory in the United States, coming into prominence just as Universal was earnestly in the process of turning its classic monster stable into so many dumb matinee clowns.

The nine films produced by Lewton and his amazing team of directors, writers, cinematographers, and other creative artists, stand as one of the great bodies of work in the history of the studio system: only MGM's musical films unit headed by Arthur Freed in the '40s and '50s can match the Lewton team's success at creating a brand name out of a production unit working in a specific genre. And Freed had prestige movie budgets and casts; Lewton was doing it all on the fly with whatever leftovers RKO would toss his way.

But let us not get bogged down in a history lesson - if the films of the Lewton Unit could be made with such low-bullshit efficiency and purpose (not a single one of them passes the 80-minute mark), so should reviews of those films. So let's jump right into the first, most famous, and by most accounts best of the lot, 1942's Cat People, written by first-time screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, and directed by Jacques Tourneur.

The film establishes a pattern that most of the Lewton unit films will follow, in that it opens with an extremely long passage during which nothing happens that could even remotely be described as "horror" by the most generous of critics - in fact, more than half of Cat People's 73 minutes have already gone by before the first small indication that it's any kind of genre picture, except insofar as "psychological drama about marriage" is a genre. Opening in the Central Park Zoo in New York, the film introduces us to Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a recent Serbian immigrant fascinated by the zoo's big cats, especially the black panther; and then to Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), an engineer whose name is just really damn unfortunate seven decades and one belligerent drunken Brit later, but there's not much we can do about that.

In the pushy way of a charismatic, cocksure American, Oliver sidles his way into Irena's life, and by the time their first date ends with tea at her apartment, he's learned a weird story about her culture: the village she left behind has a legend about devil-worshipping witches and sorcerers who fled into the mountains when King John brought Christianity into the rural corners of Serbia. Supposedly, there are still people descended from these Satanists who, inflamed by anger or jealousy or lust, turn into giant cats.

Irena has deep-seated fears that she is, herself, one of these cat people, but Oliver blithely assures her that's nonsense, and before too long they're married; but, fearing the demon within her, Irena refuses to consummate the marriage, or even to permit Oliver to kiss her, and that puts exactly the strain on the marriage you'd expect, leading him to seek advice from his co-worker, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) - nor is he especially discreet about it, because it's not like anything is happening, after all. But of course the last thing the situation needs is for Irena to learn that her husband is seeking advice and emotional support from another woman, and after dissing the rather leering psychiatrist Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), Irena starts to spy on Alice and Oliver, looking for any hint that their relationship goes beyond that of friendly coworkers.

This, then, is when the film abruptly, and whole-heartedly, dives into horror, as Alice is increasingly aware of someone following her, spotting what looks for all the world like a panther in the shadows at night. Of course, neither she nor Oliver genuinely believes that Irena can transform in to an animal, but on the other hand... And even if she's just a good old-fashioned psychotic, Irena still has that fascination with the zoo panther, and she knows where the keys to its cage can be found.

Even though Cat People takes its sweet time about warming up to become, arguably, the scariest American horror movie of the 1940s, with two genuinely suspenseful sequences like nothing else that had ever been made, the opening is hardly an exercise in padding or wheel-spinning. In fact, the psychological games played in the first half might even be better than the chiaroscuro thrills of the second, as the film depicts, with shocking frankness for 1942, the neurotic behavior of a woman raised in a stringently religious environment to believe that sex is filthy and sinful. And make no mistake, whether she's a cursed were-cat or not, Irena's tragedies begin with her self-lacerating guilt over her own sexuality (since, if she didn't have that guilt, there'd be no trigger for the animal to take her over). Simon's performance, though extraordinarily mannered by any standards that have ever applied to acting in sound cinema, captures the dissociation in Irena's mind perfectly, playing her as a woman so detached while also being so aware of the feelings she's stepping away from that the result is some indefinable combination of brittle staginess with wounded soulfulness, not like anything we're used to calling great acting, and yet it is so perfect for the movie it inhabits - without Simon's anchoring performance, the film wouldn't work nearly so well, if it would work at all - that it can only be called great.

Of course, the genre theatrics are pretty grand stuff in their own right: Tourneur rocketed to prominence with this film and while he would make great films in this and other genres over the years to come, Cat People remains his masterpiece, particularly the back half, in which he and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (they'd combine forces again for the outstanding 1947 noir Out of the Past) create one of the great atmosphere pieces of all time, an urban nightmare of shadows and hard angles that draws upon the handbook of German Expressionism without being "of" Expressionism, as the great Universal horror films of the '30s were; the tenor of Cat People, in keeping with its acute psychology that makes this such a grown-up horror story, is decidedly more realistic, and if its shadow-bathed sets are moody and cinematic, it is only the mood that happens in a city itself, in those rare places where there are no lights, and you're that much more aware of how dark and unknown everything is in that moment, since true darkness is such a rarity.

It's this darkness that contributes to the film's two crowning moments: Alice being stalked by either Irena or the wind, we're never quite sure which, with the the plunging shadows augmented by deliberately flat, minimalistic sound, punctuated with the wheeze of a bus's air brake - possibly the first fake-out scare in cinema history, and even now one of the most successful, given how perfectly the lead-up has been constructed - and then, later, a scene of Alice in a pool in the dark (why she didn't turn the lights on is unstated; nerves, maybe), as something, something quadrupedal that growls, mills around where she can't see it and can barely hear it over the splashing of the water.

In fact, Tourneur and Musuraca even manage to salvage a moment that should have ruined the movie, through sheer visual beauty: RKO bosses, concerned at the impeccable balance running through Bodeen's script and Tourneur's direction, in which we're never certain whether or not Irena is actually a cat woman (attempts to strike this same balance would be commonplace in Lewton's subsquent production, though nowhere in his career - virtually nowhere in the rest of horror, before or after - is that balance as flawless as it is here), demanded a scene that clarified it at the end; and while I do regret knowing the truth, the elliptical, hazy manner in which the reveal is shot is such a triumph of subjective viewpoint and surreal atmosphere that you can almost pretend it doesn't "count". And even if it does, the scene is so beautiful to look at, that I wouldn't through it out, even to restore the carefully-tailored ambiguity.

With this, I have barely scratched the surface of what Cat People has going on: the trick, common in B-pictures, of reusing sets, in this case an instantly-recognisable staircase from no less than The Magnificent Ambersons, which grants to this film a measure of the faded glory of Welles's picture; the delicate way that Oliver is presented as an overweening, condescending dick without ever losing our sympathy; the score, and on and on. Such is ever the way with masterpieces: you say one thing about them, and then you thing of ten more, and eventually you realise with delight that they are inexhaustible. Inexhaustible, perhaps, Cat People is not; a masterpiece, though, it most undeniably is.

Reviews in this series
Cat People (Tourneur, 1942)
I Walked with a Zombie (Tourneur, 1943)
The Leopard Man (Tourneur, 1943)
The Seventh Victim (Robson, 1943)
The Ghost Ship (Robson, 1943)
The Curse of the Cat People (von Fritsch/Wise, 1944)
The Body Snatcher (Wise, 1945)
Isle of the Dead (Robson, 1945)
Bedlam (Robson, 1946)