Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) is a fashion designer who likes to spend her spare time at the zoo, sketching the big cats there. That is what she is doing today, and when she frustratedly crumples up another drawing, throwing it towards the bin, she misses. This is noticed by another visitor to the zoo, architect Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) who picks up the paper and puts it into the bin then walks over to goodnaturedly admonish her. They strike up a conversation and are immediately attracted to each other, so much so that after Oliver accompanies Irena to her apartment block she invites him in. But soon he will regret the day he ever got to know her and her mysterious secret...
A surprise hit in its day considering it was "just" a B movie, Cat People was essentially screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen's variation on the classic werewolf story. It was the first of the series of horrors produced by Val Lewton, now much celebrated and distinguished by their inventive use of low budgets to rely on suggestion and dark shadows for suspense. This method rarely worked better than it did here, but this was no simple thrill ride, there was a definite strain of tragedy in its tale brought out by the inspired casting of French actress Simon as the Serbian Irena, whose ancestors have landed her with a curse.
Simon was rarely as delightful as she was here, which only renders the film so terribly sad; it's one of those chillers where we are in the privileged position of knowing whatever supernatural consequences of the characters' actions might occur will affect them inescapably. So when Irena believes she cannot get close to anyone in her adopted home of America, we are all too aware of what Oliver, her first real friend there, doesn't accept: that her curse is deadly and will threaten him and others. Nevertheless, after a whirlwind courtship she has become his wife, but there's trouble almost immediately when Irena refuses to consummate the marriage.
Kind-hearted Oliver, who was so drawn to Irena because of her otherworldliness and has never known any true unhappiness, wants to help her but his kidding can only go so far and he asks co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph) for suggestions about a psychiatrist. This being a contemporary-set Hollywood film, psychology had to enter the picture eventually, and it does so in the shape of Dr Judd (Tom Conway), a suave yet sleazy shrink who sees an opportunity not only to assist Irena with her demons but also to make a romantic move on her now that Oliver has fallen in love with Alice.
Irena's jealousy awakens her curse, and she takes to stalking Alice, leading to such iconic scenes as the late night walk home or the swimming pool business. But while such sequences are tense, the reason why Cat People sticks in the memory is down to its main plotline being so unfair on the enormously sympathetic Irena. Both sweet and haunted, she is afflicted with something akin to Original Sin, and the evils of her ancestors have visited an unjust punishment on the woman. When we see how frightened she is, not only when she accidentally kills a pet bird but when she is recognised in a restaurant by a strange woman, a possible fellow cat person from the Old World (Elizabeth Russell), you can't help but feel your heart go out to her as it's not her fault that she is so dangerous, it's cruel fate. The result is one of the most affecting horrors ever made. Music by Roy Webb.