Friday, November 10, 2023

Irene Dubrovna in "Cat People" (1942)

The Classic Movie Blog Association is hosting the Blogathon and the Beast blog event this week. This theme gives us bloggers a chance to write about a film character who has a beast within themselves. 

All of us have a sleeping beast within who, hopefully, never awakens in our lifetime. As the old saying goes, "Let sleeping dogs lie." I always had the notion that my sleeping dog was the Beast of Jealousy which, thankfully, has never had cause to open its eyes. 

Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) in Cat People (1942) was not so fortunate. She had what I believe was the Beast of Jealousy within her and, one afternoon, an unexpected encounter at the zoo began a chain of events that caused this sleeping dog (or rather, cat) to wake. 

Irena was a sketch artist for a fashion design company. She had an apartment that was a short walk away from the New York City Zoo, and she enjoyed spending her afternoons there sketching the animals...namely, the resident panther. 

One day at the zoo, she meets Oliver (Kent Smith), a marine engineer, and within a few hours, they become romantic friends. 

Unlike most of us who are unaware of our inner beasts, Irena knows very well what hidden danger may be inside her. She tells Oliver a story about a certain group of evil people from the village in Serbia where she came from. They were known as "cat people" and were, supposedly, pushed back from her village by King John quite a long time ago. However, Irena always feared she may have been an ancestor of these people, and her suspicion is later confirmed when, on her and Oliver's wedding night, a mysterious woman greets her as one of the "cat people".

The cat people destroy the ones they love. Like real felines, they are averse to strong displays of affection, especially if it creates an unwanted bond of dependency. Irena believes that if she were to kiss Oliver, she would have to kill him, and so months pass with their marriage unconsummated. Meanwhile, Oliver grows more and more apart from Irena and her obsession with this belief in "old folklore". He turns to Alice, a longtime friend and coworker, for advice and, later, for comfort. 

This arouses Irena's feelings of her "inner cat" even more and one evening she follows Alice home. She begins by walking a good distance behind Alice but shortly she takes on the physical appearance of a cat - a panther - and actually stalks Alice like prey. 

"There is, in some cases, a psychic need to loose evil upon the world. And we all of us carry within us a desire for death. You fear the panther; yet you are drawn to him again and again. Could you not turn to him as an instrument of death?"

Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941) went into a mental fog when he transformed into the wolf and he was afraid he would harm someone unknowingly while he was a wolf. Irena's transformation is quite different. She seems to be well aware of whom she is stalking and attacking as a panther. 

Irena is quite a shy and gentle woman by nature and dreads having a duel-personality, especially one that is an animal. She willingly agrees to undergo psychiatric treatment to be cured of this belief, but at the same time seems to take pleasure in her predicament and clings to it. Typical feline complexity. 

In one eerie scene, she follows Alice to the indoor pool of her apartment complex at night and prowls and growls in the shadows around the pool. After Alice screams and others come into the pool room, Irena transforms back into her human self and innocently remarks "
I'm sorry I disturbed you, Alice. I missed you and Oliver. I thought you might know where he is." Clearly, she was enjoying herself. 

Irena's cat personality may not have been entirely a beast of jealousy but this emotion was a strong trigger for it to come forth into the physical realm. Thank goodness the evil nature we sometimes suppress, be it ever so small, does not take the physical form of an animal. Although... dating back to ancient times, people's inner personalities were referenced in relation to animals. In Western and Chinese astrology, human character traits are linked with animal counterparts. And all of us, at some time or another, refer to others as animals.... "He's like a timid mouse"... "She's like a frightened rabbit". But how strange it would be to see these animal natures take form! 

Irena had no control over her unusual situation. Whether she wanted to be a cat or not, she became one. She was just an innocent victim of presumably an ancient gypsy curse in her village. Sadly, her husband Oliver thought her fear of being transformed into a cat was only a problem of her issue he later got bored with when it made him unhappy. At one point, Irena was willing to cast aside her fears and superstitions and concentrate on being a good wife to Oliver, but by that time it was too late. Oliver now loved Alice and Irene was then more than willing to unleash her inner beast....knowing very well it meant her death. 


  1. Those darn gypsy curses! Fun post. She certainly was a danger, wasn't she? However, the poor feline is so misunderstood! If you're lucky, you get a pinch of affection - just enough to leave you wanting more.

    1. Those gypsies must not have had anything better to do then put curses on people! Yes, Irena is a woman with a problem, and unfortunately, it was such a rare problem no one could help her with it.

  2. This sounds like such a tense and thought-provoking film. Your review is also thought-provoking and so well written.

    1. This film is worth watching, Ruth. It's only a little over an hour. All of Val Lewton's pictures are beautifully filmed but this one - and the sequel Curse of the Cat People - are more of a character study than his other pictures. You might enjoy it.

  3. This is a great film! The character of Irena is a complex one but there is no doubt about her villainous feline side. I personally hold a lot of sympathy for Irena because of the way she is abandoned by Oliver. While it is true that their unconsummated marriage was certainly a cause of frustration and conflict, I believe that Oliver could have offered her more support. He obviously knew that she had issues/secrets but he 1) did not go into detail with her and 2) outright chose not to believe her. In fact - and oddly enough - it is Alice who is more thoughtful towards Irena's plight than her own husband. And how could Oliver not smell Dr. Judd's true intentions from a mile away?
    I'm looking forward to watching THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE to see if Irena's character redeemed in any way.

    1. Isn't that the truth! Irena character is quite different in Curse of the Cat People...she is more like a fairy godmother to Oliver and Alice's daughter who is shy and likes to play make-believe. Her parents don't believe she has a "special friend" in the backyard to whom she talks with, until she points out a photo of Irena as being the woman that she sees. And once again, Oliver is very disbelieving, this time of his daughter. Alice and the girl's schoolteacher look into the matter but it's the houseservant - Edward - who seems to care for the girl the most. It's a different film than the original and not like most sequels. Also, it takes place in late fall/winter around Christmas.

  4. An enjoyable post on an unsettling movie. I like the comparison with poor Larry Talbot as the Wolfman.