Cat People

We may not expect a B-grade film noir to reveal several aspects of American mythology, but the 1942 movie Cat People does just that. Directed by Jacques Tourneur and released during World War II, the film presents us with several ideas concerning what it means to be American.

The character of Irena, played by Simone Simon, comes to the U.S. from Serbia, and much of the narrative concerns the complexity of her becoming Americanized. The film suggests what it means to be American--one must accept religion over superstition, adopt certain ways of thinking, eat the right foods, and behave according to the proper codes. Irena cannot do these things, because she cannot escape her Serbian ancestry. By remaining an unassimilated cat person, she renounces the religious and scientific component of good U.S. citizens, and stays an outsider until her death.

Oliver Reed, on the other hand, represents a proper American. He holds on to his Christian (perhaps Puritanical) beliefs, and refuses to compromise them even when presented with a conflicting reality. At one point, he merges his religion with technology (and the myth of progress) by creating a cross out of a T-square to save his life and Alice's. In the diner, Oliver passes up chicken gumbo, a mildly exotic dish, in favor of apple pie (apparently his favorite food). Much of his community reinforces these ideals, and the office workers reveals their Americanness by naming their nice domestic cat John Paul Jones. This community creates a pattern that seals off outsiders such as Irena who cannot adopt American ways. For an immigrant a new American identity must replace the old, if one is to survive.

On one level, the film questions this mythology. Irena, after all, is right--the truth is found in her old beliefs, not in American thinking or modern psychology. However, rightness is not at stake; Americanness is. Therefore, Irena must die.