Cat People (1942) directed by Jacques Tourneur
Serbian Irena (Simone Simon) is a lonely woman who meets Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) at the zoo when she is sketching panthers. They hit it off, eventually leading to his proposal of marriage. She is happy to marry but at their wedding night she refuses to consummate the marriage. Her Serbian village had lots of old folk tales--ancestors who were driven to evil and to the mountains, who can turn into cats when they kiss someone they love or when in fits of jealousy. Oliver, being a hard-headed American, ignores the tales. Her stand-offish behavior bothers both him and her. He arranges for some psychiatric treatment with the helpful suggestion of a co-worker...a female co-worker who is also in love with Oliver (though otherwise she is extremely nice). The psychiatrist uncovers Irena's deeply held belief that she is a descendant of the Cat People. She doesn't want to hurt anyone but thinks she will anyway. Irena quits the treatment and a malevolent, cat-like force stalks the co-worker. Things get more complicated from there.
The film is produced by Val Lewton, whose short but spectacular production career brought to the horror genre a more psychological approach along with a "less is more" approach. This film is a perfect example of skillfully blending the two approaches. The set-up is slow but deliberate and detailed. The first unsettling moments are just uncomfortable (a random Serbian woman at a restaurant (who is dressed like a cat) calls Irena "My sister" in Serbian); later, the tension skyrockets, as when the co-worker is stalked by something in the shadows at a darkened indoor pool. The film does a great job suggesting Irena's transformations without showing them. The movie is visually impressive.
Simone Simon gives a great performance as Irena. At first she seems mousy and shy but viewers can also see that she has a lot going on inside her head. Tom Conway as the psychiatrist also hits the right blend of disdain for the folk tales and of caution for the unusual abilities of crazy people (even if he denies the paranormal abilities); he's a bit smarmy too, suggested the co-worker may not be as nice as she first appears. The cast is uniformly great, delivering the subtlety and depth of the script.
The plot moves ahead a little too quickly at one or two points, but given the 73-minute running time, it's hard to complain. Especially with all the other fine qualities in the film.