Serbian fashion designer Irena Dubrovna and American marine engineer Oliver Reed meet in Central Park, fall in love, and marry after a brief courtship; but Irena won't consummate the union for fear that she will turn into a panther compelled to kill her lover, pursuant to a belief harbored by her home village.
At times, Cat People seems to be auditioning the role of the femme fatale in the film noir of the 1950s — alluring in a raw and animalistic manner but ultimately something dangerous; an urban Siren whose only desire is to dash the American man on the rocks of her female sexuality.
To elaborate on what I mean here, once it came fully into focus in the following decade, the 'femme fatale', whilst novel and subversive to the audiences of the time, should be seen as the physical embodiment of fears kindled by the conditional freedoms gifted to women in a post-War culture still wedded to ideas of 'honour' and prescribed gender roles. But this tension was not yet present in the early 1940s, so this is partly why Cat People is ultimately unsatisfying as a film to me. As in, without the ambient cultural disapproval of, for instance, women's presence in the workforce, what does 'the cat person' really represent, beyond, as the film sometimes seems to suggest, something that is always lurking within our psychology? Is it 'foreign women' in general, in the same way that Count Olonski represents a threat to the New York establishment in Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence?
Still, as an experiment toying in the primordial soup of where horror films come from, it's the better kind of B-movie and probably worth getting around to in the end, even if it is both a little too blunt (e.g. our all-American male hero-protagonist only seems to eat 'American' apple pie) and a little too subtle the time, notably the underplayed metaphorical connections between caged animals and the 'cage' of marriage for women.