Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Shape-Shifting on Screen: Tales of Val Lewton

By Margaret Curtis, PhD

Val Lewton inspired the cinematic threat of a woman shifting into a cat.  His story “The Bagheeta” provided the raw material for the two great Cat People movies, made in 1942 and 1982—forty years apart, but no less thrilling. In “Val Lewton: Haunted by Shadows,” Graeme Hurry explains: 

“Vladimir Ivan Lewton was born on the 7th of May 1904, in Yalta in Russia.” After arriving in New York, and attending Columbia University, “In 1930 he had a short story published in Weird Tales. Called The Bagheeta[;] the story is set in his native Ukraine and …deals with a woman who shape-shifts into a leopard.”

The tales which Lewton carried to New York in his imagination may include “The Cat and the Cock,” available on the Russian Crafts website, along with other Eastern treasures. In this one story, the capture and imprisonment themes frame the Aesopian adventures. Readers may also recognize the tit-for-tat theme writ very large here.

The Cat People movies forego the rooster—and rush straight for the leopard, Lewton’s signature from his story “The Bagheeta.” With this stroke of genius, he laid the groundwork for his production of Cat People in 1942 for RKO. Simultaneously, Lewton paved the way for the 1982 remake of Cat People starring Nastassia Kinski and Malcolm McDowell, with a theme song by David Bowie.   

The astonishing difference between the two Cat People movies may be the ending. In the first film, the feline female returns to her cage to be killed. In the second, the female feline returns to her cage to survive—but under imprisonment. What does this change in plot-line say about women and cats, panthers and sex, as the decades tumbled? The central female feline role may evolve from pest to pet.

In America, so far from Russia, the animal often known as the “cougar” suffered a torturous history. According to “The Florida Panther—Introduction, FPL,” “The Florida panther was given endangered species status in 1973 under the federal Endangered Species Act and is protected under the Wildlife Code of the State of Florida and the Florida Panther Act of 1978.”

Then, the FPL informs us that the panther returned in symbolic form forever: “In 1982, the panther was designated by the legislature as the official Florida state mammal.” Nevertheless, understanding panthers remains an anxiety-ridden business: “Studying these secretive animals is difficult and time consuming. Researchers spend more of their time tracking and searching for and interpreting signs rather than observing panthers first hand,” the FPL Booklet emphasizes. 

So, between the two versions of Cat People, these creatures of legend disappeared—until heartbroken people called them to grace our landscape again with their silky sensuous hunting skills. With their return, mythology comes to life both inside and outside theaters. Val Lewton deserves extraordinary credit for discerning how easily the hunter becomes the hunted—male or female, big cat or small, in America and Russia.

For a host of Russian folktales translated into English, see

For the tragic history of the Florida Panther, see “(Quotations from this booklet of 250 words or less are permitted when accompanied by a credit line reading ‘Reprinted from The Florida Panther, Copyright 1996 Florida Power & Light Company.’ Brief excerpts, such as selected sentences, may be identified by a reference to the booklet and FPL.)” 

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