The first of Val Lewton’s morbid, suggestive RKO dreamscapes: "I never cease to marvel at what lies behind a brown storefront," somebody says, giving voice to the producer-auteur's dread and wonder. The delicate Ovidian scent already hangs over the introductory view of the Serbian designer (Simone Simon) and her beau-to-be (Kent Smith) at a New York zoo, a loaded flirtation watched by a panther pacing inside its cage. (A crumpled-up drawing of the beast pierced by a blade provides the first of the film’s poetic mysteries.) Old World folklore and tragic history dwell in the woman, who’s so feline that her mere presence is enough to get a hundred birds at a quiet pet shop shrieking at once. Fears of ancient legends leave the marriage unconsummated, Simon seeks a solution and finds the condescending rationality of the psychiatrist (Tom Conway) while Smith strays toward a sympathetic confidante (Jane Randolph). "I have no peace... for they are in me," the heroine moans from deep within a trance on Conway's divan, her face illuminated like a tiny crescent moon encircled by the chiaroscuro of Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography. An unmistakably European vision, with its traces of Freud and Ibsen and tacit acknowledgement of escapees from the war across the ocean; nothing is lost on Jacques Tourneur, who splendidly visualizes immigrant dislocation and marital anxiety as spiritual states suspended between planes of light and shadow. Maya Deren would avail herself of the dream sequence’s gleaming swords and erect keys; the great horror in the celebrated nocturnal stalk is not only the "boo!" of the bus screeching into the frame, but the tranquil shot of tree branches shaking from something having just leapt off of them. And then there’s Simon the sorrowful, erotic Slavic kitten, crouching in heat and sadness by the door on her honeymoon night, her naked back glistening as she weeps in a bathtub. John Donne has the last word: "But black sin hath betrayed to endless night / My world, both parts, and both parts must die." For the remake, see not Schrader’s vulgarization but Marnie, Repulsion, Sisters, Ms. 45... With Jack Holt, Alan Napier, Alec Craig, and Elizabeth Russell. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce