Jane Randolph, star of horror film 'Cat People,' dies

Thursday, May 28, 2009 | 2:29 p.m. CDT; updated 5:16 p.m. CDT, Thursday, May 28, 2009

Jane Randolph, a willowy beauty who was memorably terrorized by shadow and sound in one of the great suspense films of all time, the original "Cat People," died May 4 at a hospital near Gstaad, Switzerland, after breaking her hip. She was 93.

Randolph appeared in more than 20 films and starred in low-budget fare such as "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948), in which she was an insurance investigator opposite the popular comic duo. In one sequence, she danced with former "Dracula" star Bela Lugosi at a masquerade ball.

"He was dressed in full vampire costume, but he moved very well," she recalled many years later.

Creative filmmaking on a budget

"Cat People" (1942), a movie revered by film enthusiasts for its high artistry under a strained budget, brought Randolph her greatest public renown. Its acclaimed atmospherics — dimly lighted swimming pools and city streets that act as shadowscapes — were matters of necessity by filmmakers who could not afford better sets.

The movie was enormously popular, reportedly earning more than $4 million and establishing many horror techniques that were startlingly effective at the time but have since become cliches. "Cat People" suffered a remake in 1982 by director Paul Schrader.

In the RKO Radio Pictures version, Randolph portrayed an alluring and self-confident Manhattan working woman whose flirtation with a married colleague becomes increasingly dangerous because of his wife's neurotic behavior. The wife, played by Simone Simon, is an artist from a cursed Serbian village whose violent bouts of jealousy transform her into a bloodthirsty pantherlike creature.

As the "other woman," Randolph is in continual peril. At one point, she strolls through Central Park at night, with the click of her high heels as the only sound effect. It's an eerie reminder of her vulnerability, especially as her pace quickens to flee an unseen menace.

As her fear becomes more palpable, the roar of a wild cat blends into the squeal of a bus violently intruding in the scene. "The gimmick of unsettling audiences with an innocent shock, quickly dubbed 'a bus,' is one that's copied to this day," People magazine later wrote of the film, which is considered a minor classic.

The famous swim

The other vivid scene from the film is Randolph's solitary nighttime dip in an indoor swimming pool. Filmmakers Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton provided a claustrophobic setting, where the lapping water casts a series of shadows on the wall. The growling noise of a large animal lurking down a stairwell sends Randolph's character — and the audience — into a frenzy of screams.

Gregory William Mank, an authority on horror films, wrote that Randolph "created one of the one most chic heroines of horror: a sophisticate with a dry, sexy voice, a cigarette habit, a job, and — in the classic swimming pool episode — a terrific scream."

Randolph, whose father designed steel mills, was born Jane Roemer in Youngstown, Ohio, on Oct. 30, 1915, and raised in Kokomo, Ind. She arrived in Hollywood in 1939 and posed for cheesecake pictures in magazines.

Randolph was in a nominal sequel, "Curse of the Cat People" (1944). The film, in which she played a mother to a lonely girl with a vivid imagination, had little in common with the original. She also played hard-boiled women in two of director Anthony Mann's early dramas, "Railroaded!" and "T-Men."

Randolph left acting after being wed in 1948 to businessman Jaime del Amo, whose family owned one of the largest Spanish land grants in Southern California. They later settled in Spain and Switzerland. He died in the late 1960s. Survivors include their daughter, Cristina del Amo of Switzerland.


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