Val Lewton was already a published author of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry when he began his film career as a publicity writer for MGM in 1928. In the mid–1930s, he took the job of story editor and assistant to producer David O. Selznick, then left MGM in 1942 when RKO offered him his own unit to produce low-budget horror films. At the time, RKO was in dire financial straits and hoped that a series of cheaply made films would turn a quick profit and keep the studio afloat. Lewton’s first film, Cat People, did just that, earning several million dollars (estimates vary between $2 and $4 million) against a production cost of just under $135,000. Director Jacques Tourneur worked closely with Lewton to overcome the possible objections of industry censors by creating a sense of terror through the implied threat of violence, as well as keeping costs down by using expressive (and inexpensive) lighting techniques and oblique camera angles to compensate for their minuscule budget. The pair worked so efficiently that, by the time the box office returns had been reported for Cat People, they had already completed the second film in the series (I Walked with a Zombie, 1943), and were virtually finished with the third (The Leopard Man, 1943).
Publication excerpt from Steven Higgins, Still Moving: The Film and Media Collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2006, p. 193.