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Jane Randolph: Actress best known for her work with Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton on ‘Cat People'

Jane Randolph was the actress so memorably terrorised by the suggestive effects of shadow, light and sound in the classic thriller Cat People (1942).

Although she appeared primarily in B-movies throughout the 1940s, they included at least four films that are regarded as among the finest of their kind – producer Val Lewton’s celebrated masterworks, Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People (1944), and two stylish films noir directed by Anthony Mann, Railroaded! and T-Men (both 1947). The four films also showcased the versatility of the strikingly off-beat beauty with a distinctively smoky voice.

In Cat People Randolph was the self-confident working-girl Alice, silently in love with a colleague who is taken with the charms of a Serbian painter Irena (Simone Simon) who believes herself to be one of a group of “cat people” who become deadly panthers when roused by hatred or jealousy. Perceiving Alice as a rival, she begins to stalk her. In the sequel Randolph has become a loving and resourceful wife, concerned about her over-imaginative child. In Railroaded! she was a ruthless bookie and gangster’s moll, and in TMen a coldly efficient forger who leads a gang of counterfeiters.

The superbly atmospheric Cat People , directed by Jacques Tourneur, featured Randolph in two of the most effective scenes of implied menace ever put on film. In the first, she refuses the offer of her colleague to walk her home (“I’m a big girl now, I’m not afraid”) and starts a lonely walk through Central Park, passing through a short tunnel then pausing by a lamp-post, suddenly feeling threatened. The only sounds are her clicking heels until Irena’s faster steps can be heard behind her. As she quickens her pace the sense of menace grows, startlingly shattered when a growl merges with the loud hissing of a bus’s brakes as the vehicle draws up beside her.

“Tourneur knew exactly what he wanted,” Randolph said in a 1998 interview.

“Every time I go past Central Park or through that tunnel, that scene comes to mind. It was very spooky, and I’ve gotten many letters about that scene over the years.” In a later sequence Alice takes a solitary swim in a hotel’s indoor pool at night, and the echoing sound of the lapping water, which casts ominous shadows on the walls that conjure visions of a possible cat-like image, creates a terrifying sequence recently praised by director George Romero as “totally evocative” and, like the earlier scene, a classic example of a sense of terror conveyed with camera angles, sound and lighting without brutality or gore.

Randolph was born Jane Roemer in 1915 in Youngstown, Ohio, but grew up in Kokomo, Indiana, before attending DePauw University. Her father, George Roemer, a designer of steel mills, dissuaded her from early ambitions to be an actress, but in 1939 she moved to California where she won a scholarship to study at Max Reinhardt’s school. “I will always be grateful to him,” she said. “I did everything from Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker to Shakespeare, plus a lot of improvisation and lots of Noel Coward.”

Spotted by a talent scout for Warners, she was given bit roles as a singer in Dive Bomber (1941) with Errol Flynn, a hat-check girl in Manpower (1941) with Marlene Dietrich, and a secretary in The Male Animal (1942) with Henry Fonda. “I particularly liked Marlene. She couldn’t sleep, so she would get up and bake. She made cakes and pies, and brought them in for the crew to eat”.

Randolph was also one of two skating models used for the Bambi and Thumper ice-skating sequence in Bambi (1942), and when the Army magazine Yank started in 1942, she was the first issue’s pin-up girl.

The same year she was signed by RKO and given a starring role in Highways by Night. “RKO quickly did a world of publicity on me. I was their ‘Cinderella’ girl.”

Then came Cat People, which started life as a title dreamed up by the studio’s production chief. Producer Lewton and writer DeWitt Bodeen wrote the original script and with director Tourneur fashioned a superior, moody chiller that deliberately forsook such clichés as actors in panther suits.

“Lewton was such a kind man”, recalled Randolph. “He was always considerate to everyone. Simone Simon was very temperamental though, always upset about something.

Tourneur and Simon were both French, so he directed her in French. He told her to cut it out. The crew didn’t know what he said when he called her chienne [bitch] but many of us knew the language. She was brilliant in the film, though.”

After Cat People, Randolph appeared in two films in the popular detective series featuring the debonair sleuth “The Falcon”: The Falcon’s Brother (1942) and The Falcon Strikes Back (1943). The latter benefited from the casting of comic Edgar Kennedy. “Edgar kept us entertained off camera as well. We laughed a lot with him.”

The Curse of the Cat People had little resemblance to its predecessor, but as a study of child psychology it is a wistfully haunting and sometimes sinister film that has also gained classic status.

RKO then started to loan Randolph to other studios – she appeared in Otto Preminger’s study of wartime wives, In the Meantime, Darling (1944) for Fox; at Republic she starred in a quirky film noir, Jealousy (1945); at Monogram she was in the comedy In Fast Company (1946); for Universal she played a villainess in the final serial made by the studio, The Mysterious Mr M (1946). In 1946 she was pleased to be cast opposite William Boyd in a Hopalong Cassidy western, Fool’s Gold (1946). She was then cast by Anthony Mann in Railroaded. “Mann was an excellent director, very sharp and precise. He wanted the dialogue to snap along.”

After playing in T-Men, Randolph went to New York, where she appeared on radio and television, but she returned to Hollywood to play an insurance investigator in Bud Abbott & Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), widely regarded as the best movie of the famed comedy team. Bela Lugosi played his trademark role of Dracula, and Randolph found him “old fashioned and polite”. Her final Hollywood film was Open Secret (1948).

In 1949 Randolph married the Spanish producer and businessman Jaime del Amo and moved to Spain. “There was only one later film I would really love to have been in, Mervyn LeRoy’s film version of Little Women (1949).”

Her husband was part of a dynasty that owned one of the largest Spanish land grants in southern California, and he helped develop the Del Amo shopping centre in Torrance, one of the first large shopping centres.

She became a leader of Madrid society, and when not entertaining enjoyed painting landscapes and skiing at St Moritz. She returned to the screen when director Terence Young, a friend, suggested she perform a cameo in That Lady (1955), filmed in Madrid.

After settling in Gstaad, Switzerland, where her husband died in the late 1960s, she led an active life until suffering two broken hips.

Tom Vallance

Jane Roemer (Jane Randolph), actress: born Youngstown, Ohio 10 October 1915; married 1949 Jaime del Amo (deceased; one daughter); died Saanen, Switzerland 4 May 2009.