Friday, January 29, 2010

COMPLICATED SHADOWS: THE FILMS OF VAL LEWTON—Blogathon Redux

"If you make the screen dark enough, the mind's eye will read anything into it you want! We're great ones for dark patches."—Val Lewton

The shadows have indeed been complicated—if not competitive—this past week in the Bay Area with the dark streets of Noir City intersecting with Pacific Film Archive's Val Lewton retrospective
"Complicated Shadows", curated by Steve Seid. I missed the first program of Cat People (1942) and The Seventh Victim (1943); but, hope to catch all the remaining double-bills.

"Rarely do we praise the producer," Steve Seid has written in his introduction to the series. "But in Val Lewton's case the praise should be profuse for a cluster of creepy cheapies he produced in the early forties, notable for heavily shadowed psychic landscapes, arousing unease through an excess of archaic suggestion. Originally a scriptwriter, Lewton went from anonymous labors at MGM to the head of the horror unit at RKO in 1942. Once the esteemed studio that had produced classics like King Kong and Citizen Kane, by the time of Lewton's involvement RKO had opted for "entertainment not genius." Little did they know that their enfant terror would transform formulaic ideas and impoverished means into a well-crafted surplus of psychological enthrallment. Beginning with Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, Lewton overwhelmed a poverty-stricken mandate—to make seventy-five-minute features for $150,000, using titles supplied by the studio—by assembling a remarkable coven of collaborators who could conjure his eerie vision: directors Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, and Robert Wise; writers Ardel Wray and DeWitt Bodeen; and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. Where most low-budget Bs felt obliged to actually illustrate the lurking horror, RKO K.O.s such as The Leopard Man, Isle of the Dead, and The Body Snatcher left instead inky insinuations that beckoned primeval folklore, reptilian instinct, and emotional monstrosities. This series sheds some much-deserved light on producer Val Lewton—he's been in the shadows too long."

Some around these parts might recall that in the not-too-distant-past The Evening Class hosted a "blogathon" on Val Lewton in conjunction with the TCM premiere of the Kent Jones/Martin Scorsese documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows. What's amazed me since then is how many of the links have been broken in the past two years, necessitating a thorough workover of that material to bring it up to speed. That having been done, I offer the contributions that were made at that time in trust that they'll still lend insight into PFA's retrospective.

Blogathon Contributors

For starters, I conducted three interviews for the Val Lewton blogathon; the first, with Anne Carter-Newton, the child actress (now grandmother) of The Curse of the Cat People; the second with Val Lewton's son Val E. Lewton, Jr.; and the third with Andrew Bailey (regarding I Walked With A Zombie).

Though disappointed in Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows when he caught it at the Walter Reade Theatre, Alok Zembla nonetheless concedes at his site
Dispatches From Zembla: "The documentary successfully makes a convincing case of the producer as an auteur—specially finding evidence of his melancholic temperament (it even speculates that it was something 'Russian' in origin) as it found expression in the movies he produced."

At Film Journey, Doug Cummings caught Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows when it screened at the AFI Fest in November 2007. Though debating that it's not much of an improvement over Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy already included within the Lewton DVD box set released a few years back, Doug confirms that "Jones' film trumps its predecessor in its improved pacing and writing." He questions and (fairly) critiques the "bountiful spoilers" in the Scorsese/Jones documentary, wondering "who the intended audience is: Lewton cinephiles (who will probably learn little they don't already know) or Lewton newbies (who likely won't want to know the endings of films they haven't seen)?"

At
The Shelf, J.C. Loophole is much more enthused about Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows and supplements his overview of Lewton's career with some key quotes from his own interview with Val Lewton, Jr.

At Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind, Bob Turnbull surveys "the glitter of putrescence" in Lewton's nine-film box set and shapes his rambling thoughts into a comprehensive survey strengthened by screenshots and Werner Herzog ranting on the horrors of nature. Bob earns the Val Lewton Gumshoe Award for noticing that "Arnold Bocklin's painting 'Island Of The Dead' shows up not only in the opening credits of Isle Of The Dead … but also in I Walked With A Zombie which was made a few years earlier." I've not read that anywhere! Good catch, Bob!

I incorporate Merge Divide's
Serendipty entry on Cat People and Curse of the Cat People, though not specifically drafted for this blogathon. With a pseudonym like "Merge Divide", I hardly feel he will object.

At Film Forno Joe D'Augustine observes a transitional device used in Cat People that's almost—but not quite—a fade to black and back. He describes it as: "[A]n optical that mimics a shadow passing in front of the camera, like a black panther wiping the lens."

At
Films Noir you'll find an effective slideshow on Cat People, "A visual feast and a multi-layered literate tale of darkness." As for Simone Simon? "[H]er engaging performance gives the erstwhile demon a fragile humanity."

Aaron W. Graham at
More Than Meets the Mogwai justifies the sensationalist titling (and to some, mistitling) of The Curse of the Cat People by noting that by "today's context, RKO's insistence on retitling takes on a different, elegiac meaning for what these B-movie programmers came to represent: the smuggling in of far more intellectual conceits or ideas than their guise would otherwise suggest. It's a blessing and a curse, but I've come to believe that the unfavorable title is a test for prospective viewers to leave their preconceptions about 'these types of films' at the door."

Mrs. Emma Peel appreciates The Body Snatcher at The House of Mirth and Movies: "Few films get under my skin like this chilling and macabre tale of corpses and souls. The delicious irony is that the characters become tradesmen in death, when it seems that's what they fear most."

Peter Nellhaus at Coffee, Coffee, and more Coffee takes one of his now trademark coffee breaks with Boyd Davis and Richard Dix from
The Ghost Ship, and then interestingly considers that Lewton's The Leopard Man may have influenced William Friedkin's recent venture Bug. Peter observes: "The parody of the 'Lewton style' comes literally from the hands of the first victim's little brother, with his inappropriate penchant for creating a shadow that resembles a fierce creature" and concludes that The Leopard Man truly lives in the shadows where darkness "is a form of sanctuary."

At Tractor Facts Mark Osborn synopsizes that "[w]ith low-rent sets, soft scripts, fresh actors, and green directors (Tournier, Wise, and Robson) Lewton turned the cutting room floor into an artistic device." He then insightfully explores the "murder by audio" in The Leopard Man and underscores the prurience of Lewton's 1943 audiences in the film's implied sexual deviancy.

Over at TCM's
Movie Morlocks, Richard Harland Smith amplifies appreciation of The Leopard Man with ample screenshots while conjecturing that the film's biggest selling point is its "honest story of misperception, both on a personal level as a denial of driving emotions, and also on a broader level in the way that people see (or fail to see) one another." Richard extols The Leopard Man's "cinematographic legerdemain" through its "bait-and-switch" strategies and meandering narratives.

Josh Bell at Signal Bleed fulfilled one of my hopes: that someone compare Lewton's Cat People with Paul Schrader's 1982 remake. Doing so with wry sensual humor—"As Irena, Nastassia Kinski never passes up an opportunity to take off her clothes, which is much appreciated but makes the movie seem like something that would have gotten a lot of late-night airplay in the early days of Cinemax (and very well may have, for all I know)"—Josh effectively confirms that the remake's excess, explicitness, and overexplanations fail to improve the original formula. It gives one cause for concern with remakes greenlit for The Body Snatcher, I Walked With A Zombie and Bedlam by (shudder) the creators of the Saw franchise, as reported in Variety (06/14/07).

Anticipating TCM's broadcast, Eric Kohn wrote an overview for the
New York Press and generously offered it to the Lewton blogathon. In his overview, Eric articulates that "in the era of torture porn and feeble J-horror remakes, Lewton's meticulous creations are a retroactive revelation." He notes: "Lewton tapped into the base ingredients of chilling storytelling by focusing on the precise lack of action—an original formula that imbued any sudden development with powerfully visceral impact."

At Bright Lights After Dark C. Jerry Kutner utilizes Tourneur's directorial absence from The Seventh Victim to characterize the creative collaboration between Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur. "Just as John Lennon's acid cynicism was tempered by the melodic sweetness of Paul McCartney, so the melancholic morbidity of producer/writer Val Lewton was tempered by the subtle spirituality of director Jacques Tourneur. Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Seventh Victim (1943), the first film in the RKO horror cycle that was written and produced by Lewton without Tourneur as director." Kutner distinguishes, "Where The Seventh Victim differs significantly from the Lewton/Tourneur collaborations is in its utter absence of the supernatural or anything suggestive of a spiritual reality behind physical appearances." Intriguingly, he likewise suggests that "the sudden appearance of a cult member behind a shower curtain as [Kim] Hunter is taking a shower prefigures Hitchcock's Psycho."

Marilyn Ferdinand—"Ferdy" at Ferdy on Films, etc.—has published Roderick Heath's erudite essay on Isle of the Dead. Heath—also the author of a Bright Lights Film Journal essay exploring Tourneur and Clouzot—measures the three-film collaboration between Lewton and Boris Karloff: "Karloff's presence threatened to bend Lewton toward the Universal approach, which had degenerated into monster mash hilarity. However, Karloff, a gifted actor, gave Lewton a strong frame around which to build his films, an improvement over Lewton's earlier films, which wobbled with unreliable lead actors." Skillfully synopsizing the events of Isle of the Dead, Heath concludes: "Punctuated by Leigh Hurline's atmospheric score, the best in a Lewton work, Isle of the Dead isn't as symphonic an achievement as The Body Snatcher or as poetic as The Leopard Man and I Walked with a Zombie, but it is the most fully developed metaphoric drama of Lewton's films."

Earlier at Ferdy on Films, etc., Marilyn had tackled another of the Lewton/Karloff pairings—Bedlam—and established that "Bedlam was inspired by the engravings of William Hogarth of London's notorious Royal Hospital of St. Mary's of Bethlehem, an asylum for the insane better known as Bedlam. Indeed, Lewton gave Hogarth (1697-1764) a writing credit, so much does the atmosphere of the picture derive from Hogarth's tortured rendering of Bedlam's inmates in The Rake's Progress." Describing Lewton as "the acknowledged master of the eerie", "Ferdy" characterizes Bedlam's atmosphere as "a first-rate example of the eerie genre that seeks to unsettle and, possibly, to teach" and praises Nicholas Musuraca's cinematography in recreating the look of Hogarth's engravings so vividly on camera.

"What other black actor got to scold a white woman in 1943?" Michael McMorrow stresses in his response to Sir Lancelot's menacing performance in I Walked With A Zombie. Likewise at
Cult Film Confidential, Michael cues us in on the subtle joke in I Walked With A Zombie's opening credits.

Before his site Welcome to L.A. bid farewell, Larry Aydlette profiled Skelton Knaggs—yet another of Lewton's remarkable ensemble actors—while strolling the deck of Ghost Ship and listening to its "power of stillness". "[O]ften captured in a luminous, disturbing image that floats in the mind and stays with you long after the film is over," Larry wrote, the power of stillness is "usually a close-up. There is no hurry, as in today's films, to cut away. Lewton is not afraid to linger, to let the disquiet seep in."

At
Self-Styled Siren, Campaspe filters her appreciation of Mademoiselle Fifi through a feminist lens and with an admitted affection for Guy de Maupassant whose short stories "Mademoiselle Fifi" and "Boule de Suif" Lewton's screenwriters—Josef Mischel and Peter Ruric—combined to create the screenplay. Retaining "the anti-bourgeois bite of [Maupassant's] short stories, in part by adding lines to make sure no one could possibly miss the point", the Siren praises Lewton's "complex, dynamic treatment of women", specifically in the film's fleshed-out heroine Elizabeth de Rousset (Simone Simon), the "little laundress" (as she is billed in the credits). "She is by far the most principled character in the movie," Campaspe writes, "and she comes into peril only when she allows weaker people to gain influence. In movies, as unfortunately across cultures and centuries, a woman's chastity is drafted into maintaining the purity of all sorts of things that really should take care of themselves—country, race, family. In Mademoiselle Fifi, yes, the heroine stands in for France. She's her own woman for all that, resisting the movie's onrushing allegory even as she resists the leering von Eyrick. She's dealt one blow after another, but picks herself up each time, principles intact. 'I don't eat with Prussians,' she says proudly, and instead of seeming ridiculous or petty that seems like a declaration of human rights."

With the bases loaded, film historian John McElwee scores a triple at Greenbriar Picture Shows and brings all the players on home. I don't know where he digs them up but his graphics alone are worth the price of admission. He scores first with the controversial supposition that the praise Lewton received from champions like Manny Farber, James Agee and David Selznick might have actually done Lewton more harm than good, enflaming jealousies among his compatriots and rankling studio execs whose hands Lewton preferred not to shake. He likewise has a fascinating and detailed account of marquee and theatre lobby dressings promoting Cat People, many which "looked like Grand Guignol." His reception study of I Walked With A Zombie underscores the obstacles Lewton faced in creating his films.

McElwee continues his study of Lewton's reception with The Seventh Victim. "We must have been the eighth victim; patrons walked out. Business poor. Some of the kids would not sit through it," complained one theatre owner. He then tracks Lewton's budgetary genius in recycling sets and props with a focus on The Ghost Ship, "a wraith largely unseen." And I'm heartened to read that John and I agree that The Curse of the Cat People might be considered Lewton's finest work. He provocatively suggests that The Curse of the Cat People might have had a timely influence upon Vincente Minnelli's Meet Me In St. Louis whose Halloween segment McElwee identifies as "a glossier recap of Ann Carter's frightful walk through the night. Atmospheric, set-bound parallels between the two features are striking." McElwee ends his second piece with commentary on Youth Runs Wild and Mademoiselle Fifi.

McElwee's third piece spotlights the Lewton/Karloff triptych. "We can sit home with our DVDs and think we've seen The Body Snatcher," McElwee writes, "but that's like steak without garnishment compared with banquets 1945 audiences reveled in." McElwee proves his point with some mindblowing photographs recording the take-no-prisoners marquee adornments for Lewton's The Body Snatcher. McElwee then counts up box office receipts for Isle of the Dead and Bedlam. I'm in awe of McElwee's erudition which proves downright entertaining!

Whereas John McElwee discerns a connection between Vincente Minnelli and Val Lewton via Meet Me In St. Louis, Flickhead acknowledges the better-known and well-documented connection between Lewton and Minnelli: "Granted modest budgets at RKO, [Lewton] used low key lighting as a gimmick ostensibly to enhance the mystery of horror stories, but actually to camouflage cheap sets and fabricated backdrops. This part of Lewton inspired the producer 'Jonathan Shields' in Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), who is observed concocting a picture similar to Lewton's Cat People (1942)." Flickhead, however, qualifies his lack of enthusiasm for Lewton by admitting: "It would be foolish of me to take [Lewton's] defenders to task, as my argument—that Lewton's films are often plodding, dull and consciously morose—stems from a deep rooted childhood dissatisfaction. I loved horror movies as a kid and, conditioned by the crude and boisterous monsters of Universal Pictures, the stuff of Lewton always possessed for me the stodgy lifelessness of a codeine fix." Though conceding that repeated exposure to some of Lewton's films has heightened his appreciation, Flickhead remains attractively contrarian.

Val Lewton was Russian, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca was Italian, and Jacques Tourneur and Simone Simon were French, so it only seems appropriate that the Val Lewton Blogathon should strive to be international. With Vincent Innisfree's French entry at
Innisfree, we achieve just that!

Cross-published at
Twitch.

2 comments:

James said...

Amazing post!! Thanks for all those links - plenty of fascinating sounding stuff to read over the weekend.

Richard Harland Smith said...

Michael, thanks for archiving these links. It's been fun revisiting these essays.