Tag Archives: Val Lewton

THE FILMS OF MARK ROBSON AND VAL LEWTON

By general consensus, director Mark Robson’s films for are considered to be the weakest of the famous producer’s RKO Pictures output. However, one of them, The Seventh Victim (1943) has garnered a posthumous critical reputation.

Few would dispute the excellence of the /Val Lewton collaborations for RKO, which stand-apart in aesthetics, comparable to ‘s stand-apart films for  (or ‘s stand-apart films for ). Yet, despite the drop off in quality, the Robson entries in the Lewton canon could hardly be compared to the execrable lows that Universal and Hammer achieved through hack directors like Erle C. Kenton (1945’s House of Dracula) or Alan Gibson (Dracula A.D. 1972).

Robson’s post-Lewton films validate the claim that he was little more than an assignment director. The nadir of Robson’s directorial career might have been Earthquake (1974). With one or two possible exceptions, Robson’s post-Lewton work was unremarkable, climaxing with the pedestrian action-oater Avalanche Express (1979). This imminently forgettable swan song is only memorable for being a cursed production, during which both Robson and star Robert Shaw died.

Robson would earn a flippant dismissal in the annals of film history, were it not for his collaborations with Lewton. The higher quality of Robson’s work with Lewton strongly indicates that the producer was collaboratively engaged with his directors. Both Lewton and Robson benefited from that partnership. Unfortunately, after Lewton, Robson would never again be afforded such an opportunity.

Still from The Seventh Victim (1943)The Seventh Victim was the first and best of the Robson/Lewton films. Drenched in a noir sheen, it is also the bleakest movie in Lewton’s RKO cannon.The film has an exceptional cast: Kim Hunter as Mary, Tom Conway as Dr. Judd, and Jean Brooks as Jacqueline. As excellent as Hunter and Conway are here, it is Brooks’ raven-like, hypnotic, fiercely haunting performance, exuding a Montgomery Clift-like fragility, which vividly lingers. RKO had no appreciation for such an individualistic, interiorized actor, and unceremoniously released her. She died of extreme malnutrition and alcoholism at the age of 47.

Mary (Hunter) leaves her boarding school to search for her missing sister Jacqueline (Brooks). Jacqueline’s disappearance is linked to her membership in a Satanic cult and her efforts to flee it. Six previous members of the cult have tried to leave, all meeting violent ends. Jacqueline is their potential seventh victim.

The film is awash in doom-laden relentlessness. Unlike many Lewton films, it’s literary references are minimal, although it begins with a quote from a poem by John Dunne. Satan worship, adultery, hints of incest and lesbianism, and suicide merge in the film’s abundant shadows. It’s a miracle the film made it past the Breen office. Continue reading THE FILMS OF MARK ROBSON AND VAL LEWTON

JACQUES TOURNEUR’S THE LEOPARD MAN (1943)

The Leopard Man (1943) is the third and final collaboration between producer and his best director, . It is also, erroneously, often considered their least effort. The Leopard Man was clearly RKO’s attempt to cash in on Universal’s The Wolf Man (1941). But, instead of a wolf turning into a man, we’ll have a leopard! Real clever, imaginative types, these 1940s execs were (of course, now that breed has devolved into the independent trailer trash horror film scene).

Based on a book by Cornell Woolrich (who also wrote the story that inspired Hitchcock’s Rear Window), The Leopard Man is a lucid example of how to produce something worthwhile, even when saddled with a studio-mandated drek title. Perhaps somebody with guts and resources enough will round up the countless perpetrators of low budget horror porn and force a Val Lewton festival upon them. The Leopard Man would be a good starting point.

Like Cat People (1942), The Leopard Man has elements of noir. Set in a sleepy New Mexico town, it’s a film soaked in shadows. A black leopard from a night club act escapes from its leash and runs loose in the town.

Young Teresa Delgado (Margaret Landry) has heard about the leopard on the loose and is afraid. Her mother (Kate Lawson) needs cornmeal. Despite Teresa’s impassioned pleas and objections, Ma Delgado forces her daughter out into the night and deadlocks the door behind her. Cut off from maternal arms, Teresa, cornmeal in hand, is returning to the desired safety of her home. Tourneuer’s use of shadow and light to convey tension and dread is as expert here as in Cat People. It is an extended scene. The callous treatment of Teresa by her mother sows a blackened nightmare. Teresa’s frantic knock on the door, begging for sanctuary from the leopard’s death claws, falls on deaf ears. Ma Delgado’s only concern is the needed ingredient for her meal. By the time Ma realizes that, indeed, her daughter is in danger, the blood, trickling in from under the door, reveals that misplaced priorities and apathy has reaped a slaughter. Teresa is killed off-screen. Instead, Tourneur’s focus is on the most frightening monster of The Leopard Man: a cold parent.

Still from The Leopard Man (1943)The murders are the film’s focus, which was daring for its time. In that, The Leopard Man may lack the poetic qualities of Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie (1943), but it evokes a unique quality of terror.

The second murder takes place in a cemetery. Consuelo is visiting her father’s grave. She is also planning a clandestine meeting with her boyfriend. She promises the keeper that she will not stay long. In looking for her boyfriend, Consuelo instead finds her end. This suspense is heightened and conveyed through the rising sound of rustling branches.

The third murder involves the dancer Clo Clo (Margo) who was responsible for unleashing the beast. A dropped lipstick case and a half-smoked cigarette reveal that she has paid the price, evoking far more horror than a machete-yielding serial killer.

And, as it turns out, there is indeed a serial killer on the loose. The sleuthing is less interesting, as are the men in the film. In this, there is a consistency in Lewton: the heroes are usually, and considerably, duller than the heroines.

Unfortunately, the collaboration between Lewton and Tourneur ended here. Tourneur went onto direct the superb Out of the Past (1947) and Curse of the Demon (1957). Lewton would continue with good, but lesser, directors.

We will pick back up on the remaining Lewton films in three weeks. Next week, we will diverge with the first of a three-part look behind the scenes of John Semper’s Creeporia (2012).

JACQUES TOURNEUR’S I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943)

 considered I Walked With A Zombie (1943) his best work. It is an assessment many critics agree with. It is, perhaps, the most apt of Halloween entries. Horror is not at its ripest in 7 foot tall hatchet-welding slashers, brain-eating zombies, or slickly produced libidinous teen-age vampires. Rather, it flourishes in the everyday. Horror is in the droves of people flocking to Wal-Mart to purchase torture porn dressed up as religious dogma, or in the self-made blinders we wear. Producer and director Jacques Tourneur knew this, and delivered a fascinating horror despite being handed one of the most idiotic film titles in cinema history (clearly inspired by pulp sources).

Betsy (Frances Dee), a Canadian nurse, has taken a position on the island of St. Sebastian. Betsy’s blinders prevent her from hearing. When a black driver transports her to the Holland plantation, he tells her how slaves were acquired and brought here: “Well, they certainly brought you to a pretty island,” is all she can muster. When she meets her employer, Paul Holland (Tom Conway), he pierces her illusions: “There is no beauty here, the water’s illumination comes from death.” Conway, with his sensual, rich voice, narrates in such a way that Betsy’s love for this tragic figure seems reasonable.

Betsy is to care for Holland’s wife, Jessica (Christine Gordon), who is the title’s alleged zombie (the opening voice over plays humorously with the title the studio saddled the producers with). Paul’s alcoholic brother Wesley (James Ellison) evades his own guilt and harbors a grudge for imagined ills. The plot is loosely based off a literary source: “Jane Eyre,” with Paul Holland substituting for Rochester. Surprisingly, Hollywood hack Curt Siodmak assisted Ardel Wray in writing the screenplay. The film feels more in line with Wray’s other credits (which include Lewton’s 1943 Leopard Man and 1945 Isle of the Dead).

Still I Walked with a Zombie (1943)Even the film’s phantasmagoric qualities are filtered through the poetry of concrete reality. The symbology of the sacrificial St. Sebastian manifests in Betsy. Betsy falls hook line and sinker to the local voodoo lore, fed to her by Jessica’s maid, Alma (Teresa Harris). Although Betsy loves Paul, she is willing to sacrifice her love when she takes his wife Jessica to a voodoo priest for a cure. The ceremony itself is filmed kinetically. The natives are as naïve as Betsy and Wesley, having inherited the misogynistic framework of colonial society and transposed it onto the perennial Eve, Jessica. A frequent theme with Lewton is his refusal to see death solely as a negative. The ambiguous watery catacomb is more gifted relief as opposed to undesired finale.

Tourneur and Lewton’s I Walked With A Zombie is a poetic philter, far removed from Romero’s fantasy apocalypses. And that makes for a refreshing All Hallow’s Eve.

Next week: Tourneur’s Leopard Man (1943).

THE BODY SNATCHER (1945)

When  discovered that RKO was saddling him with star  for a three picture deal, Lewton was not at all happy. The producer had wanted to veer away from the Universal monster-mash factory, which he naturally associated Karloff with. A meeting between Karloff, Lewton, and  changed all that. To Lewton’s surprise, Karloff was seeking a change of pace and a return to more literate acting. By the end of that meeting, both Lewton and Wise were charmed by the actor and enthusiastically looking forward to a fulfilling artistic collaboration. Karloff did three films with Lewton, the other two being Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946) both directed by Mark Robson, a stock RKO director. Lewton should never have hesitated. The Body Snatcher is, easily, the best of the three starring Karloff and the actor almost single-handedly redeems the two Robson films.

Shortly after securing Karloff  for The Body Snatcher, RKO signed  to the film and ordered Lewton to create a role for the former Dracula star. RKO was bound and determined to replicate a Universal horror star extravaganza. Lewton was just as determined to give them something better. Karloff graciously accepted working with his former co-star (this would be their last teaming) and would prove helpful to Lugosi during shooting. While Karloff proved as rewarding an actor as Lewton and Wise hoped he would be, Lugosi’s casting proved problematic. Although Lugosi did turn in one of his few good latter-day performances, the actor’s mental and physical health (a combination of age, drugs, and alcoholism) was a considerable obstacle.

Robert Wise co-directed Curse of the Cat People (1944), but The Body Snatcher was his first solo effort. The film features two superb star performances and several very good character performances, including Lugosi’s. The Body Snatcher, in its pronounced literalness, may lack Lewton favorite ‘s poetic aesthetic, but Wise’s fleshier terrain gleans benefits.

Body Snatcher is an adaptation of a Robert Louise Stevenson short story which Val Lewton scripted (under his pseudonym, Carlos Keith) with Philip MacDonald. The film is inspired by and loosely based on the infamous Burke and Hare murders.

Karloff’s performance here is, rightly, one of his most critically acclaimed. Henry Daniel, one of the great character actors, is precision par excellence. The Body Snatcher is an actors’ film, and the two character stars deliver.

Still from The Body Snatcher (1945)Cabman John Gray (Karloff) and Dr. Toddy McFarland (Daniel) are the ambiguous antagonist and protagonist. McFarland is essentially moral, socially accepted, but chillingly cold and obsessively driven to criminal activities. Gray is a social outcast. He is malevolent, manipulative, capable of brutality, blackmail, and murder. Yet, he has a fire in his heart that McFarland lacks.

It’s not even quite that cut and dry. This is Edinburgh in the Victorian era, when celibacy was proof of vocational dedication. McFarland’s celibacy is a facade. He has a secret wife, Meg (Edith Atwater), who poses as his maid. Meg is a seer, with the gift of vision and fire in her bosom. This relationship, so subtly presented, is the heart of McFarland’s hypocrisy and tragedy.

Gray is equally complex. He savagely brings a shovel down on the skull of an interruptive dog, yet is capable of tenderness when caressing the cheek of his horse, or petting his cat (after committing murder). Gray has affection for a crippled girl but, without an iota of remorse, murders a blind balladeer (an effective scene, shot in Lewtonesque shadows) to supply the cadaver for the girl’s much-needed surgery.

Lewton and Wise astutely play to Lugosi’s limitations, taking advantage of his language difficulty. Lugosi, as the blackmailing servant Joseph, is slow-witted, slow of speech and slow to grasp what’s happening. Lugosi’s best directors played to his awkward delivery. Some have criticized the brevity of Lugosi’s role here (including Lugosi himself). But it is that brevity which gives power to Lugosi’s role.The role Joseph stands alongside the actor’s best character work. Lugosi’s death scene with Karloff is expertly directed and acted.

Atwater projects strongly in her role. Hers are the needs of a fully rounded woman, her passions and visions aflame underneath the icy exterior McFarland demands of her. She fulfills that role without complaint, self-pity, or self-deceit.

However, the film falters considerably in the roles of McFarland’s assistant Fettes (Russell Wade), the crippled girl Georgina (Sharyn Moffett) and her mother (Rita Corday). These are contrived, saccharine characters.

The finale, straight out of the Stevenson story, is harrowing and sears the conscience.

Next week: Tourneur’s evocative I Walked With A Zombie (1943).

CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944)

RKO was both surprised and elated over the success of Cat People (1942). Predictably, they ordered a sequel, and handed the title to producer: Curse of the Cat People. Lewton, eyes-rolling, took the assignment, but said: “What I’m going to do is make a very delicate story of a child who is on the verge of insanity because she lives in a fantasy world.”

Even today, viewers are split about the sequel. It’s akin to  delivering a prequel to Aliens without a plethora of H.R. Giger monsters. The bourgeois genre fanboys, wanting only the familiar, will aggressively bellow like the unimaginative and artless Neanderthals they are when confronted with something as fresh as Curse of the Cat People (1944). Although flawed, Curse is a haunting, sublime, cinematic dreamscape.

Irena’s widower from Cat People, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), is even duller now that he has been married to Alice (Jane Moore) for several years. Upsetting poor Ollie’s Hallmark view of the world is a highly imaginative young daughter, Amy (Ann Carter), who is the occupant of a surreal interior terrain.

Still from Curse of the Cat People (1944)Oliver Reed may well serve as a metaphor for a conservative fan base, executive film producers and Promise Keepers. Ollie’s reaction to Amy’s fantasies is archaic hostility. Amy’s preoccupation with the magical constitutes all that is a threat to Ollie. Amy is fully effeminate, artistic, independent, free of the binding status quo.

First, Ollie attempts to mold Amy into a socially acceptable child. Highly introverted, Amy is spurned by the potential friends Ollie tries to force upon her. When chasing after those who reject her, Amy stumbles upon the garden of a faded, elderly actress Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean). Slowly, Amy befriends the lonely woman. Amy reminds Mrs. Farren of a deceased daughter. Mrs. Farren has a grown daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), but Barbara is consistently rejected by her mother. Mrs. Farren, in a mentally deteriorated state, imagines Barbara to be an impostor and rejects her, withholding maternal love. Barbara, jealous of the attention her mother is showing the stranger Amy, reacts with jealousy.

Amy discovers a photograph of Irena (). Shortly afterwards, a wishing well grants Amy a new friend: Irena. Amy’s garden shimmers with Debussian light when the radiantly passive Irena enters and is welcomed into a picturesque domain.

The edginess of childhood is not glossed over, and a retelling of Irving Washington’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” offers a memorable moment of adolescent dread. Amy’s further descent into the magical sends Ollie into a machismo fit. The artistically bankrupt office manager reacts by administering a thrashing. Eventually, Ollie and Barbara accept Amy. Irena has fulfilled her function.

RKO, predictably, reacted to the film with Oliver Reed-inspired hostility and mandated ill-fitting sequences. Gunther von Fritsch, the original director, was replaced by a young Robert Wise, working on his first film. While Curse lacks ‘s assured touch, it is, together with The Body Snatcher (1945, also directed by Wise), the best of the non-Tourneur Lewtons.

The great critic James Agee championed Curse of the Cat People. Captivated, Agee wrote that Lewton’s films “are so consistently alive, limber, poetic, humane, so eager toward the possibilities of the screen, and so resolutely against the grain of all we have learned to expect from the big studios.”

Curse of the Cat People was another unexpected critical and box office hit. Yet again, RKO was dumbfounded. Hit or not, they felt betrayed by their producer and Curse, inevitably, served as a prominent nail in Lewton’s RKO coffin.

Next week: The Body Snatcher (1945).

JACQUES TOURNEUR’S CAT PEOPLE (1942)

RKO Studios, grumbling over their great misfortune with Orson Welles and Citizen Kane (1941), hired  to produce nine low budget horror films. The executives handed Lewton a list of idiotic titles and told him to make some “horror pitchers” that could make money. The RKO execs were looking and hoping for a cheap hack in Lewton. What they got instead was an erudite artist. Numerous directors have imprinted their body of work with their own personality. Few producers have. Val Lewton, did and he began with a film which highlighted two of his own phobias: cats and the fear of being touched.

Cat People (1941) is the first and probably best of Lewton’s nine RKO films. It was directed by. Tourneur’s entries undeniably stand out among the Lewton series, much like Terence Fisher‘s films did with Hammer Films. For the starring role of Irena, Lewton and Tourneur chose the diminutive beauty and temperamental imported French actress . Simon found Hollywood distasteful, and she remained a perennial outsider.

Simon was the perfect choice for Irena. Much Freudian babble has been written about the film, usually focusing on the fear of sex. Undoubtedly, that is an element in Cat People (one that was vapidly intensified in ‘s 1982 glossy MTV-styled remake). However, Irena’s brooding complexity, amidst a world of two-dimensional bores, is the driving impetus. Predictably, the dullards demonize Irena.

Still from Cat People (1942)Her husband, Oliver (Kent Smith) is the worst of the lot: banal, hopelessly bourgeois, unimaginative, and attached to hyper-realism: the impotence is on his part, not Irena’s. Oliver can only wither in the company of such fiery intricacy.

Irena’s psychiatrist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) tries to convince her that her world is a hopeless fantasy and that she merely needs a real man to show her the light. Irena’s response is to dim her countenance, brandish her claws, and catapult the condescending idiot into oblivion. Good for her.

If only she could have dispatched Oliver in a similar fashion. Marrying the vacuous, phony puritan Continue reading JACQUES TOURNEUR’S CAT PEOPLE (1942)