Eyes of Another: Perspective in the Films of Val Lewton

Stunning camerawork. Noirish lighting. Deep psychological insight. Moments of elliptical, primal terror. All of these qualities fuse to form the meteoric legacy of Val Lewton, a powerhouse of the horror genre. But, for me, there’s one essential element missing from the list above: complexity of perspective.

When you watch a Val Lewton film, you’re often plunged into the tortured psyche of not just one character, but of several. Some movies, especially horror films, resort to a fixed point-of-view, linked to a model of absorption and identification with the main character. Lewton’s horror films, however, jump into the minds and souls of different people, creatures, and even, I would argue, cultures.

From voice-over narration to framing to subtle changes of mise-en-scène, Lewton and his collaborators employed many techniques to shade and shape nuanced points-of-view. In so doing, the auteur pioneered the “psychological realism” that was to become a hallmark of later European art cinema. Except that Lewton’s movies are a lot more fun, frankly.

So, for this special occasion, the 2012 Halloween Val Lewton Blogathon, I’d like to take a look at three Lewton films that transcend horror as a genre through their manipulation of perspective. Instead of mere thrills and chills, these movies become bridges between good and evil, between fantasy and reality, between innocence and experience.

The Ghost Ship (1943) – Sounds of Silence

Directed by Mark Robson.

Even though Tom Merriam (the guy being threatened with a knife below) serves as our clean-cut, likable protagonist, he’s really just part of the stakes of this self-consciously allegoric struggle between good and evil.

 After all, we never get an ounce of Merriam’s subjectivity—at least not as we do for Captain Stone and for the deaf-mute Finn. At different times in the film, voice-over narration allows us to hear their thoughts or delusions. For instance, when Stone is worried that his crew will mutiny, he hears the doubtful statement, “Maybe the boy is right” evolve into “The boy is right!” as it loops over and over on the soundtrack.

A POV shot from Stone’s perspective sets up his psychotic break, as we begin to hear his obsessive thoughts.

The audience is privileged to even more of Finn’s thoughts. We meet him just a few minutes into the film—Merriam bumps into him and we expect to stay with Merriam. However, the camera stops and tracks in on Finn’s rough, stirring face as he “speaks” to us through the film medium—something he couldn’t do with his voice, being unable to talk.

Throughout The Ghost Ship, the camera repeats this almost spiritual, creeping, reverent track-in. When Robson focuses on Finn, he freezes the action and emphasizes the kind of telepathic link the viewer possesses with this character, thanks to the voice-over.

In fact, Finn’s voice-over narration concludes the film, after he’s slain the tyrannical captain and restored Merriam’s faith in human nature. Like an omniscient angel, he affirms, “All is well,” to end this searing morality tale, as he stands by the wheel to guide our gentle hero.

The Curse of the Cat People (1944) – Cinematic Fantasy

Directed by Gunther von Fristch and Robert Wise.

People have written books about perspective and subjectivity in The Curse of the Cat People. Rightly so. I’ll restrain myself to noting that Amy’s giftedly artistic, flamboyant perspective motivates all of the film’s beauty. Her quicksilver, low-key lit fantasies, as the trees darken and dance around her and Irena sings to her in the snow, endow her make-believe scenes with a poetry that the camera can enunciate.

In contrast to the clean lines of the Reed home, Amy’s fantasies dwell in forest lands which she infuses and populates with her feverish imagination.

She also brings legends to life. Both she and we hear the sound of passing wheels transform the clip-clop of the Headless Horseman.

To Amy’s eyes, an old woman telling stories turns into a glowing wellspring of entertainment.

Most importantly, her fantasy saves her life as she projects Irena onto the potentially homicidal Barbara. Amy’s innocence and conviction forces Barbara to realize that she should be Amy’s friend, instead of her killer!

When we fantasize, Lewton shows us, the world ascends to its highest level of enchantment. Why, oh, why would we ever want to throw that away and “grow up?” We shouldn’t, which is why, in the end, Oliver embraces Amy’s fantasy and “sees” Irena in the garden. The lost are never lost, so long as we keep them in our mind’s eye. Through the make-believe of movies, Lewton encourages us all to see what might be there and cherish it. The joy that illusions furnish us with, that glee more than compensates for being a little, well… deluded.

I Walked with a Zombie (1943) – From Jane Eyre to Greek Chorus

Directed by Jacques Tourneur.

The voice-over which opens this film conforms to a long tradition of plucky female protagonists who reveal their struggles to the audience. It’s film’s inheritance from the 19thcentury novel. The narrator reassures us and suggests that we will be guided through the plot by a sensitive, caring woman who will both relate and reflect on events. And so she does.

Betsy Connell, a nurse, tells us about how she feels about the tropic night sky—and we see it.

She describes the stillness of the Holland house—and we see it.

She broods over her love for Holland—and we see her brooding by the ocean.

In other words, the film’s construction allows us to feel aligned with her perspective. And then, like, halfway through the film, the voice-over drops out, right about the time when Betsy visits the voodoo grounds. From then on, the soundtrack vibrates with the maddening drums. This shift gives the impression that the film has been subsumed by a consciousness greater and deeper than Betsy’s, a consciousness linked to the film’s most powerful symbol—the slave ship statue of Black Saint Sebastian. The Voodoo, Afro-Caribbean sounds and sights have commandeered the film, reclaimed it from the linear 19thcentury trajectory, to share woe, passion, hate, violence, and finally, peace.

Just as the ceremony seems to take over Jessica’s burnt-out consciousness, so too does the island culture seem to permeate and influence the conclusion of the film, taking it away from the white, optimistic female protagonist. It’s a very modernist take on Jane Eyre… slipping from a relatively straight-forward narration to something deeper and more mythic. After all, the key ending scene, in which Carrefour frightens Wesley into the sea, doesn’t even involve Betsy! Even the images could be interpreted in several different ways: is Carrefour trying to save the sinners as he reaches for them… or push them into the sea?

In the concluding sequence, the coda of the movie, a soulful native voice speaks the moral of the story and intones a prayer that binds together the Voodoo and Christian traditions.

Ti-Joseph’s voice-over explains that Jessica, the white zombie, was always a zombie, even while alive, because of her sinful desire to wound others:

Oh, Lord God most holy, deliver them from the bitter pains of eternal death. The woman was a wicked woman, and she was dead in her own life. Yea lord, dead in the selfishness of her spirit. And the man followed her. Her steps led him down to evil, her feet took hold on death. Forgive him oh Lord, who knowest the secret of all hearts. Yea Lord, pity them who are dead, and give peace and happiness to the living.

As the Black natives bring the bodies from the ocean, past the Saint Sebastian statue, Betsy no longer stands out as the moral center of the film.

Betsy’s sweet, sincere, but ultimately limited perspective has succumbed to a broader, more resonant point-of-view, one which echoes through time to deliver a message of transgression, pain, and forgiveness.

Sacre Bleu! 10 Reasons to Watch The Catman of Paris

First thing’s first: I’m going to get my digression out of the way.

As a young girl training at conservatory, the future famous opera singer Maria Callas used to sit and listen to all of the other singing students, many of them mediocre, during their lessons. She said that you could learn something even from the mistakes and foibles of other voices.

I offer this anecdote in order to rationalize my love of endearingly crude or creaky movies.

Yeah, like I need an excuse. Because, c’mon, people, it’s not like human beings got a whole lot more discerning and sophisticated in the past 60 years. We, the smug spectators of the 2010s, may prefer to think that we can savor a silliness and “camp” factor that those naïve ancestors of the 1940s couldn’t, but I don’t believe it for a moment. Those cynical, hard-working citizens of another era probably reacted with the same amusement as we do to absurd plot holes and exaggerated acting. They might not have understood what “snark” and “camp” meant, but they would’ve experienced them, I am sure. And it’s condescending to them to pretend otherwise.

Yeah, even your Red Cross Girl grandma would’ve found this silly.

Which begs the question, why did people go to watch a movie like The Catman of Paris? What pleasure can we derive from watching it?

10. Because it’s so very French, non?

I have never, in all of my years of obsessing over Hollywood films, seen a movie in which the name Charles is consistently pronounced in the French manner, “Shaaaaah-le,” like this one.

Charles: “Mon Dieu! I seem to be souffring from some étrange maladie!”

Which is really funny, since the accents in The Catman of Paris range from the genuinely French to the vaguely European to dodgy Pépé-Le-Pewe approximations to not-even-trying. The Inspector, primarily, speaks most of his lines in a flat American drawl, but has to say the names all Frenchy-like. Just listen to him try to do the R-in-the-back-of-the-throat that frustrates every beginning French student.

“I am sorry, Monsieur. You’ll have to take that up with another fonctionnaire.”

At one point a character tries to convince another to hide out, saying, “If you fall into the hands of the bloodhound Sévéren…!” Every phrase is so flowery and blustery that there’s really a hidden “Sacre Bleu!” in each line. Oh, did I mention that there’s also a Can-Can dance and cafés? Vive la France!

9. Quite good special effects makeup.

Not, say, Jack Piece good, but Bob Mark, the makeup supervisor, did a fine job on this and many other films (one thinks of the soulful, heavy, fuzzed-out eyeliner look he brought to Maureen O’Hara in Rio Grande). Mark serves up an appropriately grotesque creature in the titular catman.

8. If you don’t have the time to read Penny Dreadfuls…

The picturesque quality of the mise-en-scene ensures that the whole movie resembles a Belle Époque engraving full of pointy-nosed maidens, idyllic gardens, and trim carriages. Only, every now and then, there’s a catman and a brutal murder.

           

This decorative frilliness combined with a monster on the loose recalls the “penny dreadfuls” of the 19th century. Like penny dreadfuls, Poverty Row horrors aren’t particularly well done, but they do sell thrills and a fussy, poor man’s Gothic ambiance that comforts as much as it scares.

7. Hey, didn’t I see him in…?

If you regularly watch Republic programmer pictures (I am Nitrate Diva and I am a Nexflix-aholic…) you start to feel like you’re going to an old repertory theater. The guy who was the murderer last week is the victim in the new production. The trampy girlfriend of the last picture plays the wife in the next one. In other words, there’s a whole extra-diegetic thrill of identifying the actor.

I admit that this sounds pretty film geeky, but even so, I would be surprised if people from the 1940s didn’t whisper to their companions, “Hey, didn’t I see him in…?”

The watching process includes a memory game—not unlike the license plate game, but with actors. Despite everything we learn in film class about absorption and identification, the classic Hollywood spectator would have discovered their own ways of playing with a movie. They would have, I hypothesize, enjoyed recognizing the same little-known actors just as much as we do today—if #TCMParty is any indicator.

Keep an eye out for Dourglass Dumbrille (what a name!) as Borchard. You’ll definitely recognize him from a much more prestigious (though not much better) film—The Ten Commandments. And you might also recognize faux-French Lenore Aubert, the lady in distress in Catman of Paris, as the would-be vampiress seducer of Bud Abbott in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein!

6. Because the plot is just too weird to pass up on.

 A reincarnated catman who’s existed since before the birth of Christ? Check.

A monster movie about—seriously—publishing? Uh-huh.

A secret trial overheard by a guy… in cat form? Yup, the plot hinges on it.

 This is whacky stuff. Don’t miss out on the sheer oddball joy of it all.

5. Nutty dialogue…

A sample: “Governments are like women. They weep and they pout and they threaten, but the more you scorn them, the more they respect you!”

“Charles, stop treating me like a government!” 

Hey, U.S. Gov—your crocodile tears don’t fool me one bit. I’m giving you the silent treatment for a while. How you like me now, Uncle Sam?

4. Because it was made by mega Western director Lesley Selander.

“Yeehaaah!” Wait, I mean, “Allez! Allez!”

Selander directed over 100 in his career, the majority of them programmer Westerns. He’d worked with John Ford and W.S. “One-Take Woody” Van Dyke. In other words, he was kind of a dyed-in-the-wool buckaroo guy.

Knowing this fact, The Catman of Paris comes across totally differently, because you can tell that the director is doing what works for him. That is to say, he includes a lot of Western-style action stuff. In 1896 Paris. Quite a combo there.

Really, there’s this great five-minute-long brawl between a whole bunch of unemployed artists and our main character—a novelist. They just drop their conversations about art and life and start knocking each other around! Leaping off of bars. Falling on top of tables. Throwing chairs. Um, French artists will scream at the top of their lungs in defense of their famous authors, but they’d be damned if they spilled a drop of café au lait while doing it, which is why this brawl is so very funny.

“How DARE you say that about Baudelaire?” 

It’s like if John Ford did a production of La Bohème.

Then there’s a carriage chase, which somebody copied and pasted from Selander’s last 40s Western. Hey, switch the stagecoaches for French fiacres—you’ve got a horror chase! I was still expecting the cavalry to show up, though.

Basically, what we’ve got here, is a horror with the tropes of a Western. How often do you get to say that?

3. Because this was the 1940s standard for violence?

As I’ve said, I don’t think our mid-century, War-Bond-buying forebears were immune to the kind of snide humor that continues to tickle us today. Nevertheless, I would argue that their tolerance for violence in film does not match our own. Even if you fought at the Battle of the Bulge, movie violence might shock you if you possess little experience with it. Movie violence often doesn’t look like real-life violence, it’s much bigger if it happens on a big screen, and we also have the hidden question in our minds: “Am I supposed to enjoy this?”

And, for 1946, Catman would’ve been considered quite bloody. In fact, I’ve read a review from the L.A. Times in which the critic has little to say about it except that it gives a few good chills and has “very violent effects.”

So, take a little vacation from blood spatter, and try to put yourself into a frame of mind to accept blood trailing down a woman’s décolleté as truly horrific. The gore you love will seem extra-gory when you return to it.

2. Because you’ll delight in a few clever stylistic touches…

Although they mostly involve cats or shadows.

1. Umm… am I the only one picking up on the serious homoerotic subtext here?

Do note that some spoilers lurk in this reason.

How often do you get to see a man slap another man in movies? Our main character, Charles, a best-selling writer, spends most of his time hanging out with his “patron,” Borchard.

We first see them both together as men about town, having dinner, just the two of them. Later, when Charles stops off at what appears to be his home, we hear Borchard call his name from off-screen and then see the patron cozily installed at a desk. So, they live together?

Things really get awkward when Charles falls in love. We get scenes of the amnesiac Charles, who thinks he might be the catman, depending on the advice and help of Borchard while Charles’ girlfriend remains on the fringes, an interloper in the relationship. When Charles grows hysterical Borchard bitchslaps him! There’s something not quite professional about that relationship.

Turns out, Borchard is the Catman (Yes, goo, goo, g’joob!) and has devised a scheme to kill off everyone who stands in the way of Charles’ path to literary immortality. In other words, Borchard kills for Charles. Psychotic love alert!

Two’s company—and three’s a foule!

In that case, The Catman of Paris is richer than it seems.  The idea of embedding a supernatural animal-man in the context of a homoerotic relationship adds a layer of interest to the story. It’s enjoyable for me, as a modern critic, to think about how the 1940s resorted to such elaborate means to represent psychological and sexual difference. I wonder, would the 40s audience have picked up on that? At the very least, I’m sure that they could intuit some of it—which makes even a silly movie like this one worth watching.