Thirteen Women (1932): Tempting the Fates

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“They were schoolgirls together and their lives form one chain of destiny, women who believe!”

—Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy)

Peg Entwistle came to Hollywood because she wanted to be a star.

She didn’t make it.

It’s an old story and a sad one—a tale that really belongs to all of Tinseltown’s lost souls, although none can equal the cinematic coup-de-théâtre with which Entwistle ended her life.

The Welsh-born beauty acted in just one movie before she hurled herself off the H of the HOLLYWOODLAND sign, two days after the film premiered. They say that her ghost still haunts the spot. And Thirteen Women happens to be her first and last movie.

Even without its connection to one of Hollywood’s most famous tragedies, Thirteen Women would stand out as one of the most eldritch concoctions of the trippy pre-Code era. In this horror-melodrama, the power of suggestion drives a group of wealthy young women to madness, suicide, and murder.

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Entwistle gave a nuanced, if brief, performance as Hazel Cousins who watches an acquaintance plummet to her death during a trapeze act. Deranged by the experience and maddened by a horoscope predicting violence and disaster, Hazel stabs her husband to death. We see her clutching a bloody dagger and screaming, under superimposed headlines announcing her crime.

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One has to wonder if the film exerted an insidious real-life influence on Peg Entwistle, perhaps even planting the seed of a dramatic death by falling in her mind. Just as her character seems imprisoned by headlines, Entwistle herself has gone down in history as a shocking episode in movie-land folklore. The fame that eluded her in life was ironically bestowed upon her in death. Did the dark plot of Thirteen Women, in addition to all of her other worries and woes, work some kind of malign spell on her? Did she relate too closely to the film’s theme of self-fulfilling prophecies? In any case, it’s a hell of a coincidence—and only one reason to tune in to this magnificently warped movie.

I consider Thirteen Women one of the most concise, effective nail-biters I have ever encountered. If you’re looking for the antidote to summer blockbuster bloat, look no further than this frightening pre-Code gem.

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Produced by David O. Selznick at RKO and directed by the rather obscure George Archainbault, Thirteen Women admirably truncated a popular novel by Tiffany Thayer. Clocking in at an incredible 59 minutes, the movie manages to sketch a blueprint for every revenge thriller that would follow. The one-by-one elimination of enemies, the grotesquely devised set-piece deaths, the gaggle of mean girls being menaced by their former target, and the ambiguous villain-protagonist will all feel remarkably familiar to modern audiences.

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As you may know, before transitioning to the tame post-Code era with her “perfect wife” image, Myrna Loy played an awful lot of vamps, tramps, and temptresses, often with an exotic flair. The parts usually fell beneath her talents as an actress (and fell within the egregious old Hollywood tradition of blackface and yellowface portrayals, which Loy later regretted). However, Thirteen Women gave Loy the most psychologically rich variation on her Oriental Villainess typecasting. Mixed-race anti-heroine Ursula Georgi has survived things that most of us get the chills just thinking about—and ostracism at the hands of her peers put her over the edge. Jaded, manipulative, and captivating, she’s out to exact retribution on the coven of white society snobs who shut her out of their privileged world at boarding school.

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Once a victim of fate, Ursula takes fate into her own hands. Using her seductive charms and wits to destroy her enemies, Ursula is sort of like a shadowy echo of Lily from Baby Face. Whereas Lily, that other pre-Code female mastermind, destroyed others to elevate herself, Ursula sees that destruction as an end in itself. Maybe she was reading Schopenhauer instead of Nietzsche.

Most interestingly, Ursula doesn’t merely set out to destroy these women—she sends phony prophecies about their imminent doom and effectively pushes them to destroy themselves. By using the name of a famous swami in her warning messages, Loy’s character reveals the strength of Eastern mysticism upon the snotty Caucasian women who had once dismissed Ursula and her culture.

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Ursula’s victims play right into her hands. As one of them wonders aloud, “But the moon does control the tides! And nothing can live without the sun. Why shouldn’t we be controlled?”

Rather than intervening directly, for most of the film, our femme fatale lets the power of suggestion gnaw away at her victims. The hoity-toity finishing school graduates succumb to their own demons—butchering their husbands, causing calamitous deaths, and shooting themselves.

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Thus, Thirteen Women intimates that your average 1930s society belle was concealing some kind of major anguish, rage, or mental imbalance. Perhaps the most disturbing subtext of the film lies in the thought that it doesn’t really take the powers of the occult to make us do awful things to ourselves and to the ones we love; we might do them all by ourselves.

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(Question of the day: would it be worth it to live in the shadow of an ugly death if you got to wear such beautiful 1930s outfits?)

Myrna Loy’s experience as a dancer serves her well in the part of Ursula. The slinky, serpentine physicality that she injected into her role adds to the ominous ambiance of the film. Her sinuous gait and her ability to stand perfectly dead still (to the point where I thought I’d accidentally paused the movie) reminded me of such uncanny villains as Jaffar in The Thief of Baghdad and Lady Asaji in Throne of Blood. We understand that Ursula’s intense hate has transformed her into a being so implacable, so focused that she is almost supernatural.

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Like the return of the repressed, Ursula shows up to expose the cruelty, hypocrisy, and vulnerability of her enemies. Her wickedness, after all, is really just the maliciousness of others reflected back to them. As much as the audience would like to completely sympathize with Ursula’s primary rival, the strongest of the former mean girls—astutely underplayed by a steely but nurturing Irene Dunne—we have to recognize that she brought it on herself. Who’s to blame: the monster or the bullies who created her? I’m particularly enamored with this mirror confrontation shot that seems to visually translate all of this conflict and ambiguity.

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Probing the open wounds of female aggression and racial tension, the plot also sustains a briskly paced series of death scenes and suspenseful set pieces. The film opens with a white-knuckler of a sequence during a death-defying circus act, quickly proceeds to a domestic murder, and witnesses someone being pushed in front of a subway train.

You can also expect a car chase, a woman leaping from a moving train, and an off-screen suicide—I’ve scrambled the order, so don’t worry about spoilers. I would also argue that this film contains one of the greatest, and simplest, suspense scenes of the 1930s, as an adorable little boy tries to reach for a toy ball that’s been filled with explosives. Not for the faint of heart, this movie!

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If we can sense that the adaptation lacks probably the depth of the original, the movie compensates with a major sense of style and a bizarre, magical expressionism. Leo Tover’s cinematography shapes a nightmarish pre-noir world, awash with mystery and imminence.

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Glowing astronomical orbs, glistening fabrics, and inky, low-key shadows all contribute to a feeling that the veil of illusion has been pulled back from reality. We can perceive the cosmic dread that hangs over the comings and goings of the characters, as they meet their destinies… or the end results of their own desires, perhaps.

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When each character dies, a gleaming star suddenly bursts onto the screen and transitions to the next scene. So, are we to assume that humans are indeed the puppets, prone to the indifferent vagaries of celestial bodies? Well, not really, since Ursula can knead destiny to serve her own purposes, pushing people down different trajectories than the stars actually foresaw for them.  Besides, Ursula’s victims actually sealed their fates through their nasty actions many years ago, which we can only assume that they committed of their own volition.

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However, if you pay close attention to the opening shot of the film, a seemingly unrelated image of a train speeding along in the night, you’ll notice it may actually represent the ending of the film from a different angle. In other words, Thirteen Women is carefully constructed for repeat viewing. From the first, the movie foreshadows Ursula’s own apparently predestined death and comes full-circle to this beginning at the very end of the film.

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Thirteen Women thus suggests that what we tend to consider a quirk of fate actually points to a more complex design, a tapestry of free will, unconscious longings, and, yes, some uncontrollable accidents of time and chance.

The fault is neither in our stars, nor in ourselves alone—but it doesn’t help that, all too often, we want to blame the stars.

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Warning Signals: The Leopard Man and Uncanny Signs

“Il s’agit de faits qui peuvent être de l’ordre de la constatation pure mais qui présentent chaque fois toutes les apparences d’un signal, sans qu’on puisse dire au juste de quel signal, qui font qu’en pleine solitude je jouis encore d’invraisemblables complicités, qui me convainquent de mon illusion…”

—André Breton, Nadja

(“Sometimes things happen, things which could be on level of facts, of mere observations, but which in each occurrence present all the appearances of  signals, though of what, we can’t exactly say, signals which make me rejoice in the unrealistic complicities of my deep solitude, which convince me of my illusion…”)

Do note that this post contains spoilers.

The Leopard Man teems with signals of all kinds. This horror-mystery-thriller tosses so many signs, details, symbols, and recurrent images at us that we, as audience members, cannot escape the impression that we have fallen through the hatch to some kind of dream world—where everything means something, we just don’t know what. The very richness of these signs—from a fortune-telling cards to a ball whirling on top of a fountain—makes them uncanny.

Just as one piece of information in the absence of all others makes us convinced of its importance a surge of information forces us to look at everything—it floods our senses and encourages us to skip to the kinds of tangential but powerful conclusions which Breton describes in the quote above.

Coincidences are uncanny, Freud argued, because they whisper to us of some grander order that may tick away under the sleek surface of life. The coincidences, formal echoes, and signals that The Leopard Man sows through its unconventional plot together produce this uncanny delirium that makes everything scary, from a young boy making shadow puppets to a lady giving a flower away. Every detail weighs heavy with “the appearance of being a signal.”

Even the characters make these kinds of symbolic, transductive inferences. According to Kiki and her friend the cigarette girl, the film’s setting, a New Mexico town, is “a bad town for blondes”—even though the only three women to be killed there are brunettes! We make the same kind of unsound inferences. For instance, watch the movie and tell me who the Leopard Man of the title is. Duh, it’s the killer. But wait! Nope. The only unambiguous Leopard Man is Charlie How-Come, the native keeper of the leopard, as we learn from the sign on his truck. In other words, signs are always misleading us and creating anxiety.

To this end, Tourneur carefully crafted the film in the baroque, lush, (what I call noir extrême) style that we’ve come to associate with him as an auteur. Many curling shadows, many striking plays of light that call attention to themselves. However, he takes this visual business and coup-de-théâtre flair even farther here to rattle us.

In the first five minutes of the movie, three women, two of them performers in adjacent dressing rooms, appear reflected in mirrors. Clo-clo, the castanet dancer…

Kiki, Clo-Clo’s rival performer at the nightclub…

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…And Eloise, the starstruck cigarette girl.

Directly afterwards, in a sweeping camera tilt and pan, we see first a fountain, then a woman reflected in it, then the dancer herself.

This balletic camera cascade over the fountain hypnotized me the first time I saw this film, as did the opening tracking shot. Conspicuously poetic shots like these inscribe these reflection images on the mind. One bathes in this sensation which Breton describes. The intention of the camera movement coupled with the intense visual stimuli provoke a presentiment, a premonition that what we are seeing will become vital.

Tourneur and Lewton populate the rest of the film with reflections as well. Two examples:

I mean, you don’t need to be a film major to pick up on this. The reflections persist so much that we begin to wonder what do they mean? 

It’s a good question! And one for which the answers multiply in my mind without any one explanation satisfying me. I would argue that these mirrors and reflective surfaces exist in the diegesis not as symbols but as signals, in Breton’s sense, as things planted to raise our awareness of what we are seeing, of the fact that we are seeing. I’m not calling the motif a red herring, but I do maintain that the ambiguity of the reflections call up that surrealist part of our brain that notices without understanding.

The light on Clo-Clo’s legs.

On the commentary track for the film, which I recommend listening to, William Friedkin (yes, director of The Exorcist—it’s a damn good commentary!) notes that when a little boy shines a light on Clo-Clo the castanet dancer’s legs, he seemingly marks her for death. Tourneur’s vivid attachment to virtuoso contrasts of light and dark and patterns of duplication enhance the ambiance of presentiment that renders The Leopard Man so tense and intense. The enhanced visuality created by flamboyant, recurrent camera movements and low-key lighting etch details upon the mind and confer importance to them.

I must confess, I felt impelled to write this post after hearing Friedkin say, “Coherence is the enemy of the horror film.”

I agree. The cloud of possible meanings that looms over The Leopard Man teems with electricity, just as a sky about to be ripped apart by lightening makes you tingle. The ambiguity of all the signs in The Leopard Man conjure up the uncanniness of Breton’s signal. We feel like they mean something, but what that something is, we know not what.

The symbols that should scare us most, however, are not the mysterious signs around us, but rather those signals are those whose meaning cannot be negotiated. Significance, in its absolute form, entails a kind of death. After all, one achieves one’s truest being in death—you can never be anything more than what you are once you’ve ceased to live. That sounds morbid, but, whatever you believe, it’s hard to deny that death is final.

For each of the three female deaths in The Leopard Man, Lewton and Tourneur use unmistakable signals of death (or the bringer of death) that nevertheless avoid showing the thing in itself.

Blood under the door, on the other side of which Teresa’s being attacked…

The cemetery tree bending and then springing as the killer pounces on Consuelo…

…And Clo-clo’s cigarette butt burning out.

These signs frighten us because they hold no ambiguity. We know what happened. The decision not to show this horror makes us ponder that thing that can never really be shown—death, since, really, none of us knows for sure what death is.

Signals live. They take on a life because because play with them, negotiate with them, recycle them. When you cannot negotiate with a signal, it turns into the emblem of the finality which we all fear. Which is why I personally find The Leopard Man a difficult film to “analyze” since the movie questions the value of interpreting any sign. Isn’t it the signal and not the significance which breathes and dances? Much of the fun of the movies originates in our tender complicity with signals.

After all, it’s only madmen who see direction, purpose, meaning in everything. Well, scholars and madmen. It’s no coincidence, though, that the mentally unstable killer Galbraith is both a scholar and a madman. He brings together those parallel needs for significance, for explanation—yet he can ultimately offer no rationalization for his desire to kill.

It’s also Galbraith who enunciates the fountain-as-Fate metaphor. (Side note: there’s also a significant fountain in Breton’s Nadja. Could the eminently literate Lewton and the French Tourneur have been making an allusion to the father of surrealism, perhaps?) Too many people take Galbraith’s word as gospel on that, though.

Come on, would you give serious credence to a guy who mauled two women to death because he felt like it? Galbraith wants to hammer down significance, fix the meaning of the fountain, strangle it with a noose of interpretation when he’s completely ignored its fluidity, the very qualities which allow the fountain to serve as a metaphor. What I’m trying to say (badly) is that a fountain on film is never Fate. It’s first and foremost a fountain! When you reduce something to a symbol, you’ve killed it.

In the dark: Galbraith and his compulsion remain mysterious.

I adore the conclusion of this film, with Galbraith running through the procession of mourners, remembering the massacre of natives in the village. When his pursuers catch up to him, they fall in and march with the procession as they start to make him confess.

This chase tempts you to brand it with big words like Atonement and Sin and Religion. But the drama pulls you back in and denies you the corpse-like refuge of significance. As the worshippers in the scene know, the only way to keep a memory alive is not with symbols, but with movement and noise. To quote another Breton chestnut, from his L’Amour Fou, “Beauty must be convulsive—or must not be.”

Convulsive beauty, à la Breton: Clo-Clo rushes at the leopard with castanets.

The moment you pledge yourself to abstractions like Fate and Death, you run the risk of losing the quickness and movement of signals and all the uneasiness they inspire in us.

Warning signal: the leopard’s eyes as two points of light.