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.

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…

bang

…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.