This Pretty World: The Films of Val Lewton

This Pretty World: The Films of Val Lewton

When I met Ann Carter in 2007 during the filming of a documentary about Hollywood producer Val Lewton, she was seventy years old, more than six decades removed from her starring role in Lewton’s The Curse of the Cat People. The experience was beyond my dreams: meeting a person who knew Lewton, a filmmaker I love, and meeting this person above all—the star of a movie that touches me every time I see it. Despite its lurid title (assigned by the studio), The Curse of the Cat People is a dreamy and poetic tale about Amy, an imaginative young child played by Carter, who is punished for the beauty, delicacy, and poignancy of her melancholy reveries. Lewton, who produced the film, was like her.

The Curse of the Cat People

Born Vladimir Hofschneider in Yalta, Russia, in 1904, he emigrated to the United States with his mother and sister when he was five years old. Growing up in Port Chester, New York, he claimed he saw lions in the woods and indulged in other vivid fantasies right from the start. He mailed the invitations to his sister’s birthday party by placing them in the hollow of a tree, imagining that the hollow really was a mailbox, just as Amy places invitations to her own party in such a hollow in the movie. As a teenager, he worked as a newspaper reporter in Connecticut and soon got himself fired for making up a news story about a truckload of chickens dying in a heat wave. Undaunted, he went into pulp fiction in his twenties and wrote a series of trashy but erudite novels in the early 1930s—among them, The Fateful Star Murder, No Bed of Her Own, Yearly Lease, 4 Wives, Where the Cobra Sings, and This Fool, Passion. Using a variety of pen names including Carlos Keith, Herbert Kerkow, and Cosmo Forbes, as well as Val Lewton, he came to the attention of David O. Selznick, the most powerful producer in Hollywood, who hired him in 1936 to be his story editor. Six years later, RKO Studios hired Lewton to produce B horror films. No stranger to doing things quickly (he wrote his pulp novels by checking into cheap hotel rooms for a weekend), Lewton produced nine such films for RKO (eleven overall) in a four-year period that began in 1942, starting with Cat People, followed by I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man, and culminating in Bedlam. The Curse of the Cat People, released in spring 1944, was the sixth.

In the first scene of Cat People, a character points to a don’t-litter sign—“Let no one say, and say it to your shame, that all was beauty here, until you came.” The placard is like a note from Lewton to himself as he embarked on his movie-making career: don’t make a lot of garbage. But his idea was that trash is beauty, that what we throw away as ugly and misshapen and forgettable actually radiates with a sad loveliness. The fashion designer Irena, in that first scene in Cat People, tears up one of her drawings after another, dissatisfied with her work, before finally leaving a last ripped and failed picture littered on the ground. The camera dwells on this torn and discarded drawing—a weird image of a leopard-like cat impaled by a saber—because it is a sign of Lewton’s own art, the pictures he himself made, the stuff of a special and disposable grace that even the artist himself threw away as not good enough. Yet in this trash Lewton knew an unlikely beauty blooms.

Cat People

“Haunting images appear for only a few seconds, stamping themselves indelibly on our memories, our waking perceptions, our dreams.”

His movies are dreamy to watch even today. It is not their plots or acting or themes that give off this gorgeous feeling. And it is not the directors, though Jacques Tourneur, who directed the first three films, was so gifted, and though Robert Wise, the future maker of The Sound of Music, made his directorial debut with The Curse of the Cat People. Producers played all-important creative roles in those years—Selznick’s huge presence in the making of Gone with the Wind is a famous example—and Lewton was no different. Tourneur’s images are gorgeous, to be sure—the night walk of Betsy and Jessica through the sugarcane fields in I Walked with a Zombie is the most visually stunning sequence in all the films—but Lewton ran the show. He came up with the story ideas, cast actors and actresses, and described settings and costumes, paying finicky attention to historical accuracy in the case of period dramas such as The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead, and Bedlam. He wrote some of the scripts (as “Carlos Keith”) and drew upon his literary taste and intelligence to create plots—I Walked with a Zombie is an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre; The Body Snatcher is based on a Robert Louis Stevenson short story; and the melodrama Mademoiselle Fifi combines two Guy de Maupassant stories. But what really stands out in his movies are the pathos-filled moments that he had such a gift for. Haunting images appear for only a few seconds, stamping themselves indelibly on our memories, our waking perceptions, our dreams.

Often these moments center on an actor posed still as a statue. The zombie Carrefour in I Walked with a Zombie guards the path through the sugarcane fields, a towering silhouette. The tragic street-singer in The Body Snatcher stands on the Edinburgh streets, singing a haunting ballad of lost love. The Gilded Boy in Bedlam impersonates a statue of Reason, slathered in gold skin paint that slowly asphyxiates him as he recites lines of poetry from memory before an amused party of debauched aristocrats. The white-robed Irena, standing in Amy’s snowy backyard in The Curse of the Cat People, is wintry as a pretty icicle and visible only to Amy, who believes in her absolutely. Like all Lewton’s frozen figures, Irena resists the flow of moving images, creating an enduring moment of lonely stillness.

I Walked with a Zombie

To make this static array, Lewton drew upon the religious icon painting he knew from his native country. The madonnas and saints of old Russian icons impart a grave solemnity to his ensembles of outcasts, suggesting a nameless and permanent sadness beyond all plots. Often played by minor actors, in minor and sometimes wordless and uncredited roles, Lewton’s lonely figures possess a special insight that captains and commanders lack—an insight born of their isolation and affliction. The deaf-mute sailor played by Skelton Knaggs in The Ghost Ship puts it hauntingly: “I am cut off from other men, but in my own silence I can hear things they cannot hear, know things they can never know.”

What Lewton knew had something to do with the Second World War. He made all eleven of his RKO films during the war. Cat People, the first, was released at the end of 1942, when things looked bleak for the Allies on both fronts. The last, Bedlam, was filmed in summer 1945, with the Gilded Boy scene shot on August 1, 1945, five days before the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima. Superficially, Lewton’s movies were part of a wartime craze for horror, a counterintuitive taste that Edmund Wilson, writing in the New Yorker in 1944, thought was a way American audiences inoculated themselves against “panic at the real horrors loose on the earth.” But on a deeper level Lewton’s films explore some other wartime feeling. Although they contain a few jump-scares (a bus screeching to a halt in Cat People made audiences scream), the energy of his movies is mainly tragic, eerie, and mournful: an ode to the dead.

“His pathos of stillness portrays a grief that most other wartime American movies conspire to forget.”

The Curse of the Cat People

Against the official optimism of home-front culture—its wish to “Accentuate the Positive,” in Bing Crosby’s words—Lewton’s films bring the war’s sorrow down out of the air and give it an aesthetic shape. His pathos of stillness portrays a grief that most other wartime American movies conspire to forget. The stillness is so profound that even movement in Lewton’s films can be gravely slow and immobile. Manny Farber, who wrote brilliant film reviews for the New Republic, singled out the eerie slowness of one moment in The Curse of the Cat People: a close-up of Amy’s hand as she sways it in a pool of water while wishing for a friend. Such images gave off the “unheralded ripple of physical experience,” Farber felt, “the tiny morbidly life-worn detail” that rang true when so much else in all the movies he watched seemed false.

James Agee, Farber’s counterpart at the Nation and an even more enthusiastic admirer of Lewton, wrote that movies at their best “give you things to look at, clear of urging or comment, and so ordered that they are radiant with illimitable suggestions of meaning and mystery.” Although he referred to a moment in a movie by another filmmaker—the director William Wellman’s The Story of G. I. Joe—Agee’s words suggest what enthralled him about Lewton’s films. He thought that The Curse of the Cat People was one of the two best movies of 1944.

Lewton’s success did not last. With the end of the war, RKO let him go, labeling him a specialist in a genre whose day was done. He made only three more films before he died of a heart attack in 1951 at the age of forty-six. At his funeral his friend Alan Napier, a tall and distinguished actor who appears in several of the movies, bitterly blamed the film industry for his early death. Lewton in Hollywood was like the Gilded Boy in eighteenth-century London: forced to recite his poetry for the entertainment of cruel and glib audiences and suffocating in the effort. But his gleaming portrayal of affliction and pain fixed indelible pictures in the minds of even the frivolous, the distracted, and the shallow; and occasionally it awakened the feeling of solitary souls who recognized the lonely beauty he portrayed.

I am one such soul. That is why it was such a thrill for me to meet Ann Carter that day in 2007. So many years removed from her part, a grandmother by then, she did not look at all like Amy. I could have passed her on the street and never had a clue that she was the same person as the actress in the movie. But it hardly mattered. We had a nice conversation and I was blessed to sing her praises in person. A few weeks later she wrote a letter to me. For many years I thought I lost that letter, but just the other day I found it wedged between two books on a bookshelf. “Hopefully, the near future will find you visiting our beautiful part of the country,” Carter wrote. “It would be wonderful for us if we had the opportunity to visit with you again.”

Alas, that did not happen. When I phoned her home four years later, prior to making a trip near to where she lived, her husband said that she was very ill and that it was not a good time to visit. She died in 2014 before I ever saw her again. But I still have the letter I thought I lost, and like Lewton’s films themselves, it remains a personal invitation, sent from a faraway place.

A series of Lewton’s films are available to stream on the Criterion Channel through December 31, 2019.

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