Shadows of Things Not Seen
Paris-born U.S.-raised son of mystery-fantasy director Maurice Tourneur, Jacques Tourneur teamed with producer Val Lewton to direct Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man all within twelve months and change. These 1942-43 wonders were box office-baited by RKO Radio Pictures as “secrets sensationally revealed [of] evil in whose power we must refuse to believe -- EVEN IF IT’S TRUE!” There is no gore, no graphic violence, no “scary” music or things that go jump-at-you in the night.
Instead, back-to-back-to-back in the Museum of Modern Art’s thirty-three-film “Scorsese Selects,” these three anticipate what Hitchcock and early Polanski, for example, knew how to play on, the primal terror of what man creates out of what he senses, or thinks he senses, the terror that is in the eye of the beholder. Success depends on subtle flavoring, a recipe that can easily tip over into silliness -- and does in places even here, as in the mannered non-naturalistic acting styles pitted against the dramatic seriousness of theme.
Particularly in Cat People, until final frames there is a purposeful ambiguity that allows of psychological as well as literal interpretation: psychotic imagination, childhood trauma-induced in Serbian-born fashion designer Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), or else reality of legendary cat people operative in her, recognized as “Moia sestra”/“My sister” by a Cat Woman (Elizabeth Russell) at her wedding dinner? (The 1982 remake misses it all in smoldering sex-kitten, much gore, and unsubtle incest.) Dating back to medieval King John’s bloody liberation of the Balkans from warlord oppressors who fled into mountain forests, the legend posits females who, kissed, aroused or jealous, transform into panthers that rend their lovers into shreds. “The cat, in particular,” according to Alan B. Frank, “has usually been to woman what the werewolf is to man.”
Fearing that murderous metamorphosis, or sexually frigid like IWZ’s pallid Jessica Holland, in shadow-and-dream atmosphere that recalls Dreyer’s Vampyr and unemasculated Welles films, Irena is haunted by beliefs all too real to her but pooh-poohed by randy psychiatrist Louis Judd (Tom Conway), who, like maritime engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), is bewitched by something beyond her looks.
The woman is mutually taken with straight-arrow Oliver but, once married to him, pleads for patience and understanding while avoiding consummation. As this drags on, the doting husband draws close to coworker Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), who loves him, too. Jealous Irena is drawn to the big cats at the zoo where Oliver first met her. The cage cleaner’s (Alec Craig) repeated forgetfulness is hard to believe, but scenes where she shadows her rival are burned into cinema memory: the stone wall-bordered Central Park pedestrian walkway, menace in the Cooper office and revolving door, and the hair-raising swimming pool sequence. Nicholas Musuraca did the fine photograph apart from brief bits of a black panther (Dynamite) inserted at studio higher-ups’ unwise insistence.
Memorable though less celebrated scenes are the cane fields, the pointed calypso singing (by Sir Lancelot), voodoo ceremony, and opening and closing surf of IWZ. Primed by a current vogue for “primitive” cultures, black arts, voodoo and zombies and owing much to William B. Seabrook’s The Magic Island, the brisk sixty-nine-minute screenplay is based on an “original story” but is in fact a re-setting of Jane Eyre.
In snowy Canada, RN Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) accepts a position caring for an invalid woman amidst the Caribbean palm trees of Saint Sebastian. The nurse’s voiceover introduces the story and fills in background a year after the fact, now that she has learned to believe in what sugar planter Paul Holland/Brontë’s Rochester (Conway again) has rejected as arrant superstition, that is, the living dead controlled by an oungan priest as opposed to the fever- and madness-induced catatonic state of his living-dead wife Jessica/Bertha Mason (Christine Gordon).
The story is widened by spiteful rivalry between Paul and alcoholic half-brother Wes Rand/Bertha’s brother (James Ellison), by suggestions of incestuous love, and by mother Mrs. Rand’s (Edith Barrett) secret which may be true or no more than what she believes to be true. Spiced with the native good sense of maid Alma (Theresa Harris) and some humor as in Alma and Betsy’s horse sense, this film also depends on a feeling of unseen dread, on atmosphere, and on J. Roy Hunt chiaroscuro photography, on composition and the use of shadows and unexpected angles.
Last, and least, of the director and producer’s three collaborations, adapted from a Cornell Woolrich novel, is The Leopard Man. Set in border-town New Mexico, it is at once a pedestrian crime movie and, here different from that, a noir in its sensibilities and technique.
Lacking the dream-reality cinema-poetry of the first two, the sixty-six minutes is no more than an entertainment couple (manager Jerry Manning and club performer Kiki Walker, by Dennis O’Keefe and Jean Brooks) turned detectives. A black leopard (the return of Dynamite) escapes from Charlie How-Come’s (Abner Biberman) sideshow and appears to be killing local young women in the deserted streets and a locked cemetery.
The cat’s freedom is the result of Manning’s PR brainstorm, so, not legally guilty but feeling responsible, he consults animal-expert biology teacher-turned-museum curator Dr. Galbraith (James Bell, also a misguided man of science, Dr. Maxwell, in IWZ) and begins to have doubts about Sheriff Rubio’s (Ben Bard) version of events. Again, there are the faintest of psychosexual overtones, but the culprit is early obvious to the viewer, and the tale is not distinguished above the pack of similar ones.
Two classic hits out of three is impressive. Scorsese, who “presented” Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows and a display of whose film-poster collection accompanies this exhibition, has spoken of “smuggling” meaning and innovation into highbrow low-budget genre efforts. Drowned out of late by hype, noise, names and computers, such films are all the more to be treasured.
(Released by RKO Pictures and rated "R" by MPAA.)