Tag Archives: I Walked with a Zombie

The Films of Val Lewton: Cat People

[My father] was a kind of hack, but he enjoyed the challenge that came with turning hack work into something special, to take an impossible thing and do something with it. There is a sort of pride in being a whore. He saw a certain honesty in being able to make a living.” —Val Edwin Lewton, Jr.

Despite years of marginalization and an unfortunately brief body of work, Val Lewton—born Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon in what is now Ukraine in 1094—has become key figure in America cinema. He began his artistic career as a novelist before entering filmmaking, his first credit coming in the form of “revolution sequences arranged by” in MGM’s A Tale of Two Cities. From there, he became the head of the horror unit at RKO Radio Pictures, where he amassed a truly unique body of work.

Save for two pseudonymous writing credits on Bedlam and The Body Snatcher—for which he assumed the name Carlos Keith, a moniker he often used when writing pulp novels for Vanguard Press in 1932—Lewton was credited solely as producer on each of his films. Of course, historical record and years of critical analysis prove Lewton was no mere producer; but there remains a unique relationship between Lewton, the key author of his films, and his directors, who, in any other circumstance, would be considered the key author.

Val Lewton

The first three films Lewton created for RKO were in collaboration with Jacques Tourneur, a director who belongs in the annals of cinema history but who has only recently received the sort of critical evaluation reserved for the greatest of filmmakers. Together, Lewton and Tourneur made three films: Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and the The Leopard Man (1943). Collectively, these films signify a certain way of thinking about and creating horror films. As a producer, Lewton was never concerned with making movies that relied solely on cheap and predictable B-movie gimmickry. Psychological nuances exist below the narrative of each film and reveal themselves in ways that are at once disarming. He understood that genre cinema, though seemingly conventional given its instilled guidelines, was capable of eliciting real emotion and tackling pertinent social issues.

Cat People, aside from being grade-A entertainment in lieu of its B-level status, is a watershed moment for Lewton in addition to being a key text in the Tourneur oeuvre. For Lewton, the film marks the beginning of a superlative if pithy producing career, as well as the introduction of the imperative “Lewton Bus” technique (more on that later); for Tourneur, Cat People is a sort of thematic harbinger for his later work—the hero’s aversion to European customs in Berlin Express; the gap between art and fashion in Nightfall; the actual appearance of cats in Way of a Gaucho, Stranger on Horseback, and others—in addition to being a crystalline summation of his early short films, incorporating aspects of The Face Behind the Mask, The Ship That Died, and the What Do You Think? serials.

It tells the story of American man (Kent Smith) who marries a Serbian-born fashion artist (Simone Simon). Their idyllic relationship is put to the test by Simone’s belief in an ancient curse she’s carried down from her ancestors, which causes her to turn into a evil panther whenever emotionally or physically aroused. This puts an obvious strain on their marriage, but Smith makes matters worse when he assumes Simon is simply delusional. Before long, he falls for his more conventional co-worker (Jane Randolph), sending Simon into a jealous furor.

Lewton’s films were often poorly advertised and rarely represented what the films were actually about.

Lewton possessed great savvy as a producer. Considering the restrictive nature of working in B pictures, he made any would-be limitation work for him rather than against him. When literally forced to make a film about people who turn into cats—RKO demanded he make a movie called Cat People before a script had even materialized—let a lack of funds and resources fall by the wayside and instead created mood and intrigue via clever imagery and ambiguous narrative technique. With the help of Tourneur, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, and editor Mark Robson, Cat People became a veritable clinic in mood and tone, incorporating elements of sound design, expressionistic lighting, and elliptical editing as means to avoid actually having to show scenes of Simon turning into a panther.

The now-famous pool scene featured in is perhaps the most sterling example of how Lewton could take simple scenarios and craft moments of pure cinema from them. In the scene, Randolph takes a dip in an indoor pool. Having already begun her courtship with Smith, Randolph is unknowingly being stalked by Simon, who follows her into the pool room. Here, Randolph’s fear of Simon and her supposed curse manifests itself in the film’s mis-en-scene. The waves from the pool bounce and radiate off the walls of the room, yet Musacara’s evocative and highly contrasted cinematography is never compromised. Additionally, the sequence features an intricate sound design that places the viewer deep within the scene. Each noise leads to second-guessing: what first sounded like a guttural growl is revealed to be a car in need of an oil change; the splashing of the water could just as easily be muffled footsteps.

The other key scene in Cat People is, of course, the “Lewton Bus” sequence. As Randolph makes her way home, here (justified) paranoia is again manifested in the intricate sound design and editing. What sounds like the low growl of an approaching predator is revealed to be the sound of an approaching bus, but the real kicker is the blending of a panther’s growl and the vehicle’s breaks. The primacy of sound in Lewton, even in his manipulation of it, renders it inseparable from his images, an inherently expressionistic stratagem he’d only perfect with subsequent films.

The atmosphere of the scene is a heightened version of what permeates each of the Lewton/Tourneur films. In other instances, the films are deeply psychological and play more like horrors of the mind. In Cat People, the character of Irena is deeply rooted in her past. As a result, many of the characters in the film are intimidated by her exoticness. These themes of cultural fear and distrust are expounded upon in I Walked with a Zombie, which flips the premise of Cat People and sees the milquetoast Betsy at odds with mysterious and bizarre surroundings. Additionally, the concurrent boundaries between rationality and skepticism seem to mar the characters and their ability to interpret the situations presented in the narrative. These boundaries are specific to each film, such as the space between human and animal (Cat People, The Leopard Man) and the living and the dead (I Walked with a Zombie), but each speak to Lewton’s preoccupation with the unknowable.


Jacques Tourneur’s Killer-Dog

The short films Jacques Tourneur made for MGM (almost two dozen of them, in total) represent a tapestry of the underrated auteur’s crystallizing style. Though they range in quality, each film proves to possess unique qualities that ultimately provide deeper insights into his artistry.

Arguably the best of the bunch is Killer-Dog, a simultaneously tender and intense film about a dog named Major who is wrongly accused of killing sheep. Via a typically nimble tracking shot, Tourneur opens the film in the courtroom as Major is led out to face his trial. From here, we flashback to the time Major first met his owner, the young and precocious Betty Lou. It’s in this flashback that we also learn of Major’s past, namely his peaceful, collie mother and his vicious, wolf-dog father who, himself, is caught killing sheep and put to death. One morning, after sneaking out of Betty Lou’s open window in the middle of the night, a neighboring farmer (the same one who put Major’s father to death) reports that two of his sheep have been slaughtered, pinpointing Major as the perpetrator. Back in the present day, the judge obliges a recess so that Major may prove his innocence, which he does after saving the farmer’s sheep from the real attacker, a vicious coyote who had been stalking the grounds.

Killer-Dog’s story ­is largely dictated by a voiceover performed by Pete Smith, who narrates the film’s action and provides context for the viewer. Because the literal text of the narration is purely explanatory, much of it feels superfluous. Tourneur’s background in silent film, however, allowed him to put emphasis on the film’s images, some of which rank among his most evocative and deftly orchestrated. In a way, Killer-Dog is Tourneur’s most lyrical film, feature-length or otherwise. The film’s fabulistic tone is at once charming, evoking nothing less than the Aesopica in the way it attributes human characteristics to its animal subjects. That said, the film’s mise en scene grounds Killer-Dog in a decidedly naturalistic setting. As is Tourneur’s wont, he shoots his exteriors in an unfiltered, wide-open fashion. Natural sunlight basks the farm grounds in an idyllic but tastefully unsentimental manner. Conversely, despite accentuating the pastoral beauty of the setting, Tourneur makes sure to provide enough space for the possibility of violence within it. For instance, a particularly sweet moment between Betty Lou and Major is cut down by the sound of an off-screen gunshot that takes the life of Major’s father. As serene as much of the film is, Tourneur takes the appropriate steps to keep the film grounded in its very dire stakes.

Killer-Dog foreshadows the later works Cat People and The Leopard Man, a pair of B-horror films Tourneur directed for producer Val Lewton and RKO. Each film examines the line between humans and animals and, in the case of Cat People, the instinctual capacity for violence present in those with a hereditary predisposition for such behavior. This is a particularly luminous revelation considering the artistry of Cat People (as well as The Leopard Man and a third Tourneur film, I Walked with a Zombie) is largely attributed to Lewton. While it’s fair (and accurate) to label Lewton as the chief creative force behind his numerous RKO pictures, Tourneur’s touches are indeed present. Interestingly enough, for Cat People, Tourneur was able to reverse the roles established in Killer-Dog. Rather than an animal with human attributes, the female protagonist of Cat People possesses animalistic attributes. The organization of these strategies, however, is irrelevant as Tourneur is ultimately much more concerned with the concept of dualism—particularly when it concerns instances of humanity.

Because of its concision and clarity of vision, Killer-Dog ranks among the best short film ever produced by MGM. Tourneur’s ability to establish a number of his thematic and visual preoccupations within the film’s 10-minute run time unboundedly led to the formal and narrative economy that would become something of a trademark later in his career. Working within the short form, it can be said, eventually opened up the breadth of his capabilities as a director and an artist.