Tag Archives: The Leopard Man

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.

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Notebook 3: Prometheus/At Sea/Color/Palaces/Moonrise/Dreamer

A few notes on some recently released films:

Prometheus

Prometheus (Ridley Scott, U.S., 2012): So much of this film has already been said and written that it seems somewhat pointless of me to share my two cents, so I’ll keep it brief: Prometheus is a good movie and the sort of escapist cinema that’s actually worth watching. The story isn’t nearly as smart as it think it is—the ideas it explores are no more intellectual than the kind teenagers explore the first time they do ‘shrooms—but I found the film valuable for its classic approach to setting and characterization: The Fordian approach to archetypes, plethora of studio or otherwise handmade sets, and reliance on genre are all tropes of Ridley Scott, who, after the abysmal Body of Lies and Robin Hood, appears have a spring in his directorial step.

Unlike some people, I wasn’t bothered by the obvious holes and ramshackle plotting in the script. Yes, it didn’t make much sense, and yes, not everything was explained in a neat and tidy fashion, but the central theme here is one already explored far more successfully in Jacques Tourneur films like The Leopard Man and Night of the Demon—namely, Dana Andrews’ assertion that “it’s better not to know.” If the film ends unsatisfactorily from a narrative standpoint, it’s in service of this theme and this theme entirely. Personally, I welcome this sort of ambiguity, even at the expense of logic and particularly when it comes in the form of a Hollywood blockbuster, where plotlines are painfully cut and dry. [B]

Two Years at Sea

Two Years at Sea (Ben Rivers, U.K., 2011): Perhaps more than any other contemporary filmmaker, Ben Rivers stresses the importance of an image: The emotions they sustain, the information they share, the language of their form, and the vitality of their presence. His newest film is Two Years at Sea, which is his first feature length film after working entirely in the short form. Like most of his work, it blurs the line between documentary and fiction, but in a way that’s far less conceptual—and gimmicky—than it sounds. It chronicles the day-to-day of a Jake Williams, an elderly man who’s sequestered himself away from society and spends his days in a dilapidated hut in the middle of the Scottish countryside.

The film unfolds with the greatest of ease. It’s entirely dialogue-free and follows only the slightest of narratives, but its use of sound, light, and composition create a story all their own. Two Years at Sea is a portrait, in the purest sense of the word—an impressionistic reverie that evokes a sort of introspection I find unique to Rivers’ style. Throughout the film, I found myself reconciling with Williams’ way of life; whether or not I agreed with it; whether or not I thought he had all the answers or none at all. Of course, the point of the film isn’t to answer any of these questions, but the way Rivers is able to carve such deep avenues of thought from seemingly innocuous images is both a rare gift and true feat. [A]

The Color Wheel

The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry, U.S., 2011): Here’s a unique case: A film that’s so hilarious yet beleaguering, formally precise yet crudely amateurish, and intellectually stimulating yet thematically burdensome that even after a second viewing, I’m still not sure exactly where I stand with it. What I do know is this: The Color Wheel is unlike any movie to be released in a decade—at least of those that I’ve seen. It follows a stylistic logic all its own and makes no apologies as it ambles between classic road comedy, absurdist chamber drama, and psycho-sexual diegesis.

That said, I’m still not sure how much I like the movie. Its reliance on intersexuality, usually cited as one of its greatest strengths, places it squarely within a reoccurring and increasingly tiresome trope of contemporary indie filmmaking. Perry has made no allusions to the film’s sampling of Phillip Roth and Jerry Lewis, but rather than contextualize these influences via theme or characterization, they’re used more like footnotes, or, to put it bluntly, an excuse for Perry to wax intellectual on what he learned as a clerk at the lauded Kim’s Video.

I can see why this would impress and even stimulate some viewers, particularly the kind of people who enjoy conversations about art and cinema that equate to little more than a dick measuring contest—”Oh, you’ve seen this movie? What about that movie?” “I own the Region 2 copy of that movie and have seen it more times than anybody every”—but these are by far the least interesting elements of The Color Wheel. What makes the film great and possibly important is the way it makes zero apologies for whatever it is it’s trying to do. There isn’t a feeble or unnecessary scene in the whole thing—even when Perry reaches for moments he hasn’t earned (I’m speaking of the climactic scene, in particular)—which can’t be said for most films, independent or otherwise. [B+]

Palaces of Pity

Palaces of Pity (Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt, Portugal, 2011): The opening sequence of this enigmatic parable begins with the lines “The country has changed, but we are the same,” muttered by a wealthy old woman who’s watching her teenaged granddaughters run drills in an empty soccer stadium. We soon learn that one of these granddaughters—either Ana (Catarina Gaspar) or Margarida (Andreia Martins)—are directly in line for her inheritance, although grandma’s yet to decide on who it will be. Rather than focus on the conflict of this scenario, the goal of the narrative is to contextualize history as an ephemeral and ethereal ghost story. In addition to her wealth, grandma is intent on passing down Portugal’s violent past: A flashback takes us back to the Portuguese Inquisition and we see the grandmother—portraying some sort of high-ranking official—condemning two gay men to burn at the stake. It’s within this symbiosis of past transgressions and contemporary malevolence where the characters find themselves, and, additionally, where Abrantes and Schmidt harvest their thematic concerns. Also, fire, as it turns out, winds up having a distinct roll in the film’s climactic moments.

Palaces of Pity is daring in its concept, but at the same time, there’s something very derivative about it—it evokes the loose narratives of Manoel de Oliveira and the diaphanous characterization of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but to fairly diminished returns. That said, the film is outright gorgeous to look at. The way Abrantes and Schmidt blend long shots with medium close ups, as well as images of the actors and images of landscape, are quite inventive. Their eye for composition, as illustrated in the shot above, also cannot be undervalued. [B-]

Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, U.S., 2012): The director who inspired a thousand shitty Halloween costumes returns with this touching, hilarious, and deftly realized fantasy about two twelve-year-olds who fall desperately in love and set out to start a new life together in the woods of their island town. Full disclosure: I’ve had my fair share of qualms with Anderson in the past. Though I have admiration for Bottle Rocket and consider Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums two of my very favorite films, his output from The Life Aquatic to The Fantastic Mr. Fox felt, to me, less like a director moving forward with his craft and more like a director content to rest on his creative laurels. Richard Brody has since come to the defense of Anderson’s oeuvre, essentially stating that to love one Anderson film, one must love all Anderson films. I’m not sure I agree with the logic, but I understand the sentiment: Anderson’s filmography is one of stylistic unification, a veritable tapestry of moods and colors that are truly unique to him. So ingrained in his style are his films that the style has become inseparable from the text, which strikes me as both remarkable and infuriating.

That said, Moonrise Kingdom feels to me a culmination of years of work, a true step forward in the sense of what Brody calls the “intensification of [his] characteristics, or even just their more explicit revelation.” It may very well be his best film, and I think that’s thanks in large part to his subjects: The aforementioned star-crossed lovers. Anderson’s films have all featured adults as their main characters (or young adults, in the case of Max Fisher), but they often suffer from an arrested development that renders them childlike. In Moonrise Kingodm, his two main characters are, in fact, children, which I suppose made them easier to sympathize with. But make no mistake: These are acutely Andersonian characters—in fact, they’re highly reminiscent of Richie and Margo Tenenbaum, and I imagine the short-lived excursion to the Natural History Museum detailed in their film played out quite similarly to the one Sam and Suzy embark on in this film.

Like all Anderson films, their visual and literal text are imbued with cinematic history. Watching his films is like playing a game of Cinephile Bingo. In this film, there are touches of Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (particularly in the scenes set on a the beach), Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants, and Francois Truffaut’s The Wild Child. Something I noticed this time around: Anderson’s famous pans and tracking shots are usually attributed to Orson Welles, but aside from the film’s opening sequence—an exhilarating overture that magnificently sets the tone for what will follow—not much else felt particularly Wellesian. Instead, I sensed a great deal of Brian de Palma in the way he used his camera. Perhaps I’m wrong in this, but I couldn’t see past it. [A]

I Have Always Been a Dreamer

I Have Always Been a Dreamer (Sabine Gruffat, U.S., 2012): Sabine Gruffat‘s visual essay examines the cycle of urbanization, using Detroit and Dubai as examples if its lowest and highest points, respectively. Video essays are an interesting from in that they’re entirely subjective. While many documentaries strive for objectivity—an ultimately impossible endeavor given the conscious efforts of a filmmaker to show certain images—film essays function as the exact opposite: They encourage and require the personal touch of the director and don’t possess any sort of formal or conceptual “rules.”

Gruffat illustrates this by eliminating talking head interviews and experimenting with synch sound. She’ll often show images of herself talking with an interviewee, and rather present what he or she said, simply relay the information as she interpreted it. The result is a highly personal, daringly original survey of two cities that share more in common than meets the eye. For me, the most interesting aspects of Gruffat’s film were the way she juxtaposed each city’s financial wealth with its cultural wealth. Dubai has the benefit of billions of dollars on its side but appears to be culturally bankrupt. There’s a deep infatuation with all things American—its materialism and its consumerism, primarily—but any true form of expression on behalf of its residents is stymied at every turn, such as a photographer who makes good money taking commercial photos of resorts and apartment buildings but keeps his highly political and highly disobedient art prints a secret in order to maintain his business. Meanwhile, in Detroit, the city’s funds are more or less nonexistent but its citizens enjoy certain freedoms those in Dubai do not, such as one person’s efforts to run an arthouse movie theater in an abandoned high school.

Gruffat intertwines the political and the personal in often profound ways, but never quite takes the steps to make any assured proclamations herself—never quite takes full advantage of the film essay style. She shares a unique relationship with each city and I wish she had explored that further. [B+]

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.