“Lewton’s deep faith in humanity quietly waits for the smoke to settle so it can step in and start patching up the wounds.”
With the October 05 release of the Val Lewton DVD Box Set, a key link in the evolution of cinema finally exits its noir shadows and stands tall and ready to be absorbed fully into the lexicon. This set of nine horror/film noir hybrid (noirror?) pictures, made during WW2 or soon after, were all filmed on the cheap in RKO back lots with mostly contract players, and they are all still ahead of their time. It’s not just their oft-praised visual poetry and use of the imagination that keeps them so relevant, it’s how they actively look for, and sometimes even find, a noir solution to the social problems other noir directors merely address and mythologize. For all the praise heaped on Double Indemnity (1944) or The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) for their sly critiques of sexual and familial crises, such films at best offer catharsis via expression of social issues in the form of a “good story.” Lewton on the other hand manages to address all the pertinent issues of noir — the threat of feminine sexuality, the rise of corporate culture, the dehumanization of the big city, the whole phallic fallacy family — and not just cathartically mythologize via pulp fiction trappings, but actually find solutions to the problems.
Of his first four RKO films, Cat People and I Walked with A Zombie (both 1942) are the most written about and analyzed, while The Leopard Man and The Seventh Victim (both 1943) are often overlooked, yet it is in these films that Lewton took his big narrative gambles, peering into a collective wartime psyche suffering from ideological breakdown (mirrored perhaps in Jung’s break from Freud). The war offered a great chance for women to climb onto previously prohibited rungs of the social structure (while the men were “over there”), but for the men who stay back home there is a distinct feeling of being emasculated. Lewton’s women could be bold and assertive and still be good guys; the men had to learn to be “sensitive” without getting homicidally bitter about it (killing was for Europe, not for New York).
Traditional Hollywood film noir had no place for male compassion, outside perhaps of wartime patriotism. If there was a sensitive guy around he was either queer or in need of a good slapping. Tough guy detectives solved the case because of their curiosity or “maybe because they didn’t like being pushed around.” At any rate they always needed a reason — a Pearl Harbor — if you will, before joining the war. A sensitive guy would never have been able to handle doing nothing about Hitler invading Poland. The bar of American heroism was set so low that grown men wept in admiration when Humphrey Bogart’s character finally got his head out of his ass and decided to stand up to the Nazis in Casablanca or To Have and Have Not.
In The Leopard Man, even the minor characters are vividly etched, they burble over with compassion and character, and when they die, no matter how small their role, their absence leaves a small hole in the weave of the film. So why in comparison are the characters in most noir films, indeed in most “popular culture” films in general, so clichéd and unsympathetic? Outside of the austere transcendentalism of Bresson, Dreyer, or Ozu or the life-affirming ensemble pieces of Renoir, it’s hard to find “real” people in cinematic works of “genius,” and the work of these non-American auteurs are hardly “popular” culture if for no other reason than that most Americans hate subtitles. So, for the genius director who entertains in a Hollywood tradition, where are the forgiveness and hope? Where is the healing hand that lets a noir antihero mend the error of his ways before he’s fatally shot?
Perhaps the psychology of cinema genius is inherently self-centered, and the most it can do is hate itself by way of apology. We can all agree that Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, and Magnificent Ambersons are works of genius, but what are they about? They are about rotten, spoiled people who we’re supposed to feel sorry for when they die all alone. It takes a very level-headed and generous Hollywood artisan to pull off the hat trick of being entertaining and “healing” without being corny. You can count them on one mangled hand: Hawks, Ford, Lewton. Of these, only one has an oeuvre that is so deeply rooted in film noir and the wartime American psyche as to be emblematic of it. Standing unobtrusively amidst the murder and noir shadows, Lewton’s deep faith in humanity quietly waits for the smoke to settle so it can step in and start patching up the wounds. It’s in this wound-patching that the films become so re-watchable — they heal the tortured mind of the viewer. At first the soft-talking heroines of The Seventh Victim and I Walked with a Zombie seem painfully open to attack from the dark forces of the noir universe, but as the films progress we realize goodness make them invulnerable. It is the horror/evil element — being doomed from the start — that finally deserves our pity.
In Lewton’s films, the horror/evil element stands at an abstract crossroads where psychiatry, the unconscious, and their exterior manifestation — the supernatural — fade into one indistinguishable form. The supernatural always “exists” in these film, if not in our consensual reality then in a reality that is just as valid, if not more so. As Patrick Harpur notes:
Our trouble is that we have been brought up with a literal-minded worldview. We demand that objects have only a single identity of meaning … When the preternatural breaks in upon us, transforming the profane into something amazing, we are unequipped for it … Instead of countering like with like — that is, assimilating through imagination the complexity of the image presented to us — we feebly telephone scientists for reassurance. We are told we are only “seeing things” and so we miss the opportunity to grasp that different, daimonic order of reality which lies behind the merely literal.1
The need to have an objective scientific explanation for inexplicable events can so dominate the characters of horror and science fiction films as to bring the narrative to a standstill. (“But darling, vampires don’t exist, it’s a lot of superstitious baloney!”) Since Lewton’s monsters never come all the way out of the shadowy closet, there is no need for a representative of the social order to step in and declare the monster “real.” In fact, the best he can find for a patriarchal signifier is Tom Conway’s slippery Dr. Judd, who appears in both Cat People and The Seventh Victim and is much too busy keeping attractive women under his protective care to do much signifying. The best he can manage is to suggest that the unconscious is not that big a deal, which is like assuring a frightened child that monsters “only come out at night.”
This unease about either manifesting or denying the supernatural is one of the root sources of Lewton’s healing power, and if we can incorporate some biographical history of the man, it becomes clear that the noir undertones of his work can be read in relation to his employment at RKO, his fear of being fired and his fear of dying.
His stories would probably never have been as interesting were it not for their bizarre genesis: The RKO brass gave him the titles in advance, and he could make whatever kind of film he wanted, so long as the title fit the story. They didn’t tamper at all with his creative decisions, but this freedom was contingent on his films making lots of money. Thus the American notion of freedom always includes the noir-esque contingent that you might be fired from your job at any given moment, or as Sylvia Harvey puts it, “being forced to work according to the goals and purposes of someone else (is what) accounts in large measure for the feelings of helplessness and alienation in film noir.”2 Crazy titles like The Leopard Man or I Walked with a Zombie are hung around the highly literary Lewton’s neck like populist stones, preventing him from doing the “long-haired” literary adaptations he’d undoubtedly prefer. This combination of popular chiller and highbrow culture created the sort of B-movie that would inspire Godard to similar hi/low alchemical syntheses in films like Alphaville and Pierre le Fou. But Godard’s youthful flippancy and independence from studio bosses keep these films stranded in satirical artsiness. The deaths in Lewton’s films are “felt” as real, because death was walking high and mighty in the world at the time, and Lewton and company needed a way to deal with it. In the Lewton documentary that accompanies the DVD box set he is described as living in a constant state of dread over the thought of dying or being fired from RKO. This dread is not escaped from in the movies he makes, but addressed and overcome, again and again, and that is one of the secrets of their endurance.
Filmmaking is a group project, and Lewton’s loyalty to his crew is well documented, as is his risking his own job (and the chance to make “A” films) in keeping them employed and promoted. One of the things that binds a film crew together is the way they collectively are thrown into a surreal world where time is “captured” and dragged to a veritable standstill. One can literally relive the same moment over and over again in the editing room, or on the set shooting multiple takes. Lewton’s dread of the future suits this “slowing down” of time perfectly, and could be what inspired him to invest each moment of the film with detail and life. Characters hurry through the dark sets, and linger in the lighted ones, knowing what awaits them once the scene changes.
The story of The Leopard Man revolves (literally) around a series of four women who navigate the complex sociological space of an under-populated New Mexico town, and are threatened and/or murdered by an unseen force. A leopard escapes when a club promoter, Jerry (Dennis O’Keefe), rents it for his girlfriend Kiki (Jean Brooks) to use in a nightclub act. Her rival, a fiery dancer named Clo-Clo (Margo), spooks the leopard by taunting it with her castanets. It kills a young girl, then strikes again, and again, but wait, is it the leopard doing the killing or a man? Jerry has a hunch it’s a man, but why would a man want to just randomly kill women? The local museum curator suggests the individual might have a “kink” in the brain” or as Norman Bates put it, “We all go a little mad sometimes.” Meanwhile the camera roams loose around the sets picking up story threads and dropping them, waiting for the “neutral” Jerry to step in and start playing detective. The sheriff in town is too old and set in his ways to be able to believe in a copycat killer, a sociopath who might be inspired by the leopard’s first killing and want to keep the ball in motion.
The shooting of these films entirely on soundstages creates a spooky feeling that time has stopped. Even on what is supposed to be a city street, populated with a handful of extras, one feels as if they are alone, indoors. When a higher-budget film goes outside to shoot, say on the streets of San Francisco, as in D.O.A. (1950), the claustrophobia has to move inside the characters (via poisoning). But on dark soundstages, using street fronts co-opted from other RKO projects, there is a sense of being trapped even before the killer starts his stalking. This feeling is intensified by the wandering camera movements, which act as almost a double leopard, or ghost leopard, picking up the scent of various stories, and following any girl down the street if she’s alone. When the camera follows a haughty gold-digger like Clo-Clo (Margo) down a dark and desolate street, we are conditioned to assume her goose is cooked. But the Leopard camera has a way of jumping off its assumed narrative dolly tracks. It abandons Clo-Clo repeatedly to find other prey. She becomes a sort of narrative linchpin, the signifier of our preconceived notions of film noir — femme fatale as narrative decoy. We see her walking everywhere, all the time, endlessly defying the death the roaming camera eye predicts via its gaze. But when the camera first latches onto the virginal innocent Teresa (Margaret Landry) and starts shadowing her down the street, this is where the decoy pays off and we realize we are caught in a very carefully laid trap. Suddenly the most experienced horror film viewer is, within the space of a single tracking shot, shoved off the safe path of genre expectation and into a state of genuine despair.
Our hearts were hardened and ready to accept Clo-Clo’s murder, but Teresa is too young and too aware of the threat of death to make her fate seem “deserved,” by any misogynist stretch of the male gaze imagination. She is too young to shake the camera eye off onto someone else; the wandering leopard cam buck stops with her. She is powerless because she is a child and therefore in the control of another older woman who is — like Clo-Clo — oblivious to death, her mother (Kate Drain Lawson) who literally throws her out the door to the wolves (or cat) because her dad wants tortillas when he gets home and they are out of cornmeal. Like Lewton himself, bearing the responsibility of saving RKO from bankruptcy, or timidly dreading the arrival of his former mentor, the demonic David O. Selznik, the child is placed between the Dickensian rock and a hard place of employment under the axe, or the woods.
The sequence detailing Teresa’s journey ranks the film alongside The Night of the Hunter as a masterpiece of capturing a child’s anxiety over its parental dependence. It’s The Boy Who Cried Wolf reconceived as a nightmare of pursuit and maternal negligence. The path she traverses fits the collapsing space geography of a field of dreams/baseball: there is the dangerous world “out there” (the base lines) and the safe space “inside” (on base). Wherever she is, the door to maternal safety is right at her back, but locked (the ability to wake). The store she finally gets the cornmeal from is also a “nest” of safety (second base). When the leopard comes after her, Teresa makes the mistake of dropping the cornmeal. We don’t know why at the time, but somehow we in the audience realize that it is dropping the bag of cornmeal that seals her fate (she’s off the tracks). In the very next shot she is back at her mother’s door, pleading to be let in. Now, in “real” space and time the leopard wouldn’t have let her get so far from the trestle. Thus, the locked door of the mother is presented as outside of the realms of time and space. Her oblivious mother reacts toward the screaming and pounding as if her daughter has only just left and is obviously faking it because she’s too lazy to walk across the street. Plus, she somehow knows that the child is still without the cornmeal!
Most devotees of this movie — such as myself — came to it as kids via UHF television during the creature features heyday of the 1960s and ’70s. The murder of Teresa, her blood running under the door, and the rotten mom’s sudden anguished screams of guilt inspired both dread (we were having nightmares exactly like this) and the obscene jouissance that can only come from making stupid parents suffer. The force of Teresa’s screams and the ensuing “thump” of her body against the locked door felt like a rock-and-roll power chord aimed right at our rotten mothers in the next room, continually coming in to tell us to turn off the TV and go outside and play or up to bed depending on the time.
This passive aggressive wrestling with mother prefigures Hitchcock’s Psycho by 17 years. By then mother is already stuffed, and instead of a leopard uses her taxidermist son, Norman, to do her killing. The parallels between the two films go all the way down to the son/killer himself, a mild mannered “collector” — in Psycho, of stuffed birds; in The Leopard Man, of ancient Indian artifacts. It is this mild-mannered “mama’s boy” serial killer, then, who represents the reverse-pinnacle of modern man’s descent into alienation and madness. In removing all traces of the savage beast from their civilized, effeminate veneers, these collectors unknowingly create the ever-exciting “return of the repressed” via murderous alter-egos.
Old Norman of course needed a Gothic hothouse environment for his madness to bloom, but in wartime there was a genuine nationwide need for the return of the repressed killer in the hearts of all good able-bodied men. Anyone not “soft” or a “tenderfoot” was to join up with the Hitler huntin’ posse down at their local draft board immediately. No one would expect the necessary savagery from a mild-mannered museum curator but they do expect it from the square-jawed hero-by-default, Jerry. Indirectly responsible for setting the murderous chain of events in motion, Jerry feels pretty guilty about it, sure, but when asked to join the posse that is going to hunt the leopard, he glibly backs out by lifting his leg to illustrate that he’s a tenderfoot! Kiki is no better, accusing him of being “soft” when he suggests giving some money to Teresa’s grieving family. As much as they’d like to stay and help out, Jerry and Kiki really have to go to Chicago, folks, and everyone in town needs to understand that, even though they know the town has no one else who understands the sociopathic end product of modernism as much as they do, least of all the kindly but clueless old sheriff.
What eventually stops Kiki and Jerry from leaving and inspires them to risk their lives to catch the killer is their mutual confession. The dialogue where they finally open up to each other could rank with the end of Casablanca if they were just better actors and Claude Rains was around:
Kiki: I’m tired of pretending that nothing bothers me, that all I care about is myself.
Jerry: What else do you care about Kix?
Kiki: You know . . . us.
Jerry: I’m glad you care about us, Kix, sometimes those things get lost.
Kiki: We’ve been so busy trying to play tough guys.
Kiki: Confession? I’m a complete softie. I’ve been conscience-stricken and worried sick ever since that leopard got loose.”
Jerry: If that’s what it takes to make a softie, there’s two of us.
It is Kiki who makes the decision that they will stay and devote their energies to catching the killer. She says, “I want this town to be safe and happy again.” Jerry confesses he is no detective but adds “All I know is I want to do something about all this.” Such selflessness is what makes a difference in the world. If you can’t fight, help sell war bonds, do something! This is not just to absolve one of guilt or to gain prestige or money, but for the selfless joy that comes from wanting to make a town or another person “safe and happy again,” purely because that is what one wants to do. Compare this sentiment with Kiki’s remark to the cigarette girl in the opening scene: “Someday you’ll try on my coffin, and I hope it fits you just perfect,” and Clo-Clo’s subsequent unconscious maneuvering of two other women into the coffin meant for her.
Selfless kindness is what brings Jerry and Kiki back to life as people and helps the narrative move to its close. Up until that point they have been very inconsistent as characters, and it’s that inconsistency that is one of the critical complaints of the film. But from a modernist perspective this sense of unfocused character dispersal works in creating a sense of mood rather than action, of constantly tugging the film toward the avant garde. Characters in the film operate on levels both seen and unseen: dead fathers, statues of dead fathers, live cats, statues of cats, cat impersonators, curators filling in the needed killer role, kindly old gentlemen filling in the role of fairy godfathers, show promoters trying out the detective role. This is not a myth where the femme fatale is embodied in one woman and the hero in one man; there’s a war on and everyone has to share the few archetypes left in the box. Simultaneously, there are not enough actors to go around and the men are in no position to “take over from here.” In fact, there is no here left to take over from, not until all parties sit down and stop trying to pretend otherwise. Once they stop “pretending,” they become real characters and the storyline snaps back to life and out of its modernist sleeping-beauty malaise.
Another key scene occurs when Clo-Clo finally lands the moneyed old gentleman she’s been gold digging for all through the picture. Now in the sanctioned narrative of film noir, this guy should be a chump — either an old drunk played by Guy Kibbee or a yokel played by Ralph Bellamy. Instead we have this amazing actor William Halligan in a scene that prefigures the confession between Jerry and Kiki with its liberating “cards on the table” opportunity:
Brunton: (to waiter) Just a minute. (to Clo-Clo) You ordered this stuff like a sensible girl but you don’t have to drink it. Do you want it, or do you want another beer?
Clo-Clo: (sees he sees her beer planted in the bushes, laughs)
Brunton: (to waiter) Two beers, big ones.
(Time passes as indicated by a shot of his angry daughter and her gigolo boyfriend)
Brunton: When you marry champagne, you can’t trade it in for beer. You’re stuck with it.
Clo-Clo: I don’t understand that fancy talk. You mean I’m a gold digger? Sure I’m a gold digger, why not?
Father: Why not, if you like it? If that’s what you want . . .
She starts raving about houses and mortgages, and he suddenly breaks her hotheaded spell by saying “Drink your beer and don’t get so excited” and they both start laughing. This is a great scene for many reasons, not least being his constant returning to the idea of what she wants, which he never imagines includes himself, outside of some money. This attitude is shockingly unpatronizing and unsexist for the time. The standard for nightclub exchanges between moneyed duffers and bespangled gold diggers was set in stone during the pre-Code depression: either the woman was a bubbly idiot or the man was, and the scene was played for risqué comedy or gangster punch accordingly. Lewton takes our expectations and again uses them against us. This man is a genuine nice guy of the sort they don’t make any more, even in the supposedly liberal modern era. He’s also an amazingly at ease actor, and brings out the best in Margo as an actress. The connection they form in this scene has no precedent; nothing this positive and human has ever happened in a B-movie nightclub before or since.
But unfortunately it is this connection that sets the wheels of her death in motion. She drops the hundred dollar bill he gives her on her way home and then has to go back outside into the dark to retrace her steps, and that’s when the leopard gets her. This mirrors Teresa dropping her cornmeal in the first murder. In each case what will ease the family’s problems is what seals the doom of the individual, independent woman. But her murder is what will finally allow the grinding wheels of time and the plot to resume movement. With the intervention of the kindly Brunton, Clo-Clo coheres out of the modernist fog and becomes a genuine person.
The supposedly “weakest” section of the film is the end, where the curator, Galbraith, is unmasked as the killer and chased into a candle-lit procession honoring the town’s original inhabitants, peaceful Indians slaughtered by the Spanish. As the last of the main characters to be “signified” into a real character, Galbraith needs an avenue by which to get out of the modernist fog and become complete; he needs to confess, but he has no one to confess to, aside from the inanimate panther head carving in his display case. He compares interestingly to Clo-Clo, who, as Chris Fujiwara observes, “cues the narrative transitions between its two groups: the outsiders and the locals.”3 He cues the transition between the present and the past. But Clo-Clo moves and lives freely among the groups of people while Galbraith lives in the museum, alone with an ever-replaying loop of history signified by the inanimate “stuff” he collects and curates. This history does not include him; he has no place within its cultural context. It is only when he is pursued — hunted — and takes shelter within the ranks of the priest-led vigil that the area’s history finally tightens the loop around his neck and yanks him into a recognizable historical context. In assuming the role of the leopard, Galbraith achieves closure with history; the collector has been collected by “stronger forces” and effectively thrown himself to his own lion. That’s a heavy trip to unravel, but it’s far from a weak link. If the psychiatrist from Psycho came in at the end for a little summation (“In a way, Gailbraith is his own leopard.”), perhaps there wouldn’t be such ambivalence.
It’s this ability though, of Lewton’s characters to transcend their genre expectations that makes them resonate and remain contemporary. Lewton’s narrative leap of faith is to suggest that such transcendence is possible for even the most irredeemable noir characters. In all the other films with Stanwyck and Crawford and Turner, the doomed antihero and the sexy femme fatale don’t have a chance; they’re too confined in the genre straitjacket. Even shot and dying in each other’s arms they still can’t open up about their true feelings. Unfortunately, these tight-lipped types are the icons that endure in the annals of cinema. The soft-spoken but resilient figures of Lewton say what needs to be said before the climax of the film. By daring to break narrative tradition, they find a way to turn the inevitability of death or the constant threat of getting fired by studio bosses into a chance to create something true, enduring, and endlessly relevant.
- Patrick Harpur, Daimonic Reality (Enumclaw, WA: Pine Winds Press, 1994) 89. [↩]
- Silvia Harvey, “Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir,” in E. Ann Kaplan, Women in Film Noir(London: BFI, 1984), 39. [↩]
- Chris Fujiwara, Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 2001). [↩]