“It was once the figurehead of a slave ship. That’s where our people come from. From the misery and pain of slavery.” ~ I Walked with a Zombie
The difference between narrative and poetry — two categories that frequently overlap — is one of emphasis. Narrative emphasizes characters and events. Poetry emphasizes atmosphere and imagery. The 11 films Val Lewton produced for RKO in the 1940s1 are distinguished by their emphasis on atmosphere and imagery. In other words, Lewton produced (credited) and co-wrote (uncredited) films that are essentially and intentionally poetic. Insofar as it is a dark poetry, haunted and fatalistic, Lewton deserves acknowledgment as one of the most influential original creators of what we now call film noir.
No matter who is credited as the director, writer, or cinematographer of these features, there is a remarkable consistency of look, theme, and tone — a Lewton style. One of the hallmarks of that style is Lewton’s repeated use of a single image that sums up or encapsulates the meaning of the film as a whole. Here are some examples.
CAT PEOPLE (Jacques Tourneur, 1942)
To say that Cat People’s Irena (Simone Simon) is half woman/half cat is only to scratch the surface of her internal divisions. Underlying the division between human and animal is that between the Christian and the pagan, symbolized by a small statue of King John of Serbia (above) that Irena keeps in her New York flat. King John, according to the film, is the warrior hero who drove the wicked — witches, pagans, and devil worshipers — from his homeland, the wicked represented by the cat impaled on the warrior-king’s spear.2 However, we learn later, the wicked still survive, hidden underground somewhere in the hills of Serbia, just as Irena’s pagan animal side still survives, hidden somewhere inside Irena.
The statue also represents an opposition between the masculine and the feminine, the spear being an obvious masculine symbol — echoed in the film by the sword-cane carried by the villainous Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) — and the cat being a traditional symbol of femininity. The statue further represents an opposition between solar (daytime) rationality and lunar (night time) irrationality. Lewton underlines these oppositions in the film’s credit sequence showing the King John statue (Christian, masculine, rationality) in the foreground, and a painting of a sinuous black panther (pagan, feminine, irrationality) in the background, on top of which is superimposed a quotation from the fictitious Dr. Judd:
The words of Dr. Judd (whose name suggests an Anglicized amalgamation of Freud and Jung) must, however, be taken with a grain of salt since, as the film reveals, he is a practitioner without scruples or ethics, one who attempts to cure his patient, Irena, by raping her! Thus, the King John statue ultimately stands for what the film is really about — the oppression of femininity.
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)
If I Walked with a Zombie seems the most poetic film in the Lewton cycle, it is because it is the richest in imagery. The film’s setting, a Caribbean island, is even more atmospheric (more exotic) than Cat People’s New York, and hardly a minute goes by without some new evocative image appearing on screen. However, as in Cat People, one image dominates — a statue that the island’s Black inhabitants refer to as “Ti-Misery” (see beginning of article). Betsy (Frances Dee), a Canadian nurse brought to the island to care for the wife of a white plantation owner (Tom Conway) immediately recognizes the statue as a figure of Saint Sebastian, a Christian martyr who was famously bound to a stake and shot full of arrows (recalling Cat People’s impalement motif). However, an island native informs her, “It was once the figurehead of a slave ship. That’s where our people come from. From the misery and pain of slavery.”
I Walked with a Zombie, on its surface, is a film about a white family’s confrontation with voodoo and zombieism. Underneath, it is about how the present is haunted by the historical sins of the past. As William Faulkner wrote (also with slavery in mind), “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
In Zombie, as in Cat People, Christianity and modern science oppose ancient beliefs. White patriarchy is continually questioned and undermined. Where Cat People was fundamentally a film about an oppressed gender, Zombie is a film about an oppressed race.
THE LEOPARD MAN (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)
The Leopard Man, set in a New Mexican border town, offers the most abstract example of Lewton’s symbolic statuary, a ping pong ball balanced on a jet of water in a café fountain (above). As in Zombie, a local, Dr. Galbraith (James Bell), explains to the out-of-towner protagonist (Dennis O’Keefe) what it all means: “We’re a good deal like that ball. We know as little about the forces that move us and move the world around us as that empty ball does about the water that pushes it into the air, lets it fall, and catches it again.”
However, like Dr. Judd in Cat People, Dr. Galbraith is not to be trusted. The statement is certainly true of him. He turns out to be a serial killer — the so-called Leopard Man of the title3 — driven by forces he doesn’t understand. Kiki (Jean Brooks), the woman who finally identifies and defeats him, does so by taking her fate into her own hands, intentionally offering herself to the killer as bait.
MADEMOISELLE FIFI (Robert Wise, 1944)
Mademoiselle Fifi is not in any sense a horror movie. Like Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, it is a story of occupied France, and of a woman (Simone Simon) who — unlike the collaborators around her — demonstrates her love of country by resisting and finally killing a sexually aggressive German officer. The twist is that the story takes place during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, not World War II — which certainly didn’t make the film any less effective as wartime propaganda. The screenplay was based on two stories by Guy de Maupassant, “Mademoiselle Fifi” and “Boule de Suif.” The latter story also provided the basis (uncredited) for John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). As in Stagecoach, where a cross-section of society looks down on the prostitute who shares a stagecoach with them, in Mademoiselle Fifi a cross-section of middle- and upper-class French coach passengers, all collaborating with the Germans in one way or another, look down on the “little laundress” (Simon) who will eventually prove to be the truest patriot among them, inspiring others.
The symbol that encapsulates the meaning of the film is a statue of Joan of Arc covered by a tarpaulin (above). On its most obvious level, the covered statute is a metaphor for the oppressed French people. Significantly, however, the statue is one of a woman and, combined with the film’s depiction of German occupiers exploiting French women sexually, it becomes another Lewtonian symbol of oppressed femininity.
ISLE OF THE DEAD (Mark Robson, 1945)
In Isle of the Dead, set during the First Balkan War of 1912, a Greek general (Boris Karloff), accompanied by a young reporter (Marc Cramer), takes a break from the war to visit the island where his wife is buried. At the island’s portal, guarding the island as it were, is a statue of a three-headed dog (above). No one in the film ever gives the repeatedly shown statue a name, but viewers familiar with Greek mythology will recognize it as Cerberus, the three-headed hound who guards the gates of Hades to prevent those who have crossed the river Styx from escaping.
In a sense, then, the general and the newspaper reporter have returned to Greece’s mythical past that the dog statue, with its three heads and Medusa-like collar of snakes, embodies. As in Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, the film is structured around an opposition of modern science and ancient belief. This is made explicit when a plague breaks out among the island’s few inhabitants, everyone is quarantined, and a resident archeologist (Jason Robards, Sr.) makes a wager, “The doctor can use his science, and I’ll pray to Hermes, and we’ll see who dies and who is saved.” Naturally, neither the doctor nor the archeologist survives. Ancient belief becomes even more of a factor in the story when an old woman convinces Karloff’s character that the film’s healthy young heroine (Ellen Drew) is actually a vorvoloka, a kind of vampire who survives by draining the life force of others. This ancient superstition eventually obsesses the general to the point of murderous psychosis.
So the dog statue conveys a double meaning. On the one hand it suggests the domination of old world paganism, and on the other, the domination of death. A third meaning is suggested by the general’s nickname, “The Watchdog” (he is absolutely ruthless in defense of his country), directly identifying him with the dog statue. As Karloff observes in his distinctively sibilant voice, “He only guards the dead. I have to worry about the living.” After the mad general fails to kill the woman he thinks is a vorvoloka4 and lies dead on the ground, a surviving character speaks the film’s final line, “He was trying to protect us,” and the film dissolves from the general to the statue, linking the two visually.
- Sometimes celebrated as the “Lewton horror cycle” — which unfairly excludes the two fine non-horror films in the series, Mademoiselle Fifi and Youth Runs Wild. [↩]
- Some sources claim that Cat People’s King John is a fiction. However, there is a statue of a similar figure — a warrior on horseback holding up a spear with a cat impaled on it — standing right now in San Francisco’s City Center. [↩]
- In typically ambiguous Lewton fashion, “Leopard Man” also refers to the innocent owner of the escaped leopard. [↩]
- Yet another Lewtonian representation of patriarchal authority attempting to suppress femininity. [↩]