Shadowplay: The Horror Films of Val Lewton, Part One

❉ Glen McCulla explores writer Val Lewton’s seminal work as producer in charge of RKO’s horror unit…

“We tossed away the horror formula right from the beginning. You can’t keep up horror that’s long sustained. But take a sweet love story, or a story of sexual antagonisms, about people like the rest of us… and cut in your horror here and there by suggestion, and you’ve got something.” – Val Lewton on ‘Cat People’ (1942)

Val Lewton was born Vladimir Ivanovitch Hofschneider in Yalta – then part of Tsarist Imperial Russia, later Ukrainian Crimea, now… er… disputed – on the 7th of May 1904 to moneylender Max Hofschneider and Nina Leventon (sister of noted actress Alla Nazimova [born Adelaida Yakovnevna Leventon], one of Hollywood’s first openly bisexual performers and coiner of the coded phrase “sewing circle” to refer to groups of lesbian or bisexual actresses), a Jewish couple who converted to Christianity. 1904 was a pretty good year for future legends of the horror genre, also seeing the births of Peter Lorre (nee Laszlo Lowenstein, born on the 26th of June) and Terence Fisher (who had debuted on the 23rd of February).

Travelling to the United States with his mother and sister May of 1909, Lewton stayed for a while at the residence of his famous aunt in Port Chester, New York, and attended New York Military Academy before going through a number of jobs such as department store elevator operator and society reporter for Connecticut newspaper The Darien-Stamford Review – a position from which he was fired in 1920 for fabricating a story about kosher chickens.

“I earned a reputation as one of the world’s worst reporters”, he later recalled about his prioritisation of fiction over fact.

Turning to writing fiction under a number pseudonyms such as Carlos Keith and Cosmo Forbes, Lewton would see his stories find publication in such varied outlets as Weird Tales (his were-cat story ‘The Bagheeta’, its theme prefiguring Cat People, was published in the July 1930 issue and used his phobia of the feline animal to create an eerie atmosphere), Cosmopolitan and New York Times Magazine. Expanding his oeuvre from the short form to the novel, Lewton penned No Bed of Her Own in 1932. The book, a pulp noir following the trevails and trials of its female protagonist Rose Mahoney through the Great depression, was a smash hit and would be adapted that same year to film as No Man of Her Own starring Carole Lombard (though concerns on Paramount’s part about the censorious Hays Office snipping the celluloid to ribbons resulted in a final screenplay that dropped much of Lewton’s racier content).

No Man of Her Own (Paramount, 1932) Lobby Card.

The following year, he published Grushenka: or, Three Times a Woman anonymously to avoid criminal charges over the erotic novel’s sexploitation as the blue book (purporting to be a true autobiographical account smuggled out of Russia and translated into English) relates the life of a Russian peasant girl with a taste for the sadomasochistic making her way up in the world through leather and the lash.

Failing to make a living solely as an author despite the success of the first book, Lewton – like Frankie – went to Hollywood to take a job offer (secured through his mother’s family and friend connections) to write a suitable screen treatment of his Ukrainian countryman Nikolai Gogol’s Cossack classic Taras Bulba for producer David O. Selznick. Though Lewton’s toil to adapt the novel would bear no fruit and the picture not produced, Selznick took him on as his assistant at the rate of $75 per week and gained his first screen credit – alongside future collaborator Jacques Tourneur – as an arranger on the second unit revolutionary sequences of the 1935 Ronald Colman-starring A Tale of Two Cities before making additions to the final screenplay for Selznick’s opus Gone with the Wind.

In 1942 Lewton was signed up by RKO Radio Pictures (for whom his mentor Selznick had served as executive producer on King Kong a decade previously) for $250 per week. The studio was facing serious financial troubles after a series of box office failures including Orson Welles’ troubled production The Magnificent Ambersons saw them teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and so incoming studio head Charles Koerner, seeing the success (and, more to the point, profit) of Universal Studios’ second wave of horror movies such as 1941’s lycanthropic legend The Wolf Man, appointed Lewton as producer in charge of RKO’s horror unit.

The unit’s output would be strictly B features, and Lewton was given three stipulations to which he must adhere – no film’s budget would run over a maximum of $150,000; the running time of each picture should not exceed 75 minutes, and the front office would mandate the titles to which Lewton and his script unit would tailer their screenplays. The first title bestowed upon him by Koerner was Cat People, much to Lewton’s chagrin; the pulpy horror of the name appalling his sensibilities and casing him to determine to produce something that pulled against the obvious Wolf Man ripoff expectations it might evoke.

Opting to make a ‘suspense picture’ rather than a horror film – despite porting over a chunk of ideas from Curt Siodmak’s Wolf Man script including the whirling vortex flashback/dream sequence at the film’s midpoint – Lewton, director Tourneur and editor Mark Robson (on only his third feature film assignment after uncredited cutting duties on The Magnificent Amersons and Stanley Logan’s The Falcon’s Brother) crafted a subtle masterclass in slow-building chills.

“We tossed away the horror formula right from the beginning” said Lewton. “You can’t keep up horror that’s long sustained. But take a sweet love story, or a story of sexual antagonisms, about people like the rest of us… and cut in your horror here and there by suggestion, and you’ve got something.”

Writer DeWitt Bodeen (who had been signed up by Lewton on the strength of his stage play on the Bronte sisters ‘Embers at Haworth’) penned the scenario of Serbian emigre fashion artist Irena Dubrovna (French starlet, and let’s brave the obvious pun – sex kitten, Simone Simon) who via a meet-cute before the panther enclosure at the zoo crosses paths with all-America man about town Oliver Reed (Kent Smith, who as well as playing a character named Ollie Reed shares his real name with the familiar off-screen moniker of seventh Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy – that’s three actors for the price of one).

Reed’s everyday run-of-the-mill existence working for the Copper chandler company – though with a name like that, they really ought to decide whether they build barrels or boats – alongside his team including Alice Moore (Jane Randolph, who played the role of Marcia Brooks in a brace of Falcon pictures including the aforementioned The Falcon’s Brother) and the wisecracking ‘Doc’ Carver (Alan Napier, later to butle for Adam West’s Batman as faithful retainer Alfred) is disrupted by the arrival of the mysterious and sensual Irena with her aura of sadness and shadowy past. Their frought courtship goes ahead, despite their wedding celebration in a Serbian restaurant being marred by the strange presence of a cat-like woman (Elizabeth Russell, sister-in-law of Mourning Becomes Electra‘s Rosalind) who approaches Irena and calls out to her as a ‘sister’.

When the new Mrs Reed’s terror of intimacy and consummating their marriage turn out to be due to her folklore-based fears of her passions transforming her into feline form, Ollie brings in the urbane sword cane-wielding psychiatrist Dr Louis Judd (Tom Conway, the Falcon’s brother himself) to try and alleviate Irena’s cat complex but her mounting jealousy over Ollie’s friendship and blossoming romance with the wholesome blonde Miss USA type Alice – in opposition to Irena’s dark and sultry European otherness – leads to her terrors being confirmed as she sheds her human form to stalk Alice in two rightly famed sequences… Firstly Ms Moore is walking in the park late at night, and hears something move round in the dark – the sound of Irena’s clicking high heels walking behind her in the shadows replaced by the padding of panther paws; as Alice speeds her walk to a run, constantly glancing behind her to try and catch a glipse of her persuer, the rapid cutting mounts the tension until it is broken by a jump scare of the sudden jarring cat-like hiss of a bus’s brakes as it comes to a halt in front of her (“It made people jump out of their seats” as Robson noted).

The second sequence is of Alice taking a relaxing solo dip in the underground swimming pool of her apartment block only for the lights to cut out and leave her frantically treading water in the darkness as the rasping growls and snarls of a large cat can be heard circling round her (the shadow on the wall actually being the backlit fist of screenwriter Bodeen). A triumph of suggestion and atmosphere and the value of the implicit over the explicit, Cat People (“a fantastic story” according to the Monthly Film Bulletin) would be the cornerstone of Lewton’s film career and cement him as the master of underplayed menace.

In October that same year, Lewton was handed his next title – that of I Walked with a Zombie, taken from an article by newspaper columnist Inez Wallace chronicling her experiences with Haitian voodoo. Unthrilled by the story as it stood, Lewton determined to craft it into a “West Indian version of Jane Eyre” (and for someone like myself who is a devoted Brontesaurus as much a s a horror addict, the concept of ‘Jane Eyre with zombies’ is deliciously irresistible). The screenplay by The Wolf Man‘s Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray – an intimate acquaintance of Dalton Trumbo referred to Lewton by editor Mark Robson – concerned Canadian nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee, taking over from the originally cast former Gainsborough starlet Anna Lee) who is given the opportunity to exchange the snowy Ottawan winters for the sun-dappled palm trees of the Carribbean island of St Sebastian to care for the invalid wife of a plantation owner. Her dreams of living most her life in a tropical paradise are swiftly sundered on the sea voyage when first encounters her emplyer, the urbane and Byronic Paul Holland (it’s the man again, Tom Conway) who swiftly disabuses her of her marvelling over the beauty of the scenery by describing the island and sea around it as a place of decay where beaty dies young. He’s quite goth, this dude.

Arriving at Fort Holland, the plantation grounds adorned by Ti-Misery (a wooden relief of the martyrdom of St Sebastian himself pierced by arrows [memo to self: get round to watching Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane one of these days] from the ship that brought the African slaves to the island chained in misery), Betsy finds an oppressive atmosphere of gloom where “births are mourned and merry made at funerals” – a stirring hotbed of resentment between Holland and his younger half brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison) borne from past actions and jealous rivalry in love that have led to the present somnambulant vegetative state of the patient, Mrs Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon).

As Betsy’s sleep is disturbed by the sounds of weeping in the night and the distant drums from the jungle voodoo rituals, she sees the catatonic Jessica walking abroad at night, a spectral pale figure in her flowing white dress and long flaxen hair, more ghost than living being. Befriending the mother of the house Mrs Rand (the then-Mrs Vincent Price Edith Barrett, only two years older than Conway paying her older son, and three years younger than Ellison playing her youngest), Betsy learns of the prayers granted by Damballah and determines, guided by her bourgeoning feelings for Paul, to try to have Jessica restored to her former self; braving the forest at night and encountering the looming cadaverous zombie Carrefour, guardian of the crossroads (Darby Jones), Betsy finds that Mrs Holland’s state is no mere medical matter and that she genuinely is one of the walking dead.

Artfully directed once again by Tourneur and cut by Robson, I Walked with a Zombie is a dreamlike fairy tale of desire and death limned with chiaroscuro shadows. Released in April of 1943, this lyrical poem of a film was another hit for Lewton’s shoestring budget fright factory that transcended a mixed opening reception (despite being hailed as “spine-chilling”) to become an acknowledged classic in the canon of terror, and all this plus a song (‘Shame and Sorrow for the Family’) by renowned calypsonian Sir Lancelot and an impishly humourous legal disclaimer (“Any similarity to actual persons, living, dead, or possessed is purely coincidental”) that would be aped by future filmmakers such as John Landis in his 1981 An American Werewolf in London.

Hot on the heels of its completion, the now seasoned team of producer Lewton, director Tourneur and editor Robson teamed up once again with screenwriter Wray who had been handed the Cornell Woolrich (who, under the nom de plume William Irish, penned the short story ‘It Had To Be Murder’ – later adapted for the big screen as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece Rear Window) novel Black Alibi to adapt along with the stock schlocky studio-mandated title The Leopard Man.

Transferring the action of Woolrich’s novel from its South American locale to New Mexico, the movie opens with the insistent and seemingly ever-present percussive sound of castanets as a tracking dolly shot snakes its way through the back corridors of a nightclub and introduces us in turn to Spanish dancer Clo-Clo (Mexican-born actress Maria Margarita Guadalupe Teresa Estella Castilla Bolado y O’Donnell, better known by the more manageable mononym Margo) and singer Kiki Walker (the intriguing and tragic Jean Brooks; born Ruby Matilda Kelly, the bilingual actress was credied as Robina Duarte in a number of Spanish language films and appeared alongside Tom Conway in a number of entries in The Falcon series before her tempestuous home life and alcoholism torpedoed her career. She would die of liver cirrhosis and complications from a long-term eating disorder in November 1963, at the age of 47).

Kiki’s manager and fiance Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe) arrives with a surprise – a black panther (the feline star of Cat People, Dynamite) that he’s rented from local Pueblo sideshow man Charlie How-Come (Abner Biberman). The pair hit on the notion of Kiki making a grand entrance leading the leopard on a leash to upstage her rival Clo-Clo, a gag that tragically backfires when the indignant dancer spooks the big cat with a barrage of castanet clicking that causes the panther to break loose from its lead and escape into the night, mauling a waiter on the way. Not concerning herself with the resulting panic, Clo-Clo leaves the club that night and walks home along the moon-dappled streets followed by another of Tourneur and director of photography Robert De Grasse’s prowling tracking shots. After Clo-Clo has a brief encounter with fortune teller Maria (Isabel Jewell) in which she draws the ace of spades – read ’em and weep: the dead man’s hand again – from her prognosticative pack, she passes by the home of young Teresa Delgado (Margaret Landry) and the camera stops here, moving away from Clo-Clo’s story to bifurcate off and follow Teresa like a Pulp Fiction segue.

When Teresa is sent out into the encroaching dark by her mother on a late-night errand (to buy the cornmeal for tortilla shells for their supper before her father comes home from work), she embarks on a terrifying voyage through the night pursued by the sound of the hungry leopard – Tourneur and De Grasse conjuring a fear through shadowplay and soundscape greater than any visual viscera as the young girl is stalked and finally slain right outside of her home – her screams to be let in suddenly silenced as her blood runs beneath the door. As terror and panic grip the small town in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s 1931 opus M and the police and citizens forming posses to seek for the blood of the panther, Manning consults with Dr Galbraith (James Bell) – a zoologist turned museum curator who possesses a special insight into large wild cats. The body count, however, rises as first the wealthy young lady Consuelo Contreras (Finnish actress Tuulikki Paananen) and then Clo-Clo are slaughtered in a similar manner to young Teresa and the tensions in the community rise to fever pitch; Manning begins to suspect that the two more recent killings may be the work of a human murderer while Galbraith and the police insist the animal is soleley to blame.

When Charlie How-Come informs Jerry and Kiki that the leopard has been found shot dead in the creek outside town, and that it appears to have been dead for days, Manning’s suspicions of Galbraith and his obsession with wild cats and the relics of the pre-Conquistador naive population’s worship of them leads to setting a trap at the museum with Kiki as bait for the killer – Galbraith’s mild-mannered professorial facade suddenly dropping as he switches off the lights to become a menacing shadow stalking the singer before he is shot and killed. Among the earliest portrayals of the phenomenon of the serial killer in US film, The Leopard Man (its tagline asking “Is it man-like beast or beast-like man that picks only beauty as prey – and why?”) was released to puzzled and indifferent reviews with Bosley Crowther of the New York Times dismissing it as “a feeble and obvious attempt to frighten and shock the audience with a few exercises in mayhem” but has been assessed much more positively over recent decades, with its exploration of mankind’s animal within and masterful use of shadowed suggestion to prompt the viewer’s imagination extolled by Exorcist director William Friedkin on the film’s DVD audio commentary.

The Leopard Man would sadly be the last collaboration between Lewton and Tourneur. Tyhe latter would go on to to make the classic 1947 noir Out of the Past (a.k.a. Build My Gallows High) at RKO’s A-unit before moving on to a career including giving Dana Andrews the runes in the 1957 all time horror great Night of the Demon (alias Curse of the Demon – “It’s coming… it’s in the trees!”) and working with genre stalwarts Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone and Lewton collaborator (but more on that to come) Boris Karloff on 1964’s The Comedy of Terrors.

For Val Lewton, however, his best work at the RKO B-unit of chills was still yet to come…


❉ A new 2K digital restoration of ‘Cat People’ (1942) was released in the UK on Blu-Ray in 2016 by Criterion Collection. RRP £21.99. CLICK HERE to buy from BFI Shop. ‘The Val Lewton Collection’ Region 1 DVD Featuring Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, a 2007 documentary by Kent Jones, is currently out of print.

 Glen McCulla has had a lifetime-long interest in film, history and film history – especially the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror. He sometimes airs his maunderings on his blog at http://psychtronickinematograph.blogspot.co.uk/ and skulks moodily on Twitter at @ColdLazarou

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