A year after RKO released Citizen Kane (1941) to strong reviews but disappointing box office, the studio’s new production chief adopted the credo “Entertainment, not genius” and hired Val Lewton (1904-1951) to produce a series of low-budget horror films for easy profit. RKO supplied Lewton with outlandish titles (he thought I Walked with a Zombie especially vexing) and instructions to keep budgets under $150,000; beyond that he was free to indulge his taste for literary detail and refined craftsmanship. “Our formula is simple,” Lewton told an interviewer. “A love story, three scenes of suggested horror and one of actual violence. Fadeout. It’s all over in 70 minutes.” The very immateriality of Lewton’s “suggested horror” offers a kind of insight into its essentially interior quality: an unshakeable apprehension of death’s hold on life colored by melancholy and morbidity—a state of mind akin to William James’s “sick soul.” Writing from the point of view of those so afflicted, James posed the question underlying all of Lewton’s dreamlike productions: “If the natural world is so double-faced and unhomelike, what world, what thing is real?”
Lewton himself came from another world, emigrating from Russia as a young boy with his mother and sister. His aunt, the silent-screen diva Alla Nazimova, secured work for Lewton’s mother as a story reader at M-G-M; both women later encouraged Lewton’s writing and undoubtedly served as models for the many independent female characters found in his films. After years of working as a contract author—writing social realism, murder mysteries, even pornography—Lewton was hired as a story editor by David O. Selznick in 1934. The young man’s solicitous nature made him a soft touch for the notoriously demanding producer, but Lewton’s eight years with Selznick proved invaluable experience in the business of ushering story to screen. Following the runaway success of Cat People (1942), Lewton’s RKO debut, Selznick sent his protégé a congratulatory note that would set the tone for many subsequent appreciations: “I know no man in recent years who has made so much out of so little as a first picture.”
Of course Lewton’s legendary resourcefulness wouldn’t be worth mentioning if the shadows weren’t so voluptuous, the elliptical turns of plot so enticing. The contours of Lewton’s house style owed much to his early collaborators, especially director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. From the very first picture, when a stalking panther lurks unseen in the shimmering reflections of a swimming pool, beauty and terror figure as two sides of the same coin. “That luminous water,” a character murmurs in I Walked with a Zombie, “it takes its gleam from millions of tiny dead bodies, the glitter of putrescence.” That the films themselves should be similarly entranced with this specter of death seems especially remarkable given their era. If RKO’s meager budgets afforded Lewton a unique degree of creative control, perhaps it was the horror genre that provided him cover from the Office of War Information’s program of patriotic optimism (it was Tourneur who observed that “During war, for some mysterious reason, people love to be frightened”). Film noir broached a related form of isolation, but the mood of quiescence was particular to Lewton.
Indeed, many of the films’ most intensely lyrical passages seem to underscore a distinct lack of human agency—a heavy hook swinging uncontrollably on a ship, two men shuffling a corpse onto an empty subway train, the blood of an innocent girl seeping through her mother’s front door. More often than not, Lewton’s bit players and peripheral details seem more substantial than his curiously blank romantic leads. In the recesses of plot we find the indelible visions of despair that scholar Alexander Nemerov describes as Lewton’s “icons of grief”: the woman confronting Simone Simon in a Serbian restaurant in Cat People, the statuesque guardian of the voodoo ceremony in I Walked with a Zombie, the tubercular neighbor in The Seventh Victim,the mute sailor in The Ghost Ship, the street singer in The Body Snatcher, the gilded youth of Bedlam. These figures only appear on screen in passing, and yet their nearness to death leaves an indelible mark.
"I think that few people in Hollywood show in their work that they know or care half as much about movies or human beings,” observed James Agee in 1946, and today we may still find ourselves caught off guard to discover such precise characterizations and poetic effects waiting behind a title like The Curse of the Cat People. Lewton’s career ended in disappointment, but his five years and eleven films at RKO represent one of the most remarkable streaks in movies, undeniable evidence of the creative role of the producer and a high-water mark for the B-picture. – Max Goldberg, writer and frequent contributor to cinema scope
Special thanks: Todd Wiener, Steven Hill – UCLA Film and Television Archive; Lynanne Schweighofer – Library of Congress; Daniel Bish – George Eastman House
Film descriptions by Brittany Gravely, Max Goldberg and Haden Guest
Directed by Jacques Tourneur. With Simone Simon, Tom Conway,
US 1942, 35mm, b/w, 74 min
An auspicious debut by any measure, Cat People provided a much-needed hit for RKO and Lewton’s ticket to creative freedom. The picture seems remarkable today not only for its justly famous horror set-pieces but also for its intimate portrait of a woman’s irreconcilable fear of her own deepest instincts. Simone Simon stars as a Serbian-born fashion artist shadowed by an old-world curse transforming women into panthers at the first sign of desire. Kent Smith plays her woefully unprepared suitor, the romantic non-entity of a thousand 1940s movies (“I can’t understand her because I’ve never been unhappy), Jane Randolph his co-worker and obvious match, and Tom Conway, in the first of many roles for Lewton, a lecherous psychoanalyst. The plot unfolds in zoos, swimming pools, offices, apartments – everyday spaces imbued with dark recesses and uncanny detail, “interiors” in the fullest sense. Print courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Directed by Gunther V. Fritsch and Robert Wise. With Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph
US 1944, 35mm, b/w, 70 min
The Curse of the Cat People would seem definitive proof that RKO didn’t know what they had in Lewton: how else to explain the studio’s outlandish publicity schemes (“Stencil paw prints leading to your theatre”) for one of cinema’s most perceptive treatments of child psychology? Typically, Lewton responded to the economic calculus of a Cat People sequel with a sensitive rethinking of the film’s characters: Oliver and Alice are now married with a young daughter given to daydream. Desperate for a friend, the girl is granted a Madonna-like appearance of Simone Simon garlanded in snow. The film trusts the girl’s private vision, and yet we understand her father’s angry denial: he is plainly traumatized by the loss of his former wife and worries that his daughter is captive to the same ill-begotten spell. The same play of shadow and dappled light that conceals terror in Lewton’s other films here opens to the child’s delicate inner life. Print courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Directed by Jacques Tourneur. With James Ellison, Frances Dee,
US 1943, 35mm, b/w, 69 min
Lewton’s second film with director Jacques Tourneur borrows from Jane Eyre in its conception of a romantic plot burdened by the past, but the Caribbean setting and remarkably serious treatment of Voodoo rituals and the ruins of slavery are wholly original. Frances Dee plays an innocent nurse hired to care for a sugar plantation owner’s somnambulant wife. “Everything seems beautiful because you don’t understand,” warns the husband on the initial voyage. Perhaps the most alluringly elliptical of Lewton’s RKO films, I Walked with a Zombie registers less as a linear narrative than as a collection of feverishly beautiful passages, each inching towards a suitably entrancing vision of death in life. The speechless sequence of Dee’s nurse leading the somnambulant woman through fields of sugar cane towards the drums of a voodoo ceremony is generally regarded as the pinnacle of Lewton’s style, with Jacques Tourneur’s graceful camera movements cutting through the reeds as if impelled by forces unseen. Print courtesy of Warner Bros.
Directed by Robert Wise. With Simone Simon, John Emery, Kurt Kreuger
US 1944, 16mm, b/w, 69 min
Lewton longed to escape his RKO-built horror chains with an adaptation blending two short stories by Guy de Maupassant, “Boule de Suif” and “Mademoiselle Fifi.” Mademoiselle Fifi is the nickname for the despicable Prussian officer who holds up a coach filled with a sampling of hypocritical bourgeois, a priest, a revolutionary and a working-class laundress sensitively and subtly portrayed by Cat People’s Simone Simon. Taking place in France during the Franco-Prussian War, the setting provides a candid counterpart to World War II, yet approaches the concepts of occupation and collaboration with more delicacy than most Hollywood propaganda pictures. Simon’s proud, patriotic Elizabeth must compromise her morals and entertain Fifi for the sake of both her snobbish coachmates as well as her own townspeople and only receives abuse or obliviousness in return. Imbued with the same civility and moxie of the “little laundress,” Wise and Lewton made the most of their period piece with the lowest costume budget on record at the time. Though Elizabeth is able to exact her revenge, Lewton’s beguiling literary departure disappointed at the box office and he was thus banished to the Isle of the Dead.
Directed by Robert Wise. With Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell
US 1945, 35mm, b/w, 79 min
Adapted from a Robert Louis Stevenson story, with Lewton finally allowing himself a screenwriting credit under his old pseudonym Carlos Keith, The Body Snatcher presents a characteristically detailed rendering of Victorian Edinburgh and the 19th century medical college. Boris Karloff follows Isle of the Dead with another naturalistic performance, this time as a mordant cabman who supplies a top doctor with all-too fresh cadavers. Ever intrigued by the conflicting impulses of reason and passion, Lewton quotes Hippocrates for a closing epigram: “All the roots of learning begin in darkness and go out into the light.” The Body Snatcher excels in giving supple form to that darkness: in the long shadows of the operating room, a street singer’s haunting disappearance into the night, and the spectacular collapse of the enlightened mind.
Directed by Mark Robson. With Richard Dix, Russell Wade, Edith Barrett
US 1943, 35mm, b/w, 69 min
Long withheld from circulation because of a baseless plagiarism charge, The Ghost Ship was hailed as Lewton’s hidden masterpiece when it was revived in the 1990s. A simmering Hitchcockian conflict between an authoritarian captain and greenhorn officer occupies center stage, but Lewton’s predilection for sharply drawn bit players finds ideal expression in the ship’s crew. Most memorably, a mute sailor played by Skelton Knaggs whispers on the voiceover about fate and death as he sharpens a gleaming knife. The scenes of horror are no less haunting for their cold plausibility: one crewman is swallowed by a coiling anchor chain after the captain has blocked his exit from the compartment. Director Mark Robson takes full advantage of the ship’s angled sightlines, with a constant shroud of fog lending the picture a ghastly, if not ghostly, air. Print courtesy of Warner Bros.
Directed by Mark Robson. With Boris Karloff, Ellen Drew, Marc Cramer
US 1945, 35mm, b/w, 72 min
RKO pushed Boris Karloff on Lewton as penance for straying from the horror genre with Youth Runs Wild and Mademoiselle Fifi, but the producer went against the grain in casting the Frankenstein icon in a naturalistic role as a world-weary general in the Greek War of 1912. When a plague breaks out on a small island populated by expatriates and superstitious locals, the unnamed military man commits himself to enforcing a quarantine order to the point of madness. Lewton was disappointed that the film’s spiritual essence – “an acceptance of death as being good” – was lost in what he described a “hodge-podge of horror,” but a series of tracking shots through corpse-strewn battlefields modeled on Goya’s The Disasters of the War powerfully evokes the specter of catastrophe hanging over all of the producer’s RKO films. Print courtesy of Warner Bros.
Directed by Mark Robson. With Kim Hunter, Tom Conway, Jean Brooks
US 1943, 35mm, b/w, 71 min
The subterranean flavor of all Lewton’s films is strongest in The Seventh Victim, his first production without Jacques Tourneur directing and arguably his most personal expression of a melancholic fascination with death. There is an elliptical story concerning an innocent girl trying to rescue her sister from a band of Greenwich Village devil worshippers, but more than ever Lewton proceeds by exploring the edges of the plot, imbuing seemingly insignificant bit parts and locations with extraordinary psychological intensity. The occultists are revealed to be little more than a bullying social club, but that still leaves the sister’s depression and the bare room with a noose she needs to live. The final urban nocturne reveals the city as the set of a waking dream, an endless series of blind alleys and back doors that poet John Ashbery saw as “[capturing] the weird poetry of New York in a way that few films have ever done.” Print courtesy of Warner Bros.
Directed by Mark Robson. With Bonita Granville, Kent Smith,
US 1944, 16mm, b/w, 67 min
Feeling trapped by his remarkable success with horror and supernatural subjects, Lewton asked permission from RKO to produce a topical subject, a film about juvenile delinquency, an issue of renewed concern during the war years when many feared that the absence of fathers, and often mothers, in the service would leave children neglected and prey to bad influences. Crisply directed by Lewton-regular Mark Robson and boasting a laconic yet sensitive script by celebrated Los Angeles novelist John Fante, Youth Runs Wild offers a fascinating glimpse into daily life during wartime told largely from the perspective of disaffected teenagers. While Youth Runs Wild is often dismissed as a minor and anomalous entry in Lewton's oeuvre, the film's unplaceable yet simmering sense of unease is as vivid as his better-known works. In response to negative comments from the US State Department, RKO heavily censored Lewton's cut – removing a scene in which a teenager murders his abusive father – causing Lewton to disown the film.
Directed by Mark Robson. With Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, Billy House
US 1946, 35mm, b/w, 80 min
Narrowly inspired by William Hogarth’s painting of the same name, Bedlam’s caustic depiction of 18th century London is suffused with Lewton’s distaste for studio politicking. In spite of a larger-than-usual budget, the film doubles down on its identification with the spurned and cast-out (Lewton went as far as outfitting Anna Lee in one of Vivien Leigh’s backup dresses from Gone with the Wind, a picture he advised against when working for David O. Selznick). Boris Karloff plays Master Simms, a bourgeoisie who connives to climb the social ladder by amusing the landed gentry with abject displays of the asylum inmates under his control. “I would not want to be a dull man forever in need of entertainment,” Lee’s actress snaps at her patron, a harmless yet blithely amoral lord standing in for innumerable studio executives. Completed only days after V-J Day, Bedlam proved Lewton’s final RKO production. Print from the collection of George Eastman House.
Directed by Jacques Tourneur. With Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks
US 1943, 35mm, b/w, 65 min
Adapted from Cornell Woolrich’s novel Black Alibi, the New Mexico-set story is set in motion when a nightclub entertainer loses her grip on a black leopard being employed as a publicity stunt – a Freudian accident never resolved in this most dreamlike film. Three women are killed, but the promoter responsible for the leopard’s escape begins to suspect a human killer behind the seemingly impersonal deaths. Lewton and Tourneur’s final collaboration evinces little interest in the mechanisms of the whodunit, instead developing the peripheral detail of the city’s streets towards a radically de-centered narrative structure in which the plot jumps from one character to another. “This film still seems to be one of Hollywood’s original gems,” wrote Manny Farber in 1952, “Nothing impure in terms of cinema, nothing imitative about its styles, and little that misses fire through a lack of craft.” Print courtesy of Warner Bros.