Val Lewton -- a man whose oeuvre of quite poetic B-movie horrors we knew even in the 80s of Central Jersey suburbia. If his movies were merely subtle and shadowy noir-horror ('noirror'), mere wisps of smoke through the threader, how come even my Journey-crankin' gearhead brother liked Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie too? I taped them back-to-back when they came on WORs Creature Double Feature and we watched them nearly every night one long ago summer, the fan on next to the window, drowning out the crickets, and the harp and frond shadows whistling all around the dark verandas, or growls in eerie WMCA basement pools. Being 16 and an avid reader on old movie books from the local library, I was expecting too much at first, maybe, but the fifth time around even my brother was on board. We 'got' these two classics. They didn't shout and telegraph their emotions, they talked in low, conspiratorial voices, and operated on a level of subtlety that drew us in, leaving us suddenly realizing, as does the lovelorn birthday girl in LEOPARD MAN, that it's gotten dark and we're locked in with some strange deadly force. They chilled the blood but they were also deeply life-affirming --they cooled us along with the fan, neither one ever crossing the line between either 'genuine supernatural' or 'vivid imagination / demons of the mind" --in the process they tapped into a deep dream-like level of involvement - where most horror was like a crazy derelict shouting at us over shrill orchestration, Lewton's movies lured us close, with seductive calming whispers, and then suddenly we realize we're trapped, they have claws deep in our souls. Maybe that was part of their appeal --the low, quiet talking was part of the wartime experience. Loose lips sink ships! The guy on the park bench reading the paper might be a Nazi spy!
It being the war, when it came to horror the thinking at the big studios was that if one must make horror, make it hilarious, so that America might laugh at its Euro-thrashing boogeyman fears. Boris Karloff was on Broadway with Arsenic and Old Lace, and 1942's underrated Boogeyman will Get You at Columbia; Lugosi was chasing the Dead End Kids around moldy Monogram passageways; but at RKO, on the B-lot with Lewton and Tourneur, a new way to exorcise the horror of war was manifesting, a style the both looked forward to film noir and backwards to classic literature and ancient myth, and with a minimalist leave-it-to-your-imagination approach to monsters. The latter was something that we young Famous Monsters of Filmland devotees were initially turned off by, but then later-- when confronted with too many bad monster suits--we finally realized how seeing is never the same as believing; dark black shadow, is itself scarier than any monster hiding within it.
That shadowy minimalism in combination with the quiet whispering and the mostly-indoors filming, and the supernatural--unconscious--power-of-suggestion-genuine supernatural transformation aspects-- give these films a dreamy quality hard to find anywhere else--it makes them seem very personal. Everyone in the world could be wearing I walked with a Zombie T-shirts and we'd still think we were the only one who resonated with its weird dream poetry. It was just some small precious thing that spoke only to us in a 'psssst' sort of conspiratorial whisper, like some girl you meet at four AM outside on a stoop and have an hour-long conversation with in low voice to not wake the neighbor while you share a cigarette (and then you realize she was never even there - just a dream, your anima projected onto the smoke). I'm always amazed when I hear other people say they love these films, for I presume they're my discovery alone, and so perhaps do they.
That's why we fans--especially those who love both film noir and art films as well as horror pics, feel protective of them. I don't like all Lewton's later movies as well as the first four; I think it was a mistake to separate him and Tourneur after the third film, a mistake to start dealing with children (as in Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher), and a mistake to lose narrative steam by getting hung up on polemics on 'authority in tight spaces evoking madness '(GHOST SHIP, ISLE OF THE DEAD). All the tri-corner hats and clattering hooves and smiling coachmen (BEDLAM, BODY SNATCHER), make me feel like I'm being dragged through Colonial Williamsburg as a bored, thirsty kid with aching feet (an experience which left me with a lifetime aversion to period pieces and the smell of horses). For Lewton was clearly losing interest in horror per se, and whereas before he brought the classics to contemporary horror, now he was just bringing B-budgets to period piece classics, sliding in a lot of death and sadism in the margins and hoping the suits wouldn't give him shit about the more 'literary', less supernatural stretches Tourneur had been gone long enough that there was no longer real shadowy noir poetry to Lewton films by the end, just 'literature' which meant frickin' horses, children's diseases, and oil lamps
The later Lewton would have no doubt done an actual Jane Eyre instead of I Walked with a Zombie, for example. If only the executives in their infinite wisdom didn't give him such easy literary titles as Body Snatcher and Bedlam! Better they got weirder and more prosaic like The Thorned Glove of the Time Traveler or I was a Voodoo Vampire.
All of which is a tortuously long preface to the discovery of two 'sort of' Lewton films made by RKO's other B-units but using many of the same people, same actors, crew, sets, props and ghostly mythopoetic flavors and signifiers from the first four films (all from 1942-1943) in the Lewton RKO series. When I've run the Lewton circuit and got to have more, and am eyeing the Bedlam, Body Snatcher last gasp with grim countenance, I'll turn to these instead. By comparison, over on RKO's A-lot, Orson Welles' Journey into Fear (1943) is a more enjoyable Welles film (with its 'Mercury' title fonts and expressionist angles and Welles himself ) than one he actually directed, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).
With Welles running riot in one area, and Lewton and Tourneur quietly making B-list perfection in the other, RKO in 1942-3 must have been quite a place; there was also, in 1942-3, Tom Conway as the Falcon in a string of popular B-pics, and some of RKO's own attempts to jump on the wake-of-Arsenic bandwagon. So it's natural I guess that there was plenty of cross-over both in front of and behind the camera, with--in some lovely instances--crossover in sets, writers, and tone.
So here are two I have found and folded into my Lewton box, if you get my meaning. None of this will mean much to people not in love with the breezy interiority of I Walked with a Zombie. Or--as that snotty Helen says in Cat People--I'm afraid of all this is dull for Irina.
It won't be for you though, will it? Shhhhhh.
THE FALCON AND THE CO-EDS
(1943) Dir William Clemens
In addition to cast, font and mood, the figure of a gloomy fragile-doomed poet hangs over both this film and Lewton's fourth, The Seventh Victim. All three of them are from 1943, and two were written by Ardel Wray, a mysterious poetic figure who seems clearly to have modeled these fragile doomed poets on himself, possibly exorcising some doomed poet at odds with the RKO B-movie system.
Throughout Co-Eds a dreamy psychic student named Margueritte, with a dead composer father--supposedly similar in temperament to the dead poet (but more famous), keeps having premonitions of death and voices whisper to her in the wind to kill herself. We hear what she hears, and the ghostly sound mixing in these portions--the way the whispers blend with the wind--is amazing go-crazy stuff, and for a supposedly grounded mystery, handled with tact and open-mindedness towards the supernatural, mirroring that of Lewton's films, wherein the real and the vividly imagined merge into a poetic realism (i.e. Irina is a cat and a frigid hysteric in Cat People; Jessica is a zombie and a casualty of tropical fever in I Walked with a Zombie).
Tom Conway seems to have been quite busy amidst the RKO B-lots, for in 1943 alone he was in three Falcons and two Val Lewton pictures (Seventh Victim and I Walked with a Zombie) addition to starring as The Falcon. Zombie has doomed poet type too, his character's younger brother, a drunk nursing an undying crush on his brother's sinful wife Jessica, and blaming his brother for her condition.
Like Lewton, Conway was born in Russia (St. Petersburg) to a wealthy family that fled the Bolsheviks. Conway when he was 13 at the time, the family bringing with them with barely any of their vast fortune. Lewton's family left Russia earlier, but moved to Germany, so then they fled Hitler). Looking at Cat People now I realize that it is not really my favorite Lewton film anymore - it lost some esteem when I lost my own virginity (and stayed human). But whether the curse is real or not, I'm a huge fan of Conway's lascivious Dr. Judd. I'll grant you he doesn't really buy into her story and he should, because he's already losing his chance to get her on the rebound, but then it's too late; one certainly can't hold it against him if he turns up the following year after supposedly being torn up, to go around pimping Jean Parker and pissing off more poets in The Seventh Victim.
Here are some more similarities
Lots of WomenCuzza the war. With women doing so many of the jobs usually taken by men it's imperative to remember while war's mean and women suffer at the hands of soldiers and blah blah but once the smoke clears, especially if if you have non-invaded secure border homefront its a great time for feminist advances. With a good percent of the able-bodied men wiped out, let's say, the surviving sixes can get nines like never before. That's part of the noir fantasia we so love in The Big Sleep for example, all the hot available lady cab drivers, librarians, book store managers, etc. We think 'oh how novel!" now, but these films reflect a very real facet of life at home during the height of the war (just as the noir era--men returning home, armed, to find some louche mule kicking in their stall - Bang! Bang! Noir is born).
Astute viewers will also notice the school's main stairwell (built for Welles' AMBERSONS and used regularly by the B-unit, including the school in the beginning of SEVENTH VICTIM, which could well be the same school in CO-EDS if they got a mellower dean) with the stained glass behind it; evidentally thrifty Lewton and his art director found much good pickens in the wake of Welle's dollar-intensive bomb.
Alas, Jean BrooksJean Brooks, one of my least favorite actresses from this or any period but she was in three Falcon movies with Conway, and two back-to-back with Lewton. In other words no 1943 RKO B-picture unit was safe from her buzzkill presence. Look at her above there, at left - those frown lines from hell --seeming to be pimping out lovely but trapped Rita Corday to a concerned but horny Lawrence. Hell, you know me, I love most all women but Jean Brooks makes me furious. Was she around to make Shelly Winters and Bette Davis seem beautiful by comparison? Every time someone calls Brooks beautiful I imagine the lines were written long before she was cast. I just do not get why she's in these films --she's short, boxy, and dour. She's safely long dead from smoking and alcoholism and had no kids, so I don't expect any hate mail on this call. If you disagree, fine. But your glasses are dirty and your hearing is bad, for her voice is not as music.
For example: her sudden evil arrival onto the scene of the drama class that the Falcon is crashing is torturous - up to then we've had lyrical a capella three part jive harmony from the Ugh sisters, a giggling but spot on recitation of Romeo's soliloquy and so forth - Brooks wades into the scene like Margaret Hamilton at the Oompa Loompa-munchkin reunion bash, snarling viciously at the girl who, at any rate has the words memorized because she's reciting them with a wink in her voice, she's going to fail her. or telling the Ugh sisters they can be in the talent show until "they're grown up," when they're harmonies are super-dope, then viciously balling out a girl for not wanting to wield a sword after she has a premonition of death and 100% of her premonitions have come true. Brooks is the anti-anima, the shrew the Falcon, who usually cuts through crap like butter, is obligated to pretend is attractive, like if Shelly Winters trundled into the idyllic A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946 - below right) girl's residence hall to grab David Niven away from Kim Hunter.
I might be harping on this point so let me macroscope outwards, for in total, CO-EDS is a damn good picture, the missing link RKO crossroads between Lewton's horror unti, the Falcon mystery series, and--in wartime cozy spirit--the Powell-Pressburger movies (notably MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, and CANTERBURY TALE) it explores the girl school milieu in a perfect idyllic space of 'not a girl / not yet a woman' femininity. Lawrence never seems tempted by all these colorful young starlets throwing themselves into his lap, but at the same time he never belittles them -- even the Ug Sisters are given respect, as in his engaging in a kind of casual spywork game with them. Even if it gets pretty stupid with the arrival of the Donovan and Bates, the bumbling cops who seem to have a kind of universal jurisdiction, and the ability to investigate murders without any hint of there even being one, etc. it's still a fine mix of ghostly/supernatural, mystery and wartime home front all-girls idyll.
ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY
Deconstructing the horror / war mindset is tricky -- we can understand the psychology behind the horror ban as a classic example of Hollywood not understanding the weird seeming contradictions that abound in viewer psychology. The feeling was that audiences didn't 'need' more horror (the equivalent would be pushing back terrorist-bomb-based action movies like Arnold Schwarzenegger's COLLATERAL DAMAGE to 2002 (it had been scheduled to come out a few weeks after 9/11). Lewton's B-unit and Universal's THE WOLF MAN proved audiences needed the old horrors more than eve; they also needed to be able to laugh at their fears, so horror comedy became a huge parallel program, stretching from Bob Hope in CAT AND THE CANARY (1939) and GHOST BREAKERS (1940) through to BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU (1942 and the stunning success of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE on Broadway, which kept Karloff out of films for almost a year (and the worst crime, not releasing him long enough to be in Capra's film version). RKO finally loaded itself into the canon for ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY in 1945, a clunky if well-crafted little blend of scares, laughs and island intrigue as a pair of shifty talent agents try to appease a moody gangster Sheldon Leonard's yen for nightclub entertainment for his voodoo-themed lounge by procuring a real 'live' zombie from the Caribbean.
What makes it, like FALCON AND THE CO-EDS, a long lost Lewton is that the boys go to Sen Sebastion, the same island setting of one of Lewton's B-unit's best, 1943's I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. Though that film is never mentioned, several of the previous film's enigmatic island inhabitants reappear, including Darby Jones (above- the skeletal tall black man who plays the scariest of the zombies in Lewton's film, Carrafour) and the strolling calypso singer, Sir Galahad, who has a habit of telling you the strange horrors that await in a very pretty voice while he walks slowly and unsmilingly towards your table. Though he'd only appeared in a small role in the same year's BODY SNATCHER for Lewton, Bela Lugosi has a florid, full-tilt villain role as the zombie maker who ensnares our bumbling pair of Abbot-and-Costello-esque comics (2), tying them up and then letting them run amok through his trap doors and passages, chased by himself and Darby Jones (here called 'Kalaga').
As with Lewton's ZOMBIE, a real chilling highlight is a song from Galahad, this one as the boys disembark on the San Sebastian dock, first singing happily about how San Sebastian is a tropical paradise, when the boys walk past him and he's behind them, and all the other passengers have gone, the song gradually darkens and slows to a tale of menace, paranoia and woe.
Sir Galahad's songs are always direct addresses, which is what makes him uncanny - as in his slow ghostly walk across the empty veranda towards Frances Drake after brother David has passed out, leaving her alone, singing about all the stuff she will shortly learn the hard way, in WALKED. But of course the boys are imbeciles, and don't think it could apply to them.
Though played for comedy, these little termite moments gives it the Lewton vibe. Also, it's entirely studio-bound (which you know I love). The front of the club where the boys go find zombies could easily be the same club in LEOPARD MAN or the same city storefronts once they return to NYC, seen in SEVENTH VICTIM.
As for the boys, they're fairly forgettable. The one guy screams like a hysterical baby the moment anything goes wrong, even while sneaking up on a voodoo ceremony, making the panic of Mantan Moreland in KING OF THE ZOMBIES (1941) seem like square-jawed heroism. I'm also not a huge fan of Darby Jones' doofus ping-pong ball eyes. It's not a good look. We wouldn't see them in style again for zombies until 1972's SUGAR HILL. But they work there, because the whole film is as cock-kneed and knock-eyed. Luckily, Bela makes up the difference. He seems to be having a grand time here, stretching his muscles in real sets after loping around Monogram's waterlogged too-dark cutaways for so long. The lighting is atmospheric and if it's not quite GHOST-BREAKERS spacious it's a far throw from BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA. Best of all, there's no Jean Brooks! So enjoy what ye can while ye can, for the war can't last forever and once Johnny comes marching home, all that screaming like a little bitch business will have to stop. Played by Alan Ladd or Robert Mitchum, he'll be brooking no umbrage from 4F cuckolds who've had it too good for too damn long. Until then... Shhhh!
1. I thought I was the first to make the Ardel Wray connection, only to find Time Out London's Film Guide had beaten me to it, them crafty Brits.
2. Strangely aside from Hold that Ghost in 1941, Abbot and Costello stayed away from horror until well after the war (... meet Frankenstein came out 1948), preferring westerns, period pieces, and sports spoofs.
Special shout out to the indispensible DVDBeaver from whom I copped some of the above Co-Eds stills