The Curmudgeon


Saturday, March 12, 2005

Val Lewton and Mark Robson

In the early 1940s, RKO Radio Pictures set up a horror unit. They gave producer Val Lewton a film crew, a rather low budget and a handful of lurid titles including Cat People, The Leopard Man and, most charmingly of all, I Walked with a Zombie, and left him to get on with it. Lacking expensive make-up and special effects, Lewton's productions relied on the stylistic techniques of film noir - shadowy visuals, dreamlike plotting, horror which is ambiguously supernatural or else purely psychological, and melancholy off-screen narration. Shortly after his tour with Lewton, the unit's most talented director, Jacques Tourneur, would go on to make the archetypal film noir, Out of the Past (1947).

Tourneur made the first of Lewton's productions, the 1942 version of Cat People. Despite some fine sequences and an affecting performance by Simone Simon as the cursed heroine, the film as a whole is not among the best produced by Lewton, thanks to a rather conventional story and the ligneous performance of its male lead, Kent Smith. Paul Schrader's much-derided 1982 remake is superior in almost every way. Tourneur's abilities were far better used in I Walked with a Zombie, a dreamily atmospheric melodrama with its plot filched from Jane Eyre. In 1957, Tourneur applied the techniques he had learned with Lewton to another very fine horror film, Curse of the Demon, an intelligent and very well acted adaptation of M R James' story "Casting the Runes".

In 1944, RKO produced a sequel to Cat People. When the director, Gunther von Fritsch, failed to meet the shooting schedule, Lewton handed the job to Robert Wise, whose credentials included editing work on Citizen Kane. Though saddled with another lurid title, Curse of the Cat People turned out just as well as I Walked with a Zombie; it is not, in fact, a horror film at all but a sensitive and poetic study of childhood fantasy. Its nearest cinematic relatives are works such as Victor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive and Bernard Rose's extraordinary Paperhouse.

Wise made one further film with Lewton. The Body Snatcher (1945) is a creepy tale, adapted from a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, about a nineteenth-century Edinburgh doctor's guilty involvement with the unctuous resurrectionist Gray (Boris Karloff). Wise went on to apply his intelligent craftsmanship to films in all genres, from musicals like West Side Story and The Sound of Music to unusually scientific science fiction in The Andromeda Strain; when he made The Haunting in 1963, he proved, like Tourneur, that his time at RKO had not been spent in vain.

The remaining four of the nine horror films produced by Lewton's unit were directed by Mark Robson. His films are not generally regarded so highly as those by Tourneur and Wise; only The Seventh Victim (1943) has much of a reputation, though certainly a well-deserved one.

The story of an innocent's search for her sister, who has fallen under the influence of a homicidal religious cult, The Seventh Victim is full of the brilliant set pieces which are one of the hallmarks of Lewton's productions. Two of the cultists, posing as drunks, calmly dispose of a body on the night-time bus. A sinister shadow beyond a shower curtain gives the heroine enigmatic warnings. A private detective walks down a silent, dead-black corridor and disappears into the dark. The atmosphere of inexorable fate is abetted by occurrences of the number seven and its multiples (an apartment door, a subway station) and by the presence of characters such as the sister's dying neighbour.

Robson's other films seem underrated, rarely seen, or both. The Ghost Ship (1943), the least well-known of the whole Lewton oeuvre, is the story of a ship's officer who is ostracised - treated as though he does not exist - on the orders of his megalomaniac captain, and who thus "haunts" the vessel despite being still alive. A memorable atmospheric touch is the narration, spoken off-screen by a crewman who cannot talk (played by the splendidly-named Skelton Knaggs); and the film also has a cardinal virtue in Richard Dix's performance as the captain. At a time when insanity in the movies was largely synonymous with outsized slices of ham, Dix manages to portray an actual human being.

Isle of the Dead (1945) concerns a group of people quarantined on a small island because of an outbreak of disease during the Greek war of 1912. General Pherides (Boris Karloff), an honourable soldier, is led by his superstitious upbringing and the ravings of a nasty old woman to conclude that a vorvolaka, a sort of vampire, is haunting the island. Despite the brief presence of an atrocious stage cockney, whose early demise from the plague is one of the film's few optimistic signs, Isle of the Dead contains some exceptional touches; notably the premature burial of a cataleptic woman, who is driven insane by her ordeal and wanders like a ghost about the island, mute and clutching a trident.

Bedlam (1946), again, is less a horror film than a melodrama, though it still includes set-pieces such as the pageant during which an unfortunate inmate of London's Bethlehem asylum, painted all over to represent Reason, dies of skin suffocation before the patronising eyes of his social superiors. Boris Karloff puts in another oleaginous performance as Master Sims, the corrupt administrator of the asylum, who gets the heroine declared insane. Although initially terrified, she helps and befriends the other inmates in a series of touching scenes, and eventually escapes with their help. Sims is put on trial by his victims, confesses that his cruelty to them is the result of his fear of the world, and with superb irony is sentenced to life outside the asylum's walls. His eventual fate is still more ironic, and arguably even worse.

Unlike Tourneur and Wise, Robson does not seem to have had the opportunity to use his RKO experience on a larger-scale and bigger-budget horror film. He went on to a comparatively anonymous directorial career, including such opera as the Frank Sinatra war film Von Ryan's Express and the disaster movie Earthquake. Perhaps if he had managed to achieve the critical acclaim of Out of the Past or the financial success of The Sound of Music, his work for Lewton would be better appreciated.


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