A Symphony of Dark Patches- The Val Lewton Legacy 1943

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From Dreams of Darkness-Fantasy and the films of Val Lewton by J.P. Telotte:
“{The audience} will populate the darkness with more horrors than all the horror writers in Hollywood could think of… if you make the screen dark enough, the mind’s eye will read anything into it you want. We’re great ones for dark patches.” – Val Lewton

Swimming pool scene Cat People '42
Jane Randolph as Alice Moore in Val Lewton’s Cat People 1942 directed by Jacques Tourneur.
A scene from Bedlam (1946) directed by Mark Robson.

During the 1940s Val Lewton and his ‘Lewton Unit’ used the essential vision of fantastic darkness to recreate a very unique style of horror/fantasy genre, one which challenged Hollywood’s notion of the tangible monsters Universal studios had been manufacturing. Lewton, while working at RKO Studios, produced an exquisite, remarkable and limited collection of films that came face to face with a ‘nightworld.’ Lewton used our most deepest darkest psychological and innate fears that dwell within the lattice of shadows of our dreams and secret wish-fulfillment.


“Our formula is simple. A love story, three scenes of suggested horror and one of actual violence. Fade out” -Val Lewton

Lewton worked at MGM between 1926 and 1932 and then served eight years under David Selznick. He had published nine novels and a number of short stories. In addition he produced regular radio show versions of MGM films. He also had ties in the industry as his aunt was the the very influential silent actress Alla Nazimova.

Nazimova 3
the great stage and silent screen actress Alla Nazimova-Val Lewton’s very influential aunt…

But Lewton had left his mark with Selznick and in 1940 rival company RKO was interested in hiring him..It was actually Selznick who negotiated Lewton’s contract.


“My task is to initiate a programme of horror pictures to be made at the comparatively low cost of 125,000 each. Which should compete successfully with Universal horror films. Which cost anywhere from 300,000 to a million dollars. I feel I can do this quite easily and the Universal people spend a lot of money on their horror product. But not much on brains or imagination.”-Val Lewton


Lewton put together a team of collaborators with whom he would work closely. He chose Mark Robson to edit. Robert Wise and Lewton worked together on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. DeWitt Bodeen had worked with him during his time with David O’ Selznick was to write the first screenplay for Cat People. His old friend Jacques Tourneur whom he became friends with while working on A Tale of Two Cities. was brought on board to direct. He chose Nicholas Musuraca as his director of photography and Roy Webb to compose the musical scores. They all worked on countless RKO films. It was Lewton’s intention to create quality pictures though he was constrained by a low budget. Jacques Tourneur had said that Lewton was an idealist who had his head up in the clouds and would come up with impossible ideas. However for Tourneur, his feet were planted firmly on the ground, yet somehow they complemented each other perfectly, Tourneur claims it was a very happy time in his life, and that Lewton’s gift to him was the filmic poetry that he was able to carry with him forever.

Jacques Tourneur is perhaps one of my favorite directors, with his use of shadow and all together dreamy lens of the world, he’s responsible for one of THE best classic horror films Curse of the Demon & film noir tour de force Out of the Past. 

Jacques Tourneur directs Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past 1947.
Niall and Cat
Jacques Tourneur’s moody horror with Niall MacGinnis and cat Curse of the Demon 1957.
Lewton Unit
Part of the Lewton Unit- image from the documentary The Man in the Shadows from top left Roy Webb composer, Val Lewton, Nicholas Musuraca Cinematographer, Mark Robson editing/directing, DeWitt Bodeen writing, and Robert Wise-director.

“Horror is created in the mind of the spectator. It’s necessary to suggest things. In all my films you never saw what caused the horror. I saw people screaming in the theater when there was a young girl in a swimming pool, but you never saw the black leopard. The lights blaze up at the end. And there’s Simone Simon. Something has definitely happened. -Jacques Tourneur

Jacques Tourneur looking over the film sketches.
jacques tourneur-on location for berlin express
Jacques Tourneur on location for Berlin Express 1948.

“Lewton gave us something quite different than what’s known as Hollywood craftsmanship you can say that he presented us with a parallel world in which everything feels both real and a little unreal-familiar but strange. The characters and the viewer slip into a mysterious, troubling gray zone. Where real life and dream life come face to face. And where beauty and destruction merge. Lewton and Tourneur really created a new kind of cinematic beauty”-from The Man in the Shadows Val Lewton documentary

The Golden Boy in Bedlam
the golden boy from Bedlam

Learning from his last employer Selznick he made sure to supervise absolutely every aspect of the film’s production, from casting, set design, costumes, direction, and editing. He even rewrote every script himself without taking credit or under a pseudonym. In this way he developed his own visual style of storytelling, having prepared each detail before shooting.

“My feelings are generated, however by more than my gratitude for that first opportunity. They come from the warm and highly stimulating creative experience I had working with Val. He taught me so much about directing and filmmaking in general…Val Lewton was one of that fairly rare species, a truly creative producer. As such, he was able to achieve an outstanding reputation for the high quality, unusual and interesting “B” pictures he produced at RKO Studios starting in the early 1940s” – Robert Wise, March 1994

Robert Wise behind the camera
Robert Wise behind the camera
Wise, Robson & Lewton
Robert Wise, Mark Robson & Val Lewton

“I remember him staying up until all hours of the night working on screenplays. He enjoyed having his hand in the writing. I used to that that he went out of his way to pick inept writers so that he’d have to redo their work. He used to write on a Royal typewriter;he used only two fingers but he was very fast. He’d talk out the different parts as he wrote them and, since my bed was just on the other side of the wall, I’d fall asleep listening.”Nina Lewton Druckman from the Reality of Terror by Joel Siegel

Robert Wise was part of the Lewton Unit, one of my favorite directors who would go on to direct some of the most outstanding films in a variety of genres, from musicals like West Side Story 1961, and Sound of Music 1965, to Lewton’s Curse of The Cat People 1944 and The Body Snatcher 1945, noir masterpieces, Born To Kill 1947, The Set Up 1949 and The House of Telegraph Hill 1950, I Want to Live! 1958, Odds Against Tomorrow 1959, to sci-fi and Gothic ghost story masterpieces Day the Earth Stood Still 1951, The Haunting 1963, and The Andromeda Strain 1971.

Day The Earth Stood Still
Michael Rennie and Gort in Robert Wise’s Sci-Fi masterpiece The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
The Set Up
Robert Wise’s boxing noir The Set-Up 1949

Lewton drove himself very hard trying to achieve something beautiful of quality. He and his team were given a very small budget, a cast of veritable unknowns, and evocative titles that were sensationalist and lurid in nature and did not truly represent an accurate account of the narrative. There were no gruesome fiends nor even evidence of malevolent forces at work in his ordinary everyday environments. Yet RKO’s studio head Charles Koerner  dictated such titles as Cat People 1942, Curse of the Cat People 1944, Bedlam 1946, Isle of the Dead 1946, The Body Snatcher 1945, I Walked With A Zombie, The Ghost Ship and The Leopard Man in 1943 and The Seventh Victim.

“If you want to get out now, Lewton told Bodeen, I won’t hold it against you”

The sensationalistic titles lead viewers to expect corporeal horrors, grotesquely, and accustomed chills. As critic Manny Farber points out that while Lewton got nicknamed the “sultan of shudders” or the “Chillmaster” they were missing the point entirely. Lewton’s films were purposefully inhabited by the average, the bland, and the pedestrian all, so as to populate his world with normal characters. People you’d see on the streets, or doing menial jobs. And amidst this population of ‘normal’ stirred interesting pulp stories that were unorthodox, otherworldly, and often grim. Themes like zoanthropy. a derangement in which someone believes they are an animal as in Cat People or the pervasive fear of the Vorvolakas, an undead creature in Greek folklore that drinks its victim’s blood in Isle of the Dead. Even when dealing with dreadful English asylums and the sacrilege of body snatching.

Val Lewton with Boris Karloff set of Bedlam
Boris Karloff and Val Lewton on the set of Bedlam

By the way… Bedlam 1946 is perhaps my favorite of the Lewton series. I’ll be doing a follow-up to this piece with the aim of covering the magnificent piece of filmic art that is Bedlam. I’ll also include the remaining films I love, Isle of the DeadThe Body Snatcher, and his first Cat People.

Films with subversive themes like zoanthropy. a derangement in which a person believes himself to be an animal as in Cat People or the pervasive fear of the Vorvolakas is an undead creature in Greek folklore that drinks its victim’s blood in Isle of the Dead.

Karloff and Thimig in Isle of the Dead Lewton
Karloff and Thimig in Isle of the Dead 1946.

One of the things I love about Lewton’s films is that he used many either lesser-known actors or those who never quite attained stardom yet lived on the fringe. Wonderful character actors such as Ian Wolfe & Edith Barrett (whom I both adore) actor/director Abner Biberman, Theresa Harris, Edith Atwater Sir Lancelot former calypso singer from Trinidad, the unusual beauty of Elizabeth Russell who was a former fashion model. The portly Billy House who played Lord Mortimer in Bedlam had been a star of vaudeville or Skelton Knaggs (Terror By Night, House of Dracula) British actor worked on the stage. The handsome Richard Dix , Tom Conway, James Bell, Anna Lee, Evelyn Brent, Helene Thimig, Dewey Robinson, and Ben Bard.

Lord Mortimer's new pet with Skelton Knaggs
Billy House as Lord Mortimer in Bedlam.
Ian Wolfe in Bedlam
The marvelous Ian Wolfe in Bedlam.
Knaggs as Finn in The Ghost Ship
Skelton Knaggs as the mute Finn in The Ghost Ship
Leopard Man angry mother
Kate Drain Lawson as Señora Delgado in The Leopard Man.
Edith Barret the ghost ship
Edith Barrett and Richard Dix in The Ghost Ship.
Anna Lee in Bedlam
Anna Lee in Bedlam.
Helene Thimig in Isle of the dead
Helene Thimig in Isle of the Dead.
Julia Dean and old Mrs. Farren in The Curse of the Cat People.

These characters seem to transcend their positions in the background and add layers of depth and a quiet simplicity or realism that made the storytelling more rich. They possessed a certain unique expressiveness that at times eclipsed the lead actors.

RKO known for its capacity to release films that were of the fantastic and original, initially hired Lewton to organize and run their ‘B’-Film unit. RKO had a reputation for ingenuity and artistic innovation, paying careful attention to the shaping of the narratives. What he endowed them with was his deep understanding of the subtle patterns and symbols that lie within our dreams, psyche, and fantasy world. Lewton satisfied the audience’s desire for horror yet what he delivered was swathed in a strange and poetically beautiful style.

At his disposal, he had some of the best writers who knew how to tap into this process. Writers like DeWitt Bodeen, Donald Henderson Clarke, Curt Siodmak, and Ardel Wray art director Albert D’Agostino (Notorious 1946, Out of the Past 1947, The Thing from Another World 1951) cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca & J. Roy Hunt (Crossfire 1947, Might Joe Young 1949) and directors Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past 1947, Curse of the Demon 1957), Mark Robson and Robert Wise all contributed and helped shape the vision that became the Lewton film.

musuraca & tourneur
Nicholas Musuraca and Jacques Tourneur.

And while Val Lewton didn’t direct any of the eleven films he produced for RKO, (in two cases only taking screen credit for his contributions as a writer), it’s rather irrelevant in terms of authorship -as collaboratively infused with the talent of vision these films possess a distinct frame of reference that lead you into the fantasy realm or genre with an artistic unorthodoxy like no other. Director Jacques Tourneur directed the first three Lewton films produced by the Lewton Unit. He gave Lewton the soubriquet “The Dreamer.”

Joel Siegel from his 1973 book Val Lewton tells us, “His production unit would make only horror movies with budgets limited to $150,000 per picture. The films were to be ‘programmers’ slated for placement on double features in less than key theaters, with a running time not to exceed 75 minutes. {Production Chief Charles Koerner’s office was to dictate the titles of these films, based upon a system of market pre-testing.”

Lewton and Robson 2
Mark Robson and Val Lewton

Lewton hid much of the story in his shadow-plays and this allowed his crew to work the landscape by creating symbolism, key sounds (natural ordinary sounds become ominous premonitions and are fatalistic in tone), haunting textures, abstract shadow, and a sense of dark absences. Within the more focused frames of the films are incidental point-of-view shots that fill in the spaces with a rich texture of realism within the fable-like quality, relying on shadow and suggestion to deliver the desired effect.

Lewton himself would usually write a rough draft, an idea adapted from a property to be filmed. Then using his grand ability to visualize a formula, manipulate the structures of conventionality so that he could compose a landscape and narrative that would best articulate his observations. Tourneur emphasized Lewton’s “structure, construction, progression of high points, low points” in the narrative. Director Mark Robson suggested that Lewton had already ‘thought everything out’ in such detail so as not to miss a thing. Jessie Ponitz, Lewton’s secretary relates, “The last draft was always his.”

Lewton and typewriter
Lewton at his typewriter

Lewton’s brilliance and vision are partly due to his understanding of how psychoanalytic symbolism, myth, dreams, and archetypes influence our intimate fear of what lies invisible to the eye. The Lewton Unit embraced the collective nightmares of the human experience, bringing our dream work into the cold light of daily life bound to the material world. He presents us with irrational unseen forces, in particular those that lurk in our subconsciousness or dream world. His films transport his protagonists by contrasting them from the open, sense of security from daylight- immersing them into the dark regions of shadows, and the black patches of uncertainty. They do not confront conventional monsters, vampires, ghouls, and malevolent spirits of the classic Universal plots- but actually come face to face with their own internal nightmares. A mechanism that emerges from the shadows of the mind. We see these images of fantasy and it triggers our most basic and personal need to belong to that which is created, however disturbing those visions are, these fantasy/horror films possess an enigmatic kind of darkness. His characters never ran away from the darkness and dread that was so pervasive they actually ran head-on into it, in order to demystify it and lead themselves & us to understand it a little better.


Jean Brooks as the mysterious Jacqueline in Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim

Lewton and his associates understood the principles of fantasy, and utilized them in the complex visual structures they created in their series of films. In writing about Lewton’s use of fantasy, J.P. Telotte informs us that these films “are not mere horror stories or exercises in terror, yet ‘redeem’ or reunite us with a repressed side of the human experience.” And this is what makes Lewton’s fantastical work so unique.

As in his book America in the Dark, Thomson implies that unlike the films that consist of vampires, werewolves, and other alien presences “The Fantasy genre {…} draw fundamentally on a realm of darkness and psychic imagery for it’s existence. Such films typically evoke a dreamlike environment or nightworld in which, as if it were our own sleep, we can pleasurably and profitably immerse ourselves. {…} I wish to call attention to their ability to reveal how we also might come ‘to life with the dark’ finding an important, even life enhancing meaning in the fantastic’s dream realm. {…}”

The Body Snatcher
The Body Snatcher 1945.
A Palladist The 7th Victim
a Palladist from The Seventh Victim

Lewton’s fantasy reworks our perspective to let us ‘see’ the dark spaces even within the light. As Todorov writes in The Fantastic 1975, fantasy evokes an ‘indirect vision’ that allows us to see what is usually not visible in the ordinary world. Lewton uses this ‘indirect vision’ to transgress and transcend normal perception. Lewton’s works suggest a disparity between the expected and reality. From this disparity, the greatest threats come from the most ordinary occurrences, objects, and the commonplace.  He populates his films with figures of authority who interpret their world incorrectly, harshly or inharmonious. The sudden revelation of the ordinary frightens and disorients the viewer in unexpected ways, forcing them to be more reflexive, to show the menace in the everyday. As Carl Jung believed, fantasy precedes our normal sense of reality- “The psyche creates reality everyday. The only expression I can use for this activity is fantasy.”

Drawing on the psychologist James Hillman who specialized in archetypes, Lewton’s films evoke a dream-like nightmarish world in contrast to the realm of truth. The style of these films are often lensed as seductive and mysterious journeys, where the audience can escape the ordinary for a while. They seduce us by taking a path which follows our hidden desires within the psyche.

This is the proper aim at fantasy, as James Hillman explains; it should challenge our normal “literal perspective, its identity with material life,” since that perspective is usually “stuck in coagulations of physical realities. This perspective of reality needs to break down and fall apart, to be skinned live and sensitized, or blackened by melancholic frustration.”

Isle of the Dead-Karloff
Isle of the Dead 1946

This fantasy forces us to look at our own limitations of vision, and how difficult it is to describe the structure of something that has no’ structure’ It’s easy for the grey areas of fantasy to ‘lapse’ into absence and dissolve from a narrative field of a nightworld/dreamscape using the device of voice-over narrative or subjective camera. Lewton’s images make us ask are we seeing what’s really there, or are we merely informed by the dark spaces both inside the film and tapping into our individual and collective psyches. As Telotte cites Rosemary Jackson– 

“Objects are not readily appropriated through the look; things slide away from the powerful eye/I which seeks to possess them, thus becoming distorted, disintegrated, partial and lapsing into invisibility.”

Val Lewton had a special insight and grasp of formulas and mythic structures so that he could envision within the complex narratives, the presence of the most significant archetypal patterns. Lewton said “If you make the screen dark enough, the mind’s eye will read anything into it you want! We’re great ones for dark patches.” What those ‘dark patches’ suggest is something innate in all of us, a dark region within the ‘self’ that gets lost, or hidden away, or even denied as we go about our daily lives doing ordinary things in the guise of normalcy.


The Seventh Victim

In a Lewton film there is a sense of ‘Lack’ as an absence in the lives and environments seems to be at the core substance of these films. This play of absence and presence operates as a structural principle in Lewton’s films. For the benefit of this post I will point particularly to I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man  and The Seventh Victim, the prior both directed by the great Jacques Tourneur. In his two films that ‘lack’ translates into a disturbing landscape of openness in the narrative style.

The everyday, whether it be modern urban city streets, islands in the Caribbean or the nineteenth century, there is an attentive eye for detail that weaves a texture of daily life that the Lewton unit worked so hard to achieve. Be it the costumes, the architecture and the general look of the place during it’s particular time period. So much research went into developing the landscape of reality with a distinct verisimilitude. By looking at books, paintings and photographs they would try to capture the perfect light and shadow of the piece.

Although I won’t be covering Bedlam in this piece, the film is a perfect example of how The ‘Lewton Unit’ employed this research approach prior to filming. Several shot compositions were based on William Hogarth’s illustrations. Much emphasis was placed on ‘context’ as Lewton characters can so evidently be characterized by their station in life or occupations living in the seemingly natural world that is commonplace. Writer DeWitt Bodeen notes that Lewton “always insisted that all his characters have special occupations or professions and be shown working their jobs.”

Lewton’s films are populated with a texture of normalcy, people living in a visibly conspicuous and commonplace field of reality so that when the presence of the mysterious, and irrationality poke through it shatters the veil of normalcy and settles down to become abnormal and disturbing for the protagonist and us the viewer. These characters must journey through a field that is rife with coded messages, where they are not believed by the people around them.

Telotte explains, “What results is a subtle dialectic between ‘substance and lack’, presence and absence, replacing that of the more traditional horror films, where in the ‘self’ as the audience’s surrogate, is opposed by a threatening otherness in the shape of a monster or murderous apparition. The tension is no less. Though it’s source is different it is more disturbingly lodged in the individual  and the way in which he perceives and conceives of his world.”

The Body Snatcher Karloff

Like the protagonists, we are laid bare with our vulnerability to the abnormal. The threat comes as an external challenge to our lives, exposing our human weakness and fears and forces us to see life in an unsettling way. Everything falls out of harmony that which is usually so ordinary. And the sense of ‘otherness’ fills the screen and taps into our own psyche as the formidable shadows move about with an anima. The dark patches set themselves outward as props, while strange sounds and eerie low key lighting color the screen’s canvas as dark and mysterious.

Psychoanalyst Hillman refers to a ‘vesperal’ motion that leads us into the darker regions of the self and the human psyche with its ‘fantasizing impulse.’ Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People (you can read an earlier feature I did on this film-click on the link) is a more conventional initiation story focusing on the nature of innocence and ‘otherness’ and how it often challenges our rational perspectives of the world because it evokes the ‘unknowing.’

All of Lewton’s films are structured with a careful eye on the sequential narrative. Val Letwon referred to scenes heightened by shadows as signifier of something foreboding he called them “horror spots.” These “horror spots’ were carefully spaced throughout his films in sequential scenes, as if each frame were its own visual narrative. Many potent moments though brief partly due to the limited time constraints yet remain with you forever.


These scenes were preceded by scenes of an alternating tone designated to bring relief to the audience, utilizing some form of imagery that could be very beautiful or lyrical. Joel Siegel talks about this approach as “fragmented, mosaic-like structure” of the films, with their dependence on a “series of tiny, precise vignettes which do not so much tell the story as sketch in its borders and possibilities. For film historian Robin Wood in his “Return to the Repressed,” Lewton’s series of films is distinct for their “often illogical poetic structure.” 

Early Lewton films display a narrative style which recalls Jean-Paul Sartre’s prescription for fantasy storytelling: “In order to achieve the fantastic, it is neither necessary nor sufficient to portray extraordinary things. The strangest event will enter into the order of the universe if it is alone in a world governed by laws.”

Frances Dee, Tom Conway, Edith Barrett in I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Lewton films do not simply strip the world of the laws which Sartre describes, as many horror films do, rather they manipulate the context within which even the most commonplace actions are perceived. In I Walked With a Zombie, the players are often viewed through a veil of elaborate shadows cast by wooden lattice, brush and thicket, Very sensual images and very flowing. The eye for detail… every frame is so well thought out. And while we as spectators have truly seen nothing tangible, there is that ‘lack’ reinforced by structural repetition. Drawing us in depends on our ability to fantasize and tap into the deep-rooted fears that we unconsciously embrace. This portrayal of Lewton’s mysterious yet mundane environment becomes utterly frightening. Lewton explained how this process reveals the viewer’s participation in that which he sees, establishing that given these kinds of visual narratives man himself “will populate the darkness with more horrors than all the horror writers in Hollywood could think of.”

Robin Wood’s The American Nightmare chapter of Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan.–
It is built on elaborate set of apparently clear cut structural oppositions : Canada-West Indies, white-black, light–darkness, life-death, science-black magic, Christianity -Voodoo, conscious -unconscious, , etc–and it proceeds  systematically to blur all of them. JEssica is both living and dead.; Mrs. Rand mixes medicine, Christianity and voodoo, the figurehead is both St. Sebastian and a black slave, the black-white opposition is poetically undercut in a complex patterning of dresses and voodoo patches; the motivation of all the characters is called into question; the messenger-zombie Carrefour can’t be kept out of the white domain.”

Lewton’s work absolutely inspired and trained Robert Wise to scare the hell out us with his adaption of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting in 1963, when in reality we never see a malevolent presence. Wise’s use of absence and presence, sequential stages of darkness and shadow, odd angles, and the process of what we ‘don’t see’ became one of the greatest ghost stories on film and I would dare to say one of the best films ever made. Wise learned this film philosophy from his time working as part of the Lewton Unit, whose contribution to film rippled outward for decades.

Robert Wise The Haunting Julie Harris
Julie Harris climbs the menacing spiral staircase in Robert Wise’s masterpiece of Gothic ghost storytelling The Haunting 1963

Lewton’s most accomplished manoeuvre was making the audience think much more about his material than it warranted. Some of his devices were the usual ones of hiding information… he hid much more of his story than any other filmmaker and forced his crew to create drama almost abstractly with symbolic sounds, textures and the like which made the audience hyper-conscious of sensitive craftsmanship… He imperiled his characters in situations that didn’t call for outsized melodrama and permitted the use of  journalistic camera. {…}Je would use a spray-shot technique that usually consisted of oozing suggestive shadows across a wall, or watching the heroines’ terror on a lonely walk {…} The shorthand allowed Lewton to ditch the laughable aspect of improbable events and give the remaining bits of material the strange authenticity of a daguerreotype.” Manny Farber criticquoted from 1951 in Jeremy Dyson’s book Bright Darkness

There is an overall unsettling revelatory pattern to each of the Lewton narratives. While I’m only covering the 4 contributions Lewton made during the year 1943, all of his 9 fantasy/horror films isolate the commonplace through the story, the patterns, the symbolism of innocence, and the rigidity of authority. In his films our roots in proven reason and sanity are given a different value. This contrasting shadowplay create the ultimate texture and environment of fantasy/horror.




“She makes a beautiful Zombie, doesn’t she!” -Dr Maxwell

Directed by Jacques Tourneur with screenplay by Curt Siodmak & Ardel Wray. Francis Dee plays Betsy Connell, James Ellison plays Wesley Rand, Tom Conway is Paul Holland, Edith Barrett (Ladies in Retirement, Jane Eyre, Song of Bernadette) is Mrs. Rand, James Bell as Dr Maxwell, Christine Gordon as Jessica Holland, Theresa Harris as Alma the maid and Sir Lancelot as the calypso singer. With Darby Jones as Carrefour. Cinematography by J. Roy Hunt, music by Roy Webb & musical direction by C. Bakaleinikoff, film editing by Mark Robson. Art direction by Albert D’Agostino and Walter Keller.

I consider this to be one of Lewton’s most nightmarishly beautiful films, both visually evocative and showcasing a stunning poetic narrative. Nearly every scene is significant as it is memorable. As Martin Scorsese aptly puts it in the fabulous Val Lewton documentary- The Man In The Shadows“The whole film seems to be in the grip of a trance.”

The original story comes from American Weekly magazine by Inez Wallace called “I Met a Zombie” which was an anecdotal account of voodoo practices and bares no relationship to film’s plot. It was loosely based on Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. RKO wanted to grab away some of the Universal sensationalism by bringing in scriptwriter Curt Siodmak who wrote The Wolf Man and Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, Black Friday 1940, The Ghost of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man Returns, The Lady and The Monster 1944, The Beast with Five Fingers 1946 to mention a few. 

After Cat People, Charles Koerner former head of RKO called Lewton into his office and told him the title of the second RKO horror film. I Walked With a Zombie. He also told him that Siodmak had been selected to write the script.

How was Lewton who approached concepts from a very literary perspective going to take to this Universal scriptwriter working on his project? As Edmund Bansak mentions in Fearing the Dark, Jane Eyre was the last package that Lewton had worked on before leaving David Selznick. Frustrated by RKO’s unsophisticated titles Lewton was bent on making this film high-minded, so he visualized Jane Eyre in the West Indies. How much of the finished script was written by Siodmak is hard to know. Siodmak’s style of scriptwriting did not need a lot of research as he worked alone on his screenplays. After Siodmak left, Lewton hired Ardel Wray and she made a considerable contribution to the final script. From the book  Reality of Terror Ardel Wray recalls Lewton as “an addictive researcher drawing out of it the overall feel, mood and quality he wanted, as well as details for actual production.”

Ghostly Jessica

In Bright Darkness, Dyson describes the relationship between Siodmak and LewtonLewton was opposed to one of Siodmak’s earlier script ideas– that the plantation owner has his wife turned into a zombie so that he can have sex with her without her running away (nice- why not put a little necrophilia into the context, Mr Siodmak!). Lewton, always concerned with accuracy and details, turned to him and said, “But she’ll have no vaginal warmth.”

“I walked with a zombie… it sounds an odd thing to say…” 

The story begins as Betsy jolts us with that statement so matter of factly and light-hearted. We see a beautiful seascape, not a graveyard or Gothic structure. No gloom. No menacing music.

From Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film by Tony Williams-“Family repression structures, I Walked With a Zombie;it’s supernatural motifs veil material factors. In the movie a family destroys independent female sexuality –this process has economic and psychological implications. Refusing to free his wife, Paul Holland (Tom Conway) embodies certain 19th century patriarchal attitudes present within Hollywood cinema…Nineteenth-century male selfhood involved property, talent, social prestige, (privilege too) ambitions and wife. Any loss would involve grave psychological  consequences;the most traumatic fear was sexual dispossession. “

There are several narrative voices at work in the film evoking our ordinary desire to explain what we see around us. The voices offer different perspectives of the story, some challenging Betsy’s limited perspective as she is incapable of truly grasping the unfamiliar world around her. Betsy’s voice is calm and detached as she comes out with the provocative statement “I walked with a zombie.” She explains her intrigue while allaying our anxiety over the term ‘zombie.’

Her voice is distant and nearly whimsical as she relates the story and yet there is something vaguely unsettling, between what’s expected and what we first see. It’s deliberately ambiguous and the voice romanticizes such a notion. Finally we fade in to see Betsy interviewing for a nursing position on a West Indian island. She is not given any details of the assignment. There’s an atmospheric Negro spiritual being sung by the Black crew members as they take Betsy aboard the ship at twilight. The stars are showing themselves up in the broad sky. “How beautiful… she says in the voice-over and she is interrupted by another voice, a sophisticated gentleman, Paul Holland, who says aloud “No it’s not.” She tells hims “You read my mind!” Jacques Tourneur frames a meteor falling in the sky and Holland remarks

It’s easy enough to read the thoughts of a newcomer. Everything seems beautiful because you don’t understand. Those flying fish- they’re not leaping for joy; they’re jumping in terror. Bigger fish want to eat them. That luminous water, it takes its gleam from millions of dead bodies, the glitter of putrescence. There is no beauty here, only death and decay. Everything good dies here, even the stars.”

Paul’s statement is an example of the repetitive patterns of darkness and disillusionment meant to unsettle the viewer.

The technique of voice-over is indicative of the way in which the narrative would follow in Film Noir such as Double Indemnity & Laura both released in 1944. The use of voice-over is reminiscent of the derivative opening in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca 1940 from du Maurier’s novel. Lewton, who was not a fan of Hitchcock, utilized the voice-over with more complexities.

Having arrived at Saint Sebastian, a cab driver recounts the island’s history of slavery and shares with Betsy the story of Ti Misery, the figurehead pierced by arrows, of an old slave ship symbolizing the Black man’s tragic and solemn introduction to this island as he journeys from the freedom and happiness of his homeland. The slave ship narrative is actually at the core of the entire film’s narrative. Considering the year was 1943 this was a pretty progressive bit of filmmaking, though most likely they were able to divert the audience’s attention toward the lure of ‘zombie’.

While in the cab the driver puts things into subtle perspective for Betsy “The Hollands are the most old family miss, they brought the colored folks to the island . And the enormous boat brought the long ago fathers and the long ago mothers of us all chained to the bottom of the boat”

It is here at the beginning that the tone of despair and tragedy become the central nerve that pulses through the narrative, rooted in such historic suffering. Connected to the image of Saint Sebastian who becomes the emblem or icon that remains ever present through the story.

St Sebastian image

During this narration Betsy merely gazes at the flowers nearby and tells him at least the slavers “brought you to a beautiful place, didn’t they?” missing the point with her cultural short sightedness and insensitivity. Her statement illustrates the disparity between the two worlds, as he answers “If you say, miss if you say.” 

At Fort Holland, Betsy and Paul walk through the garden together Betsy asks “Why was the maid crying?” and Paul replies “I’m not sure I can make you understand.” He stops and points at the sculpture of Ti Misery in the garden and asks “Do you know what this is?” She answers “A figure of Saint Sebastian.” Paul says “Yes. But it was once the figurehead of a slave ship. That’s where our people came from. From the misery and pain of slavery. For generations they found life a burden. That’s why they still weep when a child is born and make merry at a burial… I’ve told you, Miss Connell: this is a sad place.”

Betsy’s voice-over conveys her first impressions of Fort Hudson through the plantation’s gates as “strangely dreamlike.” She sees the plantation through barriers and bars, setting up a pattern of her distance from this new world. The visual patterns are repeated throughout, as shadows mimicking bars from the latticework to the lush greenery outside forming images of bars that frame Betsy blocked off and separate. After she sees the statue of Ti Misery pierced with arrows at the plantation, Betsy’s voice over fills each empty room finally revealing a hint of what’s to come- “In this room I was to hear a strange confession- a confession only madness could have wrung from the lips of a sane person.” The reference to insanity is evoked.

All the interior shots are lit brightly until we arrive at Betsy’s room where the atmosphere changes and the ominous shadows become pervasive as dark lines that mimic the bars of a prison are cast by the venetian blinds.

The story takes place amidst the voodoo drums and dark moonlit landscape of a colonized otherworld. (For the sake of the Historic Blogathon festivities I will not go off on a rant about ‘colonialism’ or the specter of racism inherent in films that portray other cultures as alien, savage or mysterious.) Tourneur’s masterful direction pulls her along the stone steps and darkened walls like a lovely white spider that creeps in quiet. Roy Hunt’s camerawork is spectacular, making I Walked With a Zombie for me one of the most visually striking and memorable entries from the Lewton Unit at RKO. Here Ardel Wray has very loosely, or I could say barely touches upon Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ transporting the story to the West Indies. I would perhaps say that it reminds me more of the prequel Wide Sargasso Sea and how the first Mrs. Eyre came to such madness as the woman Rochester locks away. Christine Gordon as Jessica Holland, floats about in a somnambulist state of sensual equilibrium neither in this world nor dead.


Although Lewton had first intended Anna Lee (Bedlam 1946to play Betsy, Frances Dee got to play the lead, a nurse summoned to the island of St. Sebastian to care for a very sick woman named Jessica Holland afflicted by a mysterious mental paralysis. Tom Holland is the dark and brooding presence as her husband Paul, who appears to still love his wifely apparition. Betsy, of course, falls for this haunted man, as in these Gothic tales women are apt to do. She believes him to be still in love with Jessica and so she makes it her mission to try and save her for the sake of the man she cannot have- yet strives to make happy. Betsy takes Jessica to the voodoo ceremony, spoken of in only quiet corners and not aloud by the various people of color who are ‘servants’. Betsy feels hopeful they can cure Jessica of her bewitchment.

When Betsy first glimpses Jessica, her patient, from the window in her room, she is framed by the visual pattern of shadows. As she follows her patient gliding through the garden until she is confronted up close by the pale and frightening death-like appearance of Jessica’s face. Betsy screams for help when Jessica approaches her in a way that she interprets as menacing. The next day Betsy is able to see more clearly and laughs it off, because she is told that Jessica is nothing more than a ‘mental case.’ Paul is eager to agree with this diagnosis, though he suggests his own failings as well.

After this first encounter with Jessica, there are several characters who add their narrative explanations. Various people attempt to explain to Betsy this new world she is inhabiting and Jessica’s condition, elucidating the mysteries surrounding her. Paul explains that Betsy hearing a mysterious crying in the night, that ‘for generations they found life a burden… the servants still weep when a child is born and make merry at a burial.” So, the crying in the night is dismissed as Paul suggests this is just part of the mysterious and mythic ways the servants deal with life and death. A baby is born into a world of suffering and misery.

Dr. Maxwell, who is in charge of Betsy’s patient then tells her that Jessica’s medical history explains how she became “a sleepwalker who can never again be awakened-feeling nothing, knowing nothing.” He tells her that he believes Jessica became afflicted by a tropical fever that burned out portions of the spinal cord. Dr Maxwell laughs saying ”She makes a beautiful zombie doesn’t she?” The idea of Jessica being a zombie mystifies Betsy but Dr Maxwell clarifies this term “a ghost, the living dead. It’s also a drink.” Maxwell’s (James Bell) answer shows a dichotomy. Here we have another odd contradiction between what we see and by the tone of what is said. On one side the mysterious culture of voodoo, and on the other side scientific intelligence and modern medicine. Jessica poses a puzzle for them, as she remains veiled behind a mysterious non-death. Even Alma the maid (Teresa Harris) offers Betsy some kind of answer, “She was very sick and then she went mindless.” “It’s just like dressing a great big doll.”

Finally Betsy is taken to see her patient Jessica. Her room is not a dark and frightening dungeon, but a brightly lit and elegant space.

Paul keeps his wife as a prisoner within Fort Hudson, not allowing her to roam beyond the iron gates and high walls. He desires to protect her from the natives and their unpredictable forces they worship. Fort Hudson comes to represent the somber ‘rational’ perspective that Paul embodies. While Paul teases Betsy that she is a nurse who is afraid of the dark, Betsy is conflicted by all the ambiguity of this place and by Jessica’s condition. She persists in seeing this world as open and accessible. Betsy continues to maintain the belief in the world as something knowable and familiar. The other narrative voice that intrudes suggests Betsy attitude is naive.

When Wesley (James Ellison) is introduced to Betsy, it hints at the dark and intriguing family conflict, as he introduces her to the empty chairs. When Betsy asks who sits in one of the chairs, Wesley answers, “My brother’s wife” with no further explanation. Lewton & Tourneur begin to reveal the tense climate Betsy has entered into. The primal drums are a rhythmic allusion to the mysterious world outside Fort Holland, creating an eerie polarity between the romantic, the provincial, the mysterious and the mundane. Wesley leaves Paul and Betsy alone to bring the absent Jessica her dinner leaving through a seemingly secret door.

This is an effectively creepy mechanism to create disease, although the scene is framed within ordinary events. Yet it is clear Lewton has translated to us the deep rooted family dysfunction  between the brothers and the added appearance of ‘lack’ of the presence of Paul’s wife being hidden from us.

When Betsy spends her day off at a cafe with Wesley they hear a calypso song describing for the first time the love triangle between the half brothers and Jessica. This lurid tale speaks of Jessica’s current somnambulism. In order to drown out the revelatory song by the local people, Wesley tells a funny story about the plantation, raising his voice to overlap the calypso singer’s voice  [Sir Lancelot]. This attempt of one narrative to drown out another is futile as Betsy’s curiosity is already triggered. The earlier explanations for Jessica’s condition were more clinical. The allusion to truth is seeping out from the darkness into the daylight, creating a more menacing and oppressive atmosphere. “The wife fall down and the evil came and it burned her mind in the fever flame- uh uh uh oh- Shame and sorrow for the family”

We have now entered a ‘vesperal’ climate as night comes and Wesley is drunk with rum. He adds to the pattern of explanation and revelation and confesses his opinion of his half brother Paul, that he’s not what he seems to be “he’s playing the noble husband for you.”

Wesley drinks himself into oblivion, silencing himself, but the revelations continue as the calypso singer reappears, not just to tie up his story of the two brothers and their tragic conflict but now also to bring Betsy into the story, who still sees herself as an outsider, untouched by these events. The singer intrudes into the narrative with his own retelling of the story and that places Betsy deeper inside a troubling story she can’t understand. As the song concludes, “the brothers are lonely and the nurse is young.” Betsy becomes part of the narration by becoming the subject. She acts a replacement for Jessica, reenacting the romantic triangle once again. When Betsy’s own narration resumes she speaks of her involvement in the affairs and the new information she’s been given. We are shown turbulent water and waves symbolizing her own inner conflict because she’s fallen in love with Jessica’s husband Paul.

Betsy convinces Dr. Maxwell to try a new, yet dangerous, experimental procedure with Jessica – insulin shock therapy. When it fails, Betsy feels inadequate and loses faith in the scientific approach to Jessica’s condition. Going to the opposite extreme, she turns to the mystique of voodoo. When Paul learns this he worriedly says “there’s no telling what you may have started with this insanity.”

Carrefour the zombie

The long ‘set piece’ and crescendo of tracking shots which follows is very memorable. Betsy takes Jessica on the highly atmospheric Lewtonesque ‘walk’ through the sugar cane fields to the voodoo ‘houmfort (Haitian voodoo temple).’ When they walk toward the obeah sign through the banyan trees, the light through the flowing material of Jessica’s nightgown appear as liquid light… breathtaking. Lewton’s technique is the use of dissolves, POV shots, symbols, and textures makes this ‘walking sequence’ as powerful as the one used iCat People 1942. During their silent and unsettling journey they encounter various emblems of death and decay. They come across the imposing Carrefour, the looming zombie lookout and guardian of the crossroads. As long as each woman is wearing the ripped piece of material pinned to their clothes, they are permitted to pass.

According to Joel Siegel the scene exists solely “for the sake of it’s own grace of movement.” This dream-like sequence brings Betsy and us on a journey into the darker realms of the menacing world as Betsy seeks to narrate its complexities to explain away the mysterious. Once at the houmfort, Betsy listens to an off-screen voice, that of the witch doctor whose task it is to “speak to Laba and Dumbala” the native gods, about Jessica. While locals dance and chant their magic honoring the gods, Betsy discovers that Paul Holland’s mother Mrs.Rand (Edith Barrett) is a medical missionary parading as a voodoo high priestess. For example, she uses her role as high priestess to convince an island mother to finally boil the water, so the baby won’t get sick.

In fact, it was Mrs Rand who ironically warned Betsy earlier to ignore the natives’ voodoo ‘nonsense.’ Betsy learns she is responsible for turning her daughter-in-law into the sylph because Jessica threatened to break up the family by running off with Paul’s half brother Wesley. It’s a disturbing and disappointing revelation that leaves Betsy with none of the answers she was hoping for. Instead she’s left with the images of sinister, primitive ceremonies that Mrs Rand orchestrates to psychologically control the islanders. As in the Wizard of Oz 1939, we find the old man behind the curtain is only Mrs Rand who is at the center of this forbidding realm. She gives a disappointing explanation that she’s just an old woman trying to help these primitive people in a way that they will understand. In Mrs Rand’s words “It seems so simple to let the gods speak through me.”

The only explanation that the film can offer the viewers is that nothing here is as it seems, as Paul suggests in the opening, that all appearances are deceptive. The viewer’s perspective is shaped scene to scene by low-key lighting and strategically placed shadows that suggest some threat which never fully materializes. As much has been revealed at this point much of the story remains inexplicable. For instance when Jessica is pierced with a sword during the ceremonial dance we hear the islanders utter, “she doesn’t bleed”.

So our participation in the film is fueled by anxiety and never fully quelled. We are constantly denied an explanation of the events that isn’t too simplified. The misdirections of one of a civilized society rationalizing everything while imposing power over “the other” in an non-normal, non-fantasy context. The film’s conclusion effectively dramatizes the collision of these varied and equally unsatisfactory explanations signals the conflicting narrative voices which direct our perspective.

To tamp down the prevailing legend and curiosity, the local police commissioner conducts an investigation into Jessica’s condition. He finds only contradictory versions of what lead to her illness. Mrs Rand claims she deliberately turned her daughter-in-law into a zombie as revenge for coming between the two brothers and disrupting the family. Dr. Maxwell believes Jessica is the victim of a “fever with a long Latin name and a reputation for its after effects.” Paul and the doctor both believe that a person would have to be dead to be turned into a zombie. But, Paul and Wesley reveal that Jessica had indeed lapsed into a deathlike coma, which suggests to Wesley that she could have been transformed into a zombie as his mother claims. Paul continues to rationalizes that he has ”heard nothing that would convince a sober man.”

Lewton’s films often explore the duality and antagonism between the rational and the emotional archetypes. Neither explanation sheds any light on how Jessica came to her current state. The inability to distinguish the basic notions of life and death, fueled by the disharmony of battling perspectives, gives us only a fragmented vision of the full story. Because it is a fantasy narrative, however, I Walked With a Zombie is not concerned with explaining reality or with our failure to understand it. This incapacity is essentially the source of the horror with which the Lewton fantasy formulations were always concerned, and it provides the mechanism for the dread with which Zombie concludes.

Zombie culminates in a powerful dream like sequence with no dialogue except for the closing narrative. I will not give away the ending here. The final narrative voice takes over but it offers little in the way of consolation. A ‘native’ voice now replaces Betsy’s in order to bring a greater familiarity with human tragedy. The commentary is infused with both pagan and christian perspectives, lamenting human limitations and fate. “The secret of all hearts” beyond what we can know or what the narrative can impart. The voice is unsettling because it does not bring us closure. It also reminds us that there cannot be a single perspective that leads us to the truth. It speaks of the “Lord’s pity’ and why what we eternally seek requires an act of faith.

At the end the camera tracks in to a final close-up on the fountain and Ti Misery. As a tribute to Saint Sebastian’s martyrdom as it stands in the middle of the beautiful Holland garden a mythic symbol of Lewton’s subtext of human frailty and fall in other films. Water, both the sea and the fountain are archetypal symbols of birth, life, and eternity, as well as attrition and death. The film opens and closes with Ti Misery as the central focal point. At the core of the narrative he stands as testimony to the original journey on slave ships made by the islanders. This is also emblematic of Lewton’s recurring themes of death and suffering in subsequent films.

I Walked With a Zombie is story told in flashbacks, telling of Betsy’s traumatic initiation into a world where nothing is as it seems, and the nature of life and death, love and murder, simmer beneath an idyllic landscape. Betsy becomes the incarnation of innocence and humanity, lost in an unfamiliar world that’s impossible to navigate. We are trapped in the netherworld, like Jessica between, what is right and what is wrong. All that we know by the end of the film is how little we know, and that the rational world and mysterious world remain in conflict with each other. The film lacks the traditional threatening monsters that Universal studios made famous we still experience fear from the dark absences that are as effective as any horror filmZombie’s narrative mechanisms, however specifically by contrast denies the contrived allegory of vanquishing supernatural monsters. It evokes a transportation into the ‘vesperal’ nightworld representative of the psychoanalytical regions of the psyche.

In all of the Lewton series, the films concern themselves with our tendency to deny anything that challenges our simple way of life, and so when the fantastic intrudes, the reactive character must cling to their control over their once familiar world.

Edith Barrett’s Mrs Rand could be seen as the catalyst for all the darkness that ensues, yet the story emphasizes Jessica as a fallen evil woman who led her men down dangerous paths. Again, I won’t be talking about ‘damned wicked women’, misogyny or missionaries pushing their christian agenda that is for another time. The indistinct and shadowy moral world that the players inhabit is as unclear as smoked glass. But none the less frightening when the mysterious forces that seem to loom- come closer to the lens. Sketching the most magnificent filmic frames coming to life on the screen.

The coda the voice-over intrudes“O Lord God most holy. Deliver them from the bitter pain of eternal death. The woman was a wicked woman, and she was dead in her own life. Yea Lord, dead in the selfishness of her spirit. And the man followed her. Her steps led him down to evil. Her feet took hold on death. Forgive him, O Lord, who knowest the secret of all hearts. Yea, Lord, pity them who are dead and give peace and happiness to the living.”

In I Walked With a Zombie Lewton’s team structured the complex narrative that focuses our attention on how we perceive the world, how we make judgements about what is ‘normal’ and how the mysterious threatens our comfortability even in the most conventional or beautiful of places.

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The Seventh Victim 


“I run to death and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday.” -John Donne’s Holy Sonnets

Directed by Mark Robson, written by Charles O’neal (The Alligator People 1959) and Dewitt Bodeen. (Cat People 1942, Billy Budd 1962) The Seventh Victim stars Tom Conway as Dr Louis Judd, Jean Brooks as Jacqueline Gibson, Isabel Jewell as Frances Fallon, Kim Hunter as Mary Gibson, Evelyn Brent as Natalie Cortez, Erford Gage as poet Jason Hoag, Ben Bard as Mr Brun, Hugh Beaumont as Gregory Ward, Chef Milani as Mr. Jacob Romari, Marguerita as Mrs. Bella Romari, Joan Barclay as Gladys, and Ottola Nesmith uncredited as Mrs. Lowood, Highcliff Headmistress. Music by Roy Webb, (Out of the Past, Notorious, Clash By Night) Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca, and film editing by John Lockhart. Once again, art direction by D’Agostino & Keller. Costumes designed by Renié. (Cat People 1942 Cleopatra 1963, The Sand Pebbles 1966)

The Seventh Victim was Robson’s first film. He also directed Isle of the Dead and Bedlam for Lewton. The wonderfully eerie and visually stunning film is a strong urban pastiche about devil worshipers in Greenwich Village. I would almost say it’s as powerful for me as I Walked With a Zombie in terms of its message about life and death. It’s a haunting allegory of fear and despair, with the outlying ornamentation of the macabre.

In his directorial debut The Seventh Victim 1943, Mark Robson pays tribute to the mechanism of repetition also used in Cat People, yet develops this further by emphasizing the archetypes of life and death. This film is infused with haunting imagery, unique narrative structures, and symbols of conventional life. Mark Robson directs The Seventh Victim maintaining focus on a thematic and structural exploration of the common human experience of limitation. Joel Siegel comments that it’s the most characteristic work of the series, but goes on to say that it’s “a film in which existence is portrayed as a hellish void from which all souls yearn for the sweet release of death.”


The film is very nihilistic, exploring the undefinable anxieties of the human psyche about the human preoccupation of life and death. It explores the fear of life being meaningless and death being its only release. The narrative creates a disparity between what the characters know and what they desire to know. The experience of human limitation, according to historian and essayist Tezvan Todorov is at the core of fantasy. The story utilizes the Lewton Unit’s mechanism of the “vesperal impulse.” Todorov’s “vesperal impulse” is the human tendency to move towards the darkness of the psyche represented in the night world. 

The Seventh Victim is a film about a sequence of sacrificial killings designed to suppress knowledge of a satanic cult called the Palladists. It draws its structure from a series of repetitions, but not simply the recurrence of victimization like in the multiple murders in The Leopard Man 1943, as every character seems provided with a double or alter ego and every action paired with or qualified by its mirror image. The story focuses primarily on two sisters, Mary and Jacqueline Gibson, who are outliers of society and who are objects for the love of the same man.

When Jacqueline mysteriously disappears she becomes the object of a series of searches, first by her sister, then by two detectives (one working for Mary, the other for Jacqueline’s husband Gregory Ward), and finally by a poet and a psychiatrist who offer their help. As these people pursue Jacqueline she continues to appear & flee, afraid of rejoining the everyday world which she associates with sameness, meaninglessness, and death. These themes are announced in the opening epigraph with a line from John Donne’s Holly Sonnets– “I run to death and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday.”  First appearing on a stained glass window in the school Mary attends, the theme again recurs at the film’s conclusion, echoing the central themes of all Lewton films.

The film explores repetition as a common denominator of human action, or according to James Hillman, how the human spirit “is ceaselessly talking about itself in ever-recurring motifs in ever-new variations, like music.” Within our working minds exists an internal dialogue that is primal and offers us archetypal images and patterns that are contrary to our rational way of thinking and yet informs us how to interpret our lives and actions and tell us how to ‘be’

The adorable, sprite and incredibly versatile character actress Kim Hunter (Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire 1951, Zira in Planet of the Apes 1968) plays Mary Gibson who goes in search of her older sister Jacqueline, played by the mesmerizing Jean Brooks, her search pulls us in. Mary has graduated from the gloomy boarding school and is now ready to be a teacher. The first thing you see in the film is the epigraph, and then the camera pulls away to show animated children running down the stairs of their school. Mary, heading in the opposite direction, is going to the headmistress’s office. There she learns that her sister, and only relative, has stopped paying her tuition and disappeared. The news is disturbing and speaks of the existence of absence and aloneness in Mary’s world.


Wanting her to stay at school, Mrs. Lowood offers Mary a position as an assistant teacher. It’s always wonderful to spot Ottola Nesmith who plays Mrs Lowood the headmistress. Miss Gilchrist, the headmistress’s assistant, privately warns Mary against getting stuck at the school, unable to live her own life, and breaking away from normalcy. Like Mary, she went through a traumatic departure and then a return to school; “I left as you are leaving, but I didn’t have courage. One must have the courage to really live in the world… I came back.” Mary doesn’t take the position and goes in search of her sister Jacqueline instead. Mary is urged to become another archetypal figure of repetition, a movement out from the security of school into the real world. It is a kind of repetition that could also allow her to break the limitations of her present life in order to find her own identity.

By the time Mary descends the school’s staircase, she is distant from the sounds of other students reciting their repetitive lessons. She hears students conjugating the French verbs “to search” and “to love,” and a recitation of Holme’s poem “The Chambered Nautilus.” Mary is leaving to heed Holme’s advice to “build…. more stately mansions” and “leave thy low-vaulted past.” This is symbolic of her need to break away from the confines of the schoolhouse to venture into the mysterious world of the unthinkable and unknown. Mary’s pursuit of her sister takes on an epistemological journey as she learns about herself. As Mary searches for her sister, she searches for herself.

Once Mary gets to New York City, she finds that mystery is a daily occurrence. We see a long tracking shot of the various anonymous faces at the Bureau of Missing Persons, underscoring this fact. Mary continues her “low-vaulted” journey as she goes from one small space to another, emphasizing the difficulty of her search and her growing anxiety from its fruitlessness. 

At the Dante Restaurant where Jacqueline was last seen, Mary learns that her sister rented a room which, when opened reveals a solitary chair and a noose menacingly dangling from the ceiling. She is told that the small room made her sister happy in some way as her husband Gregory says “No, that room made her happy in some strange way I couldn’t understand. She lived in a world of her own fancy. She didn’t always tell the truth. In fact, I’m afraid she didn’t know what the truth was.” This mystery surrounding this room is again revisited when she discovers that her sister Jacqueline has been condemned to death by a non-violent (insert ironic chuckle) order of devil worshipers, called the Palladists. She has betrayed them by leaving the cult and befriending a psychoanalyst (Tom Conway) who becomes her lover. Jacqueline holds onto this nihilistic room as a way to perpetuate the inevitable that she faces.

Mary goes to the perfume company that Jacqueline owns, La Sagesse Cosmetic, and questions a co-worker Gladys who is part of the secret society of Palladists.  –There is an undercurrent that alludes to a Lesbian relationship she might have had with Jacqueline. Gladys tells Mary, “My dear, ‘we were intimate’. The times we use to have together! I bet she never told you about that – you’re too young.”

When the detective Mary hires, Irving August tries to locate Jacqueline he discovers another such locked room in the rear of La Sagesse Cosmetics, the company she formerly owned. Though he finds Jacqueline there, he also meets his death as she stabs him out of fright and then flees into the night. Mary breaks into the same building to look for Jacqueline, walking its dark corridors. The company trademark, the Palladist insignia, casts a shadow on her back for a moment, marking her with the threatening darkness she’s pursuing.


Mary discovers Irving August stabbed but does not realize her sister is the one who killed him. In one of the more brilliantly orchestrated scenes, Mary flees to the subway, only to revisit the initial shock of the dead man when she sees two Palladists cult members with August’s dead body propped up between them as if he’s one of their drunk buddies sitting across from her on the subway car. Her chance discovery of their presence and frustration at getting anyone to believe her story goes to the heart of how horrifying her journey of individuation is as she tries to gain knowledge from the appearance of normalcy when in fact her world is imploding with secrets, deceptions, and danger. The scene is dark and almost appears restrainedly zany.

Later, Jacqueline has herself on a journey through the ‘night world’ through the city streets as she is followed by one of the Palladists. The streets are crowded, yet she finds herself alone and unable to reach out for any help, in quite the same way her sister Mary attempted to. She approaches a dark alley to try and lose the man pursuing her and pauses outside a theater. The camera views her covering the mask of tragedy that decorates the stage door. Her sensuality framed by her accentuated hairstyle emphasizes the look of fright on her face, as she symbolically becomes the tragic mask. This is her signifier, her mark of individuation in the narrative, and a revelatory transformation as the story’s tragic figure. Both sisters are symbiotically tied together in the process of individuation, both who move toward knowing meaningfulness, both who are in the midst of a flight from death and toward it.

Soon after, Dr. Louis Judd, Jacqueline’s psychiatrist, and lover, takes Mary to a rooming house where he is hiding her. When he unlocks the door, the room is empty except for a burning cigarette showing that Jacqueline has just recently fled. Judd’s cryptic statement that “she’s left me to meet them alone tells us the mystery and foreboding is all around Mary. Her pursuit of her sister suggests a sense of alienation and absence in both sisters’ lives. He’s a sinister sort himself saying “One can take either staircase. I prefer the left. The sinister side.”

The idea of Mary crossing the threshold from normalcy to the mysterious becomes more pronounced in the shower scene, which could be seen as the precursor to the iconic centerpiece in Hitchcock’s thriller Psycho 1960. This moment occurs just at the point where Mary believes she’s made progress in finding her sister, while in the most intimate part of her room, the bathroom, she is invaded by the presence of a shadow standing outside the shower curtain. An eerie atmosphere overtakes the scene as the indistinct figure suddenly enters the room and identifies herself as Mrs. Redi, Jacqueline’s former partner to whom she supposedly sold her perfume company Le Sagesse. The shower curtain remains drawn between the two women creating a translucent veil. This recalls what Todorov calls ‘certain hesitation’ a term that is key to the fantasy genre and denotes essentially no direct interaction and instead forms a mystique.


Mary is reluctant to pierce that veil of hesitation but talks with Mrs. Redi through the barrier. All the while water drips from the shower creating an atmosphere of tension and repetition. She tells Mary to “go back. You don’t know what you’re doing or what dreadful things you might bring about by looking for your sister.” The curtain also signifies Mary’s resistance to finding her sister as she is reluctant to open herself to a darker realm. As Jacqueline’s friend the poet Jason Hoag recognizes when he challenges her to “look into your heart. Do you really want to find your sister?”

The reference to Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic poems and the journey through hell aligned with Jason Hoag the poet and the prominent painting that looms large at the restaurant Dante is not missed by this referential-tangential little blogger.

The only alternative for Mary would be to return to the school, but as Gilchrist warned it would be a certain death and empty existence. In Jacqueline, we see her rebel from repetition and embrace dangers that might occur with such exploration. As Dr. Judd notes, Jacqueline “was always a sensationalist, trying to seize into something, anything to bring her happiness.” Jacqueline’s husband Gregory Ward admits that as a result, she seemed to inhabit “a world of her own fancy. She didn’t always tell the truth, In fact… she didn’t know what the truth was.” They paint Jacqueline as lacking meaning in her life. Because of this lack, she rushes to embrace anything new to fill the emptiness, vanquish ambiguity, and give her life purpose and direction. So she enters a fantasy world, constructed and furnished from the darker projections of her own psyche. In Rosemary Jackson’s “Fantasy,” she explains that fantasies “express a longing for an absolute meaning, for something other than the limited ‘known’ world.”

In the absence of such a balance between normalcy and deviance, the fact of difference becomes both an escape for both sisters and simultaneously a psychic burden for the self. The most disturbing expression of this is the empty room with the noose dangling over the chair above Dante’s Restaurant.

“Because I loved Jacqueline I thought I knew her. Today I found out such strange things, frightening things. I saw a hangman’s noose that Jacqueline had hanging… waiting.” -Mary

“Well, at least I can explain about that. Your sister had a feeling about life; that it wasn’t worth living unless one could end it. I helped her get that rope.” -Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont)

 In the film’s universe where meaningless is pervasive, Jacqueline takes control over death by creating a space where she can ultimately maneuver the power of negation by placing the means of death in her own hands. This lets her reaffirm the force of her individuality. Jacqueline symbolizes the potential hazards of abandoning normalcy and repetition, mirroring the dark side of Mary’s nature whose compelled to pursue her sister despite those threats. The two sisters are like the workings of the human psyche, the Jungian idea that people only seem to get a fleeting glimpse at the shadow-self, as they strive for completion and individuation. The sisters physically resemble one another. Mary goes to her room where her sister has been hiding and handles Jacqueline’s possessions, in particular her monogrammed hand mirror. When she answers the door she finds her sister standing there, poised as if a mirror image of herself, although they aren’t perfect doubles as their hair and clothes reflect their present personae. They are light and dark versions of the same character. The mirror is an often-used piece of iconography in noir.


Toward the end of the film, Jacqueline is surrounded by the Palladists who insist she drink a glass of poisoned wine. Nancy says, “Jacqueline, you’ve spoken so often of ending it all I can’t understand why this should be so difficult for you. You have only to drink a little.” Esther Redi, Jacqueline’s partner, adds “Yes, Jacqueline. You were always talking suicide; ending your life when you wanted to.” Jacqueline answers “Yes, when *I* wanted to.”

The film is populated with tormented souls and cynics. Elizabeth Russell comes back from Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People as a dying consumptive prostitute who lives down the hall from Jacqueline. Though a small part, she is wonderful as a woman who sees her death coming and goes out to embrace her one last breath before giving her life over to it. Ironically, she lives next door to Jacqueline who longs for death, yet runs from it when it torments her. She wants to be the one in control of her death time. While Russell can think of nothing else but her impending death “I’ve been quiet, oh ever so quiet. I hardly move, yet it keeps coming all the time, closer and closer.” 

One of the bleakest and most despairing moments of the film comes when Jacqueline goes into her room while Russell’s character dresses up and goes out into the night as she hears the sound of the chair overturning, moving on not realizing what it means.

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“If… reality is psychology and spiritual, by which I mean ideational, religious, imagined, fantastic… then affecting reality requires instruments for moving ideas, beliefs, feelings, images, and fantasies. Then rhetoric, persuasion, holds major importance. Through words we can alter reality; we can bring into being and remove from essence of what is real. The art of speech becomes the primary mode of moving reality.”James Hillman ‘Facing the Gods’


Val Lewton must have been an admirer of James Hillman -20th Century psychologist who was critical of psychologies, behavioral & cognitive for instance, that adopt a natural scientific philosophy & working theory as gospel. Hillman felt these are reductive, materialistic, and too literal and were psychologies without psyche and without soul. Hillman attempted to restore the psyche to what he believed to be ‘its proper place’ in psychology. He envisioned the soul at work in the imagination, fantasy, myth, and metaphor. He also saw pathological symptoms which he called “speech of the suffering soul” which he felt revealed itself through images and fantasies.

In his The Dream and the Underworld (1979) Hillman suggests that dreams show us as we are; diverse, taking very different roles, experiencing fragments of meaning that are always on the tip of consciousness. They also place us inside images, rather than images inside us. This move turns traditional epistemology on its head. The source of knowledge is not Descartes’ “I” but rather there is a world full of images that this I inhabits.–From Wikipedia James Hillman Psyche or Soul-

The Ghost Ship


The man is dead. With his death, the waters of the sea are open to us. But there will be other deaths, and the agony of dying, before we come to land again.”-Finn the mute: [voiceover]

Directed by Mark Robson, screenplay by Donald Henderson Clarke, story by Leo Mittler.

Starring Richard Dix as Captain Will Stone, Russell Wade as 3rd Officer Tom Merriam / Tertius, Edith Barrett as Ellen Roberts, Ben Bard as First Officer Bowns, Edmund Glover as Jacob ‘Sparks’ Winslow, Radioman, Lawrence Tierney as an uncredited seaman, Steve Forrest as a sailor, Sir Lancelot as Billy Radd, Skelton Knaggs as Finn the Mute. Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca, Music by Roy Webb, Film editing by John Lockert, art direction D’Agostino & Keller,

Again, this is more a psychological thriller than a fantasy horror tale. Although the ship takes on an ominous persona, with all its rigging’s like giant chains, anchors, bells, horns, and the sound of the ocean creating an otherworldly and threatening realm.

The Ghost Ship was the fifth successive low-budget moody ‘horror’ film produced by Val Lewton in a short period of time, following The Cat People (1942) I Walked With a Zombie  The Leopard Man (1943), & The Seventh Victim (1943). This was Mark Robson’s second directorial effort, after his debut with The Seventh Victim. Like all of Lewton’s films, the elements of horror and fantasy do not assault our senses from an explicitly supernatural source, the terrors come from the dark, unfathomable corners of the human psyche and all its machinations. The Ghost Ship, once again communicates its dark edges like any good film noir.

The film’s ominous beginnings portend the bad luck and ill deeds that follow when Officer Tom Merriam young and optimistic hears a blind singer comment that the ship is cursed, right before he boards the Altair. Tom then meets his shipmate, an odd mute sailor named Finn whose eerie voice-overs reassert this film as a horror/noir hybrid. Finn predicts that there will be deaths on the upcoming voyage.

Finn’s close-up voice-over “This is another man I can never know because I cannot talk with him, For I am mute and cannot speak. I am cut off from other men but in my own silence, I can hear things they cannot hear. Know things they can never know.”

Is it a tale of a jinxed merchant ship called the Altair, in which a young naval officer (Russell Wade) is given his assignment to work under a maniacal captain played flawlessly by Richard Dix whose psychosis develops because of the strain of authority on him pushes him toward insanity. Captain Stone’s faculties slowly erode away into madness making him a murderer. He has doubts and fears that are a malignancy that cause him to become homicidal toward his crew.

At first, Tom Merriam is warmly welcomed by the friendly Captain Stone, who says he chose Merriam as third mate because he thinks they share a common background. Merriam seems to be impressed by Captain Stone’s civility, but he soon discovers that he is in fact a rigid authoritarian. When Merriam tries to kill a moth in the Captain’s room he stops him saying that he has no rights over that small life. Yet he eventually exposes his lust and maniacal obsession with authority as he considers his omnipotence over the lives of the men he is responsible for. Even if that means killing one of them when he perceives insubordination that threatens his autonomy.

Merriam also finds out that his predecessor had only recently died from mysterious violent convulsions. The mattress in Tom’s cabin is burned and Merriam begins to feel a little unease when another shipmate is found dead.



The film is beautifully photographed. The wonderful use of the sea shanties and how though it takes place on the ocean, the scenes can still come across as starkly claustrophobic because of the ensuing madness of Captain Stone and Lewton’s use of dark patches. The horrific scene where the sailor is trapped in the chain room is brutal and visually startling. The use of the giant hoist hook or anchor can be seen as the film’s more corporeal monster as it assails the crew one night during a storm as it breaks away untethered swinging dangerously threatening to kill the men as it swings mightily to and fro on deck. It’s as if the crew is battling a giant sea serpent. As Russell Wade comes to realize that his captain is insane, the film takes on a pace of anxiousness as the idealistic 3rd Officer Tom Merriam tries to get people to believe him about Captain Stone’s state of mind.

The incident with the hook shows Stone’s obsessiveness with neatness that put his men at risk. Merriam first questions Stone about wanting to tether the hook but is reprimanded by Captain Stone about making decisions and using the excuse that the paint wasn’t dry yet. Knowing all along that it was very precarious to leave the film’s monstrous hook untethered.

When another crew member dared into complaining that the ship should dock at the next port to fill out the crew. Captain Will Stone eerily replies-“You know, there are some captains who would hold this against you.”

Captain Stone becomes angry at his insubordination and a little later shuts the door to the chain house on the poor guy so that he dies a horrible death being crushed by the massive anchor chain, making it look like an accident. Merriam discovers what really happened, accuses the captain of murder, and files a formal protest at the ship’s next port of call, St Sebastian (the same fictitious Caribbean port used in I Walked With a Zombie). A hearing is held, but the crew, refuses to talk against Captain Stone fearful of his vengeance and so the case is dropped.

Merriam winds up back on the ship after he’s knocked out in a drunken brawl. Now trapped by the deranged Stone who wants to kill him. The protagonist waiting in the darkness, as often Lewton’s players are placed down in the eerie shadows with something lurking.

Captain Will Stone- “Well, I’ve never felt more sane in my life than I do at this moment… Who’s crazy? You, who defied me and are helpless? Or I, who control your destiny and the destiny of the ‘Altair’ and all the lives on board?”

3rd Officer Tom Merriam– “I wish Bowns… I wish the crew could see what I see now, could hear you talk.”

Captain Stone “You think I’m insane?”Officer Tome Merriam answers him-“Yes, and they would too if they could see you now, raving and ranting…”

Captain Stone“I’m captain. As long as I wear these stripes there isn’t a man in the crew that’ll believe you or help you. You’ll find them too lazy, too cowardly, too disinterested… That’s what I want you to learn, Merriam! Men are worthless cattle! And a few men are given authority to drive them.”

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The Leopard Man


“Nothing is more fantastic than the human brain. Fear, horror, terror are in us. Rightly or wrongly, we all carry in us a feeling of guilt. Cruelty flows in our blood, even if we have learned to master it… Now, a good horror film is one that best awakens our old dormant instincts.”Jacques Tourneur

“Time is strange… a moment can be as short as a breath or as long as eternity”- (The old man who runs the cemetery)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur, Screenplay by Ardel Wray, with a final script by Lewton as usual uncredited. Edward Dein’s additional dialogue, based on the novel by prolific mystery writer Cornell Woolrich (Rear Window, The Bride Wore Black 1968) ‘Black Alibi’

Stars Dennis O’Keefe (Raw Deal 1948) as Jerry Manning, Jean Brooks as Kiki Walker, Margo (Viva Zapata! 1952) as Clo-Clo, Isabel Jewell as Maria the Fortune Teller, James Bell as Dr. Galbraith, Margaret Landry as Teresa Delgado, Kate Lawson as Senora Delgado, Abner Biberman as Charlie How-Come, Tuulikki Paananen as Consuelo Contreras, Ottola Nesmith was Señora Contreras, Ben Bard as Roblos the police chief, the black leopard was portrayed by the beautiful Dynamite.

Cinematography by Robert de Grasse, film editing by Mark Robson, Music by Roy Webb, and art direction once again D’Agostino & Keller.

From The Cinema of Nightfall by Chris Fujiwara-“In retrospect The Leopard Man appears ahead of it’s time, related only loosely to earlier horror films. Tourneur’s staging of self-contained mininarratives in which women are stalked and killed addresses the direct connection between the spectator’s gaze and death, foregrounding the desire of the spectator in a way generally associated with later films by Hitchcock while also foreshadowing the Italian giallo…{…} The film also anticipates Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom in making the sight of a victim’s fear- the factor that fascinates the killer and compels him to kill.”

Fujiwara also brings up an interesting point in his book about Tourneur that refers to the narrative as a device that moderates our relationship with the characters giving us a gaze that sets them up as “pawns of a bizarre and terrible destiny.”

Leopard Man she peeks in the door

Jacques Tourneur fragments the spaces for us as he does in other of his films, as he alternates between close-up shots and long-tracking shots, frontal perspectives, and perspectives that are framed to the side of the subject. These carefully placed shots show a thoughtfulness that transcends the typical ‘B’ movie. Through all the murder sequences we are shown the extended use of structural repetition and difference. For instance, the incredible long shot of Teresa walking toward the railroad bridge so specifically placed in both a realistic way because of her surroundings and a more abstract way because we are experiencing the space and its visual structure as a fragmented reconstruction of Teresa’s fear and how she perceives her environment.

Less a horror/fantasy film and more a psychologically provocative thriller in the visual terrain of film noir. The Leopard Man works well because of the Lewton team’s framing of the sequences. There is a series of murders committed by a maniac who is allowing the town to believe that the killings are the work of an escaped carnival leopard.

Jerry Manning sets up a publicity stunt for his client Kiki that goes tragically wrong-He borrows carnival man Charlie How-Come’s striking black leopard so Kiki can walk it on a leash right out into the crowd in the middle of Clo-Clo’s performance.

“I thought… Is Kiki just gonna walk out there tonight? Just walk out on the floor cold in front of a bunch of ‘gawkers’? That I think a Spanish twirler is the greatest thing in life? No. Not my client. She’s gonna make an entrance that this town’s gonna remember for the rest of their lives.”

“I thought you might like to strut the kitten right in the middle of her act.”

While the film was not as well received by fans who felt Cat People 1942 and I Walked With a Zombie, as the haunting masterpieces of horror they still are. The Leopard Man has several disturbing moments that are visually striking. Actually, both Lewton and Tourneur sort of disowned this film as something of a misfire. While it’s a mystery thriller, there are still shades of the fantasy/horror film throughout its dark yet open landscape. Quickly dismissed as a tale of the supernatural, the element of the fortune teller’s prophecy of doom lingers on as an element of otherworldliness.

Yet if we look at it now, it could appeal to some of the most ardent noir enthusiasts. The story follows Cornell Woolrich’s dark thriller ‘Black Alibi’ pretty closely. Woolwich was the perfect writer for Lewton to draw story ideas. As Foster Hirsch says in Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen “The Woolwich world is a maze of wrong impressions as the author sets traps for his luckless protagonists and then watches as they fall into them”

According to Edmund Bansak’s Fearing the Dark, Lewton made an effort to cast as many Mexican/Hispanic performers as possible to create the aura of the authenticity of the New Mexico sets. Although the starring role of the flamenco dancer Clo-Clo went to actress Margo the beauty from Lost Horizon.

The film also contains a lot of the significant sonic elements of a Lewton film, to enhance the atmosphere with percussive elements like the castanets that pulse through some of the film’s scenes, rhythms of banging pans, and eerie footfalls, water droplets, and the moody procession or the religious sect with it’s chanting.

Leopard Man the procession candles

The incident which ignites the film’s lurid narrative is caused by an unthinkably selfish publicity stunt. In order to steal some attention away from Clo-Clo the girl with great ‘castanets’ and hand it over to Kiki Walker (Jean Brooks sans the sensually evocative black wig she wore in The Seventh Victim).

There is a rivalry between Clo Clo and Kiki as Kiki Walker referring to Clo Clo’s castanets tells her manager/boyfriend Jerry-“It may sound like music to her. I can do better with my teeth in the cold”

Jerry Manning (O’Keefe) borrows Charlie How-Comes Black Leopard and gives him to Kiki to walk into the crowd while Clo-Clo’s doing her act. Clo-Clo snaps and chatters the wooden instruments antagonistically at the cat in such a way that spooks it into running away.

The local police go on a hunt to trap and kill the loose black leopard, while the real killer is still on the prowl. Charlie How-Come tries to impart some of his wisdom to Jerry Manning- Charlie How-Come tells him-“You don’t get the idea, mister. These cops banging those pans, flashing those lights, they’re gonna scare that poor cat of mine. Cats are funny, mister. They don’t want to hurt you, but if you scare them they go crazy. These cops, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

But the leopard is merely a ‘black alibi’ a decoy that the killer uses to cloak his blood lust and nefarious deeds behind, while he preys on the flesh of young women. It’s a symbol of the world’s greed, ambition, and dangerous lust that preys on the world.

The film opens with Roy Webb’s score, a mystery theme that becomes a Spanish bolero-style melody that features the sharp and biting clicks of castanets. The street is dark and twisted with the light from a streetlamp glowing as if a tiny moon set down in the middle of the labyrinth-like darkness. de Grasse’s fluid camera follows along til it finds a small apartment, as we gaze we are like voyeurs, we see Clo-Clo twirling with her castanets chattering. Suddenly the camera tracks to the right, another open door where Kiki Walker is in a huff about the noise Clo-Clo is making with her little wooden crickets. She bangs on the wall and slams the door shutting us out. This immediately sets up the dynamic between the two dueling female forces in the story. One is ill-fated to be a victim, the other will survive and go on.

When Kiki brings the docile and beautiful large cat to the cafe while Clo-Clo clacks out her dance, it is obvious that the friction is ripe as she harasses the poor leopard until it breaks its leash and bolts out the door. The crowds of people with the local police are now in the streets roaming with flashlights, banging pots, creating a commotion that would scare the poor cat more than coax it back quietly. They are doing everything they shouldn’t do, professes the cat’s trainer Charlie How-Come (Abner Biberman)who stands near his carnival wagon that boasts the sign-‘The Leopard Man’.

Within all the turmoil created by this incident, Clo-Clo steps out into the frame and is acting happy and unmoved by the events. She shows no guilt over her causing the leopard to run away. In metaphoric terms she has unleashed a curse that will not only rip the town wide open, it will inevitably turn itself on her. On her way home, Clo-Clo passes her friend Maria leaning out the darkened doorway, who tells her to pick a card. Clo-Clo picks the ace of spades which is ‘the death card’. She laughs and calls Maria a ‘faker’. Through most of her performance in the film she has a self-possessed stride, and seems undismayed by the building hysteria surrounding the missing leopard and the dangers lurking.

Clo-Clo gives the impression that she is well-liked in the community, especially for her brazen self-confidence. She passes the Delgado’s house where young Teresa (Margaret Landry) greets her. “Hello Chiquita” As she continues to walk, the camera remains with Teresa now. Teresa’s overbearing mother (Kate Lawson) is practically abusive when she insists that her young daughter go back out into the night to buy the cornmeal for her father’s supper. Teresa confesses that she is afraid of the darkness and the leopard who has escaped. Senora Delgado practically beats her with a broom to go out the door. “Did you ever meet one of them on your way to the store before?… then you won’t meet one now!” She locks the door from the inside refusing to open it until Teresa brings home the cornmeal.

What ensues is one of the best frightening sequences of orchestrated ‘terror’ that builds so lucidly I’d say it’s one of those memorable moments in film. As in a fairytale, Teresa reluctantly walks along her way, surrounded by the night-world until she arrives at the market, which is just about to close up for the evening. The owner refuses to open the doors to Teresa and sends her away. And so the frightened girl must walk way across town, through dark alleys and gloomy watery gulleys with dark tunnels that run under train trestles in search of the cornmeal. There are natural sounds of tumbleweeds and train whistles until Teresa makes it to an open store. Ironically the storekeeper recognizes her as the “little girl afraid of the dark”  While she’s there she smiles at some mechanical songbirds in a cage. In keeping with the Lewton theme, she like most of his characters finds no one who knows her that is willing to help her.

Leopard Man she sees the singing toy bird

On the journey back home, she goes through the train trestle where the sound of dripping water creates a rhythm that plops down into the puddles. The moment she looks up, her eyes gaze at two glowing fiery eyes staring back, as the train comes screaming overhead, the leopard emerges from the shadows, and it crouches ready to spring. Teresa runs dropping the sack of cornmeal and making it back to her home where the door is locked. Pounding on the door, screaming “Mamacita, let me in! It’s coming! Let me in! I can see it, It’s coming!”

Her mother annoyed at her being later returning home doesn’t rush to answer her daughter’s pleas. “Just what she needs, something to nip at her heels to hurry her up” Teresa lets out a horrific shriek, as Senora Delgado finally takes seriously her daughter’s screams, but the lock breaks as visceral eerie sounds come from the other side of the door. Suddenly blood begins to pool underneath the door, along the floorboards…

At Teresa’s wake Dr. Galbraith (James Bell) the local museum curator confirms the cause of death as a leopard attack, he tells Chief Robles (Ben Bard) and Jerry Manning. Robles holds Jerry partly responsible for Teresa’s death yet Galbraith seems oddly detached from the event. An eerie moment at Teresa’s wake is when her young brother once again makes hand shadows of a cat upon the walls of the church, the same way he did the night Teresa went out to get the cornmeal.

Two scenes in particular that transcend the fantasy/horror genre and could be considered to fit the noir canon is when Clo-Clo (Margo) takes her solitary Lewtoneque ‘walk’ through the town, through the streets of the ‘nightworld’.

The first time she goes out into the night is shot perfectly by de Grasse which happens before the first murder takes place. We see dark spaces and edges as figures lurk hidden in an embrace in doorways, unseen behind doors and closed windows. The second time Clo-Clo goes for her ‘walk’, the terror in the town has begun to simmer and the streets are filled with fear. The alleys and doorways seem to take on a more ominous quality of dread.

One young man pulls up in a black car, which was identified by her fortune teller friend as the killer. Isabel Jewell who plays Maria the fortune teller tries to warn Clo-Clo of her ill fate, but she dismisses the prophecy. In this Lewtonesque landscape doom and dread are a contagion, as a self-fulfilling destiny that has its consequences throughout the town, either for the wealthy class or the struggling poor. No matter who is guilty or innocent, nor sane or deranged. There is so much emphasis placed on Maria’s predictions with the cards which always ultimately reveal the death card, it is Clo-Clo’s fate that seems to attach itself to other young innocent females in the small New Mexico town.

Maria the fortune-teller picks the ace of spades for Clo-Clo once again,  “Something black is on its way to you”

Leopard Man the ace of spades

For a brief while the streets are quiet amidst the darkness. We hear the sound of footsteps, alongside the tapping of Clo-Clo’s heels. She takes out her compact and applies make-up and lipstick thinking it is her man Carlos whom she is waiting for. She calls out his name. Her cigarette drops from her lips. In a terrifying close up we see Clo-Clo realizing that it is not Carlos, while she screams, the camera frames the dropped cigarette still burning and the compact on the ground.

Kiki and Jerry begin to suspect that it is not Charlie’s leopard doing these killings at all but someone trying to make it look like it. I won’t reveal any more of the plot as it truly is more entertaining for you to see this overlooked gem by the Lewton Unit.

Because it relies heavily on Woolwich’s style, it does in fact create a maze-like narrative structure that disorients and displaces us in a dangerous world. Yet one thing is clear, Clo-Clo is the central figure, the wicked female force who unleashes evil on her small New Mexico community.

Both these ‘walking’ scenes plus the one extremely potent scene where a young Mexican girl is locked out of her house by her impatient and vexed mother who sent her out into the darkness to get cornmeal, begs for her life while she is killed outside the door, her blood pooling underneath, is quite striking as it is powerful.

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Val Lewton born with an eternal imagination that broke boundaries, gave so much of himself when making a film. He did so without any pretense. you’ll find he put a lot of himself into his work and the characters he created. Always at odds with his bosses, he aspired to be independent and produce artistic films that were filled with meaning and beauty. From the time he was a young boy, he was that ‘dreamer’ We see the essence of that in so many of his characters. The mood of his films often reflected a hypnotic sort of melancholy, and in real life, the torments and fears they would journey through often mirrored his own.

young lewton 2
a young dreamer Val Lewton as a boy
Ann Carter Curse of the Cat People searching
Ann Carter in Curse of the Cat People…

That’s why he had such a deeper understanding of the darker realms. Films that had a distinct literary quality, spoke of a world beyond that haunted the Lewton protagonist. Innocent figures go on a personal journey into a world rife with unexpected messages, converging on a mysterious plane that must be encrypted and explored before they can be redeemed.

Moviegoers recognized something very special and were ready to go ‘deeper’ What he and his collaborative ‘unit’ left us is a legacy of extraordinary films that are unique, distinct, and powerfully original. Films where so much anxiety and fear were created out of nothing and where the seen and unseen converge.

To master the way darkness and light dance together, to a rhythm that lilts at first a light breeze then becomes a storm that rages against the borderline of knowing, until just as quickly it just dissolves… Val Lewton died at age 46 from a second heart attack. What other dream-worlds would he have created had he lived to further his vision…

Val Lewton 13

As critic Manny Farber said, “The Camera eye is on a very delicate wavelength and response to the scenery as quickly as the mind. ” 

From the darkest of shadows and into the light-eternally In love with the legacy of Val Lewton & Eternally Yours… MonsterGirl



20 thoughts on “A Symphony of Dark Patches- The Val Lewton Legacy 1943

  1. Thanks so much for the great post! Funny, I never realized Val was Nazimova’s nephew. So we have Nazimova’s nephew and Maurice Tourneur’s son.. Talk about a silent scion power team!

    I particularly liked your breakdown of The Ghost Ship. Richard Dix was amazing!

    1. Fritzi-so happy you liked the piece. isn’t Nazimova just gorgeous. The Ghost Ship is a very striking piece of shadowplay within the confines of the ship, Dix is masterful as the deranged captain. I love that man!-I’m so glad to have participated in your enormous event The Classic Movie History Project Blogathon… Can’t wait to sit and read everyone’s contributions. Well done my friend…Kudos to you and Ruth and Aurora

  2. Wow, Jo – this is an amazing post! LOOK at all this research!

    I have to say I’m not that familiar with Lewton’s work, but he does sound like a remarkable man with an uncanny grasp of the human psyche. You’ve prompted me to start adding these movies to my Must-Watch List.

    Thanks for such an incredible contribution to the blogathon.

    1. Hey Ruth!!- I was so thrilled to be able to join all of you for this blogathon-I think that even the most enduring scare-d-cat would find the collection of Lewton’s films most haunting. And I the fact they he was protege to Robert Wise and Mark Robson, having collaborated with the remarkable Jacques Tourneur just makes his work a must-see.
      Thanks so much for letting me share my thoughts with you and the gang. Cheers Joey

    1. Thank so much Patricia – I truly admire the way Lewton’s collection of work influenced so much of these kinds of films to date. The team he had working with him was just as much a significant part of shaping that legacy. So happy you stopped by! Cheers

  3. your posts are always such an education and I love all the details I learn. Plus Lewton and his movies are always such a rich and fertile topic. I share your respect for Robert Wise, he had to be one of the most versatile directors ever, no matter which way you discover him and his movies the other genres he excelled in are surprising.

    1. Awww thanks Kristina- I love to learn about the things I love as I go along and gather thoughts and images and ideas surrounding the films, film makers, actors etc. Lewton lends to so much conversation because he was so heavily focused on the details of the thing. And I just love everything Wise touches. When you watch The Haunting you can absolutely see the years he worked with Lewton in each shadow and odd angle. So glad you stopped by- Cheers and fellow fan of yours-Joey

  4. I love your post! Val Lewton is brilliant and I’ve learn’t so much more about him here. I adore “Cat People” – it’s one of my favourite psychological horror flicks. That wonderful interplay of light and shadow!

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful critique! I’m looking forward to checking out some of the Lewton titles you’ve expored here that I’ve never seen before, especially “The Leopard Man” and “The Ghost Ship”. :-)

  5. What an educational post! Thank you so much. I’ve only seen two Lewton films (Cat People and The Ghost Ship), both of which I loved, so it was great to read all your other thoughts; The Leopard Man looks particularly interesting.
    Whilst I knew Lewton had studied under Selznick, I was unaware he had also published novels and short stories. Was there no end to his talent?

  6. What a marvelous post! The Lewton Unit created many masterpieces. I haven’t seen Bendlam yet, but my favorite is I walked with a zombie. And The Ghost Ship is soooo good and surprising!
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  7. thanks for giving me permission to cite this post in my thesis! a friend of mine who is an instructor for a course here on the cinematic mysteries is going to use some of your Thriller writings in his class. thnk u for a great blog!

    1. Jan- I would love to take that class on cinematic mysteries. I’m very flattered that they’ll be using my Thriller posts as part of the class. Are you on the east coast?

  8. An attention-grabbing dialogue is price comment.

    I feel that it is best to write more on this topic,
    it may not be a taboo subject but generally people are not sufficient to speak on such topics.
    To the next. Cheers

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