Monday, 23 March 2009

The Films of Val Lewton part 1

Cat People (1942)

Cat People was the first of Lewton’s literate horror films and the one which perhaps offers more of the traditional pleasures of the genre than any of the others. Its success encouraged him to tread other, more obscure paths through the generic materials placed before him, but many familiar themes are foreshadowed here. Irena and Alice are the first of many strong female characters to be found in Lewton’s work, perhaps reflecting the female environment in which he grew up. Irena is immediately identified with the caged panther in the zoo – there’s no hanging around in making the obvious allusion. Her casual disposal of her sketches before moving on to another indicates that, despite her protests, she is an artist struggling to express some instinctive vision. Artistic endeavour, often frustrated, will be another thread running through Lewton’s films. Oliver, lounging by the ice-cream van, a position which immediately suggests a certain childlike, immature quality to his character, makes the first move to introduce himself to Irena. He is gauche and conversationally clumsy. It is soon clear who is in control in this situation and it’s not him. Having been walked home, Irena boldy invites him up for tea. She openly confesses her loneliness and thus becomes the first of Lewton’s lonely and isolated characters. Her poignant admission that Oliver is ‘the first real friend I’ve had in America’ is perhaps an indication that what she is really looking for is companionship and friendship. It is a reflection of the immigrant feeling of lostness in a new land, which will crop again up in Lewton’s work and is maybe a reflection of his own or his family’s experience.

Inside her apartment, all is shadows and darkness, an ambience that she does nothing to lighten. ‘I like the darkness. It’s friendly’. She still carries the exoticism of deep history within her, an Old World cloak of mysterious night. Her room is kept sepulchral, noir to keep the bright, noisy lights of the modern, busy American city at a remove. On the wall hangs a reproduction of Goya’s painting Don Manuel Osorio de Zuniga, an early indication of Lewton’s use of pictorial art as direct influence or quotation in many of his films. This picture hangs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and so would have been accessible to Lewton. The picture is particularly apposite for Cat People, with it’s juxtaposition of different ‘classes’ of pets; The wild songbirds in the cage, the tethered magpie with his weary, resentful eye looking out to the viewer, and the cats, staring at the magpie with gazes of naked greed. The boy who marshals these pets is a picture of innocence, but barely seems aware of the wild forces which are tenuously kept at bay around him. The child also prefigures the way in which Irena will be increasingly infantilised and treated as if she were an innocent who needs to be taken care of , to be put in a cage like the birds. Goya’s depiction of witches and their rites in other paintings and illustrations further makes him the ideal artist for Irena to turn to in order to remind her of the old days and the old ways.

At the centre of the room, Oliver’s attention is drawn to the statue of King John, a very male figure within the female space into which she has invited him. The centrality of this figure certainly draws attention and acts as a focal point. The king sits upon his charger, his sword thrust triumphantly upward, skewering the splayed form of a cat. It is an aggressively phallic symbol of male rationality and reason, cutting through the heart of the female symbol of the cat, through the shadows of superstition and intuitive power. Power drawn from the nature and the surrounding environment (reference is later made to Irena’s father having died mysteriously ‘in a wood’).

The premise of Cat People is essentially a feminisation of the werewolf story. Rather than the unleashing of the inner wolf, the wild beast in man, we have the more complex transformation of a woman into a wild cat. This brings up associations with the cat as a particularly female creature. It is domestic, or rather domesticated. It is often seen as the companion of women, particularly those who are isolated or alone, and therefore viewed as witchy or strange, not one of us. Whereas the werewolf might be seen as connecting to some inherent untamed wildness in the male persona, the transformation of woman into panther returns the wildness to a tamed archetype. It is a release of a socially conditioned and ironed-out nature, suddenly unbounded by decorum or the need to be ‘ladylike’. It is PJ Harvey or Patti Smith emerging from Connie Francis. The feminine becoming physically deadly rather than striking through ‘catty’ remarks.

Irena describes King John as a Serbian hero who drove out the Mamelukes, who had enslaved her people (although they themselves were originally descended from slaves). This locates him (and Irena’s ancestors) at another faultline between divergent histories and cultures. Now that faultline is between America, the New World, and the Old World of Europe. The suggestion is also made that the evil which she describes as having grown under the Mameluke occupation is one which has been imported from the east, from Turkish and Middle Eastern countries. King John thus acts as a Crusader, driving out heathen faiths and demonising them in the process.

Irena’s apartment overlooks the zoo, a corner of controlled wilderness contained and walled-in within the city. The cries of the animals carry up to her window over the night air, and she says that ‘the panther screams like a woman (and) I don’t like that.’ She doesn’t like to be reminded of the forces which she is repressing within herself. She remains in control of this encounter though, and is able to convey her desire for Oliver to leave with the slightest of gestures. She fully understands the innuendo of his comment that ‘boys who come to tea can’t expect to stay to dinner’, and leaves the possibility of future dates open. As it turns out, he probably won’t even get to his starter. Oliver is clearly intoxicated by this very un-American woman, but already we sense a fundamental disparity between their natures. Reference is made on several occasions to the heady scent which Irena trails around her, a sensuous pheromonal perfume which may have added to Oliver’s attraction.

Oliver’s wooing of Irena is carried out through the medium of pets. Pets and people’s relationships with them. Here, Oliver presents Irena with a cute kitten, which evidently doesn’t take to her at all. If the kitten represents Oliver’s view of how he hopes Irena will turn out to be, then he is clearly going to be disappointed. Irena harbours a much fiercer feline soul. The trip to the pet shop to buy an alternative pet causes mass panic amongst the caged birds, who evidently intuit Irena’s hidden animal anima. But it is one of these which is purchased for her, ‘a little lemon-coloured fellow’ who sounds more like a boiled sweet that Irena can snack on in-between meals. The use of a pet is also a way for Oliver to inveigle his presence into the very personal domain of Irena’s flat, of course. Pets are used in symbolic fashion throughout Lewton’s work, culminating in the interchangability of people and animals in Bedlam.

At work, we are introduced to Alice, and it is immediately apparent that Oliver (or Ollie as she calls him with familiar informality) is much more at ease with her than he is with Irena. She is a Hawksian companion, a work colleague and plain-talking compadre with whom he is on an equal footing. She is all-American and entirely unmysterious, although perhaps her friendly willingness to help and provide a sympathetic ear is not entirely without its unconsciously scheming aspect. It is her who finds the Serbian restaurant, The Belgrade café, where Irena and Oliver have their post-nuptial celebration feast. It is her, therefore, who re-emphasises Irena’s ‘un-Americanness’ and re-connects her with a past which she is trying to leave behind. Indeed, the presence of Alice as a confidante throughout the relationship suggests a certain manipulativeness, unconscious or otherwise. On Oliver’s part, he is either exhibiting a bluff refusal to acknowledge anything of his own nature beyond surface simplicities, or he really is a guileless dunderhead who lumbers through life unaware of the damage he does. This uncomplicated, untroubled outlook is seen as being some kind of American, clean-living ideal. After Irena has confessed to him that she has ‘fled the past’ (whether a collective or personal past is left ambiguous) he offers himself up as an embodiment of the New World which she can join. ‘A good, plain Americano’, someone who ‘grew up to be quite a nice fella.’

The Belgrade café, to which Alice has so considerately guided them, is a little bit of the old country in America. It is here that Irena is recognised by one of ‘her kind’. This woman, who sits alone, elicits whispered comments from the men present, one of whom dismisses her with the words ‘looks like a cat’, an appearance accentuated by the black bow in her hair. Her identification of a fellow spirit serves to isolate Irena from the jovial spirit and group bonhomie of the rest of the table, which is notably filled with Oliver’s work colleagues and family. They have been treating her as an intriguing outsider, charming for her foreignness, and this encounter, together with the choice of venue, merely serves to highlight her isolation. She is not ‘one of us’. At the end of the day, they draw up outside their apartment. This is still the apartment where Oliver first came to call upon Irena. It is interesting that for all his intimations that he can help her to become a proper American, it is to the shadowed spaces of her apartment, with its Old World relics and proximity to the wildness of the zoo, that they go to start their married life. Does this suggest a certain economic superiority on her part, or does this space really represent the qualities for which Oliver has married her in the first place. She pleads for understanding and he offers all his patience and kindness, with ‘all the time in the world’ to wait if need be. In fact, he seems to last barely a few weeks before he is once more confiding in Alice.

It is at Alice’s suggestion that Irena goes to (or rather is sent to) the psychiatrist Dr Judd, although of course Oliver (Ollie) doesn’t admit this to her. Dr Judd’s dark office offers a parallel with Irena’s apartment, but his is a space in which the spirit of King John is dominant, not reduced to a small tabletop gewgaw. Irena lies on the couch, under Doctor Judd’s spell (or hypnotised). A light shines in her eyes as Doctor Judd draws out her inmost history and fears. It is a violation, an invasion of her subconscious without the consent of her will, the barriers of which have been removed. When the lights go on again, we see that the light which has been interrogatively pointed at her is bluntly phallic in a vaguely art deco style. It is the modern, rationalist version of King John’s sword, designed to penetrate and destroy the shadows of unreason. Judd rattles off a standard psychiatrist’s litany of demystification, telling her of anxieties and fears originating in childhood. The dismissal of Irena’s experiences as being merely symbolic of fears and anxieties which have taken root in the subconscious can also be seen as a reflection on the nature of fantastic fiction itself. The film Cat People does address these fears and anxieties, but it does so by creating a story in which a woman, under certain conditions, turns into a murderous panther. By making the metaphor manifest, it makes for a much more direct and unambiguously forceful depiction of such feelings. It is also, naturally, a lot more exciting and entertaining, with the additional pleasure attendant upon any good horror film of allowing us to see into some of the darker rooms of our own mental mansions. Doctor Judd responds to Irena’s question as to what she should tell her husband with the advice ‘what does one tell one’s husband? One tells him nothing.’ It is as if he is a furtive lover covering up an affair.

Astonishingly, when she gets home, she finds Alice there with Oliver. Given that he must have known she was visiting the psychiatrist, an initial visit liable to leave her feeling vulnerable and confused, it is indicative of the distance he is already establishing between them that he should consider this a good time to invite Alice in. Again, we are left with two possible views of Oliver. Either he is an incredible lunkhead, an emotional simpleton. Or he is engaged in an assault on his wife of some considerable passive aggression, possibly with a little direction from Alice. Against Dr Judd’s ‘one tells him nothing’, suggesting that a marriage thrives on a certain element of mystery and secretiveness, Oliver is moronically upfront and open about everything, a quality which he extends beyond the circle of his marriage. His assertion that you can tell Alice anything because she is ‘such a good egg’ merely exacerbates the issue, and makes it clear to Irena that her own attempts at openness have been betrayed, confidences broadcast. Oliver’s conciliatory declaration of love, that ‘he’d turn handstands to keep you happy’, is a further indication of his childish ideal of romance. It is at times like this when it becomes apparent that Irena is right to deny him access to the marital bed. She would devour him whole. Earlier, Oliver had bought Irena a pet, a caged bird which she had inadvertently scared to death. He is that yellow canary.

No comments: