Monday, 23 March 2009

The Films of Val Lewton part 2

Cat People continued

Back at work in the Ship Builder’s Office, Alice and Ollie share a water cooler moment. Ollie confesses his unhappiness, a feeling which leaves him perplexed. He has never felt this way before, having had a happy childhood and generally been content to ‘let the rest of the world go by’. He admits his attraction to Irena, but it is a mystery to him. This is probably because he is a mystery to himself and doesn’t want to acknowledge the darker corners of his brightly-lit persona which his attraction to Irena directs him to. Just as America is sufficient a world for him, he has no desire to acknowledge that he wishes to look beyond the borders of his own familiar continent of everyday contentment. He seems genuinely confused by the idea that anyone might not have shared his own uncomplicated experience of the world thus far. His idea of love is a simple one – of companionship and friendliness, evidently the relationship he has with Alice. As she says, implicitly declaring her love, ‘we’ll never be strangers’. Irena remains a stranger to Oliver, but this has always been her appeal, the allure of the ‘other’ who offers new experiences. Her animal attraction, the sweet musk she exudes without the aid of perfume, communicates directly with Oliver’s subconscious desires, bypassing the rather dim surface cloud layer of his consciousness. This is not a country he has any desire to travel to, nor to even admit really exists. No wonder he’s confused.

From now on, Irena is largely seen on her own again. She notes the key left in the lock of the panther’s cage, the key to the unlocking of subconscious libidinal rage. Doctor Judd seeks her out, chiding her like a recalcitrant child for not coming to see him. Irena makes the observation that he talks of the mind but is unable to help the soul, an assertion of the limits of the modern rationalist mindset which is unable to minister to matters of the spirit. This is a theme which will recur in Lewton’s work, attaining particular thematic prominence in ‘The Body Snatcher’. Dr Judd makes explicit the panther’s symbolic embodiment of the death urge, and this theme, the attraction of death, is another which recurs throughout his work (and is very Old World) It particularly emerges from the underworld to see light in the Thanatos-obsessed Seventh Victim.’

Back in the apartment, Ollie awkwardly attempts to ‘have a talk’. He fumblingly suggests that they may be growing apart due to Irena’s inability to tell the truth. He immediately makes it obvious that she has become the object of discussions beyond the marital circle, suggesting that the burden of evasiveness lies on his soul. He has brought these matters up after talking to Dr Judd and then discussing her with Alice. It seems Irena is the last person to whom he reluctantly talks. He is unaware of how his casual aside ‘it was like I was saying to Alice’ might hurt Irena, and as soon as she shows her displeasure, he immediately shies away from confrontation and retreats to a café. Again, it is notable that this apartment is really Irena’s territory, into which he is seen as something of an interloping presence. His default response to any problem is to retreat to the office, which is where Irena thinks he has gone now. This is his territory, a realm of the comfortingly measurable, where everything can be quantified, calculated and charted before being constructed.

In the café, Ollie further reveals his blandly normal colours when he turns down the offer of a chicken gumbo from the Caribbean waitress and opts for a coffee and a slice of good ‘ol American apple pie. Alice is at this point in the office where she receives an anonymous phone call from Irena, who draws the obvious conclusion that she is there with Ollie. She bumps into Ollie in the café, where he was perhaps hoping to meet her, not wishing to admit his motivations by actually going into the office. She tells him to go home and make up with Irena, although her motives may be more calculating than they seem to the guileless Ollie. His lame, chummy homily ‘gee you’re swell’ (which is just short of being accompanied by a playful punch on the arm) is met by the response that he’d better watch out because ‘I’m the new type of other woman’.

Irena has witnessed Ollie and Alice’s intimate exchange from the window, and perhaps their body language has told her something which their words have elided. In any case, there follows the famous ‘bus’ sequence, which gave its name to the Lewton technique of introducing the sudden intrusion of an everyday noise or object to break a carefully paced mood of heightened tension and make the audience jump out of their skins. The sequence in which Irena stalks Alice creates the impression of New York as a place which contains its own wild, uncanny places. In this case it seems to be a version of Central Park, with its ill-lit underpasses and rocky walls. The New York walk of terror will be reproduced in The Seventh Victim, although here, the wilderness has spread out from these darkened corners to the open streets of the city itself. The waving of the trees from the movement of some night creature and the growl of the panther will also be reproduced in The Leopard Man (the titular beast is, given its lack of spots, fairly obviously not a leopard) although this time produced by human agency. The transformation of Irena’s footprints into those of a big cat leave us in little doubt as to the reality of her curse.

Irena returns distraught and dishevelled to the apartment, to be met by an apologetic Ollie. His attempts to explain things away, to provide an authoritative, explanatory ‘these things happen’ tone are accepted passively, but they are clearly on different wavelengths. Her distress has nothing to do with their earlier non-altercation. She retreats to the bath, where the camera focuses on one of the clawed, scaly feet on which it rests before slowly panning up to find Irena bent over, softly crying to herself. Her bestial nature has been inescapably revealed to her. Later that night, lying in bed, she dreams of cats padding unstoppably out of a dizzying vortex, with the voice of Dr Judd intoning his Freudian mantras about ‘the need to loose evil on the world’ and ‘the desire for death’. Dr Judd himself appears as King John, his sword held horizontally before him, a vision of bellicose rationality. His sword transforms into the key to the panther’s cage, the agency through which this ‘evil’ can be set free. Dr Judd’s language is very judgemental. Cats are morally neutral, driven to act out their animal instincts and needs. But it is his subconscious influence that has given Irena the link between the figurative beast within and its real, caged manifestation.

The following scene finds Ollie, Alice and Irena in the city museum. Irena is clearly excluded from this group, the odd one out, pushed to the margins. It is Ollie and Alice who lean close to each other and share each others enjoyment of the exhibits. Irena is once more treated like a child, the others suggesting she go and look at something else. Her plea ‘don’t send me away’ is met with a half-hearted rebuttal. This is obviously precisely what they are doing. And its a rejection which takes on a more sinister aspect given the later prospect of her being sent away to an asylum. This is Ollie’s part of the museum, anyway. Full of boats and the products of rationalist, post-Enlightenment western history, measured, constructed and fully explained. Ollie blandly notes that the picture of the Victory represents the last use of the lateen-sail, which demonstrates the nuts and bolts level on which his interest in history rests. Irena goes downstairs and pauses in front of a large black statue of Anubis.This is a darker, more ancient level of history, which is indivisible from the underground streams of myth and ritual through which it reaches the modern day. Whilst Ollie and Alice wander the well-lit upper rooms of the rational world, Irena belongs in the subconscious subterraenea of suggestive statuary.

The following scene is the second one in which Alice is menaced. It clearly follows the rejection of Irena, her reaction to having been pushed away. The sweet little black kitten petted by the receptionist (with her cat’s ear hair bow) at the hotel to which Alice goes to swim is a reflection of Ollie, Alice and Dr Judd’s view of Irena as a naively childlike soul, but the feline force which she unleashes is very far from harmless and domesticated. The celebrated swimming pool scene, which conveys so much through shadow and echo-distorted sound, is another example of a wilderness space found in the centre of a busy, bustling city. This urban watering hole also serves as a compelling externalisation of subconscious space, the ocean swells of the mind’s deeper currents. Here Irena recognises her murderous jealousies and Alice confronts her feelings of guilt. It is significant that it is in the following scene that she confesses to a sardonically interested Dr Judd that she is in love with Ollie. When the lights go on, Irena looks down at Alice, helplessly treading water, and relishes her position of power. Alice is vulnerable in only her swimming costume, whereas Irena is wrapped in her fur coat pelt. She gloats over her terrified victim like a cat toying with its prey. Again, the shredded remains of her bathrobe leave us and now Alice too in no doubt as to the tangibility of Irena’s transformations. This is no mental illness or neurotic fantasy.

Alice meets with Dr Judd and tells him of her belief in the genuine nature of Irena’s fears. Dr Judd immediately tells her that she also is a ‘victim of fear’ due to her feelings of guilt. He reveals his sword-stick, his discreet version of King John’s sword of rationalism and male power. He sees his relationship with Irena as a contest of wills, determined to force her to reveal her psychological secrets and thereby submit to his rational world-view. He is also clearly attracted to her, and there is a sense in which this less innocent, more louche and knowing individual might in some ways have been a better match for Irena. As it is, the closest he is able to get to an admission of his feelings is that it is ‘maybe because you interest me’ that he is prepared to go that little bit further in order to help her. As it is, their session threatens to get intimate as he asks her what she would do if her were to kiss her. ‘I only know that I should not like to be kissed by you’, she evasively replies. Doctor Judd asserts his authority in the face of this rejection by telling her that she could be ‘put away for observation’, and the threat of commitment to an asylum hangs over her for the rest of the film. Irena is now treated as a case, someone who has no power over the direction of her own life. It is an assertion of authority which is made over female characters in other Lewton films. Characters are manipulated and pushed to the margins, punished for their non-conformity or misunderstood compassion . In the case of Nell in Bedlam, her voicing of awkward and socially uncomfortable truths is silenced through her being declared insane and dumped into an asylum, the loony bin into which uncontrollable elements are swept.

Having come away from her meeting with Dr Judd with the determination to ‘lead a normal life’ Irena comes home in a mood of buoyant optimism, only to be confronted by a sombre Ollie. He tells her that it’s over and essentially admits that he has used her in order to discover what his true feelings were for Alice. It is an unashamed and once more blithely insensitive rejection, made more unbearable by his assertion that ‘it’s better this way’. ‘Better for whom’, Irena justifiable retorts. She tries to hold her feelings in check, her transformations held back beneath a suppression of emotional rage. As she declares ‘I love loneliness’, she seems to be trying to erase the hopes which their time together had fostered in her, rejecting the desire for companionship and a place in everyday society which had briefly appeared attainable. But it is too late to return to her former state. Ollie has got under her skin and has damaged her beyond repair. As she tells him to get out, presumably for his own good, her fingers slide down the back of the sofa, leaving the torn trails of claw scratches.

The conspirators, who now seem to be acting as a cabal, meet at the cafe again to decide Irena’s fate between them, much as the urban cultists decide the fate of Jacqueline (also fur-coated), another isolated and lonely character cast out of the golden circle, in The Seventh Victim. The characters’ menu choices are commensurate with their personalities. Dr Judd enjoys the pungent taste of roquefort, Alice goes for the Bavarian cream, which betokens a mild, cosmopolitanism in sugary dessert-form, whilst Ollie, as the waitress wearily concedes, gets the apple pie, the plain, unadventurous Americano choice. Irena’s choices seem to have been narrowed to a marriage annulment or a commitment to an asylum. Ollie opts for the latter, with Alice’s approval, on the grounds of a feeling of continued responsibility for her. What it does in effect is maintain the control of all three over her life. Her fate is theirs to determine, and they decide to enact it at her apartment. This casual, unthinking invasion of her territory merely serves to highlight the contempt which they now feel for her.

Reconvened at the apartment, Alice plays the record which had previously been ‘our song’ for Irena and Ollie. He asks her to take it off without it appearing to trigger any particular feeling for him. In fact, Ollie and Alice seem to be fed up with waiting, and decide that they have better things to do, work to catch up with at the office. Irena is effectively sidelined and forgotten already. She has served her useful function in Ollie and Alice’s life and her fate is now a tiresome inconvenience for them. Only Dr Judd seems to retain an interest in her, making sure that he has the means to regain entrance into her apartment.

In the office at night, Alice receives another anonymous call and realises that it is Irena. Again, there seems a trace of the guilty conscience behind her automatic conclusion. Irena’s appearance in the office, with its uplit drawing tables casting elongated, expressionist shadows, is her first appearance or invasion of Ollie’s rational territory. This is a domain in which she is the intruder, as she stalks the workspace in which plans are measured and drawn according to unambiguous calculi. She is driven off by the casting of a shadowed cross on the wall, but it is really the set square which creates this and the numbers painted behind it which repel her. The armoury of authoritative rationality beating back the instinctive and irrationally emotive. As they make a cautious exit from the building, Ollie and Alice see the doors close on an empty lift, and the doors revolve from an unseen force. Irena has already become a ghost, dissipated into invisibility, only her perfume left hanging in the air.

Retreating to her apartment, Irena finds that it has been invaded by Dr Judd. She now bears a fatalistic air of weary resignation. She submits to his embrace, a strange gleam in her eyes, as if she has already half left the world and is staring at somewhere beyond. Her inexpressiveness makes Dr Judd’s forced attentions seem even more of a violation. He definitely feels a perverse attraction to Irena; On one level he seeks to master her, to forcefully convert her to (and encage her in) his worldview. But there is perhaps also a secret and inadmissable desire for his rationalism to be overturned, an attraction to someone who may be strong enough to shatter the control which he exerts over his own and others’ relationship with quotidian reality. He longs for an irruption of the irrational into his life, even if this means going half way to meeting his own death. The look which they exchange as they are about to kiss suggests a certain implicit understanding of the implosion of energy which is about to be unleashed. Her transformation is swift and terrible.

Dr Judd loses his life in the struggle, the sword-stick which is the sharp edge of his rationality snapped in two. The duel of rationality and instinct is fatal for Irena too, however. She crawls outside the apartment, hiding unnoticed in the shadows as Ollie and Alice race upstairs to discover the chaos which she has wrought. Once more she has retreated into the background, a creature of the city’s dark interstices. She retreats to the zoo and finally uses the key to unlock the panther’s cage. Far from loosing evil upon the world, this merely provides the means for finalising her own destruction. The release of her animal soul ineluctably leads to her own death, and the fact that she deliberately looses it upon herself makes it a sacrifice. This is the fate that Ollie and Alice have been spared.

The inextricable connection between Irena and the panther, the sense that this is the shadow side of her divided soul, is underlined by the fact that the panther is knocked down and run over by a car as soon as it has leapt over the confining boundary of the zoo wall. Like Irena, its attempt to leave its closeted, shut-off pocket of a recreated environment long-since left behind and move out into the bright flux of the city proves fatal. We cut from the picture of its bloodied carcass to Irena’s prone form, her fur coat covering her body like an animal’s pelt. Oliver rushes onto the scene, returning to the place where he first met Irena and says, as if composing an epitaph, ‘she never lied to us’. Shifting the emphasis onto the ‘she’ and the ‘us’ would make this an admission of guilt, but it is not voiced that way. Ollie’s own vow to give her ‘all the time in the world’ was certainly soon spent, and the implication of these final words is that such honesty as Irena has displayed is a debased currency in this world.

So Cat People is the story of an outsider in the city who is temporarily offered the apparent chance to belong, to come out of the shadows into the light. This offer is withdrawn as it is made clear to her that her function all along has been to reveal Ollie’s true nature to himself, to allow him to take his place in the normal, daylit scheme of things. Irena is left trying to regain her former state of self-contained isolation, but that lonely Eden has been forever lost. Lewton shows how the marginalised, the different and strange, the ‘foreign’ are pushed into the shadows by groups who thereby shore up their own sense of normalcy, of being right in the world. What Lewton returns to is who defines this state of normalcy, and who determines the chosen who will be admitted to its confederacy.

We will see how the informal cabal of Ollie, Alice and Dr Judd become a corporatised coven in The Seventh Victim. Witness Irena becoming the patron saint of the abandoned and thereby win her own redemption in Curse of the Cat People. And find the discarded and awkwardly non-conformist organising and fighting back in Bedlam.

Coming next....I Walked With A Zombie

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