Tuesday, 21 April 2009

The Films of Val Lewton Part Three


I Walked With A Zombie (1943) was the film which Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur made after Cat People, once again using a market-tested title provided by the head of production at RKO Studios Charles Koerner, a man of some aesthetic bluntness for whom lurid overstatement was a quality to be encouraged. The topic of zombie-ism and voodoo in general was quite in vogue at the time, and the subject had been suggested to Koerner by an article called ‘I Walked With A Zombie’ by Inez Wallace in the American Weekly. Needless to say, Lewton proceeded to make the material his own.

The opening sets the scene, with romantic music accompanying the gentle sweep of the waves. Betsy, the film’s heroine, is seen walking in silhouette along the sea’s edge with the towering figure of Darby Jones, who plays the zombie (or god?) Carre-Four. As has been pointed out by Kim Newman and others, this scene has no place in the narrative. But, in retrospect, it does have an important thematic resonance which I’ll return to. It is above all else a splendid visual image to open with, also letting us know that the zombies in this film are not necessarily threatening creatures. The languid pace with which the two stroll through the Caribbean night suggests a relaxed ease in each other’s company.

We hear the first of Betsy's voiceovers during this scene. Throughout the film these give us access to her diaristic thoughts, a glimpse of an inner world which seems to have the carefully articulated quality of experience recollected in retrospect. It is also a voice which tends towards a romanticised view of the world, which is sometimes at odds with what we see. As we have seen in Cat People, Lewton’s characters can be unconsciously self-deluding, recasting the world according to their own desires and needs. The opening voiceover also gives Lewton the opportunity to cast scorn on the film’s title. Betsy first words are indeed ‘I walked with a zombie’, but they are immediately followed by a self-deprecating laugh and the apologetic coda ‘it does sound an odd thing to say’.

From the title sequence, we experience a marked shift in climate, from evening tropical balm to a snowy day in Canada outside the sugar company’s offices. The fact that the administrative heart of this company whose operations are in the tropics is sited in such chilly climes is the first indication of the notion of colonialism which plays such a dominant underlying part in the story. This is clearly an industry managed from afar. Betsy has come to the offices for an interview for a nursing position. The first question we hear her being asked is ‘are you single?’ which comes before questions about her training, which might seem more pertinent to the matter at hand. It foreshadows the tangled web of relationships which she will encounter on the island, however, and suggests that this situation is well-known, as well as hinting at a certain reputation amongst the Hollands which might cause concern for a single woman.

The question about witchcraft, as well as serving to pique our interest, also suggests that the situation of the household is common knowledge. Betsy dismissal of such a question with a laugh and a quip contrasts with the picture we’ve seen of her in the title sequence, and suggests a disparity between attitudes which are affected by the atmosphere of particular environments. The question seems ridiculous in an office in a snowy Canadian city, but in the soft wind of a Caribbean night, such beliefs may appear more seductive. Betsy doesn’t seem to know where this job will be located, and is taken aback when the employer tells her it will be on the (invented) Caribbean island of St Sebastian. But he erodes her doubts with a seductive picture of palm trees, swimming and sunbathing, a outsider’s fantasy which is always in danger of overwhelming a clear perception of the actualities of the island’s culture and history.
When we see Betsy on the boat, the backdrop does seem to conform to the romantic reverie of her voiceover; the lulling song of the sailors, the star-speckled sky, the calm, moon-limned sea. ‘Every bit of me inside myself said how beautiful’, she dreamily intones. But this romanticism,the idea of the connection of the human spirit with a harmonious nature, is savagely repudiated by Mr Holland. Up until this point, he has been standing with his back to the viewer, and also by implication to the beauty of the night and to Betsy herself. His introduction to us is through his conflicting world-view, expressed without prompting. The fact that he is providing a direct answer to Betsy’s thoughts suggests both an immediate connection between the two and, once more, a degree of retrospection about her inner voice. He systematically de-romanticises the scene in a manner which suggests a very Darwinian belief system, or in more contemporary terms, a Richard Dawkins reductionism which expresses everything in terms of the physically quantifiable. ‘Everything seems beautiful because you don’t understand’, he asserts. The flying fish are jumping in terror from their predators, the luminosity of the water comes from dead bodies, and as if the cosmos conspires to underline his point, a shooting star burns across the night sky.

The linguistic relish with which he declares that the oceanic glow is ‘the glitter of putrescence’ suggests that he is a necromantic, someone with an affinity for Poe and the French decadent writers maybe. He is not as far removed from Betsy’s romanticism as might at first be supposed, then. It's just that his romanticicm has a different emphasis. Both adapt the world of outer appearances to fit the mood of their inner world. The amalgamation of belief systems which at first appear implacably opposed will be a recurring feature of the film. No one entirely relinquishes their own world-view, but it does become reshaped as it incorporates elements from those of others. Nell recommences her interrupted inward musings, immediately incorporating Mr Holland into her romantic narrative as a Mr Rochester/Maxim de Winter figure, someone who revealed ‘something clean and honest, but hurt’. This is more a figure of her conjuring than the character which we have just encountered.

From the enchanted night on the sea, we switch to the bustling daytime port at which the boat has docked. This is the reality of the island. Its inhabitants are no longer strumming lulling songs on their guitars, but lugging heavy sacks of cane on and off the ship. The juxtaposition of night and day scenes underlines the disparity between Betsy’s outsider’s dream of an island paradise and the quotidian economic reality for those who live there. This is further illustrated during the ride to Fort Holland. Her Caribbean driver gives a potted history of the island which emphasises the misery whose lineage is the familial birthright of all on the island. It was the Holland family which ‘brought coloured folks to the island’, who are referred to as ‘the long ago mothers and the long ago fathers of us all, chained to the bottom of a boat’.

There is a feeling that the whole island is somehow related, then, the destinies of its inhabitants inescapably intertwined. Its emblem is the statue of Ti Misery, the figurehead of the Holland’s slave ship, which is ‘a man with arrows stuck in him and a sorrowful weeping look on his black face’. This conflation of two cultures, the black Saint Sebastian, is a symbolic figure which recurs throughout the film and is infused with all manner of suggestive meanings, which we shall return to. The driver’s relation of his ancestors’ journey in a slave ship fails to break through Betsy’s mood of dreamy reverie, however, and her comment that ‘they brought you to a beautiful place’ receives the indulgently sardonic response ‘if you say so, miss’.

The arrival at Fort Holland prompts the resumption of Betsy’s voiceover narration, this time definitely in retrospective mode as she anticipates events to come as the camera shows us the different sets upon which they will unfold. They are like empty stages awaiting the actors of the play. Betsy tells us that she will fall in love and hear a strange confession, which, whilst obviously serving to create a sense of narrative anticipation, also once more suggests her tendency towards shaping reality into the forms of romantic fiction. The oft-cited view of I Walked With a Zombie as being an adaptation of Jane Eyre (although there are also parallels with Rebecca) give this vocalised layering of romantic conventions over the events depicted an extra dimension; it is as if it is Betsy as much as Val Lewton who is drawing the parallel with the classic romantic tale.

The interiors of Fort Holland are barred with shadows from the slatted windows. This atmospheric cinematography, in which large areas of rich darkness are fore-grounded, is reminiscent of the lighting of the classic film noirs, although it could be said that Lewton and his directors got there first. The darkness in film noirs betokens the murky waters its characters have to navigate, as well as being an externalisation of the shady, manipulative moral continuum which these movies present to us. Here, the shadows resemble the bars of a prison, and suggest a self-imposed confinement, a jail whose walls are as much those of the skull as the Fort. They also set the Fort apart from the rest of the island, making it almost like a modern-day ‘gated community’. Shadows in Lewton’s films also have a spiritual quality. They suggest a world beyond that of surface reality, a shadow realm which operates according to its own ineffable laws.

The players who will act out their roles upon these stages are introduced by Wesley, who introduces himself to Betsy and whose bearing and conventional good looks immediately put him forward as the romantic hero. Lewton is not interested in conventional romance, however, and this is soon revealed to be a bit of misdirection. He introduces the major characters through indicating the empty chairs which they occupy at the table. Having already seen the rooms of the Fort silent and empty, this re-inforces the sense of absence, of a house haunted by the living. Wesley’s short character sketches economically set up the tensions which exist between the members of this family. His half-brother is Paul, who Wes declares with undisguised bile to be ‘quite the Byronic character’ (just as Mr Rochester is in Jane Eyre). Their mother is Mrs Rand, who is ‘mother to both of us and much too good for either of us’. Wes was educated in the USA and Paul in England, setting up another contrast between Old and New Worlds, and perhaps also suggesting a continuity between the two in the exercise of colonial power.

We first hear the voodoo drums beating here. Their sound will punctuate the action throughout the film, serving as a force of gravity which weighs down any attempt at personal happiness or freedom. They are the sounds of guilt. Here, however, Wesley demystifies them, saying that they are the ‘equivalent of the factory whistle’. The exotic becomes the everyday once its meaning is understood. With the entry of Paul, Wesley’s attempts at suave charm are swiftly set aside, along with the whisky decanter. It is immediately apparent who is the figure of authority here, and Wesley’s guilty assertion that ‘I was just going to the mill’ makes it evident that his role in the family business is somewhat notional. By now, we are fairly thoroughly disabused of the notion that this might be our hero.

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