Sunday, 10 May 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Eight

The Leopard Man - part three

Clo-Clo is making her way to the nightclub, the closed off and exclusive world from which the leopard has initially been loosed on the town outside. This time it is the walled enclosure which offers the warm buzz of life as opposed to the dark and deathly streets outside. This arena dedicated to the pleasure of wealthy visitors is carefully insulated from the tribulations of the world beyond its walls. Here we find a table with a trio of American tourists, one of whom is loudly complaining about the service. The rich older man is ignored by his companions (his daughter and her fiancé). As with Kiki and the cigarette girl, there is the constant fear of obsolescence, of being superseded by a new generation eager to usurp your position and assume control. He drifts over to where Clo-Clo is sitting and they engage in knowing banter. An element of honesty soon enters the conversation and they clearly enjoy each other’s company. They reject champagne, the symbol of conspicuous wealth, in favour of beer. Clo-Clo, with a hint of righteous anger, defiantly admits to being a gold-digger, and in response to the old man’s questioning as to whether she really knows what she wants states the importance of money to those who don’t have it. It is for ‘Mama and the kids and the unpaid bills and the rent’; A selfless desire for wealth, then, beyond mere self-indulgence. Drawn out by the old man’s evident kindness (foolishness in the hard eyes of his daughter) she admits to her feelings for Carlos Dominguez, a boy who works in the grocery store, but economic factors loom large for her here too. ‘Feelings don’t buy houses and pay for the rent and help bring up kids and get clothes for them’. They both laugh at the uninhibited articulation of such underlying inequalities which are normally smoothed away in this controlled environment. It is a suspension of the required civilities occasioned by the ease and understanding which has instantly sprung up between them (Clo-Clo has asked him why he allows his daughter to treat him with such contempt). When she leaves, it is with a hundred dollar bill in her hand. It is an exchange which has been made in a genuine spirit of generosity (because he can and because he likes her) and leaves her feeling elated rather than cheap and used.

Clo-Clo sets out on her walk home in high spirits, castanet clicks echoing in empty streets. But she stops off to see the gypsy woman on the way and is filled with doubt as a result. The king of spades is drawn, betokening ‘something black coming your way’, followed once more by the death card. Whereas Clo-Clo has shrugged the doom –filled readings off in the past, it as if, now she has something to lose, she has become much more vulnerable to the suggestion of ill-fortune in her future. Her cheer has swiftly dissipated and the night suddenly seems ominous and threatening. Her spirits have previously seemed to transform her surroundings to conform with her vitality, but now she herself is overwhelmed by the palpable atmosphere of menace and dark foreboding. She gets the gypsy woman to walk with her awhile, towering over her until they part company and she steps from the kerb, reducing her to an equivalent height, cutting her down to size. The night walk home is solitary now; there are no cheery greetings or exchanges of gossip. She has an offer of a lift, but turns it down because the car is black. Superstition leads to such random choices which can actually lead a person to the fate which they seek to avoid.

Clo-Clo makes it back home and greets her little ‘Pepita’, promising her a beautiful dress. This is the first time we’ve seen Clo-Clo in her domestic environment and it fundamentally alters our view of her as another competitive showbiz ‘player’ looking out for her own interests. Her mother comes down the stairs to complete the picture of this female environment. The three aspects of the old goddess are all here – girl, woman and ‘crone’. But this is the modern world, and this old triumvirate is confined to the interior domestic world, shut-in and hidden. The outside world is reliant on economic exchange and Clo-Clo discovers that the money which she tucked into her stocking is gone. She must go back out. In the exterior darkness she hears someone approaching and chooses to believe that it is Carlos. It is a choice to believe in life rather than to fear death. Sadly, it is not a belief which is borne out on this occasion. The camera focuses on her cigarette on the ground as she dies, its flickering embers representing the last of the dying light.

Kiki and Jerry are preparing to make a tactical retreat and leave for Chicago, leaving the mess they have created behind them. The cigarette girl tells them about the annual parade which is due to take place. She also relates her own dreams of escape, an individualist dream which has no time for local community and which she believes Jerry and Kiki to have achieved. A dream of going to Chicago and New York and of ‘being somebody – an entertainer’. A rather hollow ambition which serves to stand in for the competitive ethic of America as a whole, which serves to set people against each other. The dream of making it big in the city indicates the way in which the aspirations of American culture have been overlaid on communities which they unbalance and distort as a result. In the car in which they are driving away, Kiki decides to break their journey in order to take the flowers which Galbraith has given them to Consuela’s grave. Again, flowers end up symbolising death, in contradiction of their original intention. The graveyard proves to be the arena for mutual confession and for a rejection of the aloof isolationism which has been gradually eroded away throughout the film. The break in their journey becomes permanent. ‘We’ve been so busy trying to be tough guys’, says Kiki. ‘Maybe I’m tired of pretending that nothing bothers me, that all I care about is myself and my 2 by 4 career’. They determine to stay and solve the problems which they have set in motion, although with limited resources at their disposal, as it turns out that they have both given away most of their money to help the families of Theresa and Clo-Clo. This reduction of wealth further serves to level them with the community with which they have chosen to identify themselves. They are no longer intervening from a position of economic superiority, imposing their worldview from above.

As they leave the graveyard, they have an exchange with the gatekeeper, who confides that ‘I have many friends, but they don’t bother me with talk’. He is the keeper of the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead. They meet Charlie, who has the body of his leopard (and demands economic recompense) which has been lying in the wilderness for some time. It becomes evident that it was Galbraith, who left the main body of the posse at some point, who shot it and failed to inform anyone. Jerry follows up on their avowal to get involved and goes to visit Raul, whom he wrests away from his retreat into the bottle. By the time they leave his room, Raul is having one last swig, but this time it’s for courage.

The final scenes take place as the annual procession makes its sombre progress, Inquisitorial figures holding candles before them and intoning what sounds more like Russian Orthodox chant than the traditional liturgical forms of Catholicism. Galbraith explains the procession to the cigarette girl, who has seemingly also been drawn into Jerry and Kiki’s grand plan which now begins to unfold. It is ‘so that they won’t ever forget that a peaceful village of Indians was wiped out by the Conquistadores back in the 17th century. A band of monks buried the dead, prayed for them and did penance for their deaths’. The procession is a continuation of that penance. The cigarette girl has been primed to draw this information out of Galbraith not only to inform us of the ceremonial significance of the parade, but to underline it for him and bring it to the forefront of his consciousness. His personal guilt is directly linked with this historical guilt and the prompting of his reiteration of the story behind the procession is the first step in a series of taunts to his psyche designed to bring about a mental collapse and confession. If the atrocities of the Conquistadores play on feelings of ancestral guilt then the voice from the graveyard and the cigarette and castanets on the ground remind him of direct personal guilt. Spectres ancient and modern are conjured to haunt his conscience.

Galbraith retreats to the ossified past of his museum, a place where history is no longer a living thing but a collection of relics from a dead culture, neatly categorised, labelled and stored away. Kiki comes into the museum to block this anticipated avenue of retreat, claiming that she has come to see the procession. Galbraith nervously says ‘they’ll just be shadows’, as if trying to dispel the potency of the forces at work in him. But Kiki continues the conjuration of his subconscious demons, announcing ‘they’re coming now’ and insistently suggesting that they turn the lights out. She is goading him into revealing the darkness in his soul and when she drops the castanets she has up her sleeve, he realises who has been behind the ‘hauntings’ which have driven him to take refuge here. He knows that she knows what he’s done. She knows that he knows she knows. He moves to attack her. At the cue of her scream Jerry and Raul burst in and in the ensuing confusion Galbraith manages to run outside.

His flight takes him straight into the procession, where he is soon joined by Jerry and Raul. They all fall in step and are all effectively confessing and doing penance for their collective guilt. The three men, two American and one Spanish. Charlie the Indian has spent his night in prison and his innocence has been proven by the murder which took place during his residency. Kiki remains back in the museum. The low bass voices of the processors emphasise that this is a male affair. Galbraith has directed his rage against women and now joins a ceremony which is a display of Catholicism in the raw. We’ve already seen hints of older religions and traditions in which women played a stronger role; the hints of Greek influence in the graveyard, including the shrine which resembles the opening of an oracle; Clo-Clo’s female household which contains the three aspects of the goddess as represented by the Fates in Greek mythology; the gypsy woman’s pagan Madonna and card oracle. There is also the Indian woman who we have glimpsed spinning outside the museum in another echo of the Fates. At the end of the film Kiki has drawn out Galbraith’s darkness, made manifest his male violence, buried beneath a mild-mannered exterior. Is it too fanciful to see the Catholic procession as an embodiment of the expunging of female power, of the elevated position of women in pre-Christian pagan religions and cultures? Galbraith, with his total immersion in the past, has become infected with this will to power and domination. We have already seen the juxtaposition of religious traditions in I Walked With A Zombie, and the clash of the modern catechisms of rationalism with ancient beliefs in Cat People. Religion will continue to occupy a central position in Lewton’s films, from the diabolists of The Seventh Victim, through the revival of Greek traditions in Isle of the Dead, to the Quaker non-conformism of Bedlam.

When he is finally cornered (by a withered tree, another pagan symbol absorbed into the iconography of the cross) Galbraith confesses and tells how the sight of Theresa’s body had haunted him and twisted something in his mind. He had come across Consuela by chance as he passed the graveyard and felt his compulsion to kill awakened by her evident vulnerability. This will to dominate and take advantage of other’s weakness is an extreme version of the relationships we witnessed at the beginning of the film, when the cigarette girl was picking up on any sign that Kiki might be faltering, all too willing to step into her shoes at a moment’s notice (and remember Kiki’s comment about her trying on her coffin). But these two rivals have teamed up in the end, taking part in a group effort to catch the killer. They have in effect formed a miniature community of disparate types. This contrasts starkly with the isolated figure of Galbraith, a man very much alone. The danger of isolating oneself from the community of others is a recurrent theme in Lewton’s films, and particularly comes to the fore in The Ghost Ship.

Raul shoots Galbraith beneath the tree. But it is as if this is what Galbraith has been seeking. He has been drawn into the darkness by witnessing violent death. This has forced him out of his retreat into the empty spaces of the museum in which he has sought a cold comfort, a place where, like the graveyard gatekeeper, he has communion only with the taciturn spirits of the dead. Even before the shock of the sight of Theresa’s body shakes his mind into a new and distorted configuration, he has been half in love with the stasis of death. In Cat People, the leopard was released at the end of the film, whereas here it is released right at the beginning. Irena was aware of her nature, which it was made evident during the film was a genuine manifestation of the supernatural. Her preoccupation was to use that self-awareness of the darkness inside her to make sure that it didn’t emerge into the light of day and cause harm to others. In The Leopard Man, the beast is set loose right from the start, and is a manifestation both of the careless abuse of power deriving from personal ambition and of the dark death-drive within Galbraith. He may not literally turn into a leopard, but the effect is the same. Unlike Irena, he refuses to recognise this side of himself and so has no control over his actions. He strikes us as an emotionally distant man, someone disconnected from his own feelings; A stranger to himself. Jerry and his ‘team’ force him to confront his nature in the end, and in doing so also to reveal their own hidden selves.

In the final scene, Jerry and Kiki find themselves outside the funeral parlour again. This would seem to be a central location in this small town, a place where people regularly gather. Recalling their first visit there, Kiki tells Jerry ‘I hated you that day, you and your flip talk’. But she has discovered that ‘you are soft inside where it counts’, as indeed has Jerry himself. This softness, traditionally seen as a feminine virtue, is seen as the quality which has redeemed Jerry. It’s the quality which nurtures a sense of empathy and in turn of community, of caring about the people around you. Jerry recalls Gabraith’s interpretation of the symbolic nature of the fountain, of how he said that people ‘get pushed around by things bigger than themselves’. He indulges in a little analysis himself: ‘that’s the way it was with us. Only we were too small to see it that way’. They were pushed around by the entirely un-mysterious whorls and eddies of personal ambition and competitive greed. Now they have connected with something less definable but a great deal grander. They exit down the dark street at a slow pace, the same street which Clo-Clo had owned as she walked along it, her familiarity with its every inhabitant drawing connections and creating a sense of the exchanges and small intimacies of everyday life. These are the buoying forces which keep that small, fragile sphere afloat.

Next...The Seventh Victim, corporate diabolism in the Big rotten Apple

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