Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Sixteen

Curse of the Cat People - part one

Lewton’s follow up to Cat People was a direct sequel, featuring the same central triumvirate of characters and working towards a resolution of the emotions which had been left severed and free-floating by the sudden and terminal ending of that film. But the tone and setting of this film is so different from that of the original that it seems almost wholly disconnected. Lewton’s response to the latest unpromising title with which he was landed was a very personal and in some ways very introverted film, which took place amongst the rural idylls of upstate New York and created a rich fairytale atmosphere with a new hint of a pantheistic nature mysticism. It was certainly far from the reproduction of his original success which RKO were obviously angling for when they presented him with the title. But Lewton was now confident enough to go in his own direction and pay minimal heed to the desires of the studio. The result is one of the most entrancing explorations of the imaginative world of a child ever made.

storybook titles

The fairytale form of the film is suggested by the opening titles, with the credits laid out like the pages of an old children’s storybook, with watercolour marginalia of fantastic creatures and tokens of cyclical nature. We see oak leaves with acorns, thistles with downy seedheads, a rabbit and fairies, one with the head of a cat. When it is the turn of Lewton’s name to be cited, it is framed by a twisted old tree, which is very much in the style of the Edwardian illustrator Arthur Rackham. The tree which features in Curse of the Cat People had a very personal resonance for Lewton, as we shall see, and indeed he put a great deal of his own experience and memories of what he felt like as an isolated child into the story. These opening titles make us feel as if the film is a book which we are opening. No quotes this time, but literary parallels are once more drawn, as they will be in the recurring references to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (a story for which Rackham produced illustrations in 1928). The final image is of a cat, which has pounced upon and evidently caught some small creature. The cats which do appear in Curse of the Cat People are all domestic, and the occasional expression of their predatory wildness is like a memory of a former state, or for Oliver and Alice, of a former life. The cats of the city were far more deadly than are those of the country.

A Rackham tree

The opening scene takes place on a path passing between tall trees whose canopy breaks the rays of the summer sun into hazy shafts in which motes of dust and airborne seeds dance. A row of children led by their teacher are singing in unison. We are reminded of the opening of The Seventh Victim, with its similar scenes of rather older children singing and playing together in happy communion. Here as there, this is a prelude to our introduction to the main protagonist, who stands apart from this chatty camaraderie. The setting immediately reinforces the sense of a magical fairytale world which the titles had prepared us for. This is further enhanced as the children reach a bridge over a stream and the teacher tells them that they are in Sleepy Hollow, which has a famous legend attached to it. Unlike the eccentric and reclusive Mrs Farron later, she know enough about children not to tell them the tale of the headless horseman. Washington Irvine’s use of the tale portrays a character who is overwhelmed by fears born from the imagination. The setting is an appropriate opening for a story about a little girl retreating into a world of the imagination, then.

As the children scatter off to go and play, two boys come across a black cat crouching on the branch of a silver birch. They pretend to machine-gun it down. Here we see the meeting of old and new worlds of the imagination, the make-believe toys of the modern world confronting the creature who has been the symbol of deep myths and ancient histories in Cat People. It is a little symbolic replay of the clash of the forces of rationalism and superstition which was played out in that film and throughout Lewton’s oeuvre. It is also a neat encapsulation of the instinctively violent nature of much boys’ play. The cat, a creature traditionally seen as a female archetype (and companion of witches) hisses and leaps off.

We are introduced to our protagonist, Amy, as she sits in a circle of children playing a pass-the-parcel style game (pass the shoe in this case). When the shoe ends with her, she fails to pass it on, thus becoming ‘it’. It is evident that her participation was a token attempt to include her. But her mind was far away. ‘She’s dreaming again’, one of the other girls says with weary contempt. Amy sees a butterfly and is immediately entranced. She runs off to follow it, leaving the communal game for the solipsistic world of her own imagination. The teacher defends Amy against the dismissive attitudes of the other children that she is no fun. ‘Amy is a nice girl’, she says, ‘only a little different’. Miss Callahan will be Amy’s constant advocate throughout the film. Given that the actress who plays her, Eve March, played the unhappy and downtrodden teacher Miss Gilchrist in The Seventh Victim, who advises Mary to go out into the world and not become trapped as she has, it’s tempting to read across films and intuit a sense of fellow-feeling which makes her so solicitously protective of Amy.

Heaven in a wildflower

Amy follows the butterfly (in a nicely animated flight) until it lands on some flowers, where she crouches down and talks to it. Amy talks in a sober and poetically expressive way. It is almost as if she is conscious of being a character in an imaginary world (albeit one of her creation). It is another detail which sets her apart from the prosaic nature of her peers, whose speech is much more everyday. It is one of the dilemmas of the film that Amy clearly needs to form relationships with other children, and yet this may be at the cost of sacrificing the uniqueness and strange beauty of her view of the world. Amy addresses the butterfly: ‘O! My beautiful. You are my friend’. That she can call a butterfly as a friend may be seen as an admission of loneliness, but it is also an indication of the way in which Amy sees the whole natural world as alive, and feels a part of it. She is a ‘sensitive child’ in that she is sensitive to the patterns and details, great and small, of the flux of nature which surrounds her and of which she is a part. This is a pantheistic view which sees the world as a sacred place, full of spirits and divine presences. It is also the magical world of childhood, of course, and the butterfly could also be seen as a creature which is a part of the fairy tale world. Illustrations of fairies down the ages have certainly tended to give them butterfly-like wings. The butterfly sets off again, and Amy follows it, as does a well meaning but blundering boy, who tries to catch it for her and crushes it in his fist as a result. Amy is heartbroken, looks up from the broken wings into the boy’s eager face, and smacks him one.

The disappointments of reality

Amy sits on an oversized chair (for her) in an empty corridor, clearly facing the consequences of her actions. Her slumped figure, feet not touching the ground, is an outline picture of abject isolation. Inside the classroom which she has been parked outside, we get to meet Ollie and Alice for the first time as they have a serious talk about Amy with the sympathetic Miss Callahan. Ollie is briskly dismissive, boiling things down to an essence which his rational mind can readily comprehend. ‘Amy has too many fancies and too few friends’. He does not like imagination and certainly seems little troubled by it himself. Miss Callahan gently suggests that Ollie may be to blame, with his evident over-anxiety over Amy. As Miss Callahan leaves them to usher Amy away, Ollie and Alice look over the children’s artwork on the walls of the corridor. They find Amy’s picture, which is surrounded by painted ships. Alice is dismissive of her talents, allowing that ‘it shows imagination anyhow’. Ollie, who would clearly have preferred it if one of the ship pictures had been hers, feels that this is a fault. As Alice muses ‘I wonder if you don’t resent that in her’, he talks of her imagination manifesting ‘something moody, something sickly’. He voices the core of his fears when he says ‘she could almost be Irena’s child’, a remark which demonstrates that he’s lost none of his lumbering tactlessness. Alice rebuffs him with a curt ‘she’s my child’. There is clearly some conflict here over their respective views of Amy’s character. The fact that Alice invites Miss Callahan to come around to their house sometime indicates that she feels the need for someone to talk to, an outside perspective (and a female one). Not necessarily an ally, but someone who can help her to clarify her own views. She is perhaps finding motherhood something of a burden.

Corridor exile

Alice is characteristically accommodating of Ollie in her response, telling him that he thinks too much of Irena, and that ‘you blame yourself too much for her death’. Ollie immediately rejects any suggestion that he is feeling guilt, however, and effectively exonerates himself from blame. ‘I know what can happen when people begin to lie to themselves, imagine things’. This is a complete denial of the reality which both he and Alice finally came to acknowledge at the climax of Cat People, when he uttered the words ‘she never lied to us’. This is the first glimpse of the stories and elisions of painful truths with which adults protect themselves from damage from too harsh reality. This ambiguous relationship with truth will confuse Amy in her genuine attempts to understand what is demanded of her. Alice and Ollie’s corridor chat also reminds of the events of Cat People and tells us how they have chosen to remember it. It shows how memory can serve to recast the past in order to serve the present needs of the subject. People who are now gone can be assigned roles which bear little resemblance to their authentic nature, but which play a convenient part in the ongoing story of the subjects to which they are now subordinate symbolic objects. This is how Ollie and Alice stand in relation to Irena and her violent death. The story has been rewritten by the survivors.

Art criticism

Back at home, the streamers straddling the ceiling indicate that the birthday party which Amy has mentioned is about to take place. Ollie picks at the party food and becomes intently involved in playing tiddlywinks. He is still very much an adult child himself. Alice tells him ‘Ollie, that’s for the children to play with’. But there are no children. Amy stands on the verandah in her white dress, and then goes down to the flower-covered arch in the garden hedge. Here she is framed by the camera, looking outwards. The arch is the gateway, the threshold which leads to the outer world beyond the boundaries of the enchanted garden which is the protected realm of Amy’s imagination, a world which she can control. Inside, we meet the Reed’s (Ollie and Alice’s surname) houseservant Edward, played by Lewton regular Sir Lancelot, the Caribbean actor who had appeared in I Walked With a Zombie and Ghost Ship. He tells Ollie that he didn’t post the invites, since Amy had asked to do it herself. ‘She pleaded so to do it’ he says in his oddly cadenced and musically inflected language (Sir Lancelot was a renowned calypso singer) which gives a hint at where some of Amy’s mannered modes of speech might have originated. When Ollie asks Amy where she posted the letters, she leads him into the garden, to the old twisted tree which we had seen depicted framing Val Lewton’s name in the credits. This is a tree straight out of fairy tale, it’s contortions giving it a semblance of aged anthropomorphism, like the Arthur Rackham trees mentioned earlier. Amy had posted the letters in the ‘magic mailbox’ formed by the hollow of an old bole. This directly relates to an incident in Lewton’s own childhood, when he had done just this. Amy gets a lecture about not getting lost in a world of her own dreams, and dejectedly realises that no-one is going to come to her party. But perhaps this was her secret wish.

The party goes ahead anyway, as Edward brings in Amy’s cake. Ollie tells her to ‘wish real hard. Blow out the candles and your wish will come true’. Amy, who has just been told not to get lost in a world of wish-fulfilment, reasonably replies ‘but wishes don’t come true’. Ollie confuses the issue in her mind with an instant revision of the rules as he says ‘certain wishes do’. He is confronted with his refutation of the magic tree wishes. Amy is evidently an intelligent girl with a clear-thinking mind which has not been clouded by fancies as Ollie fears. He is trumped here, and swiftly splutters ‘well, this is different’. There is a look of intent concentration on Amy’s face as she prepares her flame extinguishing exhalation. Having been assured of its efficacy, she evidently believes in the power of this wish. Her wish, she says, is to ‘be a good girl’, to conform to her father’s expectations. Edward tells her the wish is spoiled since she shouldn’t voice it, but Alice gives him a conspiratorial wink and says ‘with this kind of a wish, that doesn’t matter’, to which he nods. The rules are swiftly rewritten by the adults again. Amy then comes out with a list of the things which she must do to be what Ollie wants her to be. Clearly there have been discussions aplenty on these matters. She pledges to ‘play with other children…not sit around by myself…tell the truth’. Amy will try to carry out these new promises in the world, but will discover how the world refuses to realign itself according to any personal manifesto.

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