Thursday, 13 August 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Nineteen

The Curse of the Cat People - Part Four

One saved memory

The end of the Christmas period is marked by the taking down of the tree. Miss Callahan is here too, as she often is now. Is she another isolated soul, seeking refuge. Or maybe Ollie’s eye has started roving again. It indicates that the seasonal spell in which the family becomes a sacrosanct circle is over. Amy throws pine branches on the fire, re-enacting some long-forgotten pagan ritual. We are reminded of Irena throwing leaves on the garden fire, and once more it is apparent how much Amy is learning from her. Miss Callahan is reminded of Twelfth Nights gone by, of ‘burning pine and mummers plays’, whilst Alice remembers ‘St George and the Dragon, all kinds of crazy sword dances’. Even in this all-American setting, there are echoes of old traditions, which summon up a vestigial sense of connection with the passing of the seasons, the cycles of the year. As these memories prompt a look back through old photographs, one falls out, and Amy picks it up. It is the one of Irena which Ollie kept. Her lullaby theme appears on the soundtrack, this time in a minor key, suggesting that the harmony and happiness which Amy and Irena have bought to each other may be about to end.

The empty garden

Amy impulsively says ‘daddy, you know my friend too’. This immediately triggers a reaction from Ollie. It must have been obvious that Amy was still playing on her own for much of the time, and that a deal of imaginary creation was a necessary part of such solitude. But as soon as the shadow of Irena is re-introduced, reminding him of what has become in his mind her self-destructive retreat into imaginary fears, he feels compelled to act. He speciously declares that he thought that she’d ‘forgotten that dream life of yours’. A glance out of his workshop window would evidently have disabused him of such a belief. Now that her pact of secrecy has been broached, Amy affirms that Irena ‘plays with me in the garden all the time…she’s there whenever I call her’. Ollie marches her out into the garden, which is snowbound and empty, and feels rather desolate.

Amy sees Irena under the tree, but Ollie tells her there’s no-one there. He makes this statement of aggressive certitude without taking the trouble to actually look, or ask Amy where she can see her. He tells her to look again, and that if she still says that she’s there, ‘I’m afraid I shall have to punish you’. This is a very prescriptive way of getting someone to adhere to the truth which you want to establish. There is no attempt at establishing why that truth might be valid. Irena is still there, and puts her finger to her lips with a worried frown. This is why she made a pact of silence with Amy. She was protecting her from Ollie. But Amy takes after her in finding it difficult to lie. We see a reverse shot from behind Irena as Ollie leads Amy inside. This shot seems once more to emphasise her substantiality. As well as suggesting that she is watching as her cherished duty of care over Amy is ceded to Ollie’s coercive and impatient parenting, it shows that she remains watching from her garden bower after they have turned their backs on her to go inside. By adopting her viewpoint, the camera affirms her reality.

Alice is uneasy about Ollie’s punishment and retreats to the kitchen. When Ollie returns, looking broody, Miss Callahan is still there, alone in the room. She is evidently now quite at ease in this household, and she and Ollie seem quite close. She starts quoting poetry at him, even though he’s evidently not the literary type. This is the first time we’ve had any of Lewton’s customary literary quotations in this film, references to Sleepy Hollow notwithstanding. Miss Callahan seems to be trying to use literature to rouse Ollie’s dormant sense of empathy with his daughter, to make him see the world as others perceive it and break through his stubborn intransigence. She cites a couple of couplets from Stevenson’s The Unseen Playmate from A Child’s Garden of Verses: ‘When children are playing alone on the green/In comes the playmate that never was seen/When children are happy and lonely and good/The friend of the children comes out of the wood’. This is a poem which takes a very benevolent view of such imaginary playmates, portraying them as guardian figures who watch over solitary children. The unseen playmate’s association with the green, the wood, the laurels, the grass and the caves also gives him/her the same pantheistic connection with the manifest spirits of nature that we find in Curse of the Cat People.

Miss Callahan, with her professional knowledge and experience of childhood behaviour, defends Amy’s creation of an imaginary friend and the creative mind of which it is a sign. But Ollie rejects her informed point of view and returns to what is, for him, the crux of the matter; his self-justifying revisionist view of Irena’s fate. It is notable that Alice has retreated from the situation, once more taking a non-interventionist approach to her daughter’s upbringing. Perhaps she has become resigned to Ollie’s intransigence and ability to justify his behaviour in any situation by now. He is certainly a lot less confrontational with Miss Callahan, and the confidences they share remind us of the similar intimacies he let Alice in on in Cat People, the prelude to his rejection of Irena. ‘I’ve lived through something like this before’, he states, a comparison of immense hyperbole. Speaking of Irena, he says ‘you don’t know what happened to her because she told lies to herself and believed them’. Once again, he chooses to forget the words he uttered at the scene of her death: ‘she never lied to us’. He proceeds to spin a fiction which, whilst self-critical on the surface, serves to portray himself as the victim. ‘Everything I did was wrong…in the end she went completely mad…she killed herself’. The sought for sympathy is duly proffered, as Miss Callahan says ‘you can’t let this stand between you and your child’.

Upstairs, Irena comes up to see Amy, who has been left crying on her bed. But everything has changed. Irena’s explanations of why she came to Amy now have a valedictory air, the feeling of a final summation. ‘Out of your loneliness you called to me and brought me into being’ she says, ‘so that your childhood could be bright and full of friendliness’. Now she bows to Ollie’s coercive power, which insists upon the imposition of a dogmatically rationalist worldview. She is not here to battle for control of Amy, merely to respond to a need, which only incidentally fulfils her own. Realising that she has no inherent right to be here, she is willing to immediately accept her banishment. Her parting remarks aim to alleviate Amy’s feelings of desolation, and it is a parting for which she has already partially prepared her through drawing her attention to the transience and transformation observed in the passing of the seasons. ‘You’ll remember me for a while, mourn a little, but then you’ll forget, and that is as it should be’. These are words for a future Amy, for they are insights far too bittersweet for a young girl. Amy says that she’ll never forget and that she’ll follow her, but Irena replies that ‘no-one can follow me’. This suggests that she will be returning to an existence of isolation and solitude. It is a place to which Ollie and Alice’s erasure of her from memory has consigned her. Irena walks backward into shadow, just as Amy had first walked backward into the Farren house, another place of forgetting. The camera observes her retreat whilst gliding sideways across the room. It moves behind a chair and when it emerges from this occlusion, Irena is gone. The curtains blow inwards, the snow falls and Amy is alone in her desolation.

Leaving the garden

Downstairs, Ollie is as sensitive as ever in his attempt to maintain the comfort of his certainty. ‘But you’re a teacher, not a parent’, he splutters. She immediately puts him in his place, telling him that he, a designer of ships, has no special qualifications to raise children. ‘I’m a teacher, I’ve studied children’ she says, asserting her authority. When she tells him that ‘unhappy and frustrated children like Amy build companions for themselves as means of escape’ he immediately contrives to interpret this to his advantage, stubbornly asserting ‘you see, you agree with me’. His primary instinct is always to prove that he is right. Whilst they argue about her, for all the world as if they were a couple engaged upon the discussion of private matters from which Alice has politely absented herself, Amy has put on her coat and gone out into the empty garden, calling for Irena. Irena’s theme plays on the soundtrack, with ominous strings now providing uneasy harmony. She goes out of the gate, leaving the protected space of the enchanted garden, and heads out into the wild winter woodland. This is the primal region of chaos and danger, the fairytale realm into which innocents like Hansel and Gretel and Little Riding Hood wander. If the garden is the protected world of childhood, then the land beyond is the world of confused adult emotion and responsibility. It is a world also represented in the film Company of Wolves, adapted from Angela Carter’s Freudian recasting of fairytale matter. Here, the forest surrounds the peasant village beyond which the pubescent heroine, Rosalie, wanders ever more widely as she emerges from childhood. Irena’s parting words to Amy have suggested that she must one day leave the garden of childhood, but it is much too early as yet. She is a lost babe in the woods, blundering blindly through the snow.

Miss Callahan is telling Ollie that he must be Amy’s friend so that she won’t have any need of an imaginary one. Alice finally returns, and the two women, with their differing ways of negotiating their ways around Ollie’s self-righteousness, convince him to go upstairs, something he agrees to only with a gruff conciliatory ‘I’ll go up and see if she’s gotten to bed alright’. Finding her gone, he and Alice pursue her, following her footsteps in the snow, whilst the pragmatic Miss Callahan calls the police. Amy walks with stumbling speed along a path through the woods, a wintry reminder of the sun-dappled path which the children had skipped along at the start of the film. As she comes to a small stone bridge across a brook, she pauses, cowering with fear. Julia’s citation of the Sleepy Hollow legend reverberate in her mind, transforming the bridge into a another transitional space filled with menace and mortal terror. ‘And if you stand on the bridge at the wrong hour, the hour when he rides by, his great cloak sweeps around you’. We hear the sound of beating of hooves swiftly approaching from around the corner, only to have them revealed as the juddering thud of a loose snow-chain on the wheel of a car. This is the traditional Lewton ‘bus’, the moment of bogus shock which provides a mechanical jolt and release of tension. Here, it is used in an interesting fashion, however. Realistically, we are perfectly well aware that this is not the phantom horseman approaching. But, as with the scene in Amy’s bedroom immediately following Julia’s relation of the tale, we are asked to empathise with her terror, to share her fear. Effectively, if her fears become manifest, then we will experience them with her as they appear on the screen. We will share with her the distorted perceptions of madness. After the car has passed, she runs off in a panic, straying from the path. ‘Don’t stray from the path’ is a tenet which is always held up as a dire warning to characters in fairytales, but it is something which they have to do in order to assert themselves as individuals and as adults. Rosalie eventually does so quite deliberately in Company of Wolves, going against the repeated warning of her grandmother.

We cut from Amy’s aimless wanderings through the stormy night to the interior of the Fallon house, the focal point to which she is inevitably being drawn. Barbara says ‘I hate this storm’, in a highly strung voice. ‘I don’t hate the storm,’ Julia half replies, more in rhetorical than conversational mode. ‘It blows beyond me’. This statement could effectively apply to all atmospheric conditions, indeed, to reality in general. With a sense of something obsessively re-iterated, she dreamily intones ‘it was on a night like this that Barbara died’. Once more, Barbara tries to insist upon her own reality, pleading for recognition. Julia blankly declares ‘everything you say is a lie. You are a poor lost woman’. This is the first time that she has displayed anything approaching pity for Barbara. It is a form of recognition which is almost worse than her usual cold repudiation. Calling her a lost woman also draws a parallel between her and Amy once again. Amy is at this very moment a lost girl out in the snow. Perhaps there is a slight nod to the lost boys of another fairy tale of parental neglect, Peter Pan. These are the female equivalent, the lost girls. Julia’s assertion that it was on a night like this that her daughter died also brings a sense circularity, of recurrence to the events currently unfolding, and links the Farren and Reed households. The Farren house is a shadow of what might be. Julia’s denial of her daughter’s existence is almost like a surrender to her worst fears. Maybe at some time in the past, she became so terrified at the idea of something happening to her daughter, and at the idea that she was unable to safely raise her, that her mind recast that fear as reality, just to exorcise it. This scrap of pity which she has been thrown is a bitter offering for Barbara, and she reacts with coldly introverted violence. ‘You’re always worse when that little girl’s been here. If that child comes here again…I’ll kill her’. The casual determination with which she voices this vow makes us believe in its sincerity.

Amy stumbles through the storm, and finally collapses against the bole of a tree, at the end of her endurance. But this is a tree of the wild world outside of the garden, and has none of the properties of the one which has stood guard over her protected realm. Ollie and Alice are now searching with the state troopers and their dogs. Ollie guiltily says that if they find her, he will believe her and trust her. He has waited for the crisis to come to fruition before deciding to act. But will he do as he says, or will old patterns be re-established? Will he once more rewrite events as he had done with Irena? Amy, half-buried in the snow, hears the dogs barking and lights flashing through the trees, and her primal fears are awoken. The wolves are coming! She staggers off towards the house where the wolves’ female equivalent lives. The fear of the wolves drives her towards the cat, which is waiting to pounce, like the stuffed specimen on the branch.

Shutting out the storm

Julia is asleep on the couch when she is awoken by Amy’s feeble knocks at the door. The house and its inhabitants always seems to be asleep or sleepwalking until some visitor from the world outside comes to bring it to life once more. Mrs Farren limps to the door, looking more worn than ever, and greets the shivering figure of Amy with a sympathetic ‘poor little girl’, a direct echo of her ‘poor lost woman’ to Barbara. Snow swirls in through the open door and the glass of the gas lamps tinkles in the wind, the lights flickering. Mrs Farren struggles to shut the door, but it blows back open. The world outside has entered and refuses to be excluded any more. The storm no longer ‘blows through’ Julia, but must now be confronted. The stage is set for a repeat performance of the night Barbara ‘died’. Julia must now accept some level of responsibility for the safety of Amy, a displaced confrontation with the guilt and fear which she has retreated into a lifetime of fantasy to evade. ‘I’ll have to hide you’, she says, as if this were a game. Amy is to become part of the house, perhaps like one of the dusty and lifeless ornaments in the room behind the curtain. Julia’s empty stage.

The unclimbable stair

Julia decides on a hiding place. ‘We can go upstairs. There’s a little room under the eaves’. She is guiding Amy towards becoming a nascent madwoman in the attic, the guise under which she herself had first invisibly made her presence felt. But the curtains blow inwards in a menacing fashion, like the classic shrouded ghost. The house has been a mausoleum, a place of the dead where emotions are suppressed and confrontations stubbornly evaded. Now it is coming to life as the upheaval of the storm outside, which is an externalisation of Amy’s inner turmoil, is transferred inside, bringing things long buried scrabbling their way violently to the surface. The lights flicker and their glass casings rattle as if they are about to burst into savage incandescence. Mrs Farren hauls herself up the stairs, but the exertion, both emotional and physical, is too much for her and her heart gives out. Amy is frozen, not wanting to leave her dead body, and with spectral curtains flapping frantically both above and below to ward her off. We see a shadow rising from below, and then Barbara slowly ascends from her crypt-like quarters. Her face is a fixed mask of hatred, a dead face with no movement of animating emotion. She halts at the foot of the stairs, bracketed by two large candles, as if this is to be the culmination of a pre-planned ritual. Tears stall in her eyes as she sees her dead mother. ‘Even my mother’s last moments you’ve stolen from me’ she says, immediately beginning to revise memory to displace the blame. Amy has taken nothing from her since her mother gave her nothing in the first place. She calls Amy down like a predator mesmerising its prey into meekly submitting to its fate.


Amy, her voice quivering with terror, calls for her daddy, as if new priorities are already beginning to impose themselves, but he is not there to help. So she calls for ‘my friend’, who appears to have abandoned her. As she looks down at Barbara, Irena’s benevolent form becomes superimposed over her. Amy’s fear immediately dissipates and she descends the stairs and calls Barbara ‘my friend’. Barbara’s hands, rigid and clawlike, stretch around her head as if to throttle her, but Amy repeats the words ‘my friends’, as if to create the condition through verbal repetition, and hugs Barbara to her. There is a close up of Barbara’s face, and her hands relax and hold Amy. Her face loses its rigidity and sinks into a sorrowful look of self-awareness. This is a moment and a moment only of human warmth and contact before she retreats once more into the prison of self, but it is a moment which she can hold onto, and which may one day help her. Amy cannot ‘save’ Barbara in the way that she has Irena, but she can give her a small crumb of hope to hold onto, a hint of unconditional love to set against the contemptuous pity which was all her mother left her with. The hounds approach followed by the others, and Barbara slowly backs away, separating from her double, the shadows of past and future possibilities now diverging.

Ollie comes in and sweeps her up in his arms, saying ‘I thought we’d lost you. I thought we’d never find you again’. He is talking of an actual physical loss, although he had already almost as good as lost her in a less tangible fashion. As they approach their home once more, Ollie makes a solemn declaration which echoes the pledge which Amy made with Irena. ‘From now on you and I are going to be friends. I’m going to trust you. I’m going to believe in you. You’ll like that won’t you?’ This is like the obverse of the litany of ways in which she will try to please her father that Amy reeled off as her birthday wish. Rather than requiring her to act and think in ways which he prescribes in order to be a ‘good girl’, he is now promising to indulge her in an equally unquestioning way, which is not necessarily any better. But the gesture is important, and some equilibrium will hopefully be achieved in the future. But now, the snow is melting, the long freeze is coming to an end. Ollie is asking ‘is your friend in the garden? Can you see Irena now?’ He is asking to be allowed into Amy’s world of imagination, rather than attempting to block it off. Irena is indeed there once more, having now been given official permission to return. Ollie’s recognition of the validity of Amy’s creative imagination is also a reconciliation with his memory of Irena. ‘Yes, I can see her’ says Amy, and Ollie concurs; ‘I see her too darling’. He doesn’t really, of course; He’s not even looking in her direction. But she does live inside him again, and he can see her once more in this sense, as memory clears from the fogs of self-justification. Amy smiles at him, and they all go in. It is her reconciliation with her father which is all-important. Alice looks on from the sidelines again. This may reflect the autobiographical element of Lewton’s reflection on his relationship with his own daughter as much as anything. This was the relationship which was important to him.

As they all go in, the camera positions itself so that we see them from the point of view of Irena, watching from over her shoulder so that her presence is solidly registered. The bole of the tree is in the foreground. Once they are inside, she fades away from view, as if merging with the tree. She has selflessly negotiated a position whereby she will be needed less and less. But she waits in the tree, a guardian spirit from the old world waiting to be summoned once more.

Irena watches

Next, the first of the Boris Karloff historical European ‘trilogy’, Isle of the Dead.

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