Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Seventeen

Curse of the Cat People - Part Two

The Witch's House

We follow Amy out through the gate in the white picket fence as she makes her first attempt to carry out her pledges in the world. She greets Jack, a pint-sized Cagney in baseball get-up, whose response to her greeting is a Brooklynese ‘nyaah’ brush-off. They are from different linguistic universes. The three girls who she approaches immediately huddle into a conspiratorial, whispering huddle. They’re mad that Amy said she’d invite them to her party and are dismissive of her magical explanations of why they never received those invitations. They have the unshaded moral absolutism of children, and their suddenly decisive cry of ‘ditch her’ indicates that they possess childhood’s casually instinctive cruelty as well. As they run past an old house, they give us an introduction to its place in the fairytale schema; ‘the old house – it’s haunted – there’s a witch in it’.

Amy follows and finds herself at the gate of this witch’s house. It is a classic turreted edifice of louring US gothic, with a fence of rusting iron entwined with spiralling creepers. Amy sees a curtain twitch in an upper window and a soft, aged voice entices her in with a timeless invitation: ‘Little girl. Come into the garden. It’s pleasant and cool here’. It’s a voice coming from an old house in a small town in rural New York State, but it could be from a cottage at the heart of the European darkwood. Amy demonstrates her fearless curiosity by wandering into the garden. Once she has passed through those iron gates, we sense that she has entered a different realm, a territory where the old stories still unfold. Glowering stone gargoyles peer from between the weeds. A white handkerchief flutters down like a dove from the upper window and when Amy goes to pick it up, she discovers that a ring is attached. A hand approaches from behind and snatches the kerchief, but not the ring, from Amy’s hand and a sullen faced woman walks back with it towards the house, passing between two stone satyrs to ascend the stairs to the front door. This is the striking figure of the actress Elizabeth Russell, who we’ve already encountered as Irena’s ‘sister’ in Cat People and as the consumptive making an assignation with Death in The Seventh Victim. The voice from upstairs whispers with some urgency ‘go away little girl, go away’. So, a sense of mystery and anticipation has been established. The provenance of the disembodied voice remains unknown. Is she another manifestation of the Jane Eyre madwoman in the attic, who we’ve already encountered in I Walked With A Zombie and The Seventh Victim? Or is she a prisoner of the woman in the garden? Which is the witch? For an imaginative child, this is a rich stage upon which to let her fancies create a myriad possibilities.

In the gothic garden

Back at the house, Amy shows Edward the ring and he gives further prompts to her imagination. ‘Most surely that was a nice lady to give a ring to a little girl’ he says in his beautifully balanced phrasing, before suggesting that it may be ‘a true wishing ring…a real morning ring like they have in Jamaica. You just have to turn it.’ This is a piece of mythology which Amy immediately adopts into her imaginative world. She tells Edward that she didn’t play with the other children as they wouldn’t play with her. Edward acts as her confessor here (sorry) and it is with him that she seems to feel most at ease throughout the film, an indication of her parents’ culpability in driving her towards retreating into the isolation of a private world. Having tested out her admission of failure in carrying out the pledges arising out of her birthday wish, she goes off to repeat it to Ollie.

Ollie is in his workshop abutting the garden. These two worlds, of the practical and the magical, the rational and the imaginative, are co-existent but separate, twin polarities which orbit it each other warily. Ollie is working on a model boat, fashioning solid, tangible representations of reality in wood. These remind us of the models of historical boats which he and Alice were absorbed in inspecting in the museum in Cat People, breezily dismissing the less enthralled Irena to the lower depths, where the more mysterious artefacts of antiquity were to be found. The workshop here is very much Ollie’s world, a corner of practicality and rationality. When Amy enters, he tells her ‘your daddy’s so pleased with you that he’s built you a model ship for your very own’. That this is his idea of what a young girl would want as a present suggests his lack of real engagement with his daughter’s life. He is attempting to impose his own worldview onto her’s, whilst remaining resolutely closed off from any reciprocal interest in her world. Amy is open and honest with him, in the same way that Irena tried to be, but as soon as she starts to talk of an ‘old dark house’ with a voice, he snaps into a rage. This acts as another and rather more confessional piece of autobiographical detail on Lewton’s part, since he apparently had a fairly stormy relationship with his own daughter. ‘Your mother may excuse it as lying’, Ollie says ‘but I call it plain lying’. Again, a suggestion of a rift with Alice over approaches to the rearing of their child is made quite plain. Alice enters at this point as Amy, on the verge of tears, denies that she was lying. Alice defends her and she and Ollie start to shout at each other, Ollie denying all, with a statement of ‘I’m never unfair’ asserting his unshakeable sense of belief in the rightness of his singular and narrowly defined view of the world. Amy voices the feelings of many a child upon whom the parental disputes of the adult world are displaced when she says ‘you’re upset about me. I made you fight’. She is told to run off and play; in other words, to retreat once more to her private fantasy world, which has been the cause of this dispute in the first place.

A very rational gift

Amy is on her own again in the garden, framed by the magic tree. She sits by the edge of the pond, her paper bird on the edge of a stick dangling lifelessly. The pool is another fairy tale location, a place of transformations. Amy puts her hand in the water and notices how it is changed by the play of light on the water, which also shines on the ring which she now wears. The fish, another of her ‘friends’ presumably, swims past her submerged hand. It is removed from her, moving through its own world. Amy withdraws her hand and slowly turns the ring, saying in a dreamy voice ‘I wish…for a friend’. The garden is engulfed in a sweeping front of shadow, leaves blown from the tree in a sudden breeze as if in response to this request. The tree is once more the locus of the magical occurrences in the garden. A new and altered quality of light emerges as the darkness passes, and the outline of the magic tree is clearly etched upon the grass. Amy plays happily in this magic light amidst a gentle shower of leaves, wholly in tune with nature and the first hints at the turning of the season. From inside the workshop, Edward and Ollie pause from their intent activities to glance at Amy running about from end to end of the garden, her bird now alive and trailing her in the air. They are closed off from and barely aware of the world in which she is so much at home. Intensely aware of the water, the wind and the light, she is at play with the elements. Later, after evening has fallen, Amy sits in the kitchen with Edward (who is coming to seem like her most constant companion in the ‘real’ world). Ollie comes in and comments that she was laughing and singing to herself’, to which she replies ‘I wasn’t singing to myself’. Edward mockingly supposes ‘it was to the wind you sang. Or maybe to the clouds or the sun… perhaps it was to the flowers in the garden’. He’s gently teasing her, but has in fact articulated the pantheism at the heart of Amy’s play. The exercise of her imagination in this manner, through a depersonalised form of nature mysticism, doesn’t seem to bother Ollie in the slightest.

As she is taken upstairs to bed by Alice, Amy subconsciously hums a faltering version of what we tentatively recognise as Irena’s song from Cat People. Alice is typically sardonic in her response, an adult form of address which she doesn’t seem to modulate when talking to her child. ‘I suppose any note, no matter how sour, sounds like a song if you hold on to it long enough’, she carps critically, clearly more for her own benefit than for Amy’s. Amy simply says that it was ‘the song my friend taught me’. As she gets ready for bed, Alice notices the ring which Amy wears and when she finds where it has come from admonishes her for taking gifts from strangers. Amy tells her of the old house with the voice, as if it were the house itself which was talking. Alice takes a different approach to Ollie’s reflexive dismissal of Amy’s stories, continuing to quiz her and therefore determining that the place she is speaking of is ‘The Farren House’, where a mother and daughter live. Alice realises that there is a core of truth within Amy’s fancies, and by extension that stories can themselves bear an essential truth, even if it is not literal. But she seems simply too distanced (as her ironical way of addressing her daughter has suggested) to become to intimately involved, and therefore assigns Edward to accompany Amy in returning the ring. Amy is pragmatic in accepting the need to return the ring. ‘I got my wish anyway’, she says, ‘it’s already come true’. ‘Then you must keep it true’, Alice tells her, once more adding to the crosscurrents of conflicting messages about the validity of imagined worlds.

The next day, Edward is cleaning one of Ollie’s ships with a noisy nozzle of compressed air, which acts like a wind in its sails, whilst he sings a shanty to himself. Adults can get lost in worlds of the imagination too. Amy interrupts his reveries to point out that he is supposed to accompany her in returning the ring. But he is busy with his own games now, and tells her that she can go alone. It seems that he has absorbed some of the neglectful attitudes of his employers. Amy meets Miss Callahan on the way out, as she passes once more beneath the rose-covered arch which marks the boundaries between her imaginative kingdom and the ‘real’ world outside. A real wind now blows as Amy turns the corner and examines the ring with a troubled look. But she sets her mind to the task at hand and heads off with a determined stride.

Miss Callahan, having bumped into Amy, has decided to drop in on Alice, taking her up on her earlier invitation. As she is shown around the house, she comments on how it is ‘a home connected with people’s thoughts and work, things they love’. But there is no trace of Amy here. There seems no indication that a child might live here. The garden seems to seem more and more like a place of exile. The idea of a house filled with objects imbued with personal meaning being the outward reflection of an inner world reminds us of Irena’s apartment in Cat People. Her Goya picture hangs on the wall here, out of place amongst the modern appurtenances of the Reed house. Her presence is more like a haunting now, the painting an awkward reminder of a past which cannot be exorcised. Alice mentions that Irena was an artist and that the events of the past were ‘a tragic, terrible experience’, as if there is some link. She claims that Ollie has never really got over it. Having already heard his complete disavowal of any sense of personal responsibility, we begin to wonder how well she really knows him.

Amy as Alice

Amy is at the door of the old house, which slowly opens and then closes behind her with no visible human agency. We once more feel as if Amy has now entered a magical realm, beyond the quotidian workings of the everyday world. Cutting to the interior of the house, we see Amy reflected in a large Victorian mirror, looking very much like Alice in her pinafore dress. This allusion creates the feeling that she is now entering a looking-glass world in which a strange and crooked form of order will prevail. This sense is enhanced by the fact that she is walking backwards, stepping away from the lady who had crept up behind her in the garden (Elizabeth Russell) who we will learn is called Barbara. She approaches Amy, staring down at her as she walks with slow, somnambulant steps. For a moment, they are both reflected in the mirror, a symbolic linkage which places them both at a remove from the real world. As the story progresses, we get a strong sense that Barbara is the adult into which Amy could develop if she is allowed to drift further into isolation and withdrawal from the world. But now she stands her ground and refuses to give Barbara the ring, telling her ‘you’re not the lady’. Elizabeth Russell’s face remains impassively downcast, a haunted visage which threatens to suddenly reform into lines of bitter hatred. She passes the sphinxes on the end of the banisters at the foot of the imposing staircase (more details which place the house in the realms of the witch’s hut or fairytale castle) before descending to the basement, her face illuminated against the shadows. Evidently this is an inversion of the madwoman in the attic archetype. She has relocated to the basement, a more symbolically subconscious locale for a post-Freudian era. Hitchcock would subsequently have Norman Bates move his ‘mother’ from an upstairs room into the basement in Psycho. It is also the area where the servants are housed, and as we learn of the strange relationship which exists within the house, we come to realise the extent to which Barbara has become defined by the role which has been imposed upon her.

The empty hallway in which Amy now finds herself is full of imposing objects of antiquity. She is surrounded by heavy oak furniture and looks nervously around to determine where she might venture next. There is the locked door and the entrance to a room veiled with a heavy curtain. A shot of Amy from the top of the stairs makes her look very small and lost amongst this oversized clutter. She is like a Gretel without the comforting companionship of a Hansel. Slipping cautiously behind the curtain, she comes into another room filled with the assorted bell jars and morbid bric-a-brac of moldy Victoriana. A stuffed cat perches on a branch with a bird in its mouth, an image which suggests that wild and violent impulses may lurk beneath apparently calm domestic surfaces. It also reminds us of the boys scattering the cat from the branch with their imaginary machine-guns at the start of the film. Here, we feel, it might very well be the boys who are doing the running. This is an implicitly female environment, but one of deep mystery rather than bright, domestic order. The cat gives the sense that there may be a lurking threat within this house. Is it Barbara? Might her languorous movements be suddenly transformed into violent action?

There is laughter from the darkness and then a blind is drawn up and daylight floods the room. Amy throws her arms up to shade her eyes and the dusty and worn props of this shadowed world are revealed in all their shabby desuetude. The laughing old lady who has been revealed at the window lowers the blinds again. ‘I quite agree with you’, she says. ‘The sun is not kind’. She immediately retreats once more into her imaginary world of twilit shadow, turning aside from the daylit world of the real. ‘God should use a rose-amber spot’, she says. For her, life is clearly a theatre, and she delights in manipulating the power of atmospherically suggestive shadow through low lighting to enhance her performance. There is an element of self-reflexivity here, since Lewton’s films had by now established their signature style of noir lighting and deep pools of darkness. The old lady will use these effects to the full in her horror performance. As Amy reveals the reason for her visit, the old lady bristles at being called a stranger and launches into a strange potted bio of an introduction, in which she talks as if she is an MC introducing herself on stage. ‘Julia Farren a stranger? Why I’ve played every theatre from Boston to San Francisco’. She becomes lost in her own fantasy of international stardom, referring wistfully to ‘those beautiful, shining, golden days’ in which she has evidently become stranded. Amy defuses her grandstanding by reminding her ‘I only came to give back the ring’. Julia becomes ordinarily friendly for a while, and they settle down to have tea, ‘strong and red, the way I like it’. But her gaiety of manner is immediately dropped as soon as she senses Barbara’s presence. She peers through the curtains like an onlooker in the wings, denied access to the onstage action. This is a position she is seen in several times throughout the film. Julia has written her out of the play which is her life. She is dismissed with a look which expresses complete contempt. There is genuine hatred in Julia’s voice as she hisses ‘that woman is an imposter. She’s a liar and cheat’. This is a strange inversion of the relationship between father and daughter in the Reed household. Here it is the parent caught in a world of fantasy who accuses the daughter (a relationship yet to be revealed) of lies and deceit and of perpetuating a false view of reality. Both Julia and Ollie are inflexible in their insistence that their version of the truth is absolute and singular, however. Julia’s mood turns with instantaneous abruptness, in a more extreme example of the mood swing we’ve seen Ollie undergo in his workshop. She’s suddenly full of polite niceties again as she asks ‘how do you like your tea?’ She’s more than a little mad. This is what happens when you become completely unmoored from the real world and immerse yourself completely in a solipsistic dream world of your own making.

Miss Callahan-the family confidante

Back at the Reed house, Alice is musing aloud to Miss Callahan. Having confided in her about Irena, she now says ‘it’s almost as if there were a curse on us’ and that ‘it seems to be directed against Amy’. This is partly a bit of dialogue aimed at justifying the title of the film, an offhand gesture to the studio head; there’s your curse. But it is also a blatant evasion of responsibility on Alice’s part, a descent into self-justifying superstition. It elides any admission of her and Ollie’s personal role in Amy’s troubles and dumps it all back on poor Irena. ‘I sometimes think Irena haunts this house’ she adds, as if to back up her point. This is said as the sound of a bird in the garden becomes audible. It is not the house which is haunted, and Irena’s implied presence in the garden is an anti-haunting. It is a bringing of life, a blessing rather than a curse (The Blessing of the Cat People wouldn’t have worked as a title, it’s true). Edward comes in at this point and it is revealed that Amy has gone alone to the Farren house, which only goes to underline how disengaged Alice is from her daughter’s life. We can’t help but think of the more extreme example of Julia and Barbara Farren. Edward is dispatched to fetch Amy.

Julia, meanwhile, is imperiously enquiring of Amy, ‘child, have you ever seen a play?’ Like Ollie, she is keen to impose her own interests on the polite youngster. When she admits that she likes stories Julia says ‘then I’ll tell you a story’. Rapunzel is suggested, but rejected as Amy has already read it. It is another story of a woman in a tower, a fairy story about isolation and imprisonment, although Rapunzel has yet to succumb to madness (unless refusal to cut your hair constitutes some form of OCD). As such, Amy’s familiarity with the story is unsurprising, as she is, in a sense, living it. Julia decides on another story and is led limpingly to another curtain (it is a house of concealing curtains). Amy is positioned as the audience and Julia says ‘we’ll pretend this is the stage’. Here, then, is more adult play and make-believe with which Amy is confronted. The world as she encounters it is full of adults who encourage fantasy and self-serving fictions (and themselves employ them) in certain situations and decry them in others. It is a world of confusingly conflicting messages, with no sense of consistency. The only solution seems to be to create a self-contained and self-consistent world which you control yourself.

The headless horseman approaches

Edward appears at the door, which is opened by Barbara, and asks if there is ‘a little girl with hair about the colour of yours, ma’am?’ Again the Amy and Barbara are linked, the child glimpsed in the adult and the adult in the child. Edward is ushered in just in time for the performance. Barbara retires once more to her place of concealment by the curtain, watching from the ‘wings’. Edward wants to lead Amy out, but she pleads and Mrs Farren positively commands ‘let the child stay!’ She then launches into the Story of the Headless Horseman, becoming as one possessed, hands clenched and face set in a look of fixed, wild-eyed intensity. It is as if she is living the story. We hear accompanying sound effects, wild wind and hooves, as if we are hearing the story as it unfolds in Amy’s inner world as she sits listening, still and entranced. Indeed, the camera slowly moves in on her face as if to register the effect of the story on her, as she begins to show signs of fear. Julia’s face moves nearer as she describes the approach of the horseman, her eyes bulging and clutching hands reaching out, completely lost in her role as the tale comes to its climax. Amy is evidently frightened now. The camera pulls back and we see that Julia’s face has come to rest within inches of Amy’s.

Edward-the concerned guardian

Edward takes Amy’s hand to lead her away, his silence betokening his worry at the effect this mad old woman may have had on her. Julia smiles at the evident effect her performance has had, but then suddenly seems very tired. The fact that she has frightened and possibly disturbed this young child clearly doesn’t register with her. Edward is probably right to be worried on Amy’s behalf. Amy’s polite ‘I’ve had a nice time but I have to go home now’ receives no response. Julia sinks onto the sofa, bent over with weariness. In the hallway, Edward is unable to open the door, and rattles the knob with a slight sense of panic. This is evidently a house which it is easier to enter than leave, a fact to which Barbara, who now appears to open it for them, can no doubt attest. She is shot from below, as if from Amy’s perspective, and is sinisterly uplit, her features looking weighted with unbearable sadness. Amy says a polite thank you to her, too, and she moves off with a heavy slowness, as if the house exerts its own dense gravity (the gravity of madness). Outside, a concerned Edward tells Amy not to come here alone again. With the naïve childhood ability to accept difference and strangeness, she says ‘but she’s such a nice lady’. Edward casts a worried glance up at the house and hurries them away. For him, this is a house haunted by the living.

Barbara-the mask of tragedy

Inside, Barbara is trying to gain Julia’s attention, and we learn of their relationship for the first time. ‘Look at me, I’m your daughter’ she implores. And, with resentment and bitterness, ‘you’re sweet and kind to the little girl. A stranger.’ Julia replies as if from a great distance. ‘My daughter Barbara died when she was six. You’re only the woman who takes care of me. You are an imposter’. Barbara walks off in despair. We feel that this is one of an endless series of attempts to get through to her mother (for we are left in little doubt that it is Barbara who is speaking the truth here). But Julia is framed by the large sofa in whose centre she slumps, seeming somehow shrunken, blank and worn, sunk in madness which has caught her daughter up in its coils. This is the first time we have learned Barbara’s name, but Julia has denied it, referring to her in the presence of others with a dismissively snarled ‘that woman’. The lovably eccentric old woman reduces her daughter to a state of complete abjection, consigning her to the servants’ quarters below stairs. Even her name is taken away from her.

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