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.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Back to the shadows...

In preperation for the upcoming Gothic Season in Bath, I've been revisiting some Hammer films (like I need an excuse).

Having recently watched Oliver Reed in CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF with much anticipation - having not seen it since I was a boy, I found myself quite disappointed by the film. Good opening, and then it sags all over the place until the finale.

A crying shame, being that THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN, FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN and FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED all exceeded my expectations/rememberence to the degree that I've been singing their praises from the rooftops ever since. No nostalgic, sentimental attatchment to the films, just honest to god appreciation for the film making involved. Great scripts with great direction, some wonderful acting (some), exiting ideas, way more depth than you might remember and astonishing work from Jack Asher (cinematography) and Bernard Robinson (sets).

Tonight I watched - and introduced my wife to - THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, which is GLORIOUS. Ripe to the point of bursting.



The first half hour is some of the best work Terence Fisher - indeed Hammer as a company - ever did. It looks beautiful. It's mysterious, and mischevious and surprising, and it rockets along like nobody's business.

There are flaws unfortunately - an appalling rubber bat that Peter Cushing almost sells by his commitment to the scene, and weak music, missing the classic touch of James Bernard, wwho was unavailable for this one (terrible cliched organ music that is sometimes not more than creepy scales). But it is so incredibly gorgeous to look at - Jack Asher's use of colour is incredible. As out there in it's use of non sourced colour as anything by Mario Bava, though perhaps not quite so unhinged. The purples, reds and greens on show here are jaw dropping.

Expect this one on the bill if there's ever a follow up to the Gothic Season to be held in Bath this October.

I should add - that my wife really loved it. As she did last nights viewing of THE GORGON. Iffy final reveal on that one - but not so devestatingly bad as some might lead you to believe. If you liked what comes before, you'll probabyly go with it.

Next up THE TWO FACES OF DOCTOR JEKYL I think, or PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Coming Soon To A Cinema In Bath...

There's a season of Gothic Cinema coming in October to The Little Theatre cinema in Bath.


I'm involved in programming it. Jez and I both will be writing for it.

Sir Christopher Frayling will be there to talk about Jack Clayton's THE INNOCENTS.


Stephen Woolley will be there to talk about THE COMPANY OF WOLVES.


The other titles are under wraps at the moment, as are other speakers. We're on the hunt and we're in talks.

All I really can say at the moment, is that it's shaping up nicely and looking very good.

More to follow. But I'm getting quite excited about it...

Monday, 13 July 2009

What Would Harlan Say?

TORCHWOOD: CHILDREN OF EARTH...

Oh dear.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear...

I bailed out of the first series after the dopey 'cyber-woman in the basement'. Gave it another go with series 2 on dvd, and realised in episode one that they've structured a series around the wrong character - it should have been the guy that James Masters (from Buffy) was playing.

Didn't get much further than that though.

The Torchwood institue seems shoddily imagined/created. Infact they seem to inhibit good stories. Children Of Earth COULD have been STATE OF PLAY with Aliens... imagine if it was the press figuring out what was going on. If the story was viewed from peole outside of the government. That might have been interesting.

Instead... oh god, I can't wait for Steven Moffat's Doctor Who episodes to arrive. Nor for Russell T. Davies to return to proper drama. God love him for all he's done, but this Americanised take on genre set in Wales just doesn't work. Neither he nor his writing team really have any kind of a knack for it. And it's because the concept and the casting is all fundamentally flawed.

Harlan Ellison is on record saying Doctor Who is the greatest science fiction series ever made.

I'd love to hear his thoughts on Torchwood. Bone-stick-stone-stupid would no doubt be a phrase employed...

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Depressingly Mediocre...

Just got back from a a screening of the depressingly mediocre PUBLIC ENEMIES, with a ball of tension in my stomach that I can't figure out.

Maybe it's the film, maybe it was the last customer on the phone at work, who sounded entirely weird and like they thought I was stupid for not telepathically knowing what they wanted.

Mostly, though, I think it was the film.

For the record, I LOVE Michael Mann's HEAT. I rather like LAST OF THE MOHICANS (though think it should be longer), and enjoyed COLLATERAL quite a bit - a very good modern day Hitchcock plot, that was a bit too pat towards the end. If I didn't quite believe the Cruiser's grey wig, I'll forgive him, because it was still one of his better performances, and on the whole, the film whipped along like nobody's business. Superior thriller stuff, say I. Mind you I laughed out loud at MIAMI VICE.

But PUBLIC ENEMIES... was just sort of, rubbish. For a long film from a director like Mann, it was very thin. I mean really superficial. There wasn't much story and there wasn't much character (Depp didn't have that much to do except be a likeable thief, and he's Johnny Depp, so of course we like him).

The way Christian Bale talks with his tongue stuck to the bottom of his mouth/back of his lower front teeth is beginning to really distract me (I realise it's not his fault, it's an impediment, but it makes him do funny things with his mouth that make his characters really annoying - go figure).

The digital photography in the film is awful. It looks like it was shot on a handycam, and not very well. Too much jittery handheld - not in a good way either. Constant tiny little zoomed reframes that distract the hell out of me, and really blurry images when it swoops and whips and moves in general.

In the 70's when people went hand held, the images didn't look this clumsy and amateur, in part because although they felt a little freer - by nature of their being taken off sticks - the equipment was of such a weight that you couldn't make bouncing little shuddery movements. The weight of the camera took out the worst of the wobble. Here, it's everywhere, and it's doing nobody any favours. The cameras are light weight. The movements are lightweight. And the images feel lightweight. Which in the end, is what the film is. Lightweight fluff.

Without reading the script that was written, it's hard to blame the writer, but if the film as screened is a reasonable representation, then it was underwritten. I'm just shocked by the lack of ambition in the film. Michael Mann has a reputation as an intelligent film maker. HEAT like I say, THE INSIDER, which I almost forgot about and which is another very good film. But this does nothing. It's not a patch on John Milius's film DILINGER, nor on BONNIE & CLYDE, nor for that matter Howard Hawks original SCARFACE or Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (much as I have problems with that film, it's still beautiful, and striving for something, even if it arguably falls short).

What's missing is the sense - and I got it from one of the older G-Men characters - of how characters who would have thrived, and perhaps were born (literally and figuratively) in the days of the classic Old West, have shifted and changed and shaded into the modern era. Dilinger is one of the last of the old style of Outlaw - hinted at/touched on in the way that organized crime rears it's head, in images suffused with wires and telephony, the coming of the modern/machine age, the shifting of crime with technology, the shift from robbing and feeding off the rich, to criminals who steal from the poor/us all.

There's a whole interesting side unexplored in this film. The character (who's name I've now forgotten) who finally kills Dilinger and informs his girlfriend of his dying words, is a man in his fifties. A lawman who must have started in the last days of the Old West. Brought in as a man of experience... I wanted to know HIS story. That shift from the man on horseback riding the plains to tracking his man in the modern metropolis, could have been fascinating. There was the hint of an Elmore Leonard character there... but they didn't explore it.

Just like they didn't explore much else in the film.

If it had been a forensically detailed account of Dilinger and his lifestyle (in some ways analagous to that of De Niro's character in HEAT) that would have been something... but I guess I'm looking for a movie that isn't there. Reviewing a movie that I wanted to see.

Unfortunately the movie that I did see, did very little for me. Not even the Michael Mann trademark set pieces were all that great. It was all just... not very interesting.

And I find myself increasingly angry when films are like this for me.

I'd almost rather a film were out and out crap than be mediocre. But in the end that's what this one is. Mediocre. And with the talent on board, the minds involved, who have proved themselves more than once elsewhere (though they've also proven themselves more than fallible) I expect more. And am shocked and depressed by the outcome. Did they really not think to reshoot or rewrite this? Did the script they went ahead with really resemble this film, was it really this thin on the page? Did they really not do more testing with the cameras? Are they really happy with the results? Do they like this particular aesthetic?

I guess I just want them to aim higher. Exected they WOULD. I expected too much I suppose. Sorry.


On a much more upbeat note, if - like me - you want someone who aims high, and wants you drag you up with them... I must urge you to check out DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH, a wonderful, fascinating and highly entertaining portrait of Harlan Ellison.


This is a man who inspires you to be more. To aim high. Who expects nothing less than the best of you as an audience, and himself as creator.

I wish there were more like him.

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Fifteen

The Ghost Ship (1943) - Part Three

Pockmarked Angel

With the ship in dock, First Officer Bowns and deckmaster ‘Boats’ look on with undisguised contempt as Tom goes to shore in his civvies. At the offices of the Dunham shipping line, Tom asks company agent Mr Roberts about making a complaint about Captain Stone, who it is revealed is ‘an old friend’. The swiftly convened hearing finds Tom alone in his suspicions. The incident with the hook is blamed on him since he was the one who conveyed the Captain’s order not to fasten it and his pact of silence with Sparks leads them both to bite their tongues when the Greek claims that it was the Captain who saved his life. From the perspective of the world on shore, Tom’s claims seem like paranoid delusions. The pocket world of the ship suddenly seems remote, like the fog of a half-remembered dream dispersing upon waking. The Captain on shore is a different man from the Captain aboard ship, his power and authority dissipated and dispersed in the wide and busy connections of the world at large.

Mr Roberts has told the Captain that ‘Ellen will be wanting to see you’. But it is Tom that she meets first, another indication that, as the Captain has asserted, they are in some ways shadow selves. She is gazing longingly up at the ship as Tom descends with his suitcase in his hand. He confesses to her that he is leaving the ship and she offers him a lift to the hotel in her carriage. Ellen provides a female, and therefore in the context of the world of the ship, an outsider perspective. She evidently sees Tom as a younger incarnation of Captain Stone. She gently mocks his, and by extension the Captain’s intransigent and inflexible attitude, its inability to admit fallibility and thereby the chance to learn from mistakes. ‘I didn’t make a make a mistake; I couldn’t make a mistake; I’m the Captain – I’m Authority’ she chides. Her voice has the worn quality of weary understanding. She describes the Captain as ‘lonely, austere, bitter – without family or friends’ and warns of the danger of ‘condemning yourself to a bloodless, ghost-like existence’. This is the provenance of the ghost ship of the title; a ship peopled by living spectres, in thrall to their sublimated drive to power or to a superstitious belief in the mechanisms of a pre-ordained fate. Ellen vows to change this, to draw Tom and the Captain to ‘embrace warmth and life’. She hints at some change in personal circumstance which means that ‘I can now. I have the right’. She claims rights over the Captain in much the same way as he has claimed rights over the lives of his crew, but she is talking in terms not of authority and control, but of connection and partnership. We see once again the dangers of isolation, the imperative need for the society of others and for genuine communion. For love. Captain Stone follows in the line of Lewton characters such as Dr Galbraith in The Leopard Man and Jacqueline in The Seventh Victim who have become detached from any meaningful external relationship, seemingly contradicting John Donne’s assertion that ‘no man is an island’.

The Captain confesses as much to both Mr Roberts and then to Ellen, who we recognise now as the woman in the photo which lay on the chart. ‘I’ve lived a lonely life’ he says to Mr Roberts, before revealing his growing paranoia. ‘People seem to be turning against me – the boy, some of the crew’. Mr Roberts advises him to ‘see a good doctor’ and ‘find new interests’ but The Captain offhandedly rejects this admittedly rather patronising advice. ‘There are no new interests. Just authority’. The Nietzschean will to power has effectively taken him over, becoming his sole raison d’etre. From displacement activity it has hardened into a rigid carapace which has suffocated all other motivations and emotions inside. With Ellen on deck, we learn that his name is Will, a startling use of a real name denied the sailors at sea, who are distanced from each other either by dismissive nicknames, surnames or titles of rank. She reveals that after a long time, she has finally won her divorce, but does not receive the joyful response she hopes for. ‘Will’ (another symbolic name?) admits to his fear of madness, to the ‘feeling that I don’t know myself’. As Will rather than Captain Stone, he can allow such a display of vulnerability. This is the split personality which leads to such feelings of estrangement. As soon as he is back on board, in the shrunken universe circumscribed by the boundaries of the ship’s hull, he will become Stone again, compelled to control every aspect of his world.

Nazi bullies

Tom comes across Sir Lancelot being picked on by a group of leering German soldiers, who are by implication Nazis. This serves to highlight the fact that (aside from the observation that Nazis are racial supremacist thugs) Captain Stone is not himself of that stripe. An authoritarian with fascist tendencies but without a racial dimension to his Darwinian view of the inherent superiority of a select ruling elite. Tom wades in to defend the gentle Sir Lancelot from these fascist Neanderthals and is knocked senseless in the process and mistakenly carried back on board ship, which debarks before he comes to. He goes to see the Captain but is studiously ignored, before finally being given the foreboding line previously delivered to Louis, which effectively sealed his fate. Tom is sent to Coventry, given the cold shoulder by all aboard. When he tries to convince Sparks that the Captain is out to kill him and asks to send a wireless message, he is curtly told that all such messages have been banned unless the Captain personally approves them. The borders have been shut down.

an unlocked door

At night, Tom discovers that the locks have been removed from his door and later that the clasps have been taken off from his porthole window. He improvises an alarm system from torn sheets, and we get our first ‘bus’ as a cup smashes to the ground. Several instances make it clear that he is being watched, and he creeps out to the Captain’s room to break into the armoury. But such a move has been anticipated and the Captain confronts him with a gun. He tells him that he is teaching him a great lesson, that ‘authority cannot be questioned’. Guns are never actually used in the film. As has been noted, the weapons are tools put to destructive use. Here the gun is a demonstration of superior force, the fascistic maintenance of control through fear and violence. The Captain reveals the sinews of his philosophy once the skin of nebulously noble rhetoric has been stripped. ‘Who’s crazy?’ he says in a strained voice which belies the need for an answer. ‘You, who defied me and are helpless? Or I , who control your destiny and the destiny of the Altair and all the lives on board?’ He further expounds his Nietzschean ubermensch philosophy in all its raw misanthropy. ‘Men are worthless cattle, and a few men are given authority to drive them’. He would not have bothered to step in to save Sir Lancelot, merely observed with interest as the lower orders, driven by petty and unimportant pack instincts, tore each other apart. Tom, who did intervene in this situation, declares his faith in man. ‘You can’t prove that to me – even with a gun’. This amounts to throwing down the gauntlet. The Captain needs to assert the superiority of his world view so issues a challenge to take part in what amounts to a philosophical dual, a clash of beliefs. This is like an invitation to take part in a deadly game, reminding us of the chess board which lies ready at the start of the film. Any game the Captain plays he clearly has no intention of losing, since this would challenge his authority and his belief in his inherent superiority. ‘See if they’ll stand up with you against authority’, he contemptuously commands Tom.

No-one will listen to him. He attempts to steal a large needle used in the fixing of a steel rope, another tool which can be turned into a weapon, but the Captain is there to catch him out. He turns to Sparks, pleading with him that ‘I’m desperate’, but receives the cold response ‘I don’t know anything’. Sparks receives a telegram from Mr Roberts expressing Ellen’s concern for Tom. The Captain’s reply that he is not on board effectively severs him from even these close friends. He is now wholly self-contained, the impervious monad, cut off from all human relationship. All that is left is the will to authority, to control all elements of the world in his purview. We see the Finn in profile on the deck, and as Tom nervously walks past, they exchange a glance. This moment of wordless communication is enough for Finn to read him, and we hear is dreamy inner voice once more. ‘I know this man’s trouble. I see the Captain’s hatred. I know and I will watch…I will watch’. Finn thus becomes Tom’s guardian. Existing beyond the level of language, he sees things more clearly without the hypnotic fog of words, the linguistic labyrinth. They communicate on the level of empathy. He can recognise Tom’s isolation and the fear it engenders because he has experienced it himself. His considered, slowly articulated thoughts are also able to read the burning chaos of the Captain’s suppressed rage, but he is wholly in command of his own feelings and is not infected, either by anger or fear. He is a strange angel.

Back in his room, Tom finds Sparks, whose suspicions have finally been sufficiently aroused by the Captain’s mendacious response to the wireless telegram to offer help. He goes off to deliver the telegram to the First Officer, but meets the Captain outside. The two walk off slowly into the shadows, side by side. It is the walk of a condemned man and his executioner to the gallows. It is a mark of the all-pervasive air of pre-determined fate aboard ship that even Sparks, the sceptical intellectual, bows to the will of the Captain’s Authority, to its almost supernatural claim over the lives of the crew. He surreptitiously drops the telegram, however, which Finn picks up. He is, however, illiterate. All standard channels of linguistic communication are closed to him. When Tom is told by the Captain to send a wireless message conveying the news of Sparks’ murder, he assaults him, accusing him of murder. He is tied up and sedated by the crew and held in his cabin. Meanwhile, Finn brings the telegram to First Officer Bowns, with the Captain surreptitiously spying in the background. He thus overhears Bowns admitting of the possibility that he is mad, ‘if the boy is right’.

an unheeded aphorism

In the confines of his quarters, this phrase loops in his head, as if echoing in a vast empty space, but with the interrogative ‘if’ removed so that it becomes an assertion. The Captain is being confronted with his own madness, which he has privately confessed (to Ellen) that he fears being overcome by. He sees his face reflected in his aphoristically self-instructive sign, behind the words ‘who does not heed the rudder shall meet the rock’. But he is far beyond the flexibility and openness to change which this counsels. Enraged by such an unpalatable self-revelation, he tears the sign from the wall and picks up a large knife, the emblematic tool/weapon the artistic arrangement of which was the opening image of the film. From this moment of inchoate rage, we cut to Sir Lancelot singing a light calypso, articulating the crew’s wilful blindness to the tyranny to which they have been alerted. ‘I like me singing, I like me fun, I like me good old West Indian rum’. These distractions serve to divert the attention from the necessity of engagement, of taking control of your own fate rather than waiting for it to hit you on the back of the head with the full force of an untethered grappling hook.

Power relationships

In Tom’s cabin, the Captain stands over his bound form with his very large knife poised over his throat. It is as foretold in shadows by his first meeting with Finn. This is an unvarnished portrayal of power relationships, of unquestioned, unchallenged authority poised over a subjucated and passively obedient class of willingly controlled sheep, ready at any time for the slaughter. It is the embodiment of Captain Stone’s philosophy. The knife is also undeniably phallic, its exaggerated size and the rigidness with which it is gripped putting it beyond claims that sometimes a knife is merely a knife. There is an obvious master and slave relationship hinted at here (one that has failed, hence the intent to murder) and perhaps even an implied element of homosexual desire. Would this explain the Captain’s failure to be overjoyed at the news of Ellen’s divorce, and add a further dimension to his inner torment? We’ve already seen hints of same sex relationships (with a domineering element) in The Seventh Victim, so maybe this isn’t such a fanciful conjecture, a retrospective application of a modern day sensibility. After all, any such relationships would certainly have to have been carefully inserted inbetween the lines in this era.

At this point Finn bursts in and a knife fight ensues, agonisingly played out in complete silence. Finn’s hand is wounded by grasping the sharp end of the knife, a recurrence of the image of the tool turned against its user. The Captain’s knife is grasped firmly in his white-knuckled fist, only finally released in the final relaxation of death. The fist grasping the knife could be a pictorial emblem of authority imposed through force, reproduced on flags and on uniforms. The final shot of the Captains corpse focuses on his stripes, the symbol of rank which has come to define his life. Finn’s voiceover concludes the final duel, in which he has stood in for the helpless Tom. This was a duel which Tom could not fight, anyway, as it required, on its philosophical plane, someone else to validate his humanist faith in man. As they stand side by side in the steering room, his inner voice intones ‘the boy is safe and his belief in men and men’s essential goodness is secure. He stands beside me in command. All is well’. He smiles for the first time, continuing ‘and we are homeward bound to San Pedro’. Both the physical and philosophical duels have been won. Finn and also the late Sparks have provided proof that Tom’s faith in man is not without ground. Back in port, the blind singer is still playing his pitch at the foot of the gangplank, his presence effectively bracketing the film. Tom once more pitches him a coin ‘for luck’, but his luck is this time sought on shore. We see the shadow of a woman greeting him. It is Ellen’s sister, who she has set up for a date. These are the shadows of what might have been for the Captain, but for Tom, they are shadows which can be made real. He has escaped from the trap of the ghost world into which the Captain had faded. Tom greets her with an arm around the shoulders, immediately establishing contact, and the two shadows walk briskly away from the ship, the blind man’s Brooklynite rendition of Blow the Man Down speeding them on their way.

Next, the exquisite childhood fairy tale and demi-sequel Curse of the Cat People.

The London Nobody Knows...


…Because most of it has now disappeared. This film from 1967 captures the capital on the cusp of major transformation. It concentrates on the crumbling remains of the Victorian warrens around Camden and Spitalfields, through which we’re guided with unrufflable suavity by James Mason. But it begins with a montage, set to music of the requisite fabness, of the new high rise buildings springing up all over the city. But this film is no lament for the past. It is fascinated in the remnants which still exist, but well aware that many of the houses and areas into which it ventures are unfit for human habitation.

James Mason, in tweed suit, checkered flat cap, well polished brown brogues and a stick which doubles as a useful pointing device, finds himself in some quite rough environs. At the start he is in the Bedford Theatre in Camden, which looks like it might collapse around him in an avalanche of plaster at any minute. Mason’s is the perfect voice for Fletcher’s tart, sardonic and unsentimentally reflective words. Here he muses on the music hall era to which this space was witness. A stage upon which Marie Lloyd strutted her stuff, and boxes in which the painter Walter Sickert sat sketching the theatrical world for later paintings. There are precious few reminders of this central aspect of Victorian London culture left, which makes it all the more imperative that a place like Wilton’s Music Hall should be preserved whilst its still standing. The National Trust are apparently dithering over whether to fund this fascinating treasure of popular entertainment history, a hesitancy which I’m sure wouldn’t be at issue were this yet another stately home under consideration.

James is also to be found treading the sleepers in the disused sidings behind The Round House. It is typical of this film that it is uninterested in the zeitgeist happenings for which the Roundhouse was famous at the time (I believe Jefferson Airplane played there), rather focussing on the relics of the Victorian railway era which can be unearthed by the keen eye. The Roundhouse is of course still there, having recently re-opened as a major concert venue, where its foundations were recently challenged by several nights of sonic assault by My Bloody Valentine. I went there a while ago to see a sound art installation by Brian Eno and Mimo Palladino which transformed the dank basement into a murkily primordial scene with reptilian creatures crawling out of the shadows and Eno’s generative music ebbing and flowing in intersecting fragments from various hidden speakers.

Moving to the East End, the film captures the Spitalfields area as it is divesting itself of the last traces of its Jewish immigrant character. The Yiddish theatre, in front of which the Salvation Army are playing, is clearly on the verge of closing down. Synagogue steps are the home to a temporary gathering of brawling tramps. The Jewish fresh food market seems to be doing a roaring market, however, and has the genuine air of serving a community (a reflexively overused word these days) with a final request for gefilte fish, which is something you don’t hear every day. James wanders down a couple of street markets, casting his eye over what’s on offer and nodding an occasional polite ‘good day’ to passersby who no doubt recognise him from somewhere or other. The street hawkers are showmen whose ready patter is probably turned up a notch for the cameras. The people here are far from the denizens of swinging London, some specimens of which we have seen in all their purple frippery and brightly buttoned Edwardiana. Some of the younger market traders have the fashionable haircuts of the era, but in general you get the feeling that this is what things were really like outside of a small coterie for whom everything was hip and happening. For everyone else it was Val Doonican. The streets around here are filthy, and when we are shown the debris-strewn back yard in which one of the Ripper victims met her end, we receive a sudden jolt as James tells us that some people around here still remember those times. Parts of this area really are still unchanged from Victorian era. These are the kind of slums which Gustave Dore depicted in his engravings of London published in 1872.


The film doesn’t shy away from showing the lowest depths of poverty and hardship. James takes tea in the Salvation Army hostel and talks with unpatronising ease to some of those down on their luck. But the point is made that beds here still cost a nominal sum per night, and not all can afford even that. The director turns the camera’s gaze on several tramps and seems fascinated by their ravaged faces, lingering to try to draw the humanity from the grime-filled lines. This is uncomfortable but somehow not exploitative viewing. It reaches an almost unbearable pitch when we hear an old man (maybe not so old) relate how he just somehow has never been able to make it, no matter how hard he’s tried. He stands in front of another row of dilapidated terraced housing, and suddenly he starts to sing a heartrending Yiddish song (and they sure knew how to rend hearts) in a surprisingly light and mellifluous voice. We continue hearing this as we see a new housing development and the fresh faces of childen playing in front of it. The effect is as socially didactic as the products of the documentary movement of the 30s and 40s such as Housing Problems and Diary for Timothy.

Geoffrey Fletcher’s books from the 60s showed a fascination for the small and often unobserved details of the cityscape, and the film follows up on some of these. There are the lamps, including a row of gas lamps lit by the last lamplighter in London (now long gone, I presume) and a fine specimen outside the Savoy. I didn’t spot this last time I walked in this area, although I did discover a passage which cuts right through the guts of the hotel, its art deco splendours currently completely covered with screened scaffolding. There are some splendid lavs, as well, including ones whose cisterns were once fishtanks (goldfish are temporarily provided to show how this worked). Elegant bogs seem to be a thing of the past in London now. Last time I walked past St Martins in the Fields, there was an aluminium wall against which you were apparently supposed to pee, with no enclosing walls. What a sign of social devolution! There’s still a classy subterranean Edwardian affair on the edge of Hampstead which I came across when we going to look at the restored Isokon Flats in Lawn Road (a classic piece of 30s modernism which had until recently been left to go to rack and ruin). Long gone are the days when underground lavs were proudly maintained by an attendant such as that played by Charles Hawtrey in Carry On Screaming (sample dialogue: Police Inspector – ‘I must warn you that I will be taking down anything you say’. Hawtrey, with cheeky smile – ‘alright then, trousers’.)

Going south of the river to Southwark, the buildings are still incredibly dirty, particularly given what an affluent area this has now become. A clue as to why may be found when we get a glimpse of the Bankside power station (now home to the Tate Modern) which was still in operation then (indeed, it only closed in 1982). The river is still a working waterway too, filled with barges and tugboats and larger ships beyond Tower Bridge in the pool of London. There’s a scene in Alfie, when he’s earning a few quid taking tourist snaps by Tower Bridge, where you see all the ships docked downriver and realise just how busy the docklands was. There’s a brief comedy sketch at this point, which James introduces rather wearily (perhaps Geoffrey Fletcher didn’t approve). This features an egg breaking factory, where two lab-coated fellows earnestly experiment with different ways to break eggs: hammers, steamrollers, explosives. It strongly reminded me of some of the wackier moments of Vision On (actually that accounts for pretty much all the moments in that freewheeling bastion of creative anarchy) and I found it highly amusing, although I could see how others might find it merely idiotic.


This is a treasury of images for those fascinated by London’s history. It was an inspiration (along with Patrick Keiller’s London, with its similarly sardonic narration) for their album and the accompanying film Finisterre. Indeed, the two films were shown as a double bill on the South Bank. The dvd release comes coupled with a rather enchanting piece of 60s nonsense, Les Bicyclettes de Belsize, a mini musical which unpromisingly centres around a theme song which was a hit for Englebert Humperdink. But don’t let that put you off, he doesn’t sing it here. The opening scenes panning across the rooftops of Hampstead are magical, and summon up the atmosphere of this area perfectly. I’ve always loved walking around Hampstead and Highgate. They have the feel of self-contained villages and yet are on the edge of the sprawl of London. The views over the cityscape are breathtaking and there is the feel of pausing on the brink, as if you have almost reached the goal of your journey and are surveying the world into which you are about to descend.


The film is a light and frothy fairy tale with a watered down hippy theme, as interpreted by theatrical types. The main character cycles around on his mini-chopper bicycle (a Raleigh RSW16 apparently, bike-spotters) berating squares for being so uncool as to, like, wait at busstops and go to work to earn bread, man. Why can’t they all be childlike and free, with their gauzy neckerchiefs flowing free in the slipstream, as they nearly kill themselves through reckless cycling in heavy traffic. Incidentally, the picture of our hero being passed by the 268 comes from an excellent site on buses in films, which I urge you to look at.

When our hapless hero, now with a rather sweet little girl in tow, crashes through an advertising hoarding, he instantly falls in love with the woman whose face rises in giant profile above him (Judy Huxtable, who later became Judy Cook after she married Peter). With a certain inevitability, they meet, she is swept away by the trendy Bailey-alike for whom she models, and he pedals his heart out to find her on Parliament Hill Fields. A love song ensues. It’s all charmingly whimsical, and I have a real soft spot for whimsical charm. The director, Douglas Hickox, went on to make Theatre of Blood, a tale of thespian revenge starring Vincent Price which, with its Bankside settings and meths-swilling cadre of feral tramps seems to draw some inspiration from The London Nobody Knows. It was recently adapted for the stage and performed at the National Theater with Jim Broadbent taking on Vincent Price’s mantle. Apparently the soundtrack of Les Bicyclettes will be released on cd by Chapter One records, coupled with, for no apparently good reason, Bernard Herrmann’s score for Twisted Nerve, an undistinguished psychothriller from 1968. A bit random, as they say.

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Fourteen

The Ghost Ship (1943) - Part Two

The ship's claw

We now see the deckhands working, with an ominous looking hook on the end of a chain suspended amongst them. As Finn indicates that a wind is building up, Tom tells the Captain that he will secure the hook to make it safe, but is twice rebuffed from on high (the Captain looks down on the deck from an upper gantry). His reasoning is that this will mar the fresh paint, and he likes ‘a neat ship’. This is an indication of his obsession for maintaining absolute order, down to the smallest detail. As the night falls and the wind builds in strength, the hook begins to careen dangerously out of control, and the Captain finally gives the direct order to secure it, again from a position safely above the fray, conveying his command through a megaphone. The hook describes a wildly swaying and unpredictable course amongst the sailors, who dodge beneath and to one side in an attempt to hook it with a tethering rope. With its new coat of shiny black tarry paint, it looks like the chitinous claw of a giant insect. This is the ship turning against its inhabitants, the tools used against the users. This will happen throughout the film. Objects used as weapons are always those designed to aid shipboard labour. Their dual use shows how the constructive can swiftly revert to the destructive, particularly when people become divided and cease to work together.

Later, at the officer’s table, the Captain anticipates Tom’s objections with a pre-emptive explanation of his inaction. He refers back to his comments about the moth and claims that he has a right to do what he will with the crew ‘because their safety depends on me’. He claims that he is prepared to put himself at risk for their safety, although his removal from the arena of danger in which Tom himself was fully involved makes this a rather hollow assertion in this case. He cites the undermining of his authority as his reason for denying Tom’s requests to fasten the hook, passing the blame on to him for asking the question in the first place. With such linguistic sophistry, he uses words to create a post-facto justification for his actions. Already, the connection between word and deed is beginning to break apart. This gap is further forced open when he is indecisive over making an incision when the Greek needs an emergency appendectomy. Tom takes over and carries out the operation successfully and not a word is spoken about the Captain’s failure. Tom and Sparks (who had been relaying medical instructions via the wireless) make a pact of silence at Tom’s suggestion. Tom is still sympathetic to the Captain, but Sparks speaks contemptuously of how he will come out with ‘one of those talks he gives on authority’. The intellectual sees through the seductive mesmerism of persuasive language, put is not prepared to challenge the hollow authority which it propagates.

The Captain, after remaining incommunicado for a while, invites Tom into his quarters to explain his actions. It is almost as if he has been summoning the words in the intervening period, composing and rehearsing his speech. He tells him that he is ‘not afraid of anything but failure’, which is in effect a fear of being revealed to himself. The shell of words and rhetoric composing a rigid world view would then shatter and reveal the hollow spaces which they have been encompassing. He goes on to say that he didn’t do the operation because it wasn’t something he knew about. This suggests that he no longer has the capacity to absorb information, to expand upon his view of the world. As his name, Stone, suggests, it has become ossified, intransigent. The authority to the maintenance of which he has become obsessively dedicated has turned him into a monadic figure, detached and shut off from the world and therefore unresponsive to its signals. His response is to try to warp the world to respond to his limitations, to draw it into the oppressively heavy gravity well which surrounds his weltanshauung. The Captain re-iterates his line about Tom being ‘the man for me…a man who’d think like I think’. Tom no longer looks so entranced. The glamour of the Captain’s dictums is beginning to wear off.

On deck with Sparks

Nonetheless, when he meets Sparks, he has evidently convinced himself to give the Captain the benefit of the doubt again, reminding him of their pact of silence. Sparks observes that ‘he’s a smooth man with the words, the Captain’. When Tom continues to stick up for him, Sparks alludes to his (Tom’s) isolated childhood which has made him vulnerable to the blandishments of such an authoritative father figure, but warns that ‘there’s a friendliness that tries to get you to thinking wrong’. This is the false companionship which we’ve encountered in The Seventh Victim, the company of lost souls. It’s a relationship which seeks to reproduce and proliferate a philosophy which will spread out into the world, sweeping up the isolated and powerless with its reassuring certainties, then using them for its own ends.

On deck, Sir Lancelot sings the old shanty ‘Blow the Man Down’. There is a poetic rhyming here with the recurrence of the song which we first heard the blind man sing on the docks. The associational link with blindness is carried over into the close up of the measurements being made on the nautical charts. The rational dividing of course and distance is immaculately observed by the officers, but the underlying forces of irrationality which are emerging in the ship’s power structure are ignored. As the crew take a break, they are informed that the Captain is not happy with the cleanliness of the deck; ‘the Captain wants a clean ship’. The same obsession with cleanliness which was put above the safety of the crew. The constant cleansing of the ship is an external manifestation of the mental cleansing the Captain applies to himself, expunging any considerations which sully the purity of his central conceit, the driving force of his hunger for absolute, unquestioned authority. To this extent, the crew’s cleaning of the ship amounts to a self-administered brainwashing, an acquiescence to the demands of authority whatever they might be, even if they lead to their own destruction. They are led to believe that the will of Authority (or the Captain) is the will of Fate.

Finn’s still, moonlit face is shown as another moment of punctuation. He looks across the ship and out to see, his pockmarked face, thrown into shadowed relief, making him look like a weatherworn figurehead. He seems to be awaiting something, looking out for something on the horizon. It is a look which portends death. On deck the following day, Louis, after a bout of griping, is encouraged as a dare to put the point he has been making about the need to put into port when the crew is short to the Captain. When he agrees, Finn, toying with his knife (the tool which can become the weapon of offence or defence) looks downwards, as if in sad recognition of the sealing of a fate. The Captain’s response is one of indirect, or passive aggression as he calmly states that ‘there are Captains who might hold this against you’. His contained rage at the questioning of his authority is expressed in the snapping in half of his pencil. Louis, we sense, is a man whose time is marked.

Trapped in the Chain Room

As he cleans the chain in the anchor room, the Captain walks past and shuts the door which allows him egress. It is an act of completely casual opportunism. He is walking past and sees the chance to determine Louis’ fate and does so without a second thought. This reflexive action is the enactment of the philosophy which he has been expounding. He is the agent of fate and has the self-determined right to be so according to his dictum about having power over the lives of his men. The thick links of the chain coil down about Louis, increasing in pitch and volume as it grows shorter outside and drowning out all his cries for help. The man who has tried to assert his rights under law is buried in chains. This is almost like an exaggeratedly cruel visual pun on Marx’s famous exhortation ‘workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!’ Here again, the mechanisms of the ship are turned against the crew and prove to be the means of their death. Whilst not as upfront and obvious as it is in Battleship Potemkin, there is definitely a point being made about class oppression here. The crewmen are destroyed by the tools and mechanisms with which they work. And they conspire in their own subjugation by failing to unite and challenge the tyrannical authority which cares so little about their wellbeing.

...You have nothing to lose but your chains

When Tom opens the hatch and discovers Louis’ body, he is immediately confronted in the corridor by the Captain who tells him to ‘get that cleaned up’. He makes no distinction between the men and the elements of the ship which they operate. When Tom points out that this was a human being, he coldly responds ‘he was a troublemaker’. ‘Death is so absolute’ he declares with Nietszchean loftiness of a psychopath. The problem of dissent has been dealt with quickly and efficiently. This is Tom’s moment of epiphany, the revelation of the truth behind the seductively intoned rhetoric. ‘This is what you meant when you said you had rights over the lives of the crew’ he says with accusatory disgust. Abstract philosophy has become concrete, as Nietzche’s epigrammatic grandstanding morphed over time into Nazism. Words which have a hypnotising cadence and a promise of noble intent are translated into ugly action which was there between the lines all along.

But Tom’s attempts to reveal what he has discovered about the Captain’s philosophy of absolute power and his application of it fall on deaf ears. The inertia of established hierarchies swiftly exerts itself, the need to maintain positions which have been attained over time paramount over other concerns. The First Officer dismisses him out of hand and Sparks doesn’t want to know. ‘I like my job and I want to keep it’ he states with disarming self-interest. He maintains the non-involvement which he has demonstrated before, the disengaged intellectual reluctant to leave the tower of his learning. The ship approaches the island of St Sebastian, possibly the same one on which the action of I Walked With a Zombie took place, with Sir Lancelot singing a celebratory calypso. In such sunny climes, and with the prospect of shore leave ahead, Tom’s warnings stand little chance of being heeded. Like St Sebastian himself, he is a lonely outsider, isolated and viewed with contempt for beliefs which he refuses to relinquish.

Fish Ghosts

Gormenghast - The Tower of Flints

I've come across the artwork of Ian Miller in various guises over the years. I first saw it on the cover of the first issue of Interzone I bought (number 7 I believe) from the old Forbidden Planet in Denmark Street. This was one of his characteristic spiny, dessicated fish with staring, unblinking eyes and mouths agape as if in a constant state of shock. Having just dug this very issue out, I notice that they are all on long poles, which may account for this look of startlement. His work featured with some frequency in this early period of the magazine, and there is a particularly startling cover in which the Empire State Building has torn itself free of an otherwise featureless plain to reveal a tangle of roots and strange viscera beneath. He did illustrations for a couple of books I used to have, The Tolkien Bestiary and Realms of Fantasy, both long since gone, flotsam in life's bibliographic wake. The latter featured his depictions of scenes from the Gormenghast novels, so he tackled both of the towering standards of twentieth century fantasy. Clearly he was more at home with the darker aspects of The Lord of the Rings, the labyrinthine mines of Moria and the blackened towers of Mordor. I liked his depictions of Gormenghast whilst never feeling that he captured the sheer solidity of Peake's imaginative vision. But his illustrations always remained essentially his own, adapting the worlds he depicted to his own signature style and recurring motifs rather than vice versa. So you are really looking at an Ian Miller picture rather than an attempt to recreate the world of a particular novel.

The Luck in the Head

Sometimes his work and that of the writer he's working with do achieve a perfect convergence without either having to temper their style. Such is the case with Miller and M.John Harrison, whose collaboration on The Luck in the Head produced some gorgeous, ravished images. I also have the paperback copy of The Ice Monkey with what I now see is just an extract of Miller's cover illustration. You can see the whole thing below. I suppose the obvious parallel is with Dave McKean's work with Neil Gaiman, which Neil (snowdonnotgaiman) has touched upon in previous posts. he certainly has the same gaunt-faced, hunched figures. Anyway, through the auspices of M.John Harrison's blog (link in the list to the right) I came across this site which has a fantastic and wide range of Miller's artwork to look at (and even some to buy). So lose yourself in a world of towering, jerry-built edifices, trees more gnarled than Rackham's (and with more tormented faces), Lovecraftian creatures too awful to be described, wary figures with gas-mask heads, biomechanical forms self-assembled at the local rubbish dump and yes, lots of spiny, skeletal fish with optional attachments.

The Ice Monkey

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Thirteen

The Ghost Ship (1943) - Part One



The Ghost Ship, the second film which Lewton made with director Mark Robson which was released in 1943, was for some time a ‘lost’ picture, due to the actions of a couple of opportunistic hacks who sued for plagiarism. Lewton refused to back down in the face of what he saw as blatant extortion and settle out of court, but inexplicably failed to win the day in court. As a result, the film was put out of circulation for some time. It’s interesting that it should be a film which is in many ways out of step with the body of horror films upon which his reputation rests which should disappear to resurface for later rediscovery and positioning within what had by then become an established canon. Is it a horror film at all? It certainly circumvents any expectations the title might give rise to in the light of Lewton’s previous RKO pictures. In many ways it is a brisk and efficient thriller, its nautical setting merely serving as an atmospheric backdrop. But all the familiar Lewton themes are there. The danger of isolation and the importance of human connection; the hierarchies of power and the abuse of authority; the capacity for self-delusion and the use of language to perpetuate it; the play of the forces of superstition and rationalism. The atmosphere of fateful foreboding which imbues the film takes it a step beyond the realms of realism, and the ship itself becomes a gothic hulk, it’s various apparatus coming to life in threatening ways. It is the haunted house which contains the conditions of madness to which those who inhabit it for too long succumb. So yes, a horror film in the same sense that we will see that Bedlam is a horror film. The terror is of a world in which madness and reason have become inverted.

The film opens with a shot of a shop front which features an array of knives, displayed in a fanned display, like fetishistic totems. They are being sold for utilitarian use, but throughout the film, the sailors’ tools and mechanisms are turned against them, the means of labour becoming the means of death. In front of this sailors’ outfitters a blind zither player sings ‘Blow the Man Down’. He is the first of the characters we meet who fulfil the standard trio of the deaf, dumb and blind, although the deafness in this case is more wilful than real. The two who suffer from actual deafness and dumbness seem to have a more acute perception of the world and what lies in the hearts of men than those who have their full complement of senses and communicative capacity. Our protagonist, Tom Merriam, walks on to the scene and deposits a coin in the singer’s cup and receives a piece of wisdom in return. ‘It’s only the old ones know there’s nothing but bad luck and bad blows at sea’. The Altair, to which Tom is heading, is ‘a bad ship’. This immediately sets up the opposing forces of superstition, of the ‘old ways’, and the modern outlook of rationalism, of the world inherited from the Age of Reason and Enlightenment.


Tom leaves the singer at the foot of the gangplank which leads up to the Altair. He pauses before ascending. This is a threshold moment, the gangplank being a bridge between two worlds. The blind singer is the guardian at the gateway to the world of the shore, and as Tom steps on board, there is the man known as The Finn, played by Skelton Knaggs, a remarkable presence here and in Isle of the Dead and Bedlam. He is the guardian of this second gateway, standing whittling away with his knife (already the knives have emerged from their deceptively decorous display behind the safety of a plate glass window). Both are creatures of the borderlands, set to their roles by stunted senses and vocal incapacity which leave them attuned to other channels. In response to Tom’s request as to the Captain’s whereabouts, he gestures with his knife, the shadow of which seems to cut Tom’s throat. This prefiguring of the Captain’s menace and his eventual assault on Tom lends Finn an air of almost supernatural intuition. It is as if he can conjure shadows of the future from the darkness.

As Tom heads off, we hear the first of Finn’s inner voiceovers, which punctuate the film in much the same way as we have seen Lewton use visual punctuation and recurring symbolic objects in previous films (the statue in I Walked With A Zombie and the fountain in The Leopard Man). As he stares fixedly into space, we hear him dreamily intone ‘this is another man I can never know because I can never talk with him. For I am a mute and cannot speak. I am cut off from other men’. Again, the recurring theme of the isolation of the individual, whether imposed or self-created, is elucidated. But Finn shows a strong sense of self-knowledge. His sadness at the solitariness his condition imposes upon him is tempered by his assertion that ‘in my own silence I can hear things they cannot hear, know things they can never know’. The camera slowly glides in towards his face as he speaks, as if trying to penetrate this mysterious inner world of heightened perception. Finn is often cast in a radiance of milky moonlight, his face illuminated whilst others remain in darkness. He often seems to be almost a holy figure, and it is he who eventually emerges as Tom’s guardian when everyone else turns a deaf ear to his pleas. That this inner resolution and self-knowledge arises from his ‘own silence’ emphasises the self-deluding and obfuscatory nature of language in the film. In many ways, the fog with which the ship is often enshrouded is a fog of words.

Tom pauses outsides the captain’s cabin as if this is some sacred space, an inner sanctum which must be entered with due reverence. He is drawn away by another voice and watches as the hold is covered, a veil drawn over the dark abyss at the heart of the ship. He returns to the cabin, his position in the hierarchy precluding participation in such manual labour. The captain is not their, but his presence is imbued in various symbolically weighted objects. Indeed, he is evidently someone well acquainted with the self-conscious accumulation of personal mythology and philosophy boiled down to aphorism, as the board on the wall with the assertion ‘who does not heed the rudder shall meet the rock’ attests. There is a sense that the seemingly casual arrangement of possessions in the room has in fact been carefully laid out to create an impression. The chessboard in the foreground laid out for a fresh game and the photographic portrait of a woman laid out on a nautical chart next to dividers for measuring distance both say something about a character with a coolly distant view of authority and a clearly differentiated separation of life onshore and at sea.

The Captain (who introduces himself with the hard, self-contained and unyielding name of Stone) descends into this room from above, as if from a higher plane. He declared to Tom that ‘I chose you’ and that ‘your history could have been my own at your age’. There is a clear line of descent being manufactured here, almost as if he is declaring Tom to be his inheritor, someone in whom he can imbue his worldview. His assertion that ‘we’ll get on’ is not so much an invitation to as an insistence upon friendship. When Tom reaches to grab a moth which flutters around the light, Captain Stone stops him with the first of his portentous utterances on authority: ‘you’ve no right to kill that moth. It’s safety doesn’t depend on you’. It’s a statement whose significance does not become apparent until it is revealed through the translation of words into action.

When Tom is shown to his quarters, he is told that the last third officer had died in this room. The steward observes that ‘he didn’t want to as he was funny’. This is a curious statement as it suggests that some crewmen might actively welcome death, an attitude which we’ve seen several characters adopt in Lewton’s films thus far, most starkly in The Seventh Victim. The fact that his humour is the predominant characteristic which the steward remembers gives us a retrospective hint as to why he met his end. We soon learn that Captain Stone doesn’t like jokers. Humour and mockery is a challenge to the assumed superiority of authority, which is undermined by the refusal to take it seriously and drawn out to a display of its latent violence in order to enforce obedience through fear. Charlie Chaplin’s caricature of Hitler may not have materially helped to defeat the Nazis, but it did make it difficult to watch his ranting diatribes with the sense of dread which might have been felt before his rhetorical gestures were so ably parodied.


The crew come on deck to the rough sounds of rural bagpipes. The player is known as ‘Scotty’ although he is in fact Greek. ‘In home country we play it to the sheep’ he observes, and indeed the bellows of his instrument is barely modified from the innards it’s been created from. The ship’s cargo is also to be sheep hides and other animal-based products. So we have an ex-shepherd and the by-products of slaughtered sheep. The symbolism is immediately followed up on as ‘Boats’ reads out the ship’s register. Paulo Lindstrom, who is identified as ‘The Finn’, puts his hand up, and his muteness is automatically viewed with suspicion, marking him out as a troublemaker. Difference is seen as dissent here. ‘Parker, Louis’ gives out with a camp ‘here, teacher’, which Captain Stone notes from on high as he smokes his cigar. We immediately recognise that he has no time for levity, which again represents possible dissent and a tendency towards troublesome individuality. ‘Billy Radd from the Trinidad’ marks the second appearance of Sir Lancelot in Lewton’s films, following on from his appearance in I Walked With A Zombie, and he is again given the opportunity to air his mellifluous talent for the calypso (represented on many a recording). The marked presence of Billy Radd and the Greek and various other nationalities marks this out as a ‘ship of fools’, a vessel which is a microcosm of the wider world. The symbolic use of such ships dates back to the sixteenth century, when Sebastian Brant’s The Shyp of Folys of the Worlde was published, and is generally aimed at a satirical reflection of the times. In the case of The Ghost Ship, this obviously means a time of war, and the portrayal of tyrannical authority and the failure to challenge it cannot help but be seen within that context.

The roll call ends when George Jensen fails to answer his name and his dead body is discovered in the light of a swinging lamp, shadows waxing and waning in much the same manner as they do at the climax of Psycho in the basement of Mrs Bates’ house. The Captain seems wholly unperturbed by this fatality, and it is left to The Finn’s voiceover to act as punctuation, a vocalised title card, to the scene. ‘The man is dead. With his death, the waters of the sea are open to us, but there will be other deaths and the agony of the dying before we come to land again’. Finn slowly turns to look at those beside him as if to pick out who will be the next sacrificial victim. He appears as some kind of prophetic oracle, able to read the tides of fate on which they sail. The whole scene creates a ritualistic atmosphere, the death seen as a necessary offering to the gods of the sea. It is as if ancient rites are being observed, the rational materialism of the modern world abandoned for the cyclical time of harsh and unchanging natural forces.

The ship is seen, as it often is, enveloped in fog. This serves to emphasise the fact that it is isolated in space and time, a world unto itself with its own rules, cut off from the social and political interactions which bind the wider world together. Captain Stone emphasises this as he and Tom stroll the deck. ‘In San Pedro I was just another captain’ he muses with apparent joviality. ‘At sea I am THE Captain’. Two sailors re-iterate the point as they coil the rope, one insisting that it is done according to the direction of the sun’s movement as this is the ‘law of the sea’. When his shipmate dismisses this as superstitious nonsense with no basis in logic he is told that ‘aboard ship, you’d better believe in the Captain and forget logic’. The Captain is the deity of this circumscribed realm, a gnostic demi-god whose word is law. Most crew members seem to take this as a given, an a priori assumption about the nature of things. Tom and the Captain discuss the nature of authority, after Tom admits that he just can’t see himself in terms of his rank. Captain Stone tells him that the difference in rank is like the difference between man and boy, and man and officer. To him, rank is a natural signifier of inherent superiority. As if inferring such superiority on him, he tells Tom that one day ‘he’ll learn to take great joy in it’. This hints at an element of sublimation in his pursuit of power which has already been symbolised in the woman’s photograph lying on the chart next to the dividers, and which will become more explicit later.

Tom meets ‘Sparks’, the communications officer, whose casual display of Latin knowledge (he immediately christens Tom ‘Tertius’, or Third) marks him out as an intellectual. Few people are called by their real names onboard. It is as if they have been reborn once they have left shore. Sparks is disparaging about the Captain, saying that what he has to say should be taken ‘cum grano salis’, with a grain of salt. But he has an intellectual’s distance from actual direct engagement, preferring to criticise at second hand. This disengagement is clearly more critical at a time of war, and his character thus becomes emblematic in that sense. He is openly friendly towards Tom, however, who defends the Captain by saying that he likes his way of talking, ‘the things he has to say’. He has been seduced by language, in other words. They agree to play cards, a game a few ranks down from the chess which we have seen set up in the Captain’s quarters, for which he has extended no invitations to play. The Captain, we grow to suspect, would not want to risk any possibility of losing.