During my Halloween Countdown, much of my focus on films will deal with movies that are going to show up on Turner Classic Movies' excellent horror film line-up for the month of October. As I was putting together my list of films to cover this month, I noticed that many of them were showing up on TCM, so I decided to use that network's schedule as a guide for my own posts. Their selection of Roger Corman, William Castle, and Tod Browning films is especially exciting.
Tonight, TCM is featuring the films of Jacques Tourneur, one of my favorite directors. Tourneur is probably best known as the director of one of the three greatest films noir, Out of the Past, and for his low budget horror films he did for RKO Studios and producer Val Lewton. With the exception of Curse of the Demon (a fine horror movie in its own right, starring an aging Dana Andrews and the incredibly hot Peggy Cummins, star of one of the other three greatest films noir, Gun Crazy), the rest of the films are all Lewton/Tourneur collaborations.
I can't really add much to what has already been said about Cat People (1942), especially regarding its important role in both the history of the horror genre and the history of RKO Studios. If you are a horror movie fan and you haven't seen this movie, then you need to, at the very least because it establishes so many conventions of the genre and it has been borrowed from so heavily (though more contemporary horror film directors could learn a lot from it, in my opinion). It's the film most often cited as an example of how to do suspense without gore, and though I have nothing against gore, I also admire a movie that plays with my imagination in this way.
The movie also has an overt sexual subtext that remains effective and surprising today. The beautiful Simone Simon plays Irena Dubrovna, an Eastern European immigrant who quickly falls in love and marries architect Oliver Reed, gamely played by lantern-jawed Kent Smith. (In a nice and appropriate homage to this film, comic writer and walking movie encyclopedia Will Pfeifer temporarily gave Selina Kyle the alias "Irena Dubrovna" in his excellent Catwoman series.) Their marriage, however, is never consummated, as Irena has an extreme fear of intimacy: she believes in an Eastern European curse that sexual desire will cause her to transform into a supernatural cat creature. The film plays out its tension by never revealing until the very end whether the curse is real or a figment of Irena's damaged psyche. Though Oliver encourages her to undergo psychiatric treatment, it doesn't help, primarily due to the sexual advances of her smarmy therapist, Dr. Judd, played by Tom Conway (Conway is really incredible in this movie, playing Judd as a sleazy, amoral opportunist who manipulates Irena into a sexual relationship).
I teach Cat People regularly in Film classes, and it goes over well with students, even if they have little experience with films of the period. During one memorable discussion, I asked students to comment on any symbolism they noted in the film. One student responded, "Well, there is the statue with the cat impaled on a sword."
Trying to push the interpretation further, I asked, "And what does that statue represent?"
The student responded, "It's a CAT impaled on a SWORD! I don't think it needs any more explanation than that."
Another film worth checking out tonight is I Walked with a Zombie, the second collaboration between Tourneur and Lewton. The thing I love most about this movie is its plot: it's basically Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre set in the Caribbean with zombies, and pretty much every Victorian novel would be improved by the inclusion of zombies (except for the ones that already have zombies, and those could always use more). Tom Conway is again in this movie, and he's great as the husband who may have had his wife zombified in order to prevent her from having an affair with his brother. As with the earlier film, this one features characters who are psychologically complex and twisted, and that helps contribute to the film's overall suspense. Tourneur also builds on the visual style he developed in Cat People, and the zombie scenes are particularly effective and atmospheric.
TCM is also showing The Leopard Man, a lesser attempt by Lewton to recreate the success of Cat People. It is worth watching the opening scenes, however, as Tourneur displays yet another textbook example of how to film and structure a suspenseful scene, with a pretty startling conclusion. The rest of the movie, unfortunately, does not hold up to this opening. Also, The Leopard Man stars Dennis O'Keefe, who does fine here as a huckster who ill-advisedly uses a leopard in a night club act. O'Keefe is another actor who would make his mark in film noir, especially in the great films of Anthony Mann--T-Men and Raw Deal.
These three movies, and some other great horror films, are available in the Val Lewton boxed set that Warner Bros. put out a couple of years ago--a set that I would highly recommend for its films and its plethora of extras. Over on Will Pfeifer's excellent blog, X-Ray Spex, he covers another great Lewton film, The Seventh Victim, in today's entry of his own Horror Movie Marathon. Check it out.