Joel E. Siegel (essay date 1973)
SOURCE: "The Seventh Victim: The 'Haunted Eyes' of Jean Brooks—Val Lewton, 1904-1951," in Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror, The Viking Press, 1973, pp. 7-100.
[In the following excerpt, Siegel discusses Lewton's career and the production histories of his films, from Cat People through The Curse of the Cat People.]
It is generally nonsensical to speak of producers as creators when, in all but a few cases, they were the enemies of creation. One of the exceptions was Lewton who, though credited only as producer, was unarguably the artistic creator and prime mover of his films. Apart from his last, troubled productions, Lewton's films were easily identifiable by their attention to detail, their unusually literate screenplays, their skillful, suggestive use of shadow and sound. Although his production unit at RKO was fully democratic, with each member having a full say on artistic matters, Lewton's eleven RKO films constitute an uncommonly personal body of work.
Lewton contributed a great deal to the screenplays of his films, from the original story-lines, which were often his, through the various drafts and revisions; and he always wrote the final shooting scripts himself. Lewton employed writers, although he really did not need them, for several reasons. As a literary man, he enjoyed the company of writers, and as a chronic dawdler, he often could not get projects into gear without some external stimulus. He would select a writer to work up one of his ideas and then, trained by his work at M-G-M publicity and his years at Selznick, he would take the writer's work, determine its strengths and reshape, often remake, the story to take advantage of its possibilities. It would be grossly unfair to conclude that Lewton's writers did not make important contributions to his films, but a look at the subsequent credits of those writers will show that none ever managed to match the quality of the work he did for Lewton.
Lewton never took screen credit for the writing of his films. When, at the end of his tenure at RKO, he was forced to take a writing credit, he used the old pseudonym Carlos Keith. He explained this apparent modesty in a note to his mother and sister. 'I have to laugh at both your ignorance of the "moom picture industry" as she industrates [sic]. I am and have always been a writer-producer. That does not always mean more money. The reason I do not ordinarily take credit for my very considerable work on my own scripts is that I have a theory that if I take credit, whenever I rewrite another writer's work, I can very properly be suspected of rewriting merely to get such credit.' So although it was not in Lewton's nature to impose his will upon his co-workers, he was able to maintain control over his films by participating in their writing as well as taking care to choose collaborators who were sympathetic to his personality and vision. Obviously Lewton proved to be a lasting influence on his directors. Years after the producer's death, each has attempted a return to making modest, Lewtonesque psychological suspense films—Jacques Tourneur in his excellent Night of the Demon, Robert Wise in the visually distinguished The Haunting, and Mark Robson in the unfortunate Daddy's Gone A-Hunting.
The first member of the new unit was selected not by Lewton but by the studio; nevertheless she became an important part of his early days at RKO. Jessie Ponitz, an attractive, outgoing young woman, was a member of the studio stenographic staff and had been working as secretary to a producer. Because she knew the studio so well, she had been assigned to help Lewton get acquainted with the lot and its facilities. Mrs Ponitz, who is now executive secretary to. Walter Mirisch of the Mirisch Corporation, was instantly affected by Lewton's gentleness, shyness and sensitivity, and became quite protective of him in the short time they worked together. Once Lewton told her, following a visit from some studio executives, 'It is extremely difficult for me to even shake hands with people.' As she recalls it, this was not so much a fear as a dislike of physical contact. It is paradoxical that Lewton, who gave so much of himself to others, who was emotionally so vulnerable, so accessible, could not stand being touched or patted on the back.
His associates throughout his career were aware of Lewton's aversion and respected it. However, they did once manage to play a rather spectacular practical joke on him. After the completion of shooting on one of his last RKO movies, there was the customary party. Some of the cast and crew managed to talk Jane Russell, who had been a sensation in The Outlaw in her Howard Hughes-designed bra and was under contract to the studio, into taking part in their prank. Just as the party was in full swing, Miss Russell appeared, in a radier Outlawish dress, and began slowly advancing towards Lewton. Those in on the joke saw to it that a path was cleared between the actress and the puzzled producer. As Miss Russell, arms clasped behind her back, slowly and slinkily manoeuvred herself towards Lewton, he heard her huskily murmuring, 'Look, no hands! No hands!'
Mrs Ponitz's feeling for Lewton increased when the unit actually began functioning and she was made to feel a key participant in their first project. 'Val always rewrote everything that his writers turned in; the last draft was always his. As his secretary, I would type up the final script before it was sent out to be duplicated. Val spent a great deal of time talking over the effectiveness of the characterisations and situations in the screenplays. He often asked me for my advice, making me feel as though I was contributing much more than I actually was. When he asked for your opinion, you felt that he seriously wanted to hear what you had to say. You felt so much a part of the picture he was making. It was the same with everybody else; there was a great sense of collaboration, although it was really, and finally, Val's work. After-wards, when you saw the finished movie on the screen, you felt that it all had something to do with you.'
The first writer chosen for the production unit was DeWitt Bodeen. The two men had met in 1941, while Lewton was still at Selznick. A production of Jane Eyre was in the works, and Lewton recalled having seen a play Bodeen had written about the Brontës called Embers at Haworth. Bodeen, who was then working as a reader in the RKO story department, was borrowed on Lewton's recommendation and signed on to serve as research assistant to Aldous Huxley, who was writing the Jane Eyre screenplay. It was Lewton, not Huxley, who supervised Bodeen's work, and a mutual respect grew out of their frequent discussions. When Lewton finally decided to accept the RKO offer, he told Bodeen to keep him in mind when the Selznick research job was finished.
Jacques Tourneur, director of the first three Lewton pictures, had known and admired the producer for a number of years. Tourneur, son of the great director of silent films, Maurice Tourneur, arrived in Hollywood in 1935 after directing four films in France, and signed a contract with M-G-M to direct shorts, something of a step backward in his career. For several years he toiled away on Pete Smith Specialties and John Nesbitt's Passing Parades until he was finally given a feature called They All Come Out, a semi-documentary about penitentiaries, cosponsored by the Department of Justice. Shortly after completing that film, Tourneur was assigned to direct the second unit of Selznick's A Tale of Two Cities, on which Lewton was also working, tightening the screenplay and checking for period authenticity. The two men had similar tastes, particularly a love of sailing, and quickly became friends, often spending boating weekends with their combined families. Tourneur went on to make several low budget movies in the early Forties, and then, when Lewton was setting up his unit at RKO, was called in to direct.
The final member of the initial Lewton group was editor Mark Robson. Robson had served as cutter for Orson Welles during the Mercury Theatre heyday at RKO, the period that produced Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. When Citizen Kane failed at the box-office and its director went to South America to work on the It's All True project, everybody associated with Welles was 'punished' by the studio. Many of those who could not be fired were demoted to working for the B-unit. Joseph Breen, former head of the censor board and RKO production head prior to Koerner, recommended Robson to Lew Ostrow, head of the B-unit, who in turn assigned him to work as cutter for the Lewton horror unit. Robson, well schooled in film technique, was expected to advise Lewton on any cinematic matters about which the producer might have questions.
In the years to come, other people would join this unit—directors Robert Wise and Gunther Von Fritsch, writers Ardel Wray and Josef Mischel, and secretary Verna De Mots. But in those first, pleasant days, only Tourneur, Robson, Bodeen and Mrs Ponitz sat in Lewton's office, listening to him spin stories, drinking Russian tea with strawberry jam, exchanging theories about film suspense and visual beauty, and awaiting word from Koerner's office as to what their first assignment would be.
TOM GRIES: I learned a great secret about film producing from Val. He always told me not to spread a small budget over five or six sets—instead pick the location where most of the action will be played and make that a real showpiece. Then make do with the rest of the scenes. One elaborate set makes a film look much richer than it deserves to look. Val was a very careful man; he knew how to spend money and how to put it on the screen. When I began directing television, all of the things he told me about producing low budget pictures were extremely helpful.
In an article for Films in Review, DeWitt Bodeen recalls the genesis of Lewton's first and probably most famous film, Cat People:
Val departed for RKO two weeks before I'd finished my work at Selznick's, and when I phoned him, as I had promised, he quickly made arrangements for me to be hired at RKO as a contract writer at the Guild minimum, which was then $75 a week. When I reported for work, he ran off for me some U.S. and British horror and suspense movies which were typical of what he did not want to do. We spent several days talking about possible subjects for the first script.
Mr Koerner, who had personally welcomed me on my first day at the studio, was of the opinion that vampires, werewolves and man-made monsters had been over-exploited and that 'nobody has done much with cats.' He added that he had successfully audience-tested a title he considered highly exploitable—Cat People. 'Let's see what you two can do with that,' he ordered.
When we were back in his office, Val looked at me glumly and said: 'There's no helping it—we're stuck with that title. If you want to get out now, I won't hold it against you.'
I had no intention of withdrawing, and he and I promptly started upon a careful examination of the cat in literature. There was more to be examined than we had expected. Val was one of the best-read men I've ever known, and the kind of avid reader who retains what he reads.
After we had both read everything we could find pertaining to the cat in literature, Val had virtually decided to make his first movie from a short story, Algernon Blackwood's Ancient Sorceries, which admirably lends itself to cinematic interpretation and could easily be re-titled Cat People. Negotiations had begun for the purchase of the screen rights when Val suddenly changed his mind.
He arrived at his office unusually early and called me in at once. He had spent a sleepless night, he confessed, and had decided that instead of a picture with a foreign setting, he would do an original story laid in contemporary New York. It was to deal with a triangle—a normal young man falls in love with a strange foreign girl who is obsessed by abnormal fears, and when her obsession destroys his love and he turns for consolation to a very normal girl, his office co-worker, the discarded one, beset by jealousy, attempts to destroy the young man's new love.
As Lewton's sister was later to recall, the story-line was inspired by some French fashion designs Lewton had seen. The fears which were to plague the young woman had to do with her sense of being descended from a race of Serbian women who, stemming from a tradition of animal worship in the Middle Ages, had the ability to change into vicious cats whenever their passions were aroused. There were several reasons why Lewton decided to drop the Blackwood story and invent his own. Ancient Sorceries would have required a foreign, period setting, and Tourneur argued that for an audience to experience terror it must be able to identify with characters of its own world and time. And, as if this advice were not reason enough, the fear of cats, like the uneasiness at being touched, was deeply ingrained in Lewton's complex nature and may well have compelled him to invent a story in which he could give his fear substance.
Although it is not possible to trace this phobia back to its origin in Lewton's experience, documented evidence as to its existence pre-dates the Cat People script by many years. In 1934, while crossing the United States by train for the first time to work on the Taras Bulba treatment, Lewton kept a journal of his thoughts and experiences. The following entry was headlined 'Albuquerque': 'My sleeping habits on a pullman seem to have become fixed. I have difficulty falling asleep—doze first, then drop abruptly into a deep, dreamless sleep which seems, on waking, to have lasted a moment but actually extends for eight or nine hours. I always wake at a stop and am awakened by a dream. This morning I dreamt that a house cat jumped on my shoulders and began to claw me. I woke. The person in the berth above was stirring. Evidently some atavistic instinct to guard against a beast leaping from above brought on the dream and had wakened me.'
Ruth Lewton remembers another incident which took place while her husband was working for Selznick. He did his best writing at night and often worked so late that Ruth would be forced to go to bed without him. One night she was suddenly awakened by the piercing screams of a neighbourhood cat. A moment later the door of the bedroom opened, her husband entered and stood silently at the foot of the bed. 'The cat's scream frightened him and he didn't want to have to face it alone. He had a folk fear—an atavistic kind of fear of something going way, way back. Of course, he knew better—he was a very intellectual man and not a superstitious person—and so he was both frightened and fascinated by his fear. Maybe the source of it all can be traced back to the fairy-tales told him by his Russian peasant nurse. The old nurse, like many others of her calling, used to control her charges by frightening them half to death. She was strongly aided by the Russian fairy-tale tradition which makes the Brothers Grimm seem like very tame stuff. In the Russian Little Red Riding Hood, for example, the wolf is split open down the front and dies all covered with innards and gore.'
After presenting his ideas to Bodeen, Lewton spent a week with the writer working up a two-page story-line which detailed the characters and action of Cat People more specifically. The obsessed girl was to be a Balkanborn dress designer called Irena Dubrovna who lived and worked in Manhattan. Lewton had seen and admired the French actress Simone Simon in William Dieterle's All That Money Can Buy, the movie version of Benet's The Devil and Daniel Webster. Miss Simon, a star in France in both theatre and films, had been brought to Hollywood in 1938 to make a much-publicised debut in Irving Cummings' Girls' Dormitory for 20th Century-Fox. Her career as an American film star had not been as successful as she had hoped, and after completing her part in the Dieterle film at RKO, Miss Simon returned to France. Making inquiries around the studio, Lewton discovered that Miss Simon's services might be obtained rather inexpensively; and after reading a rough draft of the screenplay, she cabled back her acceptance. With the key role cast, Lewton sent Bodeen home to work up the finer points of the story-line, instructing him not to return until he had a completed story—a long short story, as if he were writing for magazine publication rather than for the screen. After a time, Bodeen returned with the completed story, and the entire unit—Tourneur, Robson, Jessie Ponitz and Bodeen—went to work on it.
During these script sessions, a number of story-points were established which would become hallmarks of Lewton's productions. Each of the central characters was to have an occupation and was to be shown at work during the course of the movie. This was not merely an attempt to break away from the Hollywood convention of presenting characters with elaborate but unspecified means, nor yet just an attempt to add the required plausibility to a supernatural story; it was part of Lewton's respect for the characters in his films as human beings. The humans in horror movies are traditionally puppets, glorified reactors. The heroine screams, the hero tries to save her, the scientist mumbles discount metaphysics about Man daring to enter God's realm, and the Negro, pop-eyed and stuttering with fright, runs through a closed doorway, leaving behind his silhouette. In the Universaltype chillers, only the monsters were permitted recognisably human emotions—e.g., the lovely scene between the monster and the little girl in James Whale's Frankenstein.
Though planned as supernatural thrillers, and as such not primarily involved with the intricacies of human relationships, Lewton's films always managed to suggest a sense of an everyday life existing around and beyond the particulars of the story being told. Homes and apartments looked as if somebody had been living in them before the movie started; characters wore only the styles and qualities of clothing that their counterparts would in real life. (Verna De Mots, Lewton's secretary after Jessie Ponitz, recalls discussing where in Los Angeles a particular female character would buy her clothes, and then going off to that store to purchase the wardrobe.) It was, partly, this uncommon respect for the look and texture of daily life that led James Agee to write of Lewton: 'I think that few people in Hollywood show in their work that they know or care half as much about human beings as he does.' In Cat People, Irena Dubrovna was shown doing fashion sketches (Miss Simon had a knack for sketching which Lewton was quick to employ), and her husband Oliver was a draughtsman for a ship-designing firm, in whose offices several of the key sequences were staged.
From the Cat People story conferences there emerged something of a formula which would recur in Lewton's subsequent pictures. He described this to an interviewer from the Los Angeles Times: 'Our formula is simple. A love story, three scenes of suggested horror and one of actual violence. Fadeout. It's all over in less than 70 minutes.' The calm, everyday sequences were to alternate with suspense sequences of ascending terror, resulting in a climax which would bring the two moods of the story together. 'We tossed away the horror formula right from the beginning. No grisly stuff for us. No masklike faces hardly human, with gnashing teeth and hair standing on end. No creaking physical manifestations. No horror piled on horror. You can't keep up horror that's long sustained. It becomes something to laugh at. But take a sweet love story, or a story of sexual antagonisms, about people like the rest of us, not freaks, and cut in your horror here and there by suggestion, and you've got something. Anyhow, we think you have. That's the way we try to do it.'
Lewton had provided Bodeen with several of the key shock sequences—Irena's rival being stalked by some unseen beast as she crosses a Central Park traverse at night, and the sudden appearance of a huge cat while Oliver and his friend are working late on a special project. To these, Bodeen added the final suspense sequence—one of the most terrifying in screen history—in which Irena's rival for Oliver's affections is menaced by a beast while swimming at night in a darkened, deserted swimming-pool. Bodeen got the idea from Tourneur's experience of having nearly drowned while swimming alone at night. In all of these sequences the horror is implied and never explicitly shown. Lewton felt that the absence of specific menace permitted each member of the audience to project his own innermost fear, to make connections with the fears of his own life. Eschewing the studio-made monsters characteristic of the Universal movies, Lewton's films dealt with realistic horror situations based upon some universal fear or superstition—fear of the dark, the unknown, madness, death.
Lewton particularly enjoyed devising moments in his films which would cause audiences to gasp with terror. His name for these moments of sudden shock was 'busses.' The term derives from the Central Park sequence of Cat People. Jane Randolph, crossing the park late at night, hears footsteps following her. She stops under a street lamp and looks back into the darkness. The noises stop; she sees nothing. As soon as she walks beyond the circumference of lamplight, the footsteps begin again, and she hurries to the next lamp-post. At the moment when audience tension is at its height, a bus coasts into frame, simultaneously applying its pneumatic brakes in order to let off passengers. The unexpected appearance of the bus, sight and sound interrupting an already tense scene, invariably lifted theatre audiences several inches out of their seats. Lewton explained how he came up with 'busses' in an interview for Liberty magazine. 'To find ever new "busses" or horror spots, is a horror expert's most difficult problem. Horror spots must be well planned and there should be no more than four or five in a picture. Most of them are caused by the fundamental fears: sudden sound, wild animals, darkness. The horror addicts will populate the darkness with more horrors than all the horror writers in Hollywood could think of.' He amplified the point in a Los Angeles Times interview: 'I'll tell you a secret: if you make the screen dark enough, the mind's eye will read anything into it you want! We're great ones for dark patches. Remember the long walk alone at night in Cat People? Most people will swear they saw a leopard move in the hedge above her—but they didn't! Optical illusion; dark patch.'
Lewton himself used an atmosphere of darkness to test the effectiveness of a screenplay on his staff. He would begin telling the story, and as the action grew more frightening, would snap off the lights around his office and continue the story in darkness. Charles Schnee used this and other Lewton working techniques in his screenplay for Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful; in particular, in an episode in which Kirk Douglas, a film producer, comes up with darkness as the solution to a sleazy low-budget movie he's making about people turning into cats. However, the ruthless, egocentric character Douglas portrays had nothing at all to do with Lewton, as some may have supposed. Schnee had combined dozens of snippets of Hollywood gossip and lore in the creation of his enjoyably over-ripe melodrama about Hollywood insiders.
With the major problems of the screenplay ironed out and the leading actress signed, there were still a number of matters to take care of. Irena's husband and her rival were still to be cast. Lewton had noticed a young actor bicycling to the RKO lot every morning. He discovered that the actor was Kent Smith, a Broadway performer who had been under contract to RKO for nine months without having appeared in a picture. Although Smith would be expensive—his nine-month salary would be charged against the Cat People budget—Lewton felt that his air of solidity, even stolidity at times, would make the draughtsman a plausible character who would aid in suspending audience disbelief in the farther reaches of the screenplay. Another contract player, dark, attractive Jane Randolph, was selected to play Smith's co-worker who consoles him when his wife begins acting up. Tom Conway, Russian-born like Lewton and George Sanders' brother, was cast as the psychiatrist, Dr Judd. Lewton always referred to Conway, who had been starring in RKO's 'Falcon' series, as 'the nice George Sanders'. Elizabeth Russell was cast for her unforgettable bit as a cat-woman who 'recognises' Irena in a cafe, and Alan Napier, a close friend of Lewton's, was assigned a small character role.
As production time for Cat People drew closer, Lewton gathered, or was assigned, the rest of his company. The director of photography was to be Nicholas Musuraca, a specialist in shadowy, low-keyed shooting (which, in addition to heightening suspense, also served the purpose of obscuring the economic limitations of the film) who was to work on many of Lewton's other RKO pictures. The producer and his team scoured the lot for existing sets which they could use, since the allotment in the budget came to little more than $10,000—hardly enough to do more than re-dress standing sets. The Central Park setting, complete with zoo, had been used in a number of RKO films which called for Manhattan locales, notably several of the Astaire-Rogers films and a Ginger Rogers comedy. The magnificent staircase built by Orson Welles for the Amberson house was used in the brownstone where Irena had her apartment. These sets were dressed with Lewton's meticulous attention to detail and period consistency. As Bodeen points out, feline references were sprinkled throughout the sets: 'the statue of Bubastis in the museum sequence; the tiger lilies in the florist shop window; the cat's claws on the base of the bathtub when Simone tries to cleanse herself of guilt after murdering the lambs; the cats in the Goya reproduction hanging over her mantle when she tells the hero of her past.' Once, while the sets were being prepared, Tourneur did a sketch of a very small, innocent-looking kitten. Lewton loved the sketch and had it set in the middle of an outsized mat with an inscription from the Cat People screenplay: 'A cat is a frightening thing.'
At last, on 28 July 1942, shooting began on Val Lewton's first production (officially known as RKO Production 386) under Tourneur's direction. Almost immediately there was the threat of catastrophe. On the morning of the fourth day of shooting, Lew Ostrow, head of the B-unit, called Lewton into his office. Ostrow had just come from a screening of the first three days' rushes and had not liked what he had seen. He informed Lewton that he had decided to replace Tourneur with one of the studio contract directors. Lewton put in a panicky call to Koerner's office to see if he, Ostrow's superior, could prevent Tourneur's dismissal, only to be informed that Koerner was in New York and would not be returning until the next morning. Lewton somehow managed to talk Ostrow into keeping the director until Koerner could be consulted. The next day, Koerner looked at the rushes and called Ostrow to tell him that Tourneur was doing fine and was to be left alone. After that, there was little trouble. Shooting went smoothly and almost without incident, if only because the schedule was so short; so much had to be done in so little time that there was no room for temperament. Again departing from Hollywood custom, Lewton retained DeWitt Bodeen as dialogue director, feeling that whenever possible the writer should be on set when his screenplay went into production.
Only on one other occasion did the front office interfere. As Lewton conceived it, no cat was to be shown until the last few frames of the film. The presence of the beast was only to be suggested by sound and shadow, so that audiences could never be sure whether Irena's fears were imaginary or had some terrifying basis in fact. Ostrow, however, decided that a black leopard had to appear in the draughting-room sequence, and after seeing the rushes told Tourneur to reshoot the scene with a cat while the set was still standing. Technically, Tourneur complied; a drugged leopard was brought on to the set and the sequence was redone. However, Tourneur managed to shoot the scene so ambiguously (the only light in the room emanating from the top surfaces of the designing tables) that viewers could still not be sure what they were seeing. Almost all obvious traces of the leopard were obliterated by Robson in the cutting-room, so the front office was, for the first of what would be many times, outsmarted. In the swimming-pool sequence, Tourneur, again instructed that the cat's presence had to be clearly indicated, came up with another solution. The menacing shadows on the walls around the indoor pool, suggestive forms reinforced by growling noises on the soundtrack, were made by the director's fist moving in front of a diffused spotlight.
Shooting ended on Cat People on 21 August 1942. The film had been completed ahead of schedule at a total cost of $134,000. While the post-production work of editing and scoring continued, the Lewton unit scarcely had time to worry about the success of its first effort. The next project, I Walked With a Zombie, was due to begin production in less than two months, and the third, Leopard Man, two months after that. There were story conferences, casting sessions, and set and costume designs to approve. Working hard at their pre-established schedule, Lewton and his associates had little reason to suspect, even dream, that Cat People, approaching the time of its first previews, would prove to be one of the least expected, most astonishing popular successes in American film-making.
MARK ROBSON: His was a divided character. On one hand, he was an insecure man who tended to chop himself down, and yet he was a proud man too. He knew he was good and still he had a habit of pleading poverty. The stories of his pictures are not half so important as the experiments and innovative effects he tried and his ideas about shock and beauty in motion pictures. He loved beauty but disliked camera preciousness. He was a man of great likes and dislikes...
(The entire section is 12664 words.)