I Walked with a Zombie

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Everything seems beautiful because you don’t understand. Those flying fish, they’re not leaping for joy, they’re jumping in terror. Bigger fish want to eat them. That luminous water, it takes its gleam from millions of tiny dead bodies. The glitter of putrescence. There is no beauty here, only death and decay.

From time to time I like to revisit the films of Val Lewton, those nine macabre tales he made as head of his own production unit at RKO and upon which his reputation rests. I can’t say it’s ever an especially arduous task, they all have brief running times and I rank them among my favorite works since I first made their acquaintance as a young boy, alternating between fascination and fear during those late night TV screenings. One of the first I saw was I Walked with a Zombie (1943), a title guaranteed to fire the imagination of any young viewer. As with all of Lewton’s pictures, it’s not so much a shock-filled horror film as a dreamy study of unease and dread, where suggestion and atmosphere creep up behind you and softly whisper “Boo” in your ear.

It all starts out bright and crisp, like the snow falling outside the window of the Ottawa office where Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) accepts the job of nursing an invalid woman on a West Indian island. It’s only when she’s aboard the ship that will transport across the sea to her new appointment that Betsy’s new employer Paul Holland (Tom Conway) makes that little speech which I used as an intro that darkness, along with its faithful companions doubt and suspicion, extends its shadowy fingers. Holland owns a sugar plantation and shares his home there with his half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison) and his wife Jessica (Christine Gordon), the zombie of the title. Jessica exists in a semi-catatonic state, awake but no longer aware of the world around her, apparently the result of a bad bout of fever. Holland is keen to impress on Betsy the melancholy history of the island, a place where the inhabitants, all descended from slaves, still live in thrall to the Voodoo religion. She finds herself fascinated by the reserved and withdrawn Holland, sympathetic to the hard-drinking Wesley, and simultaneously repelled and intrigued by the shattered beauty of the listless Jessica. As her attraction to her employer grows, the young nurse gradually learns more of the tragic history of this family residing on an island which itself is no stranger to suffering. In that contrary way that love often manifests itself, Betsy resolves to do all in her power to haul Jessica back to the living. That will involve putting her faith in the mysterious beliefs of the islanders and taking a nighttime walk through the cane fields that take on an eerie complexion in the twilight cast by a warm Caribbean moon. What she finds at the end of it will answer some of her questions but, paradoxically, raise as many more.

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Producer Val Lewton was tasked with running a low budget horror unit at RKO and it’s often said that his low-key approach and reliance on atmosphere and the inherent creepiness of the unknown was fueled by the lack of funds and the subsequent desire to avoid being seen as a cut-price version of Universal with its gallery of monsters and freaks, the only concession being the pulpy and frequently lurid titles of the pictures. I’ve no doubt this played a significant part in the process but I’d also like to think that Lewton’s own artistic sensibility entered into the equation too. For there is a high level of artistry involved in these movies, which beguile and chill the viewer in equal measure. The horror movie can be a rather obvious genre, only rarely restraining itself from the temptation to provide instant gratification via visual shocks and, as time has gone on the audiences more jaded, an over-reliance on gore. But that wasn’t Lewton’s style; he worked with three fine directors over the course of his nine RKO  horrors – Mark Robson, Robert Wise and Jacques Tourneur. All those films are good, but I feel that it’s with the latter that the best work was done. As far as I’m concerned, this is no coincidence as Tourneur was a master of subtlety. He was fully aware of the power of his camera and his compositions and pacing have a smoothness that belongs only to the truly talented. In truth, there’s not a bad shot in the whole movie, but the highlight has to be the trek through the cane fields, the recreation of which is a tribute to the art department, with the sense of dread and foreboding ever present but always that crucial step short of overwhelming.

The cast is led by Frances Dee and her performance hits exactly the right tone, vulnerable enough to make the threatening atmosphere believable yet grounded by a practicality that befits one charged with the task of caring for an essentially helpless woman. The film and role calls for a degree of nobility, or perhaps selflessness is a better term, and that’s not an easy thing to pull off successfully; there’s always the risk of it appearing somehow insufferable and it takes a fair bit of skill to dance around that particular pitfall. In short, it’s a balancing act and one which I feel Ms Dee negotiated with aplomb. Similarly, Tom Conway (who had the distinction of appearing in three of Lewton’s very best productions) plays it cool and keeps away from the histrionics. Like his brother George Sanders, suave and debonair were second nature to Conway and I’ve always enjoyed seeing him work – The Falcon movies are among my absolute favorites when it comes to series detective fare. However, a love story, and this is certainly as much a romance as a horror film, needs some overt passion to be displayed. That is provided by James Ellison as the volatile half-brother, an unpleasant part in many ways but well performed all the same. The supporting players are rounded out by Edith Barrett, James Bell, Sir Lancelot, Theresa Harris and the wonderfully spooky Darby Jones as the sinister, bug-eyed Carrefour.

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I Walked with a Zombie is pretty easy to see – I bought it years ago as part of the excellent Val Lewton box set released by Warner Brothers in the US, but there are a range of European editions on the market too. The US version has it paired on DVD with The Body Snatcher, and the transfer is reasonable. RKO titles can prove problematic and there are instances of print damage visible but I can’t honestly say I’ve been overly troubled by them – the film just kind of sweeps you along. The disc also includes a commentary track by Kim Newman and Steve Jones. Halloween is a good time of year to wheel out these kinds of movies but a classic tale like this is really timeless and works its magic regardless of the season – after all, I first saw it and fell in love with it on a July evening way back in 1981. Anyone wondering what to view as the witching hour draws ever closer could do worse than give this a spin, and those who have yet to experience the delightful art of Lewton and Tourneur should rectify that as soon as possible.

 

 

Canyon Passage

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The western is a genre which, although it’s certainly not the only one, is sometimes accused of being overburdened by clichés.  This is understandable enough; genre pictures by definition have to feature elements that are immediately recognizable to viewers. Canyon Passage (1946) could be said to contain its fair share of these well-worn tropes (crooked financiers, restless wandering types, hostile natives) but part of what raises this film up among the best examples of the genre is the way they are handled. There’s an  air of authenticity about it all, and that filters through into some stock characters and situations, bestowing on them an originality that sets the whole production apart.

While I don’t have any statistics at hand to prove this one way or the other, I reckon it’s safe to say most westerns take place within a rough thirty year period beginning at the outbreak of the Civil War. Sure you’ll get examples set both before and after these dates, but they do appear to be slightly thinner on the ground. Canyon Passage tells a tale of Oregon in 1856, a time of growth and expansion before conflict engulfed the nation. Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews) is one of those thrusting, entrepreneurial types, never satisfied with what he has and always on the lookout for new opportunities to add to his fortune. Still, he’s not a greedy or grasping man; his ambition is just an integral part of his character, a restless need to range further and in some ways a reflection of the pioneering spirit of his country. Stuart is a man who is going places in every sense: his business is booming, he’s respected within the community and he’s courting Caroline Marsh (Patricia Roc), a beautiful English settler. However, there’s almost always a fly in the ointment, two in this case. The biggest and ugliest comes in the shape of the brutish Honey Bragg (Ward Bond), a muscle-bound giant of a man and an amoral counterpoint to Stuart. A further source of anxiety is George Camrose (Brian Donlevy), the local banker and Stuart’s best friend. Camrose is a compulsive gambler, a dangerous trait in a financier in any circumstances but doubly worrying when he’s caught in a run of spectacularly bad luck. While Camrose attempts a precarious balancing act his fiancée, Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward), is increasingly  attracted to Stuart. Granted none of this is making his life any easier, but it pales into relative insignificance in comparison to the physical threat represented by Bragg. The hulking bully is borderline obsessive in his rivalry with Stuart, further enraged and embittered by his knowledge that his foe had (and passed up) the opportunity to see him hang. Fueled by hate and frustration, Bragg gives in to his animal instincts and thus imperils not only Stuart but the whole community when his base behavior sparks off a tragic Indian uprising.

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Adapted from a novel by prolific western author Ernest Haycox (Stagecoach, Union Pacific, Bugles in the Afternoon, Man in the Saddle etc) Canyon Passage was the first foray into the genre for director Jacques Tourneur. The versatile Frenchman took to westerns right from the beginning, crafting an intimate portrait of frontier society that comes close to the affectionate and mythic vision of John Ford. Cameraman Edward Cronjager captured some truly beautiful and breathtaking Technicolor images that Tourneur then directed with an expert touch. The sequence of the cabin raising is an ode to communal effort and gives a real sense of how inextricably linked the lives of these people were to those of their neighbours. Everything in the movie – the texture of the buildings, the condition of the streets, the language and attitudes of the characters – smacks of a realism that isn’t always present. However, the movie is more than a celebration of pioneering spirit and the social dynamic of the time. Above all, Tourneur was a master of atmosphere and an extraordinarily subtle, understated director. There is plenty of rousing action accompanying the narrative, and again the authentic feel comes across in the depiction of the violence. No doubt Tourneur’s experience working in Val Lewton’s horror unit at RKO shaped his approach to filming the more horrific scenes. There is very little explicit violence shown on screen, the director preferring to cut away or obscure the more visceral moments. Yet the effect, as was the case in those Lewton movies, is to force the viewer’s imagination to take over. In my opinion anyway, having to visualize the acts just off screen is more unsettling than seeing some unconvincing mock-up.

With strong source material and first class people operating behind the cameras, the final vital ingredient is the performers. Dana Andrews produced another of those deceptively quiet turns as Logan Stuart. Initially, you’d be forgiven for thinking this man was no more than a hard-nosed and pragmatic businessman. However, as the story progresses, Andrews, as he so often did, reveals new layers to the character. His early scenes with Patricia Roc hint at a tenderness of heart not apparent from his stoic visage, and this aspect is further developed as his relationship with Hayward grows. But really it’s his loyalty to Donlevy that proves how deep his humanity runs. Although Donlevy was of course a great heavy in countless movies, I wouldn’t actually class his George Camrose as a fully fledged villain. Despite some thoroughly reprehensible behavior, Donlevy brought a weakness and frailty to the role, a touch of corrupt romanticism if you like, which helps explain why Andrews stuck by him all the way. No, the real bad guy here comes courtesy of Ward Bond’s portrayal of the monstrous Honey Bragg. Bond did a fantastic job in capturing the physical power, the depravity and animal cunning of this figure. The two main female roles – those of Patricia Roc and Susan Hayward – are careful studies of contrasting women. Roc had the right kind of brittle gentility for an Englishwoman suddenly thrust into a new and dangerous world; her dazed and distant reaction to the aftermath of the Indian massacres struck just the right tone. Hayward, on the other hand, was feisty, tough and earthy – a true frontier gal. In supporting roles, there is some good work from Lloyd Bridges, Andy Devine, Onslow Stevens, and the wonderful Hoagy Carmichael.

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Canyon Passage is a Universal film, and there are plenty of DVD editions on the market from a variety of territories. I have the version included in Universal’s Classic Western Round-Up Vol. 1 which was released a number of years ago. The film shares disc space with The Texas Rangers but I can’t say I was aware that the presentation suffered from any compression issues. For the most part, the image is very strong with the Technicolor cinematography looking frankly spectacular at times. There are no extra features whatsoever available on the disc, something I think is disappointing as the movie is most certainly deserving of a commentary track at the very least. Regardless of that, this movie remains among one of the very best westerns made in the 1940s. Jacques Tourneur would go on to make a number of high quality pictures in the genre, though I feel this represents him right at the top of his game. There’s a complexity and maturity to the characters and their interactions that help distinguish the movie. Not only would I recommend Canyon Passage to anyone with an interest in westerns, I would go so far as to say it’s essential viewing.

 

 

The Leopard Man

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Seeing as Halloween is only a matter of days away I thought I’d feature something with a seasonal flavour to mark the occasion. A casual glance would suggest that The Leopard Man (1943) ought to be a slice of classic horror. Bearing in mind the title, and the fact it was produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur, one might expect to get another anthropomorphic chiller along the lines of Cat People. However, it’s the source material, a story by Cornell Woolrich, that dictates the kind of movie that’s ultimately delivered. Woolrich wasn’t a horror writer, though his darkly fatalistic tales do border on the macabre at times, instead he concentrated on bleak and pessimistic crime stories. So, the combination of director, producer and writer here results in a moody crime picture that bears the trappings, atmosphere and feel of a horror movie.

This compact thriller takes place in a border town in New Mexico and, like a good deal of Woolrich’s material, sees a tragic train of events set in motion by a foolish mishap. In this case the event in question is brought about when a night club performer, Kiki (Jean Brooks), goes along with the suggestion of her manager/publicist, Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe), that she should make a dramatic entrance with a black leopard on a leash. The idea is to draw the spotlight and simultaneously upstage her rival, flamenco dancer Clo-Clo (Margo). Not a bad plan, as far as it goes. The trouble arises when Clo-Clo, in a fit of pique, startles the beast with the clacking of her castanets, causing it to bolt and and slip away into the shadowy streets of the town. This leads to one of the most celebrated sequences in producer Lewton’s movies. A young girl, a bit of a dreamer and slacker if the truth be known, is sent on a shopping errand by an impatient and exasperated mother. The girl tries to beg off, citing her fear of the wild animal roaming the surrounding countryside, but the mother is having none of it. To her, her daughter has too fanciful an imagination and too little sense of responsibility. The girl’s trip to the only store open at such a late hour, and more especially the return, is an exercise in how to draw tension tight through the use of suggestion and shadowy visuals. What makes this succeed is the fact that the growing panic and dread of the girl match perfectly what the viewers feel as we accompany her on her journey. The tragic outcome, playing on the old fable of the boy who cried wolf, is all the more effective as a result of our experiencing the same emotions as the girl. Suddenly, this sleepy backwater is transformed into a community stalked by fear and suspicion as the apparent victims of the escaped cat start to mount up. As I said in the introduction, this is not a real horror movie in the true sense of the word. There is nothing of the supernatural involved, unless you count Isabel Jewell’s gypsy fortune teller, yet the sense of menace is palpable throughout.

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In all honesty, the plot of The Leopard Man is fairly unremarkable, and the mystery story it’s built around isn’t so difficult to figure out. The strength of the movie derives from the mood evoked by the tale, and maybe more importantly, the way Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur go about presenting it. What they put on screen is every bit as morbid as the best of Poe. Lewton and Tourneur’s shadowy, expressionistic style play a significant part in creating the sense of doom and fatalism that seems to dog the characters. The flamenco dancer played by Margo is superficially in love with life, and her jaunty sashaying through the town streets, castanets always at the ready, appears to reinforce this. Yet, her thoughts are never far from darker matters, borne out by her near obsessive need to consult the fortune teller at every opportunity, despite the latter’s repeated discovery of death in the cards. Aside from the sequence with the girl on her late night errand that I already referred to, there are two other especially noteworthy passages. The first involves a lovelorn girl who visits a cemetary on her birthday to keep a date with her beau. Surely it’s only in a Lewton film where two youthful lovers would think it appropriate to pick a graveyard as the backdrop for a romantic assignation. This scene heightens the melancholic, oneiric quality that permeates the movie and comes close to the idea of horror being essentially a fairy tale for adults. The second takes place during the climax, where the real killer is pursued and finally cornered amid the hooded and solemn members of an historical/religious procession. All of these sequences serve as something of a definition of the characteristics of horror moviemaking. Cinematic horror is not so much about gore or actually scaring the audience – that has a limited, juvenile impact which rarely stands the test of time – as instilling a sense of dread and foreboding. After all, it’s the moody atmospheric stuff that lingers in the memory long after the cheaper shocks have worn off or been superseded by something more daring.

In the US Val Lewton collection form Warners The Leopard Man shares space on a disc with The Ghost Ship. The film has a reasonably good transfer, although there are certainly a number of speckles and scratches on show. The image is acceptably sharp and the contrast is good enough – particularly important in a movie such as this. Extras consist of a commentary by William Friedkin and the theatrical trailer. As I said, this is a crime story – with a noir sensibility, it should be added – dressed up as a horror film. I think it may be this hybrid quality that’s led to it’s being less celebrated than some of Lewton’s (or Tourneur’s for that matter) other pictures. Regardless, it remains a classy chiller that works well on both levels, and is a fine example of how to make a good movie on a shoestring budget.