Before it stumbles through its third act, I Walked with a Zombie’s biggest problem is the pacing. It’s exceedingly boring during the second act. Its second biggest problem is it’s too short. The second act plays so poorly because there’s not enough going on, there’s just not time for it in sixty-eight minutes.
Otherwise, the film’s wondrous. Tourneur’s direction is sublime, beautiful music from Roy Webb, luscious black and white photography from J. Roy Hunt and these amazing sets. The film takes place on a small Caribbean island, with a nurse (Frances Dee) caring for a strangely ill woman. The nurse discovers she’s the fourth wheel on a love triangle between the woman and two brothers (Tom Conway and James Ellison).
The great performances from Conway and Ellison can’t make up for them disappearing occasionally for relatively long stretches. Dee’s fine in the lead–a more dynamic performance might have helped with the second act but nothing can fix the ending. Nice performances from James Bell, Edith Barrett and Theresa Harris too.
Some of the problem is the script, obviously. Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray accelerate the romance between Dee and Conway and don’t actually give them a courtship. Instead, Ellison gets those scenes. And it’s never clear if Harris is a villain or not. Not to mention there being a mystery angle introduced late in the second act. It’s all a mess.
It’s a beautiful one, but Zombie’s often magnificent pieces don’t add up to a successful picture.