Tag Archives: Cat People

[Stop Button Lists] Val Lewton at RKO, 1942-46

Val Lewton, filmography, 1942-46

One of the things I wanted to do with The Stop Button, way back when I started it (or, if not started it, when I realized I was going to keep going with it), was watch all the Val Lewton RKO movies.

I discovered Lewton in college. I can’t remember how, whether it was in a magazine or a book, but I got the LaserDisc box set used and wanted to dig into these noirish horror films, so unlike the Universal monster movies of the same period.

I didn’t. I think I watched I Walked with a Zombie and maybe Cat People. It took me years to get through all the films when watching them for the site too. Five years–Youth Runs Wild is a 2008 post, I Walked With a Zombie is a 2013. I distinctly remember wanting to watch the rarer Lewton. Of course, there are eleven films and two of them are rare. They’re the outliers for a variety of reasons.

I was also a big Mark Robson fan in college (I still am, I just don’t watch his movies enough anymore); he might have been how I came across the LaserDisc box set.

A scene from THE SEVENTH VICTIM, directed by Mark Robson for RKO Radio Pictures.
A scene from THE SEVENTH VICTIM, directed by Mark Robson for RKO Radio Pictures.

Robson directed six of the eleven films, including the best (The Seventh Victim) and the worst (Youth Runs Wild). Robert Wise and Jacques Tourneur handled the rest. Tourneur–and I’d discovered him late teens thanks to AMC–brought the most visual distinction to the films, even though he didn’t get the flashiest settings.

Tourneur directed the first three films–Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man. Each of these films has incredible terror sequences. Tourneur, Lewton and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca figure out how to make a long walk alone the scariest thing in the world. The settings are contemporary, not classical. The possibility of horror exists in the real world.

Until college, I was also a fan of the Cat People remake. I fell out with it when I discovered the original. Having fallen out with the original, I’m back to being a fan of the remake. So when I saw the original, I could see the memorable terror sequences in their (superior) original form. I’m not a big fan of most of these films–I just don’t like most of the writing. But they’re so well-made, I’ve got a soft spot for them. None of them run over eighty minutes either, which makes them a lot more welcoming.

Cat People I watched just a couple years ago. 2013 was the year I pushed myself to get the Lewton films watched. I don’t think in preparation for anything, just because I hadn’t gotten it done (I’m similarly always trying to get Die Hard 3 watched since its the only one without a post up).

It’s really xenophobic. Cat People, not Die Hard 3 (well, maybe, I don’t remember). With old movies, there’s often some discomfort in finding the line; you have to look for it and you might really like the stars or something and there’s hesitation. You’re forcing yourself to be negative on something you like. Like when you find out, in addition to being the greatest sidekick of the 1930s and 1940s, Walter Brennan was also a racist.

Tom Conway, Simone Simon, and Kent Smith star in CAT PEOPLE, directed by Jacques Tourneur for RKO Radio Pictures.
Tom Conway, Simone Simon, and Kent Smith star in CAT PEOPLE, directed by Jacques Tourneur for RKO Radio Pictures.

But Cat People’s xenophobia gets in the way of the story. It clouds the screenwriters, it modifies the film’s potential. Knee caps it. There’s a lack of empathy and it hurts. Now, I’d seen Curse of the Cat People first–and it was rarer than even Cat People back in the eighties and nineties (I’d read about them all in the Maltin guide, I’m sure). I loved Curse of the Cat People when I saw it just after high school. It got me interested in Robert Wise movies.

So when I watched Cat People in February 2013, I hadn’t seen Curse again yet. I still assumed Curse was going to be amazing. I was still hopeful. I just wish I remember where I read about the Lewton films back in 2002 or so. Maybe there was an article in “Films of the Golden Age” but I remember a lot of details about the individual projects.

I Walked With a Zombie, which is Jane Eyre on a sugar plantation with zombies (voodoo zombies), has a bunch of great stuff in it too. My wife and I definitely watched it back in college; I had a lot better memories of it than it comes across. Discovering these films in college, seeing this level of visual craftsmanship–in a low budget picture (seventies John Carpenter and RKO Val Lewton go hand in hand)–is exciting. It’s still exciting now, but now I also see the narrative problems.

I’ll want to see one of them again–The Ghost Ship, The Leopard Man–just because they look so great. Leopard Man takes place in a small Southwestern town and they do a fantastic job with it. Ghost Ship’s on, well, a ship and it gets a lot of visual mileage from that setting. The Lewton pictures have particular personalities to them thanks to the visuals. Frightening, intriguing ones. The movies never get too discomforting you can’t enjoy their production values, even while they’re trying to terrify you.

Simone Simon and Kurt Kreuger star in MADEMOISELLE FIFI, directed by Robert Wise for RKO Radio Pictures.
Simone Simon and Kurt Kreuger star in MADEMOISELLE FIFI, directed by Robert Wise for RKO Radio Pictures.

The last three Lewtons are period pictures–though Mademoiselle Fifi is too. I had originally planned on splitting off the period pictures from the rest but Youth Runs Wild gets in the way. It’s the only Lewton-produced picture I don’t have any interest in seeing again. It got all cut up by the studio and what remains isn’t worth talking about. Though a teen picture is a hard proposition anyway.

Boris Karloff stars in the last three pictures–The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead, Bedlam. They’re often creepy. Lewton goes for the jugular on the concepts–grave robbing, false imprisonment in an insane asylum, possession. I think I’d seen Bedlam before, like on AMC, and it still creeped me out. These films were about people who could identify their fears and voice them, preparing the viewer for what was to come.

I think I’d stopped being such a big Karloff fan by college and never had much interest in these final three films. Isle of the Dead is pretty darn good, however. I guess Robson made the two best Lewton films (Dead and Victim). Period pieces were a hard sell for me. They still are. Karloff also has a big onscreen personality; I was worried how the films would deal with it. It seemed gimmicky–horror star Karloff and horror producer Lewton teaming up.

When I did get to Bedlam, however, I had a lot of hope for it. Isle of the Dead had gotten me optimistic. There’s an excitement in the Robson pictures not present in the Robert Wise entries. It’s like Wise knew he was on his way into non-genre pictures but Robson didn’t mind playing in the category. But the Wise ones, even though I don’t have much nostalgia for them, are pretty good films.

Simone Simon stars in THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise for RKO Radio Pictures.
Simone Simon stars in THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise for RKO Radio Pictures.

Except Curse of the Cat People. That one’s a real disappointment. Especially since I’d loved it so much when I first saw it; I was still in that period when I’d blather on to people about films I’d seen (which actually did stop before the site came around) and I know I talked about Curse nonstop for a day or two.

The Lewton films still have that excitement factor for me. Even I gave most of them ★★, they’re important American films. Some of the excitement might still have to do with them going so long unseen but talked about. Cat People airing on the local PBS station was a cause for videotape planning in the early nineties; people made sure someone (or two or three) was taping it so they could borrow it.

And there’s still Lewton excitement online, which is cool. There was excitement back when the DVD boxset got released in 2005 (which made that LaserDisc box set purchase in 2002 a bit of a waste). The intensity’s changed, but the films availability have made it–for the first time in the films’ seventy year history–easy to see them. Except Fifi and Youth. Those two films are still difficult to see (though PAL DVDs have been released).

Lewton’s films are problematic but it’s impossible not to be a Lewton aficionado.

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[Stop Button Lists] Film School in a Car, Lesson 03

Audio Commentaries discussed…

  • The Funhouse • 2012 • Tobe Hooper • Shout! Factory
  • Cat People • 2002 • Paul Schrader • Universal Home Video
  • The Wolf Man • 1999 • Tom Weaver • Universal Home Video
  • The American • 2010 • Anton Corbijn • Universal Home Video

I had good reasoning when I decided to listen to The Funhouse commentary; it’s similar to Psycho III in it being a Shout! Factory special edition, though I saw Funhouse more recently than Psycho III. It’s a horror film, but I really liked Funhouse. It’s one of my “dissenter” items on movielens. My co-host from Alan Smithee Podcast, Matt, loves the film and thought my exuberant reaction to it might be due to some kind of movie enthusiasm osmosis as I’m not a horror movie guy. But Funhouse is a monster movie, one with some startling reality to it.

So I listened to the commentary. And it is awful. Tobe Hooper, for his part, seems tired. I’m saying tired because the alternative is old. However he prepared for this commentary, it wasn’t the correct method, but it also doesn’t matter because he has a moderator. And the moderator, Tim Sullivan, is the single worst thing I’ve ever heard in front of a microphone. He’s condescending to Hooper, he’s condescending to the film–someone needs to tell Shout! Factory when their commentators hawk the blu-ray during the commentary track, it’s beyond obnoxious. He asks Hooper a question then cuts him off. He also exhibits zero empathy towards the characters in the film. Of course, he’s only seen it twice. Anyone would be a better moderator for this commentary. Even listening to Hooper ramble would be better than having Sullivan there.

Elizabeth Berridge stars in THE FUNHOUSE, directed by Tobe Hooper for Universal Pictures
Elizabeth Berridge stars in THE FUNHOUSE, directed by Tobe Hooper for Universal Pictures

And, while I turned off Criterion’s Godzilla commentary because of David Kalat’s moronic commentary–and even resisted the urge to reference “the stop button”–Funhouse does have Tobe Hooper. He does have things to say. Not a lot of them and Sullivan often interrupts or just derails Hooper’s train of thought, but he does have things to say. Sullivan’s just along to sound ignorant and offensive.

Most frustrating–and not Sullivan’s (presumably unintentional) misogyny–is how patronizing Sullivan gets. Shout! should get a moderator who’s interested in what the commentator has to say.

For my next commentary, I went with Paul Schrader’s Cat People as I happened across the DVD (the blu-ray doesn’t have the commentary). I grew up interested in Cat People–I was interested in all remakes in the early eighties–but didn’t see it until I was a teenager. I think I liked it the first time, but didn’t the subsequent times. I feel like I’ve told this story before. Anyway, the film impresses me quite a bit these days. Like Funhouse, it’s a Universal, early eighties horror movie. Unlike the Funhouse commentary, it’s Schrader alone and assured. Maybe Hooper just doesn’t have the ego for it. Schrader definitely does.

It gets off to a good start with Schrader talking about the production design and so on, but then he gets into the story of how the animals were treated and it’s real creepy. Schrader isn’t an animal lover. In fact, I’d say no animal lover should listen to the Cat People commentary.

Schrader manages not to become to personally offensive because he’s never actually likable. He’s not concerned with it. He’s talking about the filmmaking, not selling himself (or even selling the film) to the listener. It’s refreshingly pragmatic. If occasionally creepy.

Nastassja Kinski stars in CAT PEOPLE, directed by Paul Schrader for Universal Pictures.
Nastassja Kinski stars in CAT PEOPLE, directed by Paul Schrader for Universal Pictures.

The commentary also gets somewhat uncomfortable due to Schrader (at thirty-five, which is better than I thought) having a love affair gone wrong with lead Cat Nastassja Kinski (she was twenty). And Schrader’s openness about what shots he ripped off from Bertolucci and other European directors is cool. It raises this whole question about whether American film ever lost its proverbial virginity or just appropriated it from European cinema. The way Schrader talks about it, so matter-of-factly, makes one wonder if his peers were (or are) as forthcoming about their inspirations.

That openness has a callback to the Funhouse commentary where Sullivan accuses Hooper of ripping off a shot from Halloween and Hooper responded it was an intentional, obvious, acknowledged homage to “John” [Carpenter].

Having listened to two Universal horror commentaries, I figured I might as well go with a third (I had to reformat my iPhone and lost the various commentary tracks I’d assembled when I got the idea to listen to them again). Tom Weaver’s commentary for The Wolf Man; its DVD release was part of the same series as Bride of Frankenstein and I loathed that commentary track. But Weaver’s very different from Scott MacQueen, who did the Bride commentary. Weaver’s bemusedly hostile to the studio putting out the DVD. It’s never outrageous, but Weaver clearly doesn’t think Universal did enough to preserve the history of its horror films.

The Wolf Man commentary track reveals a subset of classic movie fan so big it appears to be its own thing–the classic horror movie fans. People who understand the studio system, understand how things worked, how classic films (especially b films) connect with one another, but their interest is entirely specialized on this one genre.

Lon Chaney Jr. and Evelyn Ankers star in THE WOLF MAN, directed by George Waggner for Universal Pictures.
Lon Chaney Jr. and Evelyn Ankers star in THE WOLF MAN, directed by George Waggner for Universal Pictures.

I grew up with The Wolf Man but also forget my sentimentality to it–maybe because I saw the sequel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, first. When my dad and I drove to a satellite location of our video store to rent The Wolf Man–you couldn’t return movies returned from this store at the other two, nearby locations, which meant another drive–we actually rented the 1979 Wolfman. I just remember it being an old dark house movie, but cheap seventies.

But I learned about old movies through the monster movies. And The Thin Man. My affection for The Wolf Man led to the “Films of the Golden Age” magazine, which led to discovering Eleanor Parker, which led to me seeing a lot more movies made before 1965. With rare exception (Kubrick, Hitchcock), I didn’t go back further than a Fistful of Dollars. Why? Because I could talk to most of my film-enthusiastic friends and acquaintances about those films. Older ones, not so much.

Weaver makes a lot of fun of Lon Chaney Jr. being full of it, but he always gives the impression of being a fan. Weaver’s rounded in how he talks about these people whose work he admires (though it’s not clear how much he really needs to talk about the drama).

The Wolf Man’s got an excellent commentary track. Weaver does a great job.

I was going to listen to another Universal release but ended up going with The American. I remember seeing it in the theater–we didn’t go opening weekend, but early in the second week. I loved it. I just haven’t seen it again. So I saw it almost five years ago. Made me wonder if I’d be able to follow director Anton Corbijn’s commentary as I’m not familiar with the film.

And, yes, I could follow Corbijn. He’s recording the commentary soon after making the film and he’s got a lot of narrative comments. He even quiets and tells the listener to pay attention to particular scenes. His enthusiasm for the film is refreshing.

The American was an impulse outing–cheap weekday movie night or something. I hadn’t seen much George Clooney since Solaris or so. But I really loved The American. I remember thinking about it at length afterwards. And Corbijn explains some of his inspirations and I think they’re what make the film special.

George Clooney stars in THE AMERICAN, directed by Anton Corbijn for Focus Features.
George Clooney stars in THE AMERICAN, directed by Anton Corbijn for Focus Features.

He went with a lot of Spaghetti Western visual influences and seventies Hollywood pacing, only set in the “Italy you never see,” in the modern day, with George Clooney as a hitman instead of a gunfighter. It raises an interesting question–where did the Western go? Did the genre just grow into thrillers? Triceratops and sparrows.

No. Because Westerns marketed to men, thrillers market to women. Kind of.

The American’s also an interesting commentary because, running under it, Corbijn was working with another director. George Clooney would’ve a more accomplished director. He probably still is a more accomplished director, missteps aside, than Corbijn. At least in terms of brand and marketing.

Corbijn does a fine job with the track. Not sure it’d be worth listening to again, but definitely once. Made me want to see if there’s a Tailor of Panama commentary too.

I was hoping for five commentaries minimum a post, but I’m getting close to the upper limit on word count so I’ll wrap it up right here.

Right here.

Here.

Cat People (1982, Paul Schrader)

Cat People is so brilliantly made, often so well-acted, it's surprisingly those elements can't make up for its narrative issues. Screenwriter Alan Ormsby has a big problem–he's got to turn his protagonist from a victim to a villain to a victim. Sadly, he and director Schrader choose to employ the lamest technique possible towards the end of the second act… a revelatory, expository (if nicely stylized) dream sequence. With the Giorgio Moroder score, it seems like a really cool looking music video.

Shame it derails the narrative and People never fully recovers. Some of the final scenes' dialogue is really lame.

But there's so much good, starting with Schrader. He has a few directorial approaches he uses repeatedly throughout the film. First is the way he shoots eyes–his actors appear to stare into the camera (or just to the right of it). It makes the viewer feel like a voyeur. Schrader repeats that theme throughout the film. He's showing these personal moments, which requires excellent acting from his cast. Even Malcolm McDowell, who's playing an extraordinary creep, gets these little moments.

In the lead, Nastassja Kinski is mostly excellent. Once the film loses its rhythm, she's in trouble, but she still remains sympathetic. John Heard's good as her paramour. Annette O'Toole's excellent as the other woman. Ruby Dee and Ed Begley Jr. are great in small parts.

Cat People succeeds because of Schrader's attention to detail. Despite the story problems, a lot of the film is flawless.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Paul Schrader; screenplay by Alan Ormsby, based on a story by DeWitt Bodeen; director of photography, John Bailey; edited by Jacqueline Cambas, Jere Huggins and Ned Humphreys; music by Giorgio Moroder; produced by Charles W. Fries; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Nastassja Kinski (Irena Gallier), Malcolm McDowell (Paul Gallier), John Heard (Oliver Yates), Annette O’Toole (Alice Perrin), Ruby Dee (Female), Ed Begley Jr. (Joe Creigh) and Scott Paulin (Bill Searle).


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Cat People (1942, Jacques Tourneur)

How to describe Cat People….

When a swell, blond American (Kent Smith) meets a dark (but not too dark) Eastern European woman (Simone Simon), she rouses all sorts of non-apple pie passions in him. Being a swell guy, he pressures her into marrying him–she’s clearly emotionally disturbed, but it’s okay… Smith hires her a great psychiatrist (Tom Conway) who eventually tries to rape her.

I’m not making up the passions part by the way–the scene where Smith tries explaining it all to other woman Jane Randolph is painful. Smith’s terrible.

That above synopsis pretty much gets at Cat People‘s core story. Beware the foreigner. Randolph’s a much better match for Smith anyway. She’s a hard worker, not some kind of artist.

Sadly, the film’s got a lot of great things about it. DeWitt Bodeen’s mildly xenophobic screenplay still has some amazing scenes in it… though most of them come at the beginning when Simon’s still the protagonist. There’s later an odd shift of focus to Smith and Randolph. Actually, mostly Randolph so she can be the damsel in distress.

Tourneur’s direction is startling, particularly in those high suspense scenes; it’s excellent work. Some of Cat People‘s shots are singular. Simon’s great, Conway’s great (it’s interesting to see him ooze the charm in equal parts with the slime), Randolph’s pretty good (just wholly unlikable).

Fantastic Nicholas Musuraca photography and Mark Robson editing round out Cat People.

Given its many–occasionally extraordinary–successes, it’s a shame Bodeen’s plot flops.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Tourneur; written by DeWitt Bodeen; director of photography, Nicholas Musuraca; edited by Mark Robson; music by Roy Webb; produced by Val Lewton; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Simone Simon (Irena Dubrovna), Kent Smith (Oliver Reed), Tom Conway (Dr. Louis Judd), Jane Randolph (Alice Moore), Alan Napier (Doc Carver), Alec Craig (Zookeeper) and Jack Holt (The Commodore).


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