Saturday, August 13, 2011

Two of 'm from Lewton

This past week I took out a DVD with two features on it, both from Val Lewton. Once I saw this was available through the RI public library system it was only a matter of time. The Seventh Victim and The Body Snatcher both made great impressions on me. (I haven't seen the Lewton-produced Cat People. I'm guessing that it outclasses Paul Schrader's remake in all but the admittedly important bareass Polish girl department.) This was an interesting double-feature, spread over two different nights. The two films varied in execution and impact.

Of the two films, The Ghost Ship is the one that has the greater reputation. Part of the reason may be a questionable but successful plagiarism suit that kept it out of circulation for about half a century. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, after all.

The plot concerns a young sailor named Tom Merriam (Russell Wade)who attains position of third officer on a ship called the Altair. Ship's captain Will Stone (Richard Dix) greets Tom with the kind of soft-spoken self-control bound to set off fire alarms in the viewer's head. He also warns Tom not to kill a moth because it's not dependent on him for survival. ?!?

The ship's crew depends on the captain for survival, and he has a tendency to risk their lives just for the hell of it, a prime example being a hook that he allows to fly around unsecured on its chain. When one of the sailors complains, he has an "accident" sponsored by the captain. This belatedly convinces Tom that all of them are in the wrong hands.

It was kind of ballsy to release a parable about the perils of unquestioned authority smack dab in the middle of WW2. And certainly it's less formulaic than the Tom Cruise movie that would have been made 20 years ago or the Robert Pattinson version that would be made today. (But you do know when the affably cynical radio man takes Tom's side that the man is not long for this earth.) But it's blatant and unformed in a way that makes you realize why the formulas have come into play. Tom goes directly from "Gee whiz, what a great captain" to "Can't you see? He's a murderer!" in no time flat. What might have seemed like a guileless hero to the filmmakers comes off now as a hopeless goober. And Will Stone seems more like a tantrumy three year old than anything else.

Full props for the crisp black and white photography, though. And for a convincing sense of life at sea.

More interesting is The Leopard Man, also released in 1943. The plot is pretty simple. Showgirl Kiki (Jean Brooks) feels overshadowed by her fiery Latin rival Clo-Clo (Margo). (And you can see how she might be. Brooks looks like a young Edith Sitwell, which is a striking look but not what the cocktail crowd is looking for.) Her manager/boyfriend Jerry (Dennis O'Keefe) comes up with a novel solution. He buys a leopard from an Indian showman (Abner Biberman) and has Kiki work it into her act. Alas, it doesn't stay in her act for long.

Clo-Clo scares the cat and it escapes. Soon after, a teenage girl is mawled to death while running an errand for her mother. Other victims follow, but after the initial attack, the remaining victims show signs of being killed by human hands.

There are at least three kinds of story going on here. The weakest of them is the murder mystery as such. If you can't figure out who the murderer is, you probably don't know who ate the last cookie when your toddler's face is covered with melted chocolate chips. But this is also the story of a New Mexico border town under siege, and the mostly Mexican-American natives are presented with an impressive sensitivity. And then there's the story of shadows and creeping terror, and Lewton is in his wheelhouse there.

A possible fourth story? The redemption of Jerry Manning and Kiki Walker, both of whom soften from self-involved beginnings. It's a little corny, but I think it works.


susan said...

I think we may have a collection of Val Lewton movies tucked away in one of the still to be unpacked boxes (when we find an apartment worth settling in - still waiting for the gvmn't to decide and meanwhile a new lease kicked in). Anyway, I well remember The Ghost Ship pretty much as you describe it once we got to see it. The captain was quite obviously a megalomaniac and it was bizarre to see Tom falling under his spell so easily. Of course, there was a lot of that sort of thing in early b-movies which actually does make them easier to take than later ones whose conceit is quite apparent.

I enjoyed your review of The Leopard Man too although I don't remember it quite so well. Good analogy about the cookie thief. It's one I'll look forward to seeing again along with Cat People. It's sad he lost opportunities to make more films an then died so young.

Ben said...

It is a shame, yeah. He seems to have hit a brick wall sometime in the fifties. He and his directors were true artists, so it was a loss.