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Friday, 15 September 2017

THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944)

“When children are happy and lonely and good,
The friend of the children comes out of the wood…”

These lines from Robert Louis Stephenson’s poem Unseen Playmate neatly sum up the poignant premise behind Val Lewton’s sixth film as producer, Curse of the Cat People (1944), a sequel to his celebrated first hit Cat People (1942) Quoted in the film, they seek to understand the needs of the main character, a friendless child desperately seeking companionship. The original film concerned itself with the complexities of adult relationships straining under dark secrets of identity and expression. Here the focus is on an altogether more fragile and charming world, that of a six year-old girl who also yearns to be understood and nurtured, but by creatures of fantasy, while struggling with the well-meaning concern and scepticism of her solidly real-world parents. Fans of Lewton and the inciting film need not be put off; Curse is a beautiful and lyrical story that straddles the worlds of fantasy and reality whilst satisfyingly recalling and separating itself from its creator. Just don’t go expecting murderous claws and chaos.

It’s always worth stressing the enormous difference in quality between a Val Lewton movie experience and the expectations caused up-front by the lurid titles with which he was contractually saddled. Curse is no exception; Lewton tried to get RKO to let him call it Amy and her Friend which would have been truer to the central idea. As with all of his output it is a textbook example of how a caring, hands-on producer can truly benefit his films, investing them with remarkable autobiographical details and literary depth despite not being directly behind the camera. To helm Curse he gave his editor Robert Wise his first directing credit. Stories in The Hollywood Reporter claimed this was a rescue tactic after assigned director Gunther von Frisch (whose background was solely in short films) had used up all the allotted eighteen days of filming to shoot only half of the screenplay. Wise finished nine days over schedule having no choice but to push the budget from $147,000 to $212,000.

There is no rush-job taint about the finished film. From the beginning we are taken with loving care into the world of lonesome little Amy Reed from whom the film never lets slip its sympathy. One a school day-trip she is singled out bluntly by her classmates, and with greater sensitivity by her teacher, as “…A nice girl. Only a little different”.  She can only relate to non-human creatures such as butterflies, and when a boy interferes she slaps him, earning an interview between her teacher and parents.

This allows us our first recall to Cat People in the return of Kent Smith and Jane Randolph as mum and dad Oliver and Jane Reed. Smith seems to have got his life back on track with Jane after his first marriage to Simone Simon’s feline femme and yet something about Amy always reminds him of her: “Moody…sickly. She could almost be Irena’s child”. Another echo from the past is Elizabeth Russell whose Slavic (and possibly shape-changing) sob sister haunted Irena in a memorable cameo in the previous film, and now wafts enigmatically on the fringes here too. She stands guard as a coldly unhospitable resident of the spooky neighbourhood house from which the gift of a ring is thrown down to Amy by an unseen elderly lady.

Amy’s world seems a sullen gloomy mind-scape and young Ann Carter couples this with a sweet unprecocious charm. We can’t help but feel sorry for her when she scuppers her own birthday party after having posting the invites in the tree she still believes is magic in her garden. This was one of a number of real autobiographical memories of Lewton’s that he gifts to his protagonist to curry our sympathy. However, hers are the kind of idyllic childhood trappings set up to resemble a fairy-tale - she is raised in a beautiful home complete with the archetypal white picket fence and a picturesque garden by two doting and united parents. Curse contains many of the classic tropes of children’s fiction as we will see. The family are affluent enough to employ the kindly Jamaican housekeeper Edward played by Sir Lancelot (whom we last saw him gracing I Walked with a Zombie). He is not a contrived fantasy projection though - Lewton was continuing the admirable policy through all of his films of according all racial minorities the dignity and respect in their jobs and personalities that very few other Hollywood filmmakers were showing.

Fanciful Amy imagines her ring has magical properties and with heart-breaking vulnerability she asks
“I wish for a friend”. When she disobeys her folks to return this magical talisman to the creepy house again, her long blonde hair and white pinafore dress reminds us of the innocent yet headstrong heroine of Alice in Wonderland. If one needs more reminders of children’s story-book classics, how about a fairy Godmother and a Wicked Queen? The former comes courtesy of the elderly ring-bestower who introduces herself to Amy with flamboyant faux-horror as “Julia Farrow - a stranger?” (Julia Dean). Coiffeured and resplendent in pearls and jewellery, Farrow is a faded grand dame of the stage yet still capable of ripples of ripe theatricality. Wicked feminine villainy is unwillingly embodied by Elizabeth Russell whom we now understand is the old lady’s daughter Barbara, which is more than the old lady will acknowledge. (To Julia she is “A liar – an imposter!” - a poor substitute for the daughter she believes died at the same age as Amy). Spurned Barbara seethes with a private jealousy toward Amy as sharp as her exquisite cheekbones. One half-expects her to produce a poisoned apple for the cute little interloper.

Julia radiates the twinkly-eyed naughtiness of a vital plot facilitator in Amy’s growth, but with a definite strain of foreboding to be heeded along the way.  On her way in, the child had already spotted amongst her furniture a macabre stuffed cat ferociously swallowing down a whole bird. If that proves too subtle, the genteel old ham gives her a double dose of warnings from performed literature (her background a handy vessel for Lewton to quote the artistic influences that pervade his movies). To suggest paranormal influences edging closer, Julia quotes the titular killer king from Macbeth, Shakespeare’s most supernaturally-drenched play, after he fatally stabs his monarch: “Wake Duncan with thy knocking. I would thou couldst.” Even more powerfully she recites a Headless Horseman sequence from Washington Irving’s short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) featuring a bug-eyed exhortation to Amy that “You must ride…ride…ride!”

The vivid scaring of Amy becomes the catalyst for the first ethereal visitation to come to her in her bedroom. She is awoken by the ominous Headless Horseman’s hooves, an example of Francis M. Sarver and James G. Stewart’s effective sound work. Unlike in Cat People though, the sudden shadowy figure looming over her presages companionship not peril. It is the welcome re-entry of Simone Simon’s slinky feline Irena. “I’m glad you came...my friend” she says in delight. Cleverly, whenever Dewitt Bodeen’s screenplay signals one of Lewton’s trademark ‘Lewton bus’ jump-shocks, the potential is diffused rather than exploited, ever mindful of the impressionable young soul at the heart of this tale. (Later, when the same oppressive Horseman’s hooves threaten to bear down on her on the bridge, J. R. Whittredge’s editing times a truck arrival just late enough to miss startling the audience).

When the ghostly Irena joins Amy in the garden, she re-frames positively what could otherwise be
morbid: “You wouldn’t understand. I come from great darkness – and deep peace”. This also recalls the unorthodox embrace of the dark she had when alive in Cat People - “It’s friendly”. Indeed, Irena seems to symbolise an enchanting fairy princess for Amy; dressed in a flowing sash-bejewelled gown she is a perfect six year-old girl’s idea of such a fantasy friend.

Sadly, Irena cannot impact upon the adults’ lives despite singing a pretty song counterpointing the family’s Christmas party rendition of the tonally-apt ‘Shepherd, shake off your drowsy sleep’. She is for Amy’s eyes only, and this obsession eventually become an important wedge between her and her father when he punishes her for refusing to deny that she can see Irena. There’s a touching complexity to his actions that prevent us from blaming the poor guy – woven into Oliver’s desire to make his daughter grow up a little are the bittersweet memories of Irena that never quite let him move on. One of the most resonant scenes in the film is the lingering shot as he leads Amy up the staircase to spank her. Lewton’s maestro cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca casts a stark shadow of him against the wall to reinforce that a cruel condemnation of her private imagination is about to be delivered (off-screen, for extra awful power) by her most cherished protector. Despite the professionally-trained reasoning of Eve March’s Miss Callahan, the kind of supportive teacher every child remembers later in life, Oliver is as regretful afterwards as Amy. It is every bit as disturbing as the crushed precious innocence of the woodland creatures in Disney’s Bambi at the news that “Man has entered the forest”.

Since locations are as iconic in fairy-tales as their stock characters, the woods also feature meaningfully toward the end of Curse. While her garden is a safe enchanting haven and the Fallon House is the type of property all good children are told not to play near, the woods harbour all manner of traditional fears. The aforementioned Horseman pursues Amy as we saw while her parents and the police track her down with bloodhounds.

There is just enough time though for her to experience another trauma when she makes for the Fallon house and unknowingly causes Julia to have what may be a fatal seizure in the excitement.  Upon seeing Amy at hand, wicked witch Barbara spits “Even my mother’s last moments you’ve stolen from me” but just before an even worse chastisement awaits Amy than at home, she invokes the help of her friend one last time. This is one of two ambiguities delivered in the film’s climax. We see Irena merge with Barbara’s form in a manner that inexplicably pacifies Barbara’s wrath, and there is no happy ending for her unresolved pain that now will never gain closure. Perhaps Lewton was making the point (during the personal final rewrite he did on each script) that the ever-present black cloud that dogged his life could plague the resolution of others.


A rather more optimistic ambiguity ends the movie when the family are reunited. When Amy confirms that she can still see Irena, he replies: “I see her too darling”. Has his remorse-cum-relief at Amy’s safety opened his heart to the very imaginative possibilities he felt forced to beat her for? He is not looking in Irena’s direction so we cannot be sure he isn’t simply indulging his daughter lovingly. Either way, the hint of lingering magic is a fitting end to the pleasures of Curse of the Cat People.

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