18 January, 2008


Jacques Tourneur made films which spoke in whispers...

Jess Franco remade Tourneur's masterwork.... twice!

In the wake of watching the Martin Scorsese produced and narrated VAL LEWTON: THE MAN IN THE SHADOWS on TCM Monday Night I lingered to re watch the Lewton produced, Jacques Tourneur-directed THE CAT PEOPLE (1942) followed by I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943), and if the underrated THE LEOPARD MAN (1943) had followed I would have stayed up to watch that also. The documentary is an excellent primer on the life and career of Lewton.

Even though I had long been familiar with just about every fact gone over from my own reading and had seen the major Lewtons many times three things struck me: giving Lewton a voice (Elias Koteas) was a brilliant idea, allowing him to return from the dead in a certain sense; the footage from the rarely seen Lewton non horror YOUTH RUNS WILD and MADEMOISELLE FIFI; the interview footage of Jacques Tourneur (in French), allowing me a look at a director whom I've long admired. I could have done without some of the talking heads and it could have been longer but Scorsese's urgent delivery somehow holds it all together.

Seeing the films again I reflected that the main subject of our blog seems to have been deeply influenced by Lewton's vision. Irena (Simone Simon) of THE CAT PEOPLE can be seen as a precursor of the similarly lonely, obsessed Countess Irina of Karlstein in FEMALE VAMPIRE (1973), not being able to live in this world while condemned forever to kill they ones they desire. All of Lewton's major films deal with mental states which control the character's actions. You become what you think you are. The most fearful demons are the demons of the mind. That's what also interests me about Jess Franco's best films.

The main characters in NECRONOMICON, VENUS IN FURS, FEMALE VAMPIRE, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MIRROR, LORNA THE EXORCIST, LA COMTESSE PERVERSE, PLAISIR A TROIS and GEMIDOS DE PLACER and many others are like mental patients run amok until the final tragedy. In fact, the female predators in the last two were actually recently released from mental hospitals. Characters, mostly female, who see visions, cause pain and death. VENUS IN FURS concludes with the same John Donne quote which inspired Lewton's THE SEVENTH VICTIM, evoking the certainty and release of Death. Lewton's horrors are film noirs, truly Black Cinema, and it's probably no accident that Tourneur, Wise and Robson did arguably their best post-Lewton work in that category. Franco often speaks about his obsession for what he terms Black Cinema, Film Noir. One of the most fascinating things about THE LEOPARD MAN is that it looks like a Film Noir and feels like a horror film.

The most frightening experience movie-related experience I've ever had was seeing Mark Robson's THE SEVENTH VICTIM in 35mm at a lower Manhattan cinema in the early 1970's as part of a day long Lewton fest and then walking out at night into the actual locations where the action is set and feeling that the film was following me into the street. I couldn't shake it and it was all around me. I felt like the detective the heroine hired who walked into that bottomless black space to his doom.

It should be noticed that Jess Franco remade Jacques Tourneur's I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE twice, with 1973's LA COMTESSE PERVERSE, which climaxes with the exact same image of a weak male protagonist carrying a dead woman into the waves, followed four years later by RUF DER BLONDEN GOTTIN/VOODOO PASSION (1977), which is virtually a scene by scene, shot by shot, reprise of the Tourneur film, following an innocent woman's descent into the mysteries of voodoo bound Haiti. Tourneur's film evokes the feeling of awakening to whispers in the dark while Franco's 1970's revisions scream amidst a blindingly colorful mise en scene.

One of the great things about Lewton's films, as with Jess Franco's, is they give us plenty of room for free association...

(C) Robert Monell, 2008

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