More Than Meets The Mogwai

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Curse of THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (Gunter V. Fritsch, Robert Wise, 1944)

“The MAIN and CREDIT TITLES are SUPERIMPOSED on a series of line drawings of elves, small forest creatures, tree limbs, and other grotesqueries drawn in the delicate, fanciful, and yet frightening style of Arthur Rackham, The DISSOLVES from one card to another are accomplished by a gust of wind blowing autumnal leaves past the title as the card begins its dissolve. The drawing on the last card shows an oddly shaped tree trunk.”

And so begins the RKO production of THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, with a title sequence conjuring up the fairytale illustrations of artist Arthur Rackham with nary a mention of the sinister feline creature seen in the original DeWitt Bodeen-Jacques Tourneur creation to help set the mood for what’s about to transpire. Through this studio-imposed title -- a title that was to lure unsuspecting paying customers into thinking they’d be seeing a direct sequel -- RKO was, perhaps, shooting themselves in the foot; their wily trick wouldn’t remain undiscovered for long, and the film’s eventual legion of admirers would have to contend with decades of making a qualifying statement about this mislabeling, and how the film’s virtues and poetic qualities are vastly different -- but just as valid -- as the Tourneur original. It was a grave disservice to producer Val Lewton (who preferred the titles AMY AND HER FRIEND or THE UNSEEN PLAYMATE, from the Robert Louis Stevenson poem quoted in the film’s dialogue), but in today’s context, RKO’s insistence on retitling takes on a different, elegiac meaning for what these B-movie programmers came to represent: the smuggling in of far more intellectual conceits or ideas than their guise would otherwise suggest. It’s a blessing and a curse, but I’ve come to believe that the unfavorable title is a test for prospective viewers to leave their preconceptions about “these types of films” at the door. Within its opening minutes, THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE demands to be taken seriously, and if you were to ask any child psychologist, it is.

Ann Carter, as Amy Reed, the spawn of CAT PEOPLE’s coupling of Kent Smith and Jane Randolph, has the right kind of earnest credulousness to portray the introverted child at the centre of the film. Attuned to a different sort of wavelength than her immediate classmates, Amy’s sullen dreaminess speaks to those in the audience who played outfield in little league but had a far more concentrated gaze on a flitting butterfly in their immediate vicinity than any kind of potential right-field hit. A cause for concern for her parents, but not her armchair psychologist teacher (semi-John Ford regular Eve March), Amy is looked at as a stern disappointment by both Smith and Randolph (exempt is her Jamaican butler, played by calypso singer Sir Lancelot, who actually spends the most time with Amy through the course of the film). Our initial incident occurs when Amy sincerely believes that her birthday party invitations have been mailed through a knot in the family’s backyard tree (an actual episode from Val Lewton’s boyhood, as revealed in the recent TCM doc by Kent Jones, THE MAN IN THE SHADOWS), her gathering remains unattended and her parents just don’t understand. Soon after, the ethereal presence of Kent Smith’s first wife, the “Cat Person” of the original, Irena Reed (Simone Simon), begins to appear to Amy as a much-needed invisible friend. The two dance and play, and maybe it’s not unreasonable to hazard a guess that Irena may turn out to be a malevolent spirit, out to take revenge on the daughter of the union that resulted in her demise, but from Simon’s first frames into her appearance, I could tell that this was not to be: her gallic nonchalance and charismatic persona seems at peace in the otherworld. And those few attempts by Amy’s parents to speak of Simon’s ill-temperament from the original are not particularly needed, and they feel shoehorned in by Lewton simply to appease the studio heads and to keep those wise audience members content with the knowledge that at least the filmmakers are trying to work in a reference to the earlier film.

If ghastly, old-fashioned horror is what Lewton needed to provide, he could do no better than adding the town eccentric, Mrs. Julia Farren (Julia Dean), a forgetful elderly lady (with a daughter she believes is an impostor) that Amy visits from time to time, even after she gets the scare of a lifetime by Farren’s retelling of the “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. Dean’s full-flushed face and booming voice solely occupy this, her first sequence, as she appears in medium shot barreling down the center of the frame and causing Amy (along with her butler) to scramble out of Farren’s dilapidated, extravagant home. It is this added drama with the Farren daughter/mother that culminates the close of THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE: as a horrendous rainstorm beats down outside, Amy sneaks out of her bedroom to play with Irena, while her parents, downstairs with Amy’s teacher, receiving a lesson in better understanding the “Inner World of Childhood”, soon learn of their child’s disappearance and amble out to find her. After some hysterics with the deranged daughter of this town eccentric, the final scene is of a heartfelt reunion for father and daughter, as Kent Smith sincerely encourages Amy’s belief, and ensures her that he can see Irena, too (the audience is aware of the fact that he can’t, but this small step towards respecting his daughter’s reserved instincts and fantastical inclinations is Lewton’s idea of a happy reconciliation). Irena has served her purpose, and Lewton, DeWitt Bodeen, and directors Gunther V. Fritsch and first-timer Robert Wise never confirm one way or the other that she is either the otherworldly, benevolent specter or the inner workings of Amy’s imagination, starved for human contact, the imagining a friend with the looks of her father’s deceased first wife combined with a fairytale rendering from a storybook.

It is this committed ambiguousness in Val Lewton that keeps one coming back for more, from the shadowy unseen horrors in CAT PEOPLE to the precision in not tipping the scales with Irena in this name-only sequel. Lewton is that rare breed of auteur producer, stamping his strapping personality over every frame while assimilating into the background, never arguing for his credit but insisting on what goes where. This is a magical, timeless, literate series of genre films with a sense of unparalleled poetry speaking out from the sinuous darkness.

AMY
Daddy?

OLIVER
Yes, darling.

AMY
Tell me tha real truth. You can see my
friend, can't you?

Oliver doesn't even look out into the garden. He leans down
and brushes a kiss on Amy's forehead.

OLIVER
Yes, darling, I can see her.

Amy turns, smiles at him, and hugs him closely.


THE END

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Some websites containing information on the making of THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE:

The Val Lewton Screenplay Collection (an unbelievable resource).

The Val Lewton B-Unit (which includes Manny Farber's review of the film).

AFI Tribute to Robert Wise (with a page on THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE).

And last, but certainly not least, here's Michael Guillén of "The Evening Class" and his extraordinarily organized Val Lewton Blogathon. You'll also find Guillén's interviews with both child actress Ann Carter(-Newton) here and Val E. Lewton here.

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