This is the uncut version of a book review written for Stop Smiling no. 27 in 2006 (“Ode to the Midwest”), which had to be cut at the last minute due to space problems. My thanks to editor James Hughes for granting me permission to print the fuller version here. –J.R.
ICONS OF GRIEF: VAL LEWTON’S HOME FRONT PICTURES by Alexander Nemerov. Berkeley: University of Calornia Press, 2005. 213 pp.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Most film criticism has been hampered by the habit of dealing with narrative movies strictly and exclusively in terms of their stories. What’s overlooked by this practice is the fact that virtually all films are made up of nonnarrative as well as narrative elements—what might be described as both persistence and fluctuation, or nonlinearity as well as linearity. Even though we often prefer to think we experience movies only as unfolding narratives—which is apparently why what most people mean by “spoilers” always relate to plot and not to formal moves—how we remember these movies is part of that experience, and this partially consists of static images.
Consequently, it could be argued that we need more art historians writing about movies and fewer literary critics who operate from the model of narrative fiction. And a potent suggestion of what art historians could offer us is found in a highly original study of the B films of producer Val Lewton, practically all of which were made during World War 2.
Lewton is mainly known today as a Russian-born pulp writer (the nephew of Broadway actress Alla Nazimova) and then a story editor for David O. Selznik who became famous as a producer of cheap, arty horror films at RKO during the 40s. Though mostly accurate, this account overlooks that Lewton never considered himself a horror specialist and that even though nine of his 11 RKO features were marketed as horror items, arguably only the first, Cat People, fully belongs to the genre. And this imprecision continues to limit our access to Lewton’s films today: when Warners released a mainly excellent Lewton DVD box set last year, they omitted his two RKO features, Mademoiselle Fifi and Youth Runs Wild, that have never been labeled (or mislabeled) as horror, thereby giving the relatively clueless studio executives of that era the final say in defining Lewton’s legacy.
Nemerov teaches art history at Yale, and his distinctiveness as a critic and historian goes well beyond his capacity to focus on nonnarrative aspects of films that transcend their usual genre classification. Ironically, while what he’s offering is clearly an auteurist study that draws heavily on Lewton’s biography—including his mostly out-of-print pulp novels, his gloomy Russianness (and with it, a certain feeling of estrangement from the American mainstream), and his broad range of cultural references, which he tended to downplay in his habitual self-deprecations —it depends largely on Lewton’s collaborations with other artists. And even though Nemerov is attentive to Lewton’s better known collaborators, such as director Jacques Tourneur and noir cinematographer Nicholas Musaraca, he gives most of his attention to bit actors who emerge briefly but indelibly from the busy textures of these films to compose icons of grief. He persuasively argues that these images of intense sadness express mourning for the war dead in the overseas war that was being fought, a war that goes unmentioned in virtually all the films.
Nemerov is more historian than critic, and part of his achievement is to persuade us that there’s nothing at all forced or willful about his making the war’s emotional impact so central to Lewton’s films. Indeed, it hardly seems coincidental that Lewton thrived as a filmmaker only as long as the war continued, and that his career virtually collapsed as soon as it was over. And in order to convince us of the war’s centrality and relevance, he draws substantially on the contemporary film reviews of James Agee and Manny Farber (including, in the latter’s case, many uncollected pieces), paintings of the period by everyone from Norman Rockwell to Jackson Pollock, many other Hollywood movies (including touchstones like Meet Me in St. Louis and The Palm Beach Story as well as forgotten obscurities like Headin’ For God’s Country and The Bamboo Blonde). He also digs purposefully into the remaining careers of such little-known actors as Skelton Knaggs in The Ghost Ship, Darby Jones in I Walked with a Zombie [see above], and Glenn Vernon in Bedlam [see below]. (Somewhat better known are Ann Carter, the little girl at the center of The Curse of the Cat People, and Simone Simon—the female lead of Cat People [see penultimate still] who reappears briefly as the ghost of her former self in the putative sequel [see final still].) In doing so, he recalls the rapturous page or two in Italo Calvino’s autobiographical The Road to San Giovanni cataloging the supporting actors who were an essential element in his childhood moviegoing.
The poetics of Nemerov’s approach seem fully compatible with the exquisite modesty of Lewton’s haunting films, which typically run about 75 minutes or even less—though they manage to encompass more plot, atmosphere, memorable characters, and poetic inflections than current movies, which last much longer and cost many times as much. Considering how much is crowded into I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man, and The Seventh Victim (three of my own favorites), including a considerable amount of tension and dread, the miracle is how quiet and still the resonance of these films is on reflection. Nemerov devotes a chapter to only the first of these, in which Darby Jones’s Carre-Four—a giant black zombie standing on the crossroads of a sugarcane field at night—manages to steal the movie from the more prominent actors, and even manages to make his way into the title, despite the fact that, as Nemerov bothers to find out and inform us, Jones got paid only $225 for three days of work while Frances Dee as the heroine got $6,000.
Like the other structuring absences Nemerov finds in Lewton’s films and other Hollywood features of the same period—–such as the reality of a fugitive slave hunt suddenly obtruding in a rowdy slapstick sequence of Preston Sturges’s The Palm Beach Story—–this figures as a glimpse of a social reality too troubling to be confronted head on in films ostensibly designed to provide escapism, so it becomes artfully bracketed and strategically separated from the main story. The Sturges example occurs in the midst of the hilarious drunken revels of the Ale and Quail Club on a southbound train. To Nemerov, it “portrays slavery with a clarity so stunning it could only have been the product of the film’s complete misrecognition of its own energies. The train comes to a stop, and the Ale and Quail car is uncoupled. It is night, and we are somewhere in the South along the route from New York to Palm Beach. From the car we see the [black] bartender emerge, screaming and fleeing for his life, pursued by the gun-firing huntsmen and their baying hounds. This is the most direct representation of a fugitive slave hunt in the deep dark South in a Hollywood film of the 1940s, down to the last detail….[Yet only] the certainty that all is fun-filled and innocent can produce the perfected form of an amnesia that actually remembers.” Thus “the taboo social content that brings The Palm Beach Story to a stop…forced the plot, like the train, to cut off a part of itself to move forward.”
In other words, the detachable sliver of narrative finds some unexpected kinship with the seemingly detachable bit actor who, like Lewton himself, manages to triumph through a singular fusion of intensity with modesty. “No doubt there is an oddity to this process,” Nemerov writes of his own methodology in his Introduction, “to this sense of excitement as the minor player in the minor role in the forgotten or near-forgotten movie finally makes an appearance….But I trust, too, that there is something promising in this strangeness, for where but in the most overlooked corners, and in the briefest moments, does one expect to find something like the past?”