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The Films of Val Lewton: ‘The Ghost Ship’ and ‘Curse of the Cat People’

The Films of Val Lewton: ‘The Ghost Ship’ and ‘Curse of the Cat People’

After The Seventh Victim‘s disappointing returns, Val Lewton and RKO clashed over their next project. Lewton wanted a comedy, provisionally titled The Amorous Ghost, as a change of pace; studio boss Sid Rogell, Lewton’s bete noir, insisted on a sequel to Cat People, which Lewton resisted. Then RKO suggested a Universal-style monster rally, They Creep By Night, reuniting villains from past Lewton pictures. Charles Koerner rescued Lewton from this absurd prospect by pitching a maritime thriller. “Call it The Ghost Ship,” Koerner ordered. Lewton also scored a big, though past-his-prime star in Richard Dix, an Oscar nominee for Cimarron (1931).

The result is equal parts The Sea Wolf and M, with a dash of Edgar Allan Poe. Tom Miriam signs on as third officer on the ill-starred freighter Altair, ruled by Captain Stone (Richard Dix). At first Stone merely seems strict, but his homilies about authority take on a sinister tinge when an outspoken crew member (Lawrence Tierney) meets a grisly end. Miriam airs his suspicions to company officials, who make him a pariah. Brought on the Altair‘s return voyage as a passenger, Miriam finds himself alone against the unhinged Captain – alone, except for the mute Finnish helmsman (Skelton Knaggs).

If The Ghost Ship has a failing, it’s that Lewton and screenwriter Donald Henderson Clarke pound the “authority” theme into us. Stone relishes his power of life and death over crew mates, noting that his crew’s too complacent or self-interested to resist. Yet his authority is either abused or fumbled; he botches a life-saving operation, then regards modest criticism as a license to murder. “Men are worthless cattle and a few men are given authority to drive them!” he thunders to Miriam, who resists his psychotic tutelage. It’s well-stated but a bit too emphatic.

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Ghost Ship

The Ghost Ship proves more effective in probing its cast. While Russell Wade is blandly likable, Richard Dix channels his natural stiffness into a chilling descent into insanity. Stone would be a monster if not for a brilliant interlude, where he confides to his lover (Edith Barrett) that he worries about going mad. He might even resist his urges if not for the accident that brings Miriam back onboard. There’s also Finn, a Fritz Lang character who sees everything but can’t convey it to his colleagues. The other crew members simply go with the flow. Even Sparks (Edmund Glover), the cynical radioman, rebuffs Miriam by saying, “I like my job and I want to keep it.” Unfortunately, indifference gives carte blanche to a psychopath.

Mark Robson again directs, and though the film’s cramped setting (a leftover set from Lew Landers’ Pacific Liner) offers less variety than The Seventh Victim, Nicholas Musaraca’s typically atmospheric photography compensates. Robson stages an incredible set piece early in the film, where Stone’s crew members try to wrangle a runaway anchor hook. It’s a remarkable, unconventional action scene, the camera diving out of the way as the hook smashes lifeboats and scatters sailors. The movie climaxes with a violent knife fight, ironically scored to Sir Lancelot’s jovial sea shanty.

Critics were divided whether The Ghost Ship was “a nice little package of morbidity” (Bosley Crowther) or a bomb, but audiences enjoyed it. Then playwrights Samuel R. Golding and Norbert Faulkner sued RKO for plagiarism, winning $250,000 and suppressing the film’s distribution. Yanked from theaters, Ghost Ship vanished for decades, turning up only on midnight television screenings, much discussed but rarely seen. Only in 1991, when the film fell out of copyright, could cineastes experience The Ghost Ship for themselves.

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Curse of Cat People

After two years’ resistance, Lewton finally assented to a Cat People sequel. Koerner slapped Lewton with a typically insipid title: The Curse of the Cat People. What followed was a brilliant subversion of studio prerogative: Lewton decided the “curse” was the impact of Cat People on its characters, particularly their reflection in Oliver and Alice’s daughter. Therefore, not a horror film at all, merely a gentle fantasy. Nonetheless, RKO insisted on marketing it as a monster movie. “The Black Menace Creeps Again!” promised the ads, baffling audiences who actually saw the movie.

The Curse of the Cat People focuses on Amy Reed (Ann Carter), the 7-year-old daughter of Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) and Alice Reed (Jane Randolph), the protagonists of Cat People. Amy’s a precocious girl who can’t relate to other children; she prefers imaginary friends to flesh-and-blood ones. This worries Oliver, who fears a repetition of Irena’s descent into madness. Amy befriends Mrs. Ferren (Julia Dean), an eccentric old woman living with her estranged daughter (Elizabeth Russell). Unable to connect with peers or parents, she’s also visited by Irena (Simone Simon), who promises to be her friend “for always.”

Lewton explores the perils and comforts of imagination. Amy’s earnest efforts to make friends backfire: she slaps a boy who accidentally crushes a butterfly, and leaves birthday invitations in a “magic mailbox” which turns out to be a tree. Only Irena, who knew the torment of all-consuming fantasy, can connect with her. Oliver’s trepidation comes out in harshness, culminating in a spanking; Alice indulges her daughter while teacher Mrs. Callahan (Eve March) encourages level-headedness. Curse also shows the dangers of prolonged fantasy; Mrs. Ferren, a former actress, is convinced her daughter is really dead, her caretaker an “impostor.”

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Curse of Cat People Parents

These mark Curse as Lewton’s most personal film. He incorporated anecdotes into the story: Irena tutoring Amy on mathematics resembles a game Lewton played with his daughter Nina. It’s also been suggested that Mrs. Ferren’s based on Lewton’s aunt, actress Alla Nazimova. Yet Nina often found Lewton harsh and domineering, more Oliver than Alice. “I’ve never quite managed to fit the two people together,” she said, “the man who was so wonderful to everybody else and the one who was so hard on me.”

Gunther Von Fritsch was Curse‘s original director; he was replaced halfway through production by Robert Wise, editor of Citizen Kane and previous Lewton flicks. Wise’s direction is fine, allowing Nicholas Musacara’s photography to take center stage. He beautifully evokes an idyllic small town, far from the original’s bustling New York, with masterful play of light in the Reed’s garden. Amy imagines the trees dancing with wind and sparkling with light as Irena materializes. There’s also an affecting climax when Amy trudges through a blizard, weighed down by snow and terrified by imagined ghosts. On top of everything else, it’s a beautifully shot movie.

And Curse‘s cast is exemplary. Ann Carter makes a perfect Amy, sweet, precocious and endearing. Kent Smith gives a more rounded turn than the original; Jane Randolph misses her snappy dialogue, but makes a warm, loving mother. Julia Dean and Elizabeth Russell (in her third Lewton flick) fare creditably in broader roles; Sir Lancelot again appears as the Reeds’ housekeeper. Best is Simone Simon: Irena’s been delivered from her earthly torment, emerging from “a place of great darkness and deep peace” as a benign, motherly spirit. Simon plays these scenes with heartbreaking conviction.

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Amy Ferren

Reviewers wrestled with the film’s content. John McManus called it “one of the nicest movies ever made” while Manny Farber felt it “lacks sufficient life in the significance of its insights.” James Agee initially complained that “there are quite a few failings of imagination and taste.” Evidently the film grew on Agee, who later ranked Curse among 1944’s best films, calling it “resolutely against the grain of all we have learned to expect from the big studios.” Horror fans hoodwinked by the title enjoyed Curse too: “They had been captivated by the poetry and danger of childhood,” Agee wrote, “and they showed it in their thorough applause.”

Curse‘s highest praise came not from filmgoers but psychologists, impressed by Lewton’s sensitive portrayal of childhood anxieties. UCLA’s child psychology department invited Lewton to lecture on the film shortly after its release; the Los Angeles Council of Social Agencies featured it in a seminar on films about children. Sociologist David Riesman praised it in his book, The Lonely Crowd, “for its accurate and touching depiction of childhood.”

Ultimately, Curse of the Cat People‘s greatest curse was its title. Robert Wise remembered “When we… showed it for groups of teachers and child psychologists, they all loved it and were mad about it, but both groups said ‘What in the world was it doing with that awful title?’ And of course the funny thing about it was that Curse of the Cat People started with a title.”