The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear


Have You Tried Val Lewton?

For nine years, starting in 1942, a remarkable string of low-budget films were produced at RKO Studios.  They were produced by Val Lewton, a Russian-Jewish emigre born as Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon.  He was the nephew of Alla Nazimova, the scandalous actress who played in Camille opposite Rudolph Valentino, as well the title character in the insane, all-Gay 1923 film of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, which you can see here.

After working for David O. Selznick, even contributing a scene or two to the script of Gone With The Wind, Lewton moved to RKO to head a unit charged with making B-pictures, i.e., movies intended for the second half of a double-bill. He was instructed to create films that would be competition for the horror classics coming out of Universal Studios (Frankenstein, The Wolfman, etc.) He was given a minuscule budget, sometimes as low as $100,000. He and his crew would tell the powers-that-be that the were working of projects like I Walked With A Zombie or The Curse of the Cat People.  Satisfied that Lewton and company were churning out cheap horror programmers, the money men left them alone.

This was perhaps Lewton’s  greatest stroke of genius.  By supplying lurid titles and, more importantly, delivering the movies on-time and under-budget, he was free to exercise a great deal of artistic freedom. The result is a group of surprisingly literate Hollywood films suffused with a magical Gothic sensibility.

Lewton’s early death from heart disease in 1951 at the age of 46 prevents us from knowing what A-pictures he would have surely been given to work on. However, what we do have are treasures.

The first of these movies is the landmark Cat People. Much has been made of the fact that limited funds forced Lewton to create his horror effects more by suggestion than by explicit special effects.  True, much is done with sound and shadows, but I think it would be selling Lewton and company short to suggest that economy was the only reason for the films looking and behaving the way they do.  Of the string of films we are discussing, Cat People is  one of the few with overtly supernatural elements. Up until the very end, whether what is happening is happening due to unearthly or psychological causes.  The story it tells ties the horror elements with an unmistakable sexual component.  However the treatment of the sexual component is much more subtle than the hilarious, over-the-top marketing of the time would suggest.

cat people

The walk through the park at night with its ominous footsteps, as well as the magnificently edited scene in the swimming pool makes this 73 minute a classic of the genre. It was directed by Jacques Tourneur, perhaps most famous for directing Out Of The Past, a film which is to Film Noir what Cat People is to horror.

Cat People  was a huge success and the money men asked for more of the same. Lewton delivered a sequel a few years later, not surprisingly called The Curse of the Cat People. Who knows what grisly images that title conjured up for the audiences of the time? Instead of more sexually-related cat delerium, we are given a touching story of a very misunderstood and confused child.  The horror here is not from another world. It comes from adults who fail to understand the child’s world and their complicity in creating the self-preserving fantasies she has created for herself.  It is extremely moving.

Once again the marketing folks had a field day with the title, basically ignoring what the film was about.


curse of the cat people

The films appeared quickly one after the other.  The best of them is probably The Isle of the Dead with a magnificent performance by Boris Karloff as a brutal Greek general whose superstition leads to tragedy when he is trapped on a cemetery island that is quarantined due to an outbreak of plague. No supernatural horror here, just the human horrors of prejudice and small-mindedness, with a dash of narcolepsy thrown in for good measure.

By far the strangest and most Gothic of the series has to be The Seventh Victim, a very strange and somewhat messy story of devil worshipers in Greenwich Village.  It contains a creepy shower scene that presages Psycho by a good 15 years. The meditation on suicide and living with your burdens, along with quotes by John Donne, ensure this is not your typical B-movie horror film. It looks gorgeous, too.

The most famous of the films, outside of Cat People, must be I Walked With A Zombie, a title to warm the hearts of the RKO moneymen. “That should pack ’em in!”  In actuality, it is a moody story of voodoo and family trouble in the fictitious Caribbean island of San Sebastian.  The night-walk through the sugar-cane to get to the voodoo temple is one of the most haunting sequences I know of. The movie doesn’t entirely work and though you will often hear that it was a variation of Jane Eyre, I don’t see it.  There is enough great stuff in this film. It doesn’t need the Bronte imprimatur.

Along with the so-called horror films, Lewton also produced a film based on a Guy De Maupassant story (Mademoiselle Fifi) ,  a spiffy Western (Apache Drums) as well as a the-trouble-with-kids-today film (Youth Runs Wild).

A complete list of the films follows.

All the films are worth trying.  I am curious to hear what you have to say.

If you found this interesting, please have a look at my general intro to Horror.

The Films:

Cat People (1942)
I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
The Leopard Man (1943)
The Seventh Victim (1943)
The Ghost Ship (1943)
The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
Mademoiselle Fifi (1944)
Youth Runs Wild (1944)
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Isle of the Dead (1945)
Bedlam (1946)
Apache Drums (1951)








The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Into The Woods (Rob Marshall)
  2. The Dallas Buyers’ Club (Jean-Marc Vallée)
  3. Young Törless (Volker Schlöndorff )
  4. Cría Cuervos  (Carlos Saura)
  5. The Home and the World (Satyajit Ray)
  6. A Lost Lady (Alfred E. Green)
  7. The 47 Loyal Ronin, Part I (Kenji Mizoguchi)
  8. The Chess Players (Satyajit Ray)
  9. The 47 Loyal Ronin, Part II (Kenji Mizoguchi)
  10. Ivan the Terrible, Part II (Sergei Eisenstein)


1- I was pleasantly surprised to see how well Into The Woods translated into film.  That said, what a morose piece of work it is. It would be a gem if it had ended at the first intermission.  But no, we must come back for a strong dose of Sondheim’s misanthropy and nihilism.   I am giving a lecture this fall at Purdue/Calumet entitled Richard Rodgers vs. Stephen Sondheim: The History of the Broadway Musical. Stay tuned for more

2- I had a great opportunity to think about books vs. their cinematic adaptations.  I read Rabindranath Tagore’s Home And The World, as well as Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady before watching the film adaptations of both books.  The films are as different as the books, and not in the way you would expect. Satyajit Ray’s The Home And The World is the work of one of the masters. Tagore was a huge influence on Ray.  His father was close friends with the Nobel Prize winner, and Ray himself studied at Tagore’s legendary academy. His film is a beautiful distillation of everything important in this very powerful book.  Of course, there are necessary deletions due to the natures of film and literature, but the movie has as much impact as the book, and it is obvious that it was made by someone with a  great love and reverence for the author and his work.

The film version of A Lost Lady, not so much. I am always surprised that there are so few films based on the author who I think is potentially the most filmable of writers. There are TV movies of O! Pioneers! as well as My Antonia, but that’s about it. Therefore, I was thrilled to see that TCM  was going to show a film version from the early 30s starring none other than Barbara Stanwyck. Well, it was amazing that they even bothered to call it A Lost Lady and mention Cather in the credits.  Besides a few character names and a few incidental plot points (not even major plot points!), the film had absolutely nothing, NOTHING, to do with the novel.  I just had this image of Cather attending the premiere and fleeing the theater in disgust.  Bottom line; read these masterpieces by Tagore and the Cather and see the Ray.

3- I had never seen Cría Cuervos , but I always imagined it would be as wonderful as my beloved The Spirit Of The Beehive.  I was sorely disappointed. But it sure was nice to see Ana Torrent again.

4- There are tons of Japanese films based on the legend of The 47 Loyal Ronin, known in Japan as Chushingura. Although much more recent, it seems to have the same impact on Japanese stage and literature as The Iliad and The Odyssey have in the West.  The Mizoguchi version is acknowledged as the best of the film versions.  It was made at the height of World War II, so it is hard not to read all that ‘dying for honor’ stuff as Imperialist propaganda. The mass suicide at the end is particularly unsettling when one thinks of the kamikaze. Still, there is enough irony to make it not as straightforward.  It is a gorgeous, slow film, both parts clocking in at just under four hours. The camera work is stunning.  After watching so much Ozu, it is impressive seeing so many dolly and crane shots.

5- The Chess Players is different from so much of the Ray I have seen recently.  It is from very late in his career. The level of irony, especially vis-a-vis the British, seemed new to me.

6- I actually enjoy things that most people regard as a chore.  I like to go grocery shopping, I like folding laundry and I like watching the films of Sergei Eisenstein.  I hadn’t seen the second part of Ivan The Terrible in years.  It is so much fun – but also it is a veritable lexicon on everything that goes into making a film.  The Criterion edition has a swell 30-minute feature put together by a University of Chicago professor showing just how meticulously it was put together.  I guess it’s time to watch Alexander Nevsky again.


Have You Tried The Criterion Collection?


When I first started reading classic literature, I got to know the indispensable Norton Critical Editions. These wonderful volumes contain the text of the work with copious footnote. In addition, they provide supplementary material like criticism contemporary to the work and from today, original source material, etc. The Norton version of War and Peace contains the text with footnotes, a ton of maps, letters by and to Tolstoy which shed light on the novel, along with a wealth of essays from the time the novel was published and later. Armed with the Norton Critical edition of War and Peace, you are ready with for a thorough and completely satisfying encounter with Tolstoy’s epic.

Criterion appeared in 1984 with the advent of laserdiscs. While several of the great ‘art house’ classics had appeared on VHS, now a huge number of previously unavailable classics of world cinema were now available in breathtaking editions.  The random-access capability of the laserdisc  was conducive to the concept of ‘extras’, and the Criterion editions really went to town with them.  In addition to beautifully restored prints of the film, we got the option of additional soundtrack, often a running commentary on the film by the director or a film expert. Relevant shorts, storyboards, poster art and other goodies were crammed into these discs, providing for film the same kind of experience for films that the Norton Critical editions provided for literature.

When DVDs replaced laserdiscs, the amount and quality of the ‘extras’ grew exponentially.  Multiple soundtracks, full-length documentaries, shooting scripts, production stills, interviews with the directors, stars and/or technicians who worked on the film provided a treasure chest for the film lover.  You could now encounter Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, for example,  armed with an apparatus similar to that which the reader of the Norton Critical edition of War and Peace had. Needless to say, the arrival of Blu-ray kicked the storage capacity through the roof.  You could now have a disc featuring a film that would also have a complete two-hour documentary as well as various historical TV interview, alternative soundtracks, music scores and the like all on one little disc.  The learning these discs afford you is seemingly infinite.

In addition to the Criterion label, the company has two subdivisions:

1- Essential Art House offers the quality Criterion prints of the films, but in a bare-bones presentation, i.e., no ‘extras’. So, you can buy the super-duper editon of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast with all the goodies, or just get the film itself without the frills in a beautiful print from Essential Art House. 

2-Eclipse offers bare-bones editions in box sets of films that aren’t featured on the main label or Essential Art House, but that the company feels should be out on DVD.  This gives us wonderful editions like a 5-disc edition of Late Ozu featuring films by that master not available anywhere else.

To give you a taste of the Criterion selections I have particularly loved, I went to my shelf and pulled off the first five that jumped out at me.

1- The Flowers of St. Francis (Roberto Rossellini)

 flowers of st. francis

Perfection. Gem-like. Hilarious. Reverent. Gorgeous. Raucous. Meditative.  All this in only 87 minutes. A good example of Criterion preserving a film that might otherwise have been forgotten. Should be pretty relevant viewing nowadays considering all the hub-bub surrounding the new guy in the Vatican.

2- Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi)


The greatest film ever made? Many say so.  Definitely one of the most exquisite looking and most heartbreaking. The Criterion edition is an embarrassment of riches. The two disc set comes with the film, another disc with wonderful interviews as well as a 2-hour plus documentary about Mizoguchi. There is also a 72-page booklet with essays on the film as well three stories that the film is based on.

3- Fanny And Alexander (Ingmar Bergman)

F& A

Do you also feel that the 3-hour theatrical release of Fanny and Alexander was way too short? Then this is the set for you! Along with the disc of the theatrical release, there is a two-disc set featuring the original 5-hour version that Bergman made for Swedish TV.  Five hours of pure heaven! In addition, you get a disc with a documentary on the making of the film, countless interviews with the stars and crew of the film as well as introductions that Bergman give for  11 (count ’em 11!) of his greatest film. That should take care of you!

4- The Music Room (Satyajit Ray)

Music room

The service that Criterion provides was brought home to me last week.  I had watched this DVD a few weeks ago and for some reason our local PBS station showed it in a very old, beat up print. Because the film is so magnificent, its greatness came through even in the bad copy. But then reviewing the DVD I realized that we can’t take Criterion’s curator role for granted!

5- When A Woman Ascends The Stairs (Mikio Naruse)

when a woman

This single disc had the greatest effect on me out of all the Criterion discs I have watched.  This came to me via a Netflix suggestion (‘If you liked The Seven Samurai why not try……’). It was a revelation. It set me off on my obsession with Naruse’s films and Japanese film in general.    Naruse is a master, up there with Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa. Unfortunately this is the only one of his sound films available in Region 1 (US) format. There is a 5-disc Eclipse set of Naruse silents.  We can only hope that more of this master’s work will be available soon from Criterion!

And while we’re at it, how about a Criterion edition of Jacque Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating?