By Jason Persse
In conjunction with Scorsese Collects, an exhibition of selections from the Scorsese Poster Collection, MoMA’s Department of Film has organized Scorsese Screens, featuring films represented in the poster exhibition along with some of the Scorsese titles they influenced.
“I like the dark. It’s friendly.” –Irena (Simone Simon), in Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People
As a child of the 1980s, my road to the work of Jacques Tourneur and Georges Franju began with skinny, blonde, British rockstars.
April 1982: the director Paul Schrader releases Cat People, an “erotic thriller” starring the very attractive Nastassja Kinski. But not even my accidentally permissive father was taking a seven-year-old to an erotic thriller starring a half-naked German model, so my only exposure to the film was through the David Bowie-Georgio Moroder hit “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” (which recently enjoyed a second life in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds). That song’s tenuous relationship to a low-budget 1942 horror classic, however, would elude me for several years.
Over the course of less than two years, director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton made three low-budget horror films for RKO Pictures that, as Martin Scorsese points out in A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, presaged the disenchantment and shadowy atmospherics of film noir. (Scorsese calls Tourneur “the first master of esoterica.”) The first—and certainly my favorite—of the trio is Cat People, starring Simone Simon as a Serbian woman who becomes convinced that her physical desire for her American husband triggers a kind of folk curse that turns her into, well…a panther. The metaphor may not be subtle, but everything else about the film is.
Tourneur famously said, “The less you see, the more you believe.” This approach to suspense was both effective and economical; Cat People, one of the most chilling films of the 20th century, was made on a budget of around $134,000. Consider one of the film’s most famous sequences:
That’s a big scare from some shadows, some trees, and a bus. If this kind of shock seems old-hat, that’s because Tourneur and Lewton originated the technique: today it’s referred to as a “Lewton bus” (and, appropriately, it was a progenitor of the now-ubiquitous “cat scare”).
Scorsese again: “Common to all of Tourneur’s films was a muted disenchantment, a strange melancholy, the eerie feeling of having embarked on an adventure from which there was no return.”
I Walked with a Zombie (1943), the second installment in Tourneur and Lewton’s unholy trinity, recounts just such an adventure. When the catatonic wife of a Caribbean plantation owner is failed by Western medicine, her nurse (Frances Dee) pursues the next logical step in treatment: a visit to the island’s preeminent voodoo priest. What follows is a dreamlike trip through the looking glass, replete with “native” ritual and the meandering undead—zombi—though, as in Cat People, the film never explicitly confirms any supernatural goings-on. For Tourneur and Lewton, there are always more than enough monsters buried in the human psyche—so why bother trotting out a rubber monster?
Tourneur’s use of shadow reached its apotheosis in the least “heavy” of his RKO fright-fests, The Leopard Man (1943), a relatively straightforward thriller about a series of grisly deaths that may or may not be attributable to an escaped panther. Despite it’s brief running time (a mere 67 minutes!) and economy of means—the leopard from Cat People costars once again—The Leopard Man manages to pack in two of the director’s most arresting scenes: a terrifying sequence under a train overpass, and a surreal chase through a penitente parade. Of the latter, the author and screenwriter Barry Gifford writes, “Lewton and Tourneur knew precisely how to make the innocent and obvious seem strange and unknown. Submitting yourself to them is like giving yourself over to a leering hypnotist and his hunchback dwarf assistant.”
November 1983: the human snarl known as Billy Idol softened his image with the plaintive “Eyes without a Face,” in which a female chorus sings the refrain, “Les yeux sans visage.” It would be almost a decade before I realized they were intoning the title of a then-obscure 1960 French horror film that had been released in the U.S. (in 1962) under the not-at-all-exploitative title The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus.
It wasn’t until high school that I got my hands on a VHS copy of Eyes without a Face and, still a few years shy of the requisite espresso-and-Jean-Paul-Sartre stage, dismissed it as super-weird and creepy but not nearly scary enough.
To be fair, it’s easy to understand how the film’s true charms are slightly beyond the grasp of your average high-schooler. Only the French, after all, would seek to capitalize on the burgeoning European horror craze by hiring a documentarian and cofounder of the estimable Cinémathèque française to direct a lurid B movie about a mad scientist who murders women in an attempt to restore his own daughter’s accident-damaged face. Heavily influenced by both Surrealism and German Expressionist film, and featuring a carnival-from-hell score by Maurice Jarr, this is decidedly not a typical American drive-in shocker.
Just as budgetary constraints had inspired Tourneur and Lewton to new heights, stringent French and British censorship guidelines forced Franju and the screenwriters to “mask” (sorry) aspects of their story in inspired ways. Essentially tasked with making a murderous-mad-scientist movie with very little blood and no mad scientists, they shifted the focus to the scarred daughter (played by Edith Scob). The result is a horror movie seen through a funhouse mirror, tinged with pathos and a heaping spoonful of bleak Continental humor.
All four posters pictured in this post are currently on view in MoMA’s theater galleries. Eyes without a Face screens on Friday, August 21, and Monday, August 24; Cat People screens on Saturday, August 22, and August 24; I Walked with a Zombie screens on August 22 and Tuesday, August 25; The Leopard Man screens on August 22 and Wednesday, August 26. Tickets are on sale now.