August 24, 1943 [Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man, The Seventh Victim]

My past keeps disappearing. I’ll look back at something that happened only two-three years ago, and it’s become a sort of constructed thing, cheap and clumsily outlined, grainy like an old photo left behind by a previous tenant. And even more recently: the names of people I’ve met, things I’ve been told: gone with only faint traces. I always have to be reminded of things, even though I find most of it important but still somehow distant from me.

And it’s not as simple as some kind of mental or physical debilitation. I think it’s how I’ve always seen life, as constantly receding, with a fleeting Now that can’t wait to join everything else back there in the thankfully forgotten corners. It’s often good for me: I want to live for today, to see what’s directly in front of me. So goodbye to yesterday, and good riddance, yes?

I’m not so sure: Over the past year I’ve watched a number of pictures that speak to this tendency of mine to let it go--and they have whispered that it’s me who’s fading, that I am not here right now, but am always slipping into that fading past. It’s as though my death were behind, not in front, and so to forget may be a blessing, but it’s also a harbinger.

It started with Cat People, with Simone Simon and her pointed cat-chin. At the end, when she unlocks the panther’s cage, she’s moving backward, into her bloodline, across an ocean as deep as the swimming-pool she stalks, her shadow coming in like T.S. Eliot’s fog, “on little cat’s feet.” And then down to the Caribbean in I Walked with a Zombie, the “glitter of putrescence” waiting offshore for the young woman, Jane Eyre among the undead. Next, Mexico and The Leopard Man--but it isn’t the Mexico of white sunlight and the noise of wind and sea and people laughing early, murmuring late in the sleepy night. No, this is all dusty shadow, the girl rushing along the empty street, the Thing invisible but gaining, her final cries muffled outside the door as we stand inside with her family and look down as a simple pool of black blood creeps into the room, home at last.

The opening line of H.P. Lovecraft's weird tale, “The Whisperer in Darkness,” tells us most of what we need to know: “Bear in mind closely that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end.” These movies’ producer, Val Lewton, understands this thoroughly; and he has gotten Jacques Tourneur--Maurice’s son, some kind of barehanded, simple genius--to join him in sculpting these studies in inevitability. Thank God they probably cost nothing to make, otherwise RKO would sweep them off the table like Welles--because Lewton and Tourneur are too much like him, too ready to turn their back on the audience--at least those of us who want to see It All--and they pull a trick: They do let us see--not what we thought we wanted, but what we need. And it ends up being hardly anything at all--but it is enough--no: it is more than we should see: our own lives passing away every day. I’m reminded of Paul Muni, the fugitive from the chain gang, calling out from the darkness. But the people--mostly women--in these little monster movies do not tell us they steal, but die, as quietly as the past moving behind.

And then today I watched The Seventh Victim--made without Tourneur, but still filled with shadowed corners. As in Cat People, Lewton has us walk recognizable city streets--but misted over, blank. I notice this often in the real world: the granite walls, once lying and buried in Indiana, carted to New York and Philadelphia and so on and forced to stand in the light. But as night falls they lean toward one another, the offices and shops, and their stone and marble cool and sink down, all but imperceptibly, dingy and smeared. The small lobby of an office building near dark gives me the strangest feeling, quiet but not at ease, the dust-motes hidden away, the frosted glass impassive. This is where Lewton goes, and to the smudged little rented rooms and restaurants half-below sidewalk level, touched with yellow light.

Skulking about this worn-out city is a sad little group of Satan-worshippers, quietly yearning for an amoral life but unwilling to be evil--instead content to keep up a half-hearted love affair with death. This marks all of these movies: the solemn approach to the grave, whether as big cat or glass-eyed zombie--or just a staring woman, her face composed, allowing herself to be the seventh victim; she “had a feeling about life; that it wasn't worth living unless one could end it”--and she does. Like Tom Conway’s Dr. Judd, Lewton’s hero-victims can choose either staircase, left or right--but they prefer the left, “the sinister side.”


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