This Pretty World: The Films of Val Lewton

This Pretty World: The Films of Val Lewton

When I met Ann Carter in 2007 during the filming of a documentary about Hollywood producer Val Lewton, she was seventy years old, more than six decades removed from her starring role in Lewton’s The Curse of the Cat People. The experience was beyond my dreams: meeting a person who knew Lewton, a filmmaker I love, and meeting this person above all—the star of a movie that touches me every time I see it. Despite its lurid title (assigned by the studio), The Curse of the Cat People is a dreamy and poetic tale about Amy, an imaginative young child played by Carter, who is punished for the beauty, delicacy, and poignancy of her melancholy reveries. Lewton, who produced the film, was like her.

The Curse of the Cat People

Born Vladimir Hofschneider in Yalta, Russia, in 1904, he emigrated to the United States with his mother and sister when he was five years old. Growing up in Port Chester, New York, he claimed he saw lions in the woods and indulged in other vivid fantasies right from the start. He mailed the invitations to his sister’s birthday party by placing them in the hollow of a tree, imagining that the hollow really was a mailbox, just as Amy places invitations to her own party in such a hollow in the movie. As a teenager, he worked as a newspaper reporter in Connecticut and soon got himself fired for making up a news story about a truckload of chickens dying in a heat wave. Undaunted, he went into pulp fiction in his twenties and wrote a series of trashy but erudite novels in the early 1930s—among them, The Fateful Star Murder, No Bed of Her Own, Yearly Lease, 4 Wives, Where the Cobra Sings, and This Fool, Passion. Using a variety of pen names including Carlos Keith, Herbert Kerkow, and Cosmo Forbes, as well as Val Lewton, he came to the attention of David O. Selznick, the most powerful producer in Hollywood, who hired him in 1936 to be his story editor. Six years later, RKO Studios hired Lewton to produce B horror films. No stranger to doing things quickly (he wrote his pulp novels by checking into cheap hotel rooms for a weekend), Lewton produced nine such films for RKO (eleven overall) in a four-year period that began in 1942, starting with Cat People, followed by I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man, and culminating in Bedlam. The Curse of the Cat People, released in spring 1944, was the sixth.

In the first scene of Cat People, a character points to a don’t-litter sign—“Let no one say, and say it to your shame, that all was beauty here, until you came.” The placard is like a note from Lewton to himself as he embarked on his movie-making career: don’t make a lot of garbage. But his idea was that trash is beauty, that what we throw away as ugly and misshapen and forgettable actually radiates with a sad loveliness. The fashion designer Irena, in that first scene in Cat People, tears up one of her drawings after another, dissatisfied with her work, before finally leaving a last ripped and failed picture littered on the ground. The camera dwells on this torn and discarded drawing—a weird image of a leopard-like cat impaled by a saber—because it is a sign of Lewton’s own art, the pictures he himself made, the stuff of a special and disposable grace that even the artist himself threw away as not good enough. Yet in this trash Lewton knew an unlikely beauty blooms.

Cat People

“Haunting images appear for only a few seconds, stamping themselves indelibly on our memories, our waking perceptions, our dreams.”

“His pathos of stillness portrays a grief that most other wartime American movies conspire to forget.”

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