Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Leopard Man/The Ghost Ship: A Val Lewton Double-Feature

Val Lewton's films delved into the shadows of the human mind. The line between sanity and insanity is often a blurry one, obscured by the emotions and urges that exist deep within a person. What seizes a person to do strange and terrible things? When does simple fascination turn into obsession? How can responsibility and duty become corrupted into tyranny? Lewton chose to deal with such issues in The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship.

A sleepy New Mexico town hosts a traveling troupe of entertainers. The jealousy between a flamenco dancer and a singer ends up setting off a chain of events that leads to tragedy, and then to terror, as an escaped panther preys upon the helpless and innocent. Or does it? Sometimes the most obvious solution is not the correct one, and sometimes that solution is not born from logic.

The narrative of this film seemed to meander at first, moving from character to character. It soon became apparent to me that there was more to this randomness of the story than simple unfocused screenwriting. This was the flow of fate, the stream of destiny, or maybe a small tributary of the greater watershed of creation around and through which the lives of all pass, and, eventually, end. A simple act can flow down the stream of fate, touching and engulfing those in its path, a path that changes without rhyme or reason.

Those caught up in the floodwaters have no real connection: a young girl out on an errand and fearful of the dark; a trusting and naive young woman waiting for her swain in a seemingly peaceful cemetery; and the flamenco dancer herself, who diverted a stream of fate with her own thoughtless actions. Such is life, with random events linking strangers for eternity.

I said insanity was a theme of these movies, and that is true here. But it is also the capriciousness of even perfectly sane people that Lewton explores here, their insensitivity to their fellow humans often driving their actions. They may not be purely malicious, but they are cold and focused only on their own momentary whims. Like the small, sharp sound that can set off an avalanche, though, the slights that people perform on other folk can have dire consequences.

There is striking imagery here. Lewton's trademark deep shadows lurk, as always, and, as always, they lie just beyond our reach, but ever at hand. The panther itself is a shadow made ambulatory, poised to pounce. In tandem with the shadows, the silence hovers, an emptiness that puts the viewer on edge as they wait for that emptiness to be filled with something terrifying. I will also note a strange desert procession at the end of the film, a dream-like, somber parade that leads from life to death.

I was startled to see the revealed cause of the terror. The actual answer to the mystery was not that surprising, in itself; it was the nature of the cause. I'm trying to not spoil the ending, because it is worth discovering. I can only say that there are few movies of this vintage that deal with a phenomenon that has become far too terrifyingly common in our time. It's an unsettling end.

An idealistic young merchant marine officer boards a freighter in his first assignment as Third Mate. The captain takes him under his wing, providing lessons on authority and leadership. The captain's calm demeanor and resonant voice project an air of experience and command. Soon, though, the Third Mate begins to suspect the captain's tranquil air hides something far more sinister. But are the young officer's suspicions simply generated by a misunderstanding of what it takes to lead a crew and bear the responsibility of holding the fates of others in one's hands? Could it be the Third Mate's own actions and words that begin yet another chain of events that lead to what seems a fated conclusion, one in which the destinies of several others become entwined in a downward spiral?

This movie is the sleeper of all the Lewton films I've seen. I had never heard of it before, and certainly had never seen it. Afterwards, it preyed upon my mind. What caused the events to unfold the way they did? Had they been poised for years to fall out that way? Or was it a bolt from the blue, striking without warning?

The characters seem fully realized. Each has a history that has shaped them before the narrative of the film. The captain is a beloved figure. Distant he may be, but the loyalty of his friends and his crew is genuine. What of the Third Mate? Are his suspicions warranted, or are they a product of his own lonely background? He seems good-hearted and idealistic, but his life as an orphan may have made it hard for him to trust and accept the words of others. Even the minor characters are three-dimensional - the First Mate is a world-weary man, hiding a pain and emptiness that is never explained, but is assuredly present. The captain's woman friend, and prospective fiancee, is a realist, but she, too, has hidden elements to her, a long-submerged hopeful side that longs to finally be set free. These characters, and all the others, are so finely-drawn and well-acted that they add to the horror of what is to come. These are real people confronted with something that shakes the foundations of their lives.

In this movie, Lewton's ever-present shadows are overshadowed, so to speak, by an air of claustrophobia and isolation. The ship has few places to hide, and this only adds to the creeping madness that underlays the narrative. The cramped quarters heighten the desperation of an unusually brutal, for the time, fight at the end of the film. Inky darkness, flashing knives, and thrashing limbs make this struggle an art piece of violence. It, too, seems to erupt from nowhere, its violence something rarely seen in a Lewton film. The lack of room to move, and the obstacles in the room, make the fight much more gripping than the classic style at the time of roundhouse haymakers and balsa-wood chair-shattering. It is almost literally a knife fight in a closet, and it's all the more terrifying for that.

This movie bears repeated viewings. There seems more subtext than usual, even for a filmmaker like Lewton, whose films in general seem to have an entire subterranean existence beneath the surface narrative.

The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship seem a good pairing to me. They both show not a hint of the supernatural about them, as opposed to most of Lewton's other films, which usually are ambiguous about the subject. That lack of the paranormal does not hinder the frightening nature of the films. In fact, that lack, that reliance on the purely real, makes these films disconcerting in ways the others aren't.

1 comment:

  1. Both such classics. That walk home in Leopard Man: when the train rockets by and the shadows rapidly dance around her in the shadows - masterful stuff.