In Bedlam (Mark Robson, 1946), Val Lewton’s last production for RKO-Radio Pictures, there is a justly famous sequence in which a young boy – his body slathered in pure gold – must recite a speech for the aristocratic revellers of London’s Vauxhall Gardens. The Gilded Boy (Glenn Vernon) is an inmate of the local insane asylum, run by the cruel Master Sims (Boris Karloff), who has been beaten and trumped out for the amusement of the banqueters. In a brief close-up, his face visibly contorts as his throat convulses with the sheer bodily effort of speech. Sweating gold, he struggles to pronounce the rehearsed words trapped beneath his metallic veneer: “To this pretty world…pretty world”. His speech is eventually cut short when he collapses, dying, his skin having been asphyxiated by the gold paint.
The Gilded Boy suffers a paroxysm of silence. He typifies the struggle to express (whether it be cinematic, written or otherwise) the inner reaches of an embodied, situated experience – the effort it takes to find a language or “just-so” expression that will convey a phenomenology of feeling in its most proximate terms. For Yale art historian Alexander Nemerov, Val Lewton’s RKO horror films, produced between the years 1942 and 1946, pose a very similar issue. With startling critical acuity and lyrical film analyses, Nemerov argues that Lewton’s productions articulate the sadness, grief and public trauma of wartime, a meaning that is fossilised by their memorial icons of grief. For home front audiences, the war remained abstract, waged at a distance; a situation that was, in part, enhanced by the War Department’s censoring of images of the dead, wounded and battered bodies of American servicemen. Underneath official slogans of patriotism, good cheer and steely resolve, Nemerov suggests that Lewton brought home front audiences icons of grief that poignantly expressed the embodied trauma and sadness of the war. Although none of Lewton’s horror pictures are explicitly about World War II, it “appears in them all the same, even if we never catch a clear glimpse of it. Like a ghost moving through the house, it slams doors and tips over pottery…in movies celebrated for their portrayal of the unseen, the war is the singular invisible beast” (p.1).
Moody, sensuously atmospheric and shot through with a strong premonition of impending doom, critics as early as 1944 noted how Val Lewton’s so-called exercises in terror were “horror pictures with no horror to speak of” (p.2). Instead, we are presented with horror films pervaded by an overarching sense of melancholy and a haunting, almost poetic sadness. Visually arresting and innovative, they subtly unnerve rather than terrify with their intangible suggestions of the unknown. Think of Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942) when Irena (Simone Simon) assumes her cursed cat-form to stalk her rival, Alice (Jane Randolph), in a deserted swimming pool; as the watery light bounces off the walls, we get a fleeting glimpse of the prowling, growling shadow of a cat. Or, consider another standout sequence from I Walked With A Zombie (Tourneur, 1943) in which Betsy (Frances Dee) takes her catatonic charge, Jessica (Christine Gordon), on a nighttime journey to a voodoo ceremony. The scene possesses an almost palpable texture: the camera is restless in its mobility, the Haitian tropics seem to stretch on forever, you can feel the wind in the sugarcane, and the lyrical tension builds to a breaking point as Betsy and Jessica are met by the massive, motionless zombie Carre-Four (Darby Jones), standing guard at the houmfort.
For me, Lewton’s films speak loudly of the sensuous density of the cinema. The sweat, the caked make-up and the pained, swollen lips of the Gilded Boy are all material traces that my own viewing-body recognises and understands in their affective impact. As Nemerov writes of this sequence, the
gilded face thickens the screen, filling the image with skin, paint, lips, sweat, a layer of paint on the face as a second skin so thick, the actor [Vernon] said that it took him six hours to get it all off. While he wore it, he, like his character, had trouble breathing. (p. 138)
The Gilded Boy, for Nemerov, is one of Lewton’s many iconic images that work to arrest the narrative flow of his films, infusing them with a visual thickness in “tiny, frozen moments” that demand to be remembered and commemorate mourning (p.7). Lewton’s singular tension between iconic stasis and filmic mobility is highly significant for Nemerov, who identifies the repeated imagery of immobilised figures as recurring and specific to Lewton’s productions. The stillness of these icons is akin to that of a sculpture – images trapped in amber, as he suggests, drawing upon André Bazin’s discussion of photography – conveying a world of meaning in their petrified accumulation of details and, sometimes, with little to no dialogue.
The concept of the detail, then, is crucial. Lewton himself was something of a master detailist. He delighted in taking tiny things out of their larger, more grandiose contexts to re-use them for his own B-movie purposes: for instance, the staircase of Cat People was taken from The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942); pre-existing gowns and sets from Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (Leo McCarey, 1945) were used as needed and I Walked With A Zombie is Lewton’s own small-scale rendition of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Jane Eyre. On one level, such a cannibalising of details resulted from financial necessity. In 1942, the former story editor for Selznick was offered his own production unit at RKO that would entail artistic freedom, if… he produced horror titles, for RKO was desperate for a hit on the scale of the werewolves and vampires that had proved popular for Universal and Paramount; he adhered to the stricture of a $150,000 budget; he accepted titles gleaned from RKO marketing (Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie began as nothing more than titles); and he agreed to a salary of $250 per week (1). On another level, though, Lewton himself knew all too well the way in which details could be used to express bodily experience, emotion and the unsettling sensations of horror/trauma. Boris Karloff once captured this approach, saying:
Horror too often is played for revulsion. Val used to say that the audience is the most important actor in the theatre, if you give it a chance. Let the audience fill in the details, Val said. If you do everything for them, the power of suggestion doesn’t come into play…stimulate their imaginations… outline the details. (2)
The value of Nemerov’s study, too, clearly lies in the details and, more particularly, in his astonishingly intricate research. Traversing a wide range of historical sources as well as media (Norman Rockwell magazine covers, Russian iconic art, thirties anti-lynching imagery) and juxtaposing the Lewton icon with other wartime filmmakers like Vincente Minnelli, Preston Sturges and Elia Kazan, Nemerov brings to life the home front in all its atmospheric intensity – from the Rialto Theatre where Lewton’s films premiered in New York, to the seedy fun and chance encounters between servicemen and servicewomen in the jostle of Times Square, to the war as a crossroads in American racial politics, which signalled a history of violent subjugation and emergent African-American power. Because the detail is so important to the Lewton production, it is apt that it is in the “little scene, the bit player, the spare setting” that Nemerov finds his icons (p.7). The selected icons of grief – Simone Simon in Curse of the Cat People (Robert Wise and Gunther von Fritsch, 1944), Skelton Knaggs in The Ghost Ship (Robson, 1943), Darby Jones in I Walked With a Zombie and Glenn Vernon in Bedlam – create a “ripple of physical experience, the tiny morbidly life-worn detail” that speaks-in-stasis of the trauma of war (p.7). In a similar manner, Naomi Schor has argued for the importance of the detail as a corporeal, perhaps tactile mode of signification. As an often historically-derided aesthetic, the detail has been associated with both the superfluity and sensuality of baroque ornament and, in turn, gendered feminine. Yet, as Schor argues, details are nuances “situated just beneath the range of immediate perception or outside the field of perception altogether, in the shadowy, corporeal realm of the tactile” (3). Rather than situating the icon in, say, the generic iconography of horror, Nemerov brings to film a far more richly attenuated understanding of the icon that is invested in the specifics of a historical moment and the lived experience of the home front, attentive to “other ways of looking” that are grounded in the semiosis of the body and the elusive sensuality of Val Lewton’s war-time productions (p.9).
Although one might not agree with some of the more “stretched” interpretations of the Lewton icon by Nemerov – I cannot, for instance, see the Gilded Boy as a conscious critique of the Oscar statuette and the epic success typified by more grand-scale film productions – there is little doubt that Nemerov has contributed a singularly original and sophisticated critical study of Lewton. This is no mere task, given that Lewton is one producer who, even in the forties, was lauded time and time again as a B-movie virtuoso and still continues to inspire critical discussion (4). Given the sheer extent of Nemerov’s research and his attention to Lewton’s Russian Jewish background in forging a Russian iconology of mourning, I am surprised that nowhere in this monograph does Roland Barthes make an appearance. After all, Barthes was another great theorist of the detail and the minutiae of everyday life, speaking to its iconic importance in still and moving forms, as in his essay on (another Russian filmmaker, no less) Sergei Eisenstein, through a series of stills from Ivan The Terrible (1944 and 1958): “…I am still held by the image. I read, I receive (and probably even first and foremost) a third meaning – evident, erratic, obstinate” (5). The third meaning, excessive and sensuous, is where Barthes argues that the “filmic” in its materiality begins. He continues: “The filmic, then, lies precisely here, in that region where articulated language is no longer more than approximative and where another language begins” (6). Dedicated to wresting and detailing the phenomenology of feeling that pervades Lewton’s home front movies, Nemerov hints at just such a language, present in the commemorative stasis of Lewton’s icons of grief, which firmly brought the war back home.
Icons of Grief: Val Lewton’s Home Front Pictures, by Alexander Nemerov, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2005.
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- Mark A. Vieira, “Darkness, Darkness: The Films of Val Lewton”, Bright Lights Film Journal, no. 50, November, 2005.
- Naomi Schor, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine, Methuen, New York and London, 1987, p.28.
- See, for instance, J. P. Telotte, Dreams of Darkness: Fantasy and the Films of Val Lewton, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1985.
- Roland Barthes, “The Third Meaning”, trans. Steven Heath, in Image, Music, Text, Fontana, Glasgow, 1977, p.53.
- Barthes, p.65.