Val Lewton at RKO: Zombies and Cat People

Simone Simon as Irena in Cat People (US 1942)

These notes were produced for a Zoom event during the Covid Lockdown of April 2020. The three films discussed here, Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie and The Curse of the Cat People are all available on BBC iPlayer in the UK as part of the collection of RKO titles held in perpetuity by the BBC. See also the notes on Suspicion (US 1941). This is a 3,300 word posting.

Val Lewton (1904-1951)   

One of the heroes of Studio Hollywood, Lewton is almost forgotten now outside the coterie of horror fans and followers of Turner Classic Movies in the US. But he is definitely worth remembering. Born in Yalta he migrated with his family to the US in 1909. He studied journalism at Columbia University in New York and wrote extensively, including a successful novel in 1932 when working as a publicist. But when subsequent novels didn’t sell so well he travelled to Hollywood and got a job as a publicist at MGM and assistant to David O. Selznick. His work with Selznick helped to get him an important job at RKO in 1942 as head of a new ‘B’ Movie Unit.

Val Lewton (left) with Mark Robson, one of his directors, in a screening room

What is a ‘B Movie’?

The term ‘B Movie’ implies that there is an ‘A Movie’ which will be of greater importance. That’s the problem with the term and why it is most often used in a pejorative sense. But ‘B Movies’ do not have to be inferior or ‘low quality’. It’s important to understand why they existed.

‘B Movies’ are a product of the so called ‘studio systems’ of Hollywood and the UK and possibly of other major film industries that existed in the period roughly 1930s-1960s. Though they worked in slightly different ways, both the US and UK film industries, which for most of this period served the two most valuable film markets globally, shared certain characteristics. The most important was that vertically-integrated studios dominated the film business. The ‘Big 5 major Hollywood studios’ made films, distributed them and exhibited them in their own cinemas. This enabled them to reduce costs and to have at least the possibility of avoiding heavy losses if they could keep their own cinemas supplied with ‘product’. They owned the biggest and most important cinemas in the largest cities where ticket prices were highest.

In both countries, studios  planned to offer a full programme of a feature film, newsreel, cartoons and various forms of other short features to make up a complete ‘evening at the pictures’. In the UK this was referred to as a ‘Full Supporting Programme’. At various points in film history, programming two feature-length films together became the norm. In the US this was started by smaller independent cinemas during the 1930s to offer something extra to entice audiences during the depression. The majors then felt obliged to respond. The studios could either make their own second features or buy something in from the smaller studios. Both options were followed because there were some advantages to making a second feature ‘in house’. Thus the birth of a two-tier structure. The majors made around 30-40 ‘A’ features for their own cinemas, buying in a few independent productions, but how would they organise ‘B’ feature production?

The Hollywood majors tended to operate a form of ‘unit production’. The details varied between studios but the basic idea was that a team of producers/writers/directors and contract players would focus on making similar films over a period of time. This allowed a certain amount of cost saving and a build-up of specific expertise. Studio facilities were a fixed asset that needed to be used as much as possible to spread costs. In the classic example of the ‘B’ Western, the unit worked on a studio ranch and delivered a film every few weeks. Other similar units produced detective/crime films. To illustrate the difference between ‘A’ and ‘B’, the Sherlock Holmes films provide a good example. 

20th Century Fox made two Holmes films with ‘A’ budgets and experienced directors. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson were joined in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) by Ida Lupino in a story set in the late 1890s. The film was a commercial and critical success, as was The Hound of the Baskervilles in the same year. Both productions were overseen by the studio’s production chief Darryl F. Zanuck. But then, for various reasons, Fox decided to let their rights to the characters expire and Rathbone and Bruce were eventually persuaded to work on a third Holmes film at Universal. Released in 1942 this then led to 11 more films in a series spanning 1942-46. These were updated to ‘present-day stories’ and were given only ‘B’ picture budgets, which arguably explains their shorter running times (60—70 minutes) and less spend on artwork. Most were directed by Roy William Neill who had begun directing in the UK on the British equivalent of the ‘B’ picture. The budgets would be lower anyway since Universal was a ‘mini-major’ which did not own its own cinema chain and had to sell the films to one of the Big 5 majors to show in their first-run houses. Despite the low budgets, the Holmes films were popular as the long run suggests.

The B picture could also be seen as a training ground for directors, writers and younger actors. Training worked both ways. For the personnel it was a way of learning on the job and trying out new ideas but it also helped the studio by inculcating good practices for efficient production.

RKO and Val Lewton

RKO was the weakest of the five majors, only just ahead of ‘mini-major’ Universal in terms of annual profits. The studio had been successful in the 1930s with the Astaire and Rogers musical comedies and had developed stars like Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. It was also distributing the films of Walt Disney. But in 1941 it was in even worse shape than usual with heavy losses arising partly from the commercial failure of Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre group who made Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons which was was heavily cut by the studio. A change in RKO ownership and management then saw Welles depart. Kane and Ambersons were hits with critics, but not big enough box office hits to make profits. (See this other post on the history of RKO.)

RKO management decided to cut their losses by appointing Lewton to head a new ‘B’ unit focusing on horror pictures (and therefore targeting the fans of Universal’s horror films in particular). RKO had a history of focusing more on lower budget films than the other four majors. While Metro, Warners, Paramount and Fox spent over $500,000 on the majority of their features, RKO reversed the ratio and focused on budgets below $500,000. The problem for RKO was that the business understanding in Hollywood assumed that to make big profits you had to spend big. Many of the costs of distribution and exhibition were fixed, so low budget films cost proportionately more to actually screen in cinemas. On the other side, cinema managers and audiences often rejected the idea of films without major stars and lavish sets. Lewton, who was essentially a writer who had recently worked for the independent producer David O’Selznick, was given a difficult brief.

The deal was simple. Lewton received a relatively small salary of $250 per week and had just three instructions from senior management. (1) He would be given the titles of films as selected by the Marketing Department who had surveyed horror fans. (2) All the films must be 75 minutes or less. (3) He was not to spend more than $150,000 on each film. 

Nicholas Musuraca

But Lewton did have some advantages. He had access to a range of RKO contract staff and some of them were exceptionally talented. The cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca is now acknowledged as one of the Hollywood greats who somehow ‘stayed beneath the radar’, partly because most of his long career was spent at RKO, shuttling between ‘A’ and ‘B’ pictures. Born in Italy, Musuraca migrated to the US as a teenager and was working as a cinematographer as early as 1922. In 1940 he photographed what has often been thought of as the first Hollywood film noir, Stranger on the Third Floor, a low-budget RKO film starring Peter Lorre. Musuraca defined RKO’s noir style and worked on many similar examples including arguably the greatest noir, Out of the Past (1947). He was the perfect cinematographer for Lewton and shot five of Lewton’s films at RKO.

Just as important, especially on films with low budgets, is an imaginative and experienced art director/set designer. Alberto S. D’Agostino had been working in Hollywood consistently since 1928 and in 1941 after moving between studios he settled at RKO working on Hitchcock’s Mr and Mrs. In 1942 no less than 35 RKO releases featured his work including The Magnificent Ambersons and then Cat People. The staircase from Ambersons would then turn up in both Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People (1944). D’Agostino won 5 Oscar nominations for his work.

Jacques Tourneur

The director of both Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie was Jacques Tourneur. Like Musuraca, Tourneur was another underestimated artist in Hollywood. The son of French director Maurice Tourneur, Jacques had made films in France before moving to Hollywood in 1934 (he’d also  been in America as a teenager, getting access to the film industry when his father worked on silent American films). His Hollywood career from 1936  for the next eight years comprised short films, both documentary and fiction for MGM and eventually four ‘B’ features. He proved very effective and clearly learned how to operate quickly and efficiently within the Hollywood studio system. The shorts unit was not ‘policed’ by the studio front office and he was able to experiment with new production ideas. But perhaps his most significant work was as a second unit director on David O. Selznick’s A Tale of Two Cities (1935). Val Lewton was Selznick’s story editor and producer on the second unit staging the ‘Storming of the Bastille’. Tourneur and Lewton got on very well. Tourneur suggested later that he was the pragmatist and Lewton was the idealist. Lewton recognised the strength of their partnership and hired Tourneur for his first two productions at RKO. 

Robert Wise had been first an assistant to sound and film editors at RKO in 1934-5 and then a film editor from 1939 on major films such as Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Mark Robson had similarly been a film editor at RKO, starting as an assistant on Kane and Ambersons and then editing three of Lewton’s productions before directing the last five of Lewton’s RKO reign.

Roy Webb worked for RKO as a music composer from the late 1920s through to 1955. He was one of the great music composers of Studio Hollywood, though never as well-known to audiences as the others (he was nominated 7 times for Oscars, but never won). His 1940s work on Lewton’s films and a range of thrillers and films noirs is generally recognised as his strongest work. DeWitt Bodeen worked as writer on two of the three Lewton films discussed here. He had been hired by Lewton when Lewton was working for Selznick on Jane Eyre, released in 1943. DeWitt had written a play ‘Embers of Haworth’ so it was strange that he didn’t work on I Walked With a Zombie. Because Lewton himself was a writer, it must have been quite difficult for the writers he hired. Lewton always worked on the final script and often contributed to the original story. He was very ‘hands on’. 

Lewton made 11 films at RKO before leaving in 1946 after another RKO re-organisation. He made only three further films and died in 1951 aged only 46.

The films

Cat People (1942)

RKO’s new bosses clearly hoped to go back to the kinds of successful horror films made at Universal in the early 1930s. Something like the Wolfman (1941), which had recently updated the earlier 1935 Werewolf of London would have suited them. Lewton knew he had to make something quickly on a low budget and so he crucially decided there would be no ‘cat people’. Irena is a Serbian woman in New York, frightened because an ancient myth suggests that she may turn into a dangerous panther if sexually aroused. But we never see such a transformation. Director Tourneur implies the danger to both Irena and the characters who might trigger such a transformation only by way of sound effects, shadows and a few shots of a black panther. The plot hinges around Irena’s meeting with architect Oliver Reed whose assistant Alice is in love with him.

In a photography studio in Cat People. It isn’t difficult to understand why RKO became the studio most associated with noir lighting and cinematography (here by Musuraca)

Despite its low budget, the film did have a star in the form of Simone Simon. The French star of 1930s films such as Renoir’s La bête humaine (1938) had made it to the US but was finding life difficult in Hollywood so she did not command a large salary. Tourneur brought the film in on time and under budget and it was released on Christmas Day 1942. At first the reviews were mixed and RKO were not sure the new experiment had worked. But the film had ‘legs’ and it moved into profit (it was screened as an ‘A’ picture in some locations). Figures are notoriously difficult to verify from the 1940s but some reports suggest that the film eventually made $4 million in North America. Others have suggested that Lewton’s unit helped RKO to move back into profit in 1943.

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

This is arguably the most ambitious production of the three and perhaps the most striking example of Tourneur’s use of camerawork and Webb’s music (plus sound effects). Musuraca was not available for this shoot and J. Roy Hurt, a veteran of RKO ‘B’ pictures, was the cinematographer. This appears to be a good indication of how a studio style can be developed and applied by contract personnel. 

Again, there is a deliberate attempt to move away from the expectation of a conventional horror film. The script picks up carefully on the origins of the ‘zombi’ stories from Haiti in which local people could be ‘zombified’ to act as compliant workers in the sugar cane fields. These legends have received some attention by scholars of various kinds and they are explored in the recent French arthouse film Zombi Child (France 2019).

James Ellison and Frances Dee on the atmospheric set of I Walked With a Zombie

The island of St. Sebastian is fictitious and was created in the RKO studio and on the beaches of Southern California. There is a suggestion that it is/was a British colony and the original lead was to have been the noted British actor Anna Lee who was working in Hollywood but became unavailable. Francis Dee was cast as Canadian, preserving some of the ‘Britishness’. Tom Conway, brother of George Sanders, plays the plantation owner and Sir Lancelot is the local calypsonian. The British angle also fits Lewton’s attempt to persuade the writers to think of the story as inspired by the idea of a prequel to Jane Eyre – pre-dating Jean Rhys and The Wide Sargasso Sea by 20 years. Ironically, the screenwriter Lewton selected was Curt Siodmak, brother of the director Robert Siodmak and the writer of The Wolf Man. Lewton seems to have moved Siodmak into different territory on this script.

The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Expressionist lighting for this 2-shot of Simone Simon as Irena and and Ann Carter as Amy Reed in The Curse of the Cat People

This film stands out as the production on which Lewton ‘broke’ the rules set up for the unit. This time he moved as far as possible from the set title. The film is a sequel only in the sense that the three central characters return from Cat People. Oliver and Alice are now married with a little girl, Amy. Irena is dead but her ghost appears to Amy who accepts her as her imaginary friend. An intriguing casting decision sees Sir Lancelot appearing as the house servant for the Reed family. His beautiful diction and all round demeanour provides a stark contrast to the representation of African Americans in Hollywood at the time.

The story is about Amy, an introverted child whose imaginary friend is a great comfort. This is a concern for her parents as Amy has little contact with her schoolfriends. But she does have contact with an older woman who lives in a dark and mysterious house and who has a difficult relationship with her own grown-up daughter. The film is essentially a psychological drama focused on Amy. It isn’t a horror film at all, though it might be categorised as a fantasy. 

The story is set in Tarrytown, New York State which features the area known as ‘Sleepy Hollow’, the location for a gothic story written by Washington Irving and published in 1820. Sleepy Hollow is renowned for ghosts.

Lewton worked extensively on this story which was influenced by his own background. He had an imaginary friend as a child and he grew up close to Tarrytown and was fond of ghost stories. He also had problems with his first director, the debutant Gunther von Fritsch who had completed only half the film when the allotted studio time ran out. Lewton then turned to another début director, Robert Wise who completed the film successfully but it was now considerably over budget at $212,000. Studio bosses were not pleased with the final film and it got some negative reviews and poorer box office results than Cat People. However, it did have supporters and its reputation has grown over time. It is now recognised as one of Lewton’s best films. 

The legacy

These three films and others in the Lewton portfolio have been re-released several times and have been an inspiration to filmmakers in many parts of the world. Cat People in particular has been used as a study guide for creating suspense through the use of shadow and sound effects.

Perhaps the biggest tribute to the impact of the films came from MGM in the form of the Vincente Minnelli melodrama, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). This prestige picture (it won 5 Oscars) is about a notorious Hollywood producer who treated various people very badly in his rise to the top. In one scene he is shown working on a ‘B’ picture about ‘cat men’ and demonstrating to the director how they can make an exciting film for next to nothing. The producer (played by Kirk Douglas at his hardest and most dynamic) uses all the ideas found in Cat People.

Cat People has been preserved by the Library of Congress and it was remade in 1982 by Paul Schrader with Nastassja Kinski as Irena. The story was changed significantly. Schrader said he didn’t think much of the 1942 version. His version wasn’t successful.

What happened to ‘B’ pictures?

‘B’ pictures were dropped by the majors in the early 1950s for several reasons. Firstly, when they were forced to give up their cinema chains by anti-trust actions (the ‘Paramount Decree’, 1948) they decided to focus on fewer but more expensive films. This was also a response to loss of audiences to TV and other attractions. The studio system was beginning to collapse and increasingly the majors were funding independent producers to make pictures. Finally, the smaller studios themselves were making more and more expensive films themselves.

Many of the studio ‘B’ units became the basis of new TV production companies (some owned by the majors). ‘Desilu’, the TV company founded by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, eventually bought the sound stages of RKO Pictures in Culver City in 1957.

Lewton was perhaps ahead of the game since it looks as if many of his films were released at the ‘top of the bill’ – i.e. as ‘A’ films. A ‘B’ picture might be sold at a fixed price whereas an ‘A’ picture made more money when more people came to see it.

Background Reading

This web essay about Nicholas Musuraca is a very useful resource:

https://ascmag.com/blog/johns-bailiwick/nicholas-musuraca-cat-people-and-rko-film-noir

An essay on Cat People from The Criterion Collection

https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/4228-cat-people-darkness-betrayed

Fujiwara, Chris (1998) Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, Macfarland and Co. Jefferson NC and London

Roy Stafford   30/4/20

Looking for Light: Jane Bown (UK 2014)

A self-portait of Jane Bown from the 1970s (when she started using the Olympus-M1 camera)

(All the images in this post are by Jane Bown and ©Jane Bown Estate or the Guardian/Observer)

Currently streaming on MUBI, this is a documentary about the legendary photographer who spent most of her working life at the Observer Sunday newspaper. MUBI has ‘programmed’ it in a strand entitled ‘Portrait of an Artist’. This places Jane Bown in the company of some much more flamboyant artists such as David Lynch, whereas she was seemingly a shy and mysterious figure, though also dogged in her quest for the best portrait she could produce of celebrities profiled in the Observer. The documentary-makers Michael Whyte and Luke Dodd present Looking for Light in a simple format of interviews conducted at points towards the end of Bown’s life (she died aged 89 in December 2014) and witness statements by ex-colleagues and public figures who have been photographed by Bown. Interspersed and against a black background, Bown’s photographs are presented ‘full screen’ (mostly portrait-shaped in a standard 1.85:1 frame). Bown nearly always worked in black and white, using only available light to produce very strong images. The images are presented without sound and must have looked even more impressive on a cinema screen.

One of Jane Bown’s best-known images. This portrait of Samuel Beckett was one of just three shots Bown was able to capture as he exited the stage door of the Royal Court in 1976.

Jane Bown had a ‘difficult’ childhood. She never knew her father who died when she was five. Her mother was a private nurse and Jane was brought up by various aunts – or ‘aunts’, one of whom was her mother. This family background is explored by Jane and her son Hugo in the documentary. However, her family life during her career at the Observer is kept mostly under wraps. She had a long marriage to the influential retail fashion executive Martin Moss and at home she was known as ‘Mrs Moss’. At the Observer she was always ‘Jane Bown’. Her childhood is discussed partly because it might explain aspects of her unique work practices. For instance, as a teenager she would often attach herself to other families or groups, enjoying being in the background. When she attended the only Photography course available after she was demobbed from the WRNS in 1946 her shyness might have resulted in failure to succeed but she did produce a few outstanding photographs which eventually led to her first work for the Observer in 1949 – the daunting task of producing a portrait of the philosopher Bertrand Russell, then one of the best known figures in the UK.

The interviews tend to focus on Bown’s shyness and her very distinctive approach to her work. She became part of the ‘family’ culture under the editor David Astor (whose family formerly owned the paper but placed it in the hands of Trustees). This connection does perhaps suggest a kind of ‘cosy’ upper middle-class conservatism and Jane Bown  was at least economically and socially ‘comfortable’. But she also developed her photographic practice and honed it to perfection. It involved little preparation about the subject, but attention to detail with her search for available light and the opportunity to ‘catch’ her subject in a natural pose. She generally took a roll or two of 35mm film images in less than half an hour and often just 10 to 20 minutes. I don’t want to discuss the practice in detail here but there are various web sources that do this and these are recommended: Luke Dodd wrote an obituary, you can see many of the photos on the Guardian gallery and this entry on PhotogpediA is very useful, with further links. (See also this entry on Anatomy Films.)

A member of station staff at Earl’s Court station on the District Line, c.1960

Doing further research on webpages like the above, I discovered that Bown’s early photography that did not become well-known until an exhibition and an accompanying book entitled Unknown Bown 1947-67 appeared in 2007. Some of the images from the exhibition appear in the 2014 film. When she started on her photographic career, Bown was not interested in famous people as subjects, instead she was pre-occupied by ‘space and texture’. This resulted in images that sometimes show unnamed people in slightly odd situations, some at work. The best seem to me to be almost Bert Hardy-like and to be valuable documentary images of British society. I would like to have known a little more about this time of Bown’s life as some of these images are terrific.

Mill hands in Rochdale going to a byelection hustings in 1958

I read the Observer during the 1970s and 1980s so many of the portraits seem familiar and certainly the style. I knew the name Jane Bown and I think I appreciated the work at the time. Now many of the photographs seem very rich in meaning. Germaine Greer, who introduced the Unknown Bown in 2007, linked Bown to the approach of Cartier-Bresson in finding the ‘decisive moment’ when she went off on her travels to find interesting subjects – often children. Bown at that time worked with a Rolleiflex, the camera of choice for art photographs.

Björk in 1995

Watching the 2014 film now with its stretch back over 70 years of creating images, I wonder if the world of photography and image-making has changed fundamentally again in the last eight years? What would a young woman interested in becoming a photographer in 2022 make of Jane Bown’s career and her portfolio? Apart from the technological changes in photography, it must be difficult to appreciate the changes in the concept of ‘celebrity’ and the circulation of images produced by citizen journalism. The other issue is the extent to which Jane Bown was ‘unrecognised’ during her career, because she was a woman? I’m not sure about this. I suppose the highest profile figure as a female photographer for me in the 1970s/80s was Annie Leibovitz as chief photographer on Rolling Stone magazine. Later on in the 1990s I remember working on aspects of an exhibition by Nancy Honey in Bradford. I think that there were successful women in photography but they were ‘exceptional’ and not necessarily particularly ‘sisterly’ towards other women. There is a sequence in the film where Bown refers to Diane Arbus as a photographer she didn’t like and Martha Gelhorn, the famous war correspondent as a woman who didn’t like the portrait that Bown produced. But she photographed many famous women and produced stunning images. One of the best ‘statements’ in the film comes from Edna O’Brien who was certainly very responsive as a sitter and understood was Bown was doing.

I liked this film very much and went back to re-watch several sequences. I appreciate the measured pace and the moments of silence. I’m not sure what younger audiences make of the film. The celebrities are all named briefly by a subtitle, but even I struggled on a couple of them I didn’t recognise. My only criticism really is that I wasn’t always sure who was interviewing Jane Bown, but that’s a minor point. If you are interested in photography or artistic practice or if you enjoy finding out about women’s lives over a long career you might enjoy this film very much.

Robbery Under Arms (UK-Australia 1957)

In 1956 the film adaptation of Nevil Shute’s novel A Town Like Alice was a big commercial and critical success. It starred Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch with Joseph Janni as producer and Jack Lee as director. Finch was a bankable name in Australia and in the UK, partly because of his well publicised drinking and affairs with female celebrity figures. Because the film had an Australian dimension involving the capture of Australian troops as well as British settlers in Malaya at the time of the Japanese invasion in 1941, Janni and Lee were eager to to make another film with Finch in Australia. They eventually decided on a new version of an already four-times adapted novel set in the late nineteenth century. They used the same pair of writers, W.P. Lipscomb and Richard Mason plus an additional writer, Alexander Baron and two of the other cast members from the earlier film. The experienced Harry Waxman shot the new film mainly in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia as well as in the Pagewood Studios in Sydney and Pinewood in the UK. This adventurous production links the film to both the Australian genre of the ‘bushranger’ film and to the cycle of British-Australian films produced by Ealing Studios starting with The Overlanders (1946) and finishing with The Siege of Pinchgut (1959). Peter Finch was a supporting player in one of these, Eureka Stockade in 1949, and he starred in The Shiralee in 1957, immediately before working on Robbery Under Arms. Ealing had in fact tried to make their own adaptation of Robbery Under Arms at several points over the course of their Australian production period.

Peter Finch as Captain Starlight

Robbery Under Arms was written by the Australian author Thomas Alexander Browne using the pseudonym Rolf Boldrewood. It first appeared serialised in a Sydney magazine from 1882 and was then published in book form in 1888 and has remained in print ever since, becoming a classic of ‘Australian colonial fiction’. Originally used to refer to ‘transported’ men who escaped into the bush to evade the authorities, ‘bushranger’ became a descriptor for any criminals who carried out ‘robbery under arms’ as the official charge sheet put it. Film versions of the novel were among the first Australian films in the 1900s with further adaptations in 1911 and 1920 and a later TV movie in 1985 starring Sam Neill. The novel is long with several episodes. The 1957 version cuts several of these and presents a more linear narrative. It also sets the story slightly earlier in 1865. The most striking decision is the casting of Peter Finch as ‘Captain Starlight’, the rather glamorous and seemingly aristocratic leader of a bushranger outfit. Although Finch was appropriately cast as the character, Starlight isn’t the leading character in the narrative. Instead, the leads are two brothers Dick (Ronald Lewis) and Jim (David McCallum) Marston. Dick is the leader of the two and the narrative begins when, exhausted after a successful spell of sheep shearing, the pair decide to seek adventure. They find this when they discover that their ex-convict father is working with Starlight on a cattle drive of a thousand stolen head. It seems like exciting and lucrative work but they will find themselves always having to avoid the colonial police force as well as angry ranchers. Their involvement with a pair of sisters (Kate, played by Maureen Swanson and Jean, played by Jill Ireland) causes further complications. The main events in the narrative are familiar from Hollywood Westerns – a stage hold-up, saloon brawls etc.

A publicity still of Indigenous warriors (from the Network DVD gallery) The black & white publicity shots were standard at this time – although the film was in colour, most print publications were still monochrome in the UK

Indigenous Australians appear in the form of trackers, working with both Starlight’s gang and the colonial police, and warriors encountered in the bush. The resolution of the narrative is inevitable as a ‘posse’ of locals aids the colonial police to hunt down Starlight’s gang. He may be the ‘gentleman’ thief but some of his companions are more brutal. Mothers will lose young sons and settler culture in Australia does not come out well, apart from a local brother-sister combination who seem honourable. The Marstons might have followed their example but that would not fulfil the genre expectations.

This tableau composition of the Marston family is a publicity still presenting Marjorie Anderson as the mother with her sons Dick (back left), Jim and daughter Eileen (Dudy Nimmo)

As with other British productions in Commonwealth/Empire territories, the appeal of the film is found in the Eastmancolor images of the mountains and plains that present the action. One of the odd aspects of the production is the IMDb suggestion that the film was shot in ‘open matte’ Academy ratio (1.33:1) but intended to be projected with masking to create a widescreen (1.75:1) image. I watched the Network Region 2 DVD in Academy and that seems to be the format for other DVDs as well. I think the amount of cropping/masking for a widescreen image would destroy many compositions so that suggestion sounds unlikely to me. There is also a discrepancy in the running times listed for the UK, US and Australia. The Region 2 DVD runs 95 minutes which with PAL speed-up is closest to the UK cinema running time of 99 minutes. Australia seemingly got 5 minutes more but the US 16 mins less.

A major release by Rank

The film received a mixed response from critics but was certainly a box office hit in Australia and seems to have got a wide release in the UK. The two main criticisms seem to have been about the quality of the performances and the poor script. Personally, I found all the performances to be fine. There is some criticism of the mix of speech patterns by the British actors as leads and Australians as support but this probably matches some of the interchanges of the 1860s. For the critics in the 1950s the script was on the one hand filled with passages, especially in the opening scenes, when the pace was too slow but overall included two many ‘action scenes’ and didn’t develop the relationships between characters. I think it likely that the film was seen as both very similar to American Westerns but also vastly inferior. This seems to miss the film’s genuine interest in its Australian story and I’ve written about it here in preparation for work on other Australian Westerns. Australian film history begins with such films but production declined during the 1930s and didn’t fully revive until the ‘New Australian Cinema’ of the 1970s. The British productions in Australia between 1946 and 1959 at least helped to keep local production alive during the lean years.

David McCallum with Jill Ireland as Jean

Two repercussions for the actors involved in the Robbery Under Arms production were that David McCallum and Jill Ireland married during the production, having met on Hell Drivers which was released in the UK earlier in 1957. They later migrated to Hollywood where McCallum starred in the TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Maureen Swanson, who shares second billing on the UK poster above with McCallum, was a rising star at this point and she had featured in A Town Like Alice and other Rank productions, including a second billing in a Norman Wisdom comedy, Up in the World (1956). As Ronald Bergan points out in her obituary (she died in 2011), Swanson didn’t fit into the group of ‘Charm School starlets’ as she had trained as a ballet dancer but she was also not one of the young ‘sex bomb’ types such as Diana Dors or Joan Collins. Yet after Robbery Under Arms, in which the Monthly Film Bulletin reviewer says she gives a “Rhonda Fleming-like performance”, she moves into UK TV and then retires in 1961 after marrying into the aristocracy. Her performance as Kate reveals an actor with passion and Rank lost a potential major star.

A publicity shot of Maureen Swanson as Kate in Robbery Under Arms

Robbery Under Arms is a film with flaws certainly but I don’t think it deserved the critical reaction it received. I enjoyed the film and particularly the cinematography and the performances by Maureen Swanson and David McCallum (both initially from Glasgow). This is an interesting introduction to Australian stories on screen before the emergence of the 1970s New Cinema. As well as on the Network DVD, the film has also appeared on Talking Pictures TV in the UK.

Suspicion (US 1941) – Studying a Classical Hollywood film and its production context

These notes were first produced for a lockdown Zoom event in 2020 focused on the film Suspicion (1941), one of the RKO classic films held by the BBC and still currently available on BBC iPlayer in the UK. Often overlooked in Hitchcock’s filmography, the film is topical again because of #MeToo issues both in its plot and also the experiences of its female lead, Joan Fontaine. (NB This post is over 4,000 words.)

Introduction

Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most celebrated and most discussed filmmakers of the 20th century. But much of his reputation rests on a handful of famous titles drawn from distinct phases of his career. In the later stages of his career he was able to in effect run his own production unit, even when based on the lot of a major studio. He became one of the Hollywood directors promoted as an auteur and gave long interviews to the French critics turned directors, Claude Chabrol, Erich Rohmer and François Truffaut. He was also a showman and celebrity figure for audiences, promoting his own work in unique ways.

Hitchcock on set for Suspicion with Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine

Suspicion is an important work for several reasons but in some ways it has been overshadowed by other films he made in Hollywood in the 1940s, especially Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946), both of which starred Ingrid Bergman, and his earlier success Rebecca (1940) which announced his arrival from England. Rebecca had made a star of Joan Fontaine who had been nominated for an Academy Award. She would go on to win for Suspicion, the only actor to do so in a Hitchcock film. But during this period (from 1939-46) Hitchcock was under contract to David O. Selznick. Rebecca was a Selznick production but in 1941 Hitchcock and Fontaine were loaned out to RKO and Suspicion was made as an RKO film. Hitchcock was in control of the production but there is still a debate about whether RKO pressurised him into changing the film’s ending.

The ‘romance thriller’

Hitchcock was one of the few Hollywood directors recognised by audiences and critics alike during the studio period. His late 1930s films made in England were often hits in America and he became established as a Hollywood director through his work for Selznick. ‘Hitchcockian’ later became a term to describe the films that carried his ‘signature’ – i.e. his choice of themes, genre, performers, narrative structures etc.. Many of these films were forms of the ‘romance thriller’. This isn’t the title of a genre so much as a general term for several different kinds of films. They all had at their centre a romantic/sexual relationship between a man and a woman, but this was a relationship threatened by one of two possible dangerous forces. 

Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps, one of Hitchcock’s early romance thrillers

Some of the films placed a couple in danger from an external threat, often by accident. Several were spy thrillers like the two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 and 1956. In this case the couple can only survive by fighting together to overcome the external threat. There is romance and thrills (and often spectacular action). The other scenario sees a relationship which faces a danger from ‘within’ when, although the couple may be in love, one or both of them become suspicious about the other and a psychological struggle between the two ensues. In some cases there are both dangers, so in North By Northwest (1959) Cary Grant is pulled into a spy story by accident and finds himself attracted to Eva Marie Saint, who may be one of the spies, but is also possibly ‘turned’ by Grant’s charm and sex appeal.

Hollywood in the 1940s was a distinctive filmmaking environment for a director like Hitchcock. The ‘studio system’ was in full operation and one of its features was the ‘self-regulation’ practised by the studios by means of the Production Code, sometimes referred to by the name of its founder Will Hays and sometimes by its principal administrator Joseph Breen. It’s ironic perhaps that some of the most salacious stories, often so-called ‘hardboiled novels’, were bought by the studios which then had to find ways of making the scripts acceptable to the Breen Office. The code was enforced from 1934 until the late 1950s with a  requirement for traditional values and protection of moral standards, largely based on the teachings of the Catholic church in the US. This was not likely to appeal to Hitchcock, who, although he had a Catholic  background himself, loved to explore personal morality and enjoyed nothing more than focusing on the excitement and danger of sexual relationships.

Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery in Marnie

As is well known, Hitchcock tended to cast certain kinds of female stars in his films. The ‘ice blonde’ would be one such type, most famously represented by Grace Kelly. Hitchcock would argue that these characters were ice on the surface but hot beneath. He tried to cast elegant actors he could ‘bring down’ rather than the opposite (i.e. those of humbler origins) who he might ‘lift up’– which he said never worked. Towards the end of his career he would be criticised for his treatment of Tippi Hedren in particular when she appeared as the lead in The Birds (1962) and Marnie (1964), both films which featured challenging roles for a young and inexperienced actor. Marnie is in some ways a mirror image of Suspicion. How would Hitchcock fare in the contemporary environment of #MeToo? It might be possible to argue that the two films that Joan Fontaine made with Hitchcock and which made her a star, Rebecca and Suspicion, are both narratives in which a young bride (Fontaine was 22/23 when she made the films) is faced with an older, sexually attractive and arguably potentially sinister man, whose actions towards her are abusive.

‘Gaslighting’

This term has come to mean the long process by which a powerful man psychologically undermines the confidence, the beliefs and in extreme cases the will to live of a woman, possibly as part of a sexual powerplay or for financial gain if he can control her money in some way. Either way it is clearly abuse. The term comes from the play Gas Light (1938) by Patrick Hamilton which was successfully adapted for the cinema, first in the UK as Gaslight (1940), directed by Thorold Dickinson and starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard. Set in 1880s London, the first thing a new bride notices is the flickering gas light. She is unaware of her husband’s activities in which he secretly searches the closed rooms at the top of the house (where previously a young woman was murdered) which causes the gas pressure to drop. The flickering light and the strange noises from above become part of a nightmare that the husband creates while assuring his wife that she is imagining things. (There is a detective who is suspicious of the husband.) The film was remade in Hollywood in 1944 by George Cukor with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. Ms Bergman won the Oscar for her performance.

Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in Gaslight (US 1944)

It’s not difficult to see why the term is used now but a little caution is needed in understanding the context of the 1940s. These films would then have been thought of as melodramas. Often they might have featured the major female stars of the period (Ingrid Bergman followed Gaslight with her two Hitchcock films). There were, arguably more roles and more ‘meaty’ roles for female stars in this period and in addition they often were able to use properties written by women (Daphne du Maurier in the case of Rebecca). Hitchcock was supported on all his films by his wife Alma Reville who acted first as editor and then as writer or ‘story consultant’ throughout his career. Hitchcock also employed Joan Harrison, first as his secretary in 1933 and then increasingly in a role complementary to that of Alma. Harrison travelled with the Hitchcocks to America in 1939 and her expertise was recognised by MGM who hired her as a screenwriter in 1941. She was an Oxford graduate who had also studied at the Sorbonne and in 1943 became a producer at Universal and one of the few women to hold contract producer roles in the studio era. Both Joan and Alma contributed to the script of Suspicion.

The female audience for Hollywood productions was also a major factor in the kinds of films made in the 1940s. This was the era of the ‘woman’s picture’, films built around stars such as Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck. Films were often adapted from novels such as Stella Dallas by Olive Higgins Prouty which was a major hit for Stanwyck in 1937 (with both earlier and later versions in 1925 and 1990). Film audiences have changed in their composition over time. The 1940s saw a greater proportion of women, particularly between 1942 and 1945. What kinds of films did these audiences (sometimes women in groups) want to see? We know that in the UK, James Mason became a star in the wartime period. In retrospect it seems a shame that Hitchcock did not use Mason until North by Northwest in 1959. Mason’s attraction for audiences in the 1940s was partly down to his roles that might be described as ‘gaslighting’, e.g. in The Man in Grey (1943), Fanny by Gaslight (1944), They Were Sisters (1945) and The Seventh Veil (1945).

In 2020 a new adaptation of Rebecca received mixed reviews but a fair amount of interest. There are complex reasons why audiences seem to prefer certain types of films at certain times and that will be one of our questions about Suspicion – both in terms of what was actually presented on screen and what ‘might have been’.

‘Englishness’ on screen in America in 1941

Suspicion is odd in the sense that it presents an adaptation of a British novel, by a British filmmaker with a nearly 100% British cast, produced on a Hollywood sound stage. The film also represents a very ‘English’ vision of an upper middle-class rural society. The significance of this is that in 1940/41 (the film opened in the US in November 1941), Hollywood and large swathes of US public opinion were determinedly ‘neutral’ about the war, partly because of the strong German communities in Chicago and other parts of the country.

The British casting was possible because of the large Hollywood community of British actors, although some of them had already returned to the UK to enlist. Others were attempting to find ways to contribute to the war effort while still working in the US. Hitchcock himself was already in touch with the UK Ministry of Information about ways in which he could support the war effort. This angered Selznick since he felt he was paying Hitchcock’s wages.

Joan Fontaine (1917-2013)

Joan was the younger sister of Olivia de Havilland who had already become a Hollywood star through her roles opposite Errol Flynn for Warner Bros. To avoid confusion, Joan took one of her mother’s names when she began a contract at RKO in 1935. When she was cast in Rebecca she had already appeared in several films, including some leading roles, but not in films that had much prestige or box office success. Selznick put her under contract after the success of Rebecca and, like Hitchcock, she found herself being ‘loaned’ to RKO. (This was a lucrative move by Selznick since the fee paid by RKO was much greater than the salaries he paid out to Fontaine and Hitchcock.)

Joan Fontaine with Laurence Olivier in Rebecca

The young Fontaine perhaps regretted her decision to sign for Selznick. She found herself suspended by Selznick when she refused some of the roles he suggested for her and she was caught between the manipulations of Hitchcock and the controlling influence of Selznick. Between them they did contribute to her success in Rebecca and Suspicion, but it wasn’t easy for her. Fontaine also found it difficult to build a rapport with Grant who is reported to have found her ‘unprofessional’. One difference between Fontaine and both Grant and Hitchcock is that she had no other work between Rebecca and Suspicion while in the same time period, Grant and Hitchcock were working on at least two other titles.

It’s worth noting that Fontaine made comments about Hitchcock that have been repeated by other female stars and about other directors (e.g. John Ford) along the lines that they sometimes felt bullied or manipulated by their male directors but that they felt that this sometimes deliberate harsh treatment did make them better actors. The #MeToo issue can be found in the production itself as well as in the script.

Fontaine was very beautiful in her early twenties and she received a third Oscar nomination in 1943 for The Constant Nymph. She was popular with audiences in the early 1940s but perhaps feared being trapped in the same kinds of ‘romantic melodrama’ roles. In her later films Fontaine was cast in a wider range of parts. Her biggest critical success was for her own company Rampart Pictures in Letter to an Unknown Woman (US 1948). In that film she begins as a teenager and ends as an older woman. As she got older she gradually moved into more theatre and TV work and given she began very young as a studio contractee, she didn’t make as many films as might be expected over her long career.

Cary Grant (1904-1986)  

Cary Grant was an established A list star by 1941. He had learned to play against a number of sometimes older and ‘strong’ female stars such as Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur and Rosalind Russell. In most of these roles, Grant was at worst cast as a ‘cad’. He wasn’t a ‘villain’. Compared to Fontaine, he  was vastly experienced and had worked with directors such as Cukor, Stevens and Hawks. He hadn’t worked with Hitchcock and one of the possible issues watching Suspicion is the urge to think about his three later roles for Hitchcock. He  had actually worked once on a film with Joan Fontaine but she had only a relatively minor role in Gunga Din (1939).  

Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday

Suspicion (US 1941)

(SPOILERS: This discusses some of the plot so you may prefer to read this section after watching the film.)

Suspicion was adapted from the 1932 English novel Before the Fact by Anthony Berkeley Cox (under the pen name ‘Francis Iles’). Rights to the novel were purchased by RKO in 1935 but the studio could not formulate a production proposal until Hitchcock discovered the possibility on his arrival. The novel has been described as a ‘psychological suspense novel’ and the same author’s previous novel Malice Aforethought, was described by one reviewer as “possibly the best shocker ever written”. Since ‘suspense’ and ‘shocker’ are key terms in the Hitchcock universe, it’s not surprising that he was attracted to the property.

RKO productions at this point were usually budgeted lower than productions at the other major studios and there are no spectacular Hitchcock action sequences in this film. In some ways, it resembles Hitchcock’s British pictures. Apart from the California coast standing in for East Sussex, most of the film was shot on the studio lot. Focus thus shifts to some of the sets, especially the house that Johnnie buys for Lina.

Although Joan Fontaine had dual UK-US nationality,  she had not lived in the UK and Selznick was concerned about her ‘English accent’ (which seems to me very good most of the time). Cary Grant had arrived in New York from Bristol in 1920 aged 16. The other writer involved on the screenplay, Samson Raphaelson, was selected by Hitchcock possibly because after working with Lubitsch he might be able to bring a lightness to the dialogue. Otherwise the screenplay was the work of Alma and Joan Harrison. The cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. was American but had worked in France and in the  UK, including on Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939) and also on Mr and Mrs Smith (1941), Hitchcock’s previous film at RKO. Much of the rest of the crew were RKO contractees, including Van Nest Polglase as Art Director. Franz Waxman the film’s music composer had been praised for his score for Rebecca. RKO’s nominal producer on the shoot, Harry Edington is not included in the credits titles. Hitchcock appeared to have a relatively free hand.

Their first meeting . . .

The film begins with the meeting of the two central characters on the train from Waterloo – a familiar Hitchcock setting – and uses a familiar device to make Lina look ‘mousey’. She wears a hat and coat, a buttoned-up cardigan, ’sensible’ lace-up brogues and gloves. She’s wearing reading glasses and perusing a book on child psychology. It’s not as dowdy a presentation as Bette Davis is given at the start of Now Voyager (1942) before her ‘makeover’ and the glasses can’t disguise her pretty eyes, but this first ‘look’ at Lina gives Johnnie the opportunity on their next meeting to loosen her hair as part of his long-term goal of seducing her. This second meeting, alone at the top of a low hill, does seem to set up a metaphor of ‘falling in love’ for Lina and possibly preparing her for a different kind of ‘fall’ by Johnnie. “What did you think I was trying to do, kill you?” Johnnie asks as they struggle in the wind and that hat and coat from the train are literally blown away. As well as loosening her hair (a familiar sexual symbol), Johnnie makes fun of her through his creation of a pigtail and also his first use of “monkey face” as an ‘endearment’. This single scene continues with some remarkably provocative dialogue, ending with Lina’s implication that Johnnie’s behaviour (and her own response to it) might cause her father to have a stroke.

Johnnie makes fun of Lina’s hair and calls her ‘monkey face’.

We might consider a comparison between Suspicion and Marnie (1964). The two women are linked by their relationship with their horse. Marnie loves her horse ‘Forio’ as a substitute or a displacement of her sexual desire. Lina suggests to Johnnie that if she got her bit between his teeth she would have trouble handling him. Both women are in a difficult psychological position via the confident, ‘strong’ men who seem eager to gain control over them. Marnie’s condition seems much more serious, but Lina is the one whose lover might be aiming to kill her.

The narrative proceeds apace with Lina falling more deeply in love even as she begins to discover that Johnnie has no money and is expecting her to  inherit from her father. The death of Lina’s father is a key moment in both psychoanalytical terms and in the narrative development. Are we worried now because Lina is going to be both more dependent on Johnnie and perhaps more frightened about what Johnnie might do? The reading of the will and the drive along the cliffs are markers for later events. The narrative introduces a secondary character whose role seems to be to further confuse Lina’s understanding of Johnnie and what she knows about him. This is ‘Beaky’, an old ‘chum’ played by Nigel Bruce who specialised in character parts as a bumbling aristocrat or military type – best known for playing Dr. Watson in the Hollywood Sherlock Holmes films. Can Lina trust Beaky, who seems incapable of deception? Bruce became a popular supporting actor for audiences in this period. 

Beaky with Johnnie and Lina

One narrative strand that develops in the film is the sense that Lina has to act like a detective, discovering what Johnnie is up to. At the same time ‘detective fiction’ becomes part of the plotting. When Lina comes out of the bookshop (did you spot Hitchcock at the postbox?) and meets Mrs Newsham, she learns about Johnnie at the racetrack. In turn, Mrs Newsham notices the detective novels Lina has bought for Johnnie. Later we will meet Isobel Sedbusk, the crime writer who Johnnie has been quizzing about poisons. Isobel Sedbusk explains to Lina that the ‘murderer’ in her novels is actually her hero and this is also Hitchcock’s own view as he expressed in talking about the film and its ending. 

Lina plays detective looking for a crime book that Johnnie borrowed from Isobel

Hitchcock the showman talked about his ideas at length in interviews and in pieces he wrote. In one piece for the New York Times in 1957, Hitchcock wrote about ‘English Murders’ (See Gottlieb, 1995: 133). He suggests that ‘real English murders’ are very dark and very few films are based on them because the murderer is not a character audiences can identify with or as the film trade puts it, carry the vital element of the ‘rooting interest’. This is what in Suspicion made Hitchcock decide that the idea of Johnnie as a murderer had to be a figment of Lina’s imagination. This is odd because of course, the script was based on a novel, not a real case. More likely, one might think, that pressure was put on Hitchcock because Cary Grant’s star image, though it could cope with ‘suspicions’, could not be damaged by the suggestion that he was a cold-blooded killer. (Note that in 1960, with Psycho, Hitchcock did use a real serial killer as the inspiration for his ‘shocking’ film at a time when the Production Code was beginning to break down and the director could become more daring.)

There are many different views about the ending and why Hitchcock chose the fantasy option. Hitchcock himself tells another story about how RKO executives asked him to cut out any of the darker moments featuring Grant, “but the resulting cut only lasted 55 minutes”. This story also refers to Hitchcock’s working method which matched John Ford’s idea of ‘editing in the camera’. Hitchcock storyboarded many scenes and only shot the footage he knew he would use. This infuriated producers like Selznick who expected directors to provide wide shots and alternatives for each set-up so that films could be recut at a later stage. This was impossible in the case of both Hitchcock and Ford.

An interesting observation came from the French critic Jean-André Fischi. He argues that Hitchcock’s films are often ‘about’ how film narratives work – as if the film is a kind of contract with the audience in which the director agrees to show the audience ‘how it is done’.  In the case of Suspicion, Fischi argues, the ending is such a let-down (‘Oh yes, you were wrong’) that it forces us to think back over all the clues and instead of dispelling doubts, the ending creates a new sense of disquiet. (see Roud ed.1980: 506) 

Reception

Suspicion is certainly less well-regarded by critics and film scholars than the most well-known Hitchcock titles, but this isn’t reflected in the industry or audience response to the film.

Sight and Sound’s American correspondent, Herman G. Weinberg reported:  

“Hitchcock has not been able to re-capture that first fine careless rapture he had in England and his new film, Suspicion, which might at the very least have been not worse than Rebecca as an excursion into the macabre, emerged as a diluted version of an interesting psychological story, which added up to nothing but ennui at the end.” (Spring 1942).

By contrast, here’s what an American trade paper reported for its readership of independent cinema exhibitors: 

“Brilliantly directed and acted with skill by a group of expert performers, this drama  should prove thrilling fare for adults, particularly of the class trade. Even though the story is unpleasant, and the character played by Cary Grant unsympathetic, so interesting is the plot development that one’s attention is held to the end. The credit for this is owed to a great extent to Alfred Hitchcock, who again shows his mastery at directing thrillers.The closing scenes, in which the heroine, thinking that her husband is about to kill her, tries to jump from a speeding car, are so tensely exciting that one is left trembling at the conclusion. (Harrison’s Reports, September 1941)

And here are some comments from US newspaper reviewers:

“Certain to move and amuse you as much as it makes your hair stand on end.” (New York Herald Tribune)

“A distinctly superior picture.” (New York Post)

“A masterpiece in disturbing emotionally draining drama. Adult, astounding, pulling knowingly on its psychological undertones.” (Chicago Herald-American)

Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, one of the most influential critics of the period suggests it is not Hitchcock’s best because the script doesn’t offer the director much to work with but:

“Still he has managed to bring through a tense and exciting tale, a psychological thriller which is packed with lively suspense.”

It is clear that in the US, Hitchcock ’s films are expected to do best in urban, up market cinemas. Even so, Suspicion attracted big enough audiences to be deemed a hit by the trade press. (Most of his films were hits – Hitchcock was ‘hot’ in Hollywood in the early 1940s.)

Unfortunately it is more difficult to discover what UK audiences made of the film. Monthly Film Bulletin’s ‘D.E.B.’ – reviewers were then only known by their initials – offers a generally supportive review praising Fontaine and Grant and “smooth direction” which “adds largely to the mounting excitement”.

It’s worth noting that at this time interest in psychology and psychiatry was much greater in the US than in the UK. It is also worth remembering that audiences in the UK in December 1941-January 1942 had very different moods because of the war. Americans were still getting used to the idea that they were at war which came a few weeks after the film opened. In the UK this was a very bad period with the fighting still going against the UK – though the fact that the Americans were now allies was a welcome change.

In terms of current writing about the film, I recommend the two internet sources below by Alison Light (1996, online by October 2020) discussing Rebecca and current debates about gaslighting and Kristen Lopez’s 2016 review of Suspicion:

“As the audience worries about Johnnie’s intentions it’s impossible to act against him. The Cary Grant persona is in full effect and it’s why the film works so well when it’s setting him up as the villain, and it’s also why the film’s ending is such a crushing disappointment. Not only does it completely belittle Lina’s intelligence, but it also requires extreme jumps in logic to make sense.

This beautifully produced psychological suspense thriller may have more gendered notions of psychology than are timely for today, but to watch Grant flirt with villainy is beyond delicious!”

References

Gottlieb, Sidney (ed) (1995) Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Berkely: University of California Press

Light, Alison (1996) ‘Love to death: Hitchcock, du Maurier and Rebecca, Sight and Sound, May

Lopez, Kristen (2016) Review of Suspicion on https://ticklishbiz.com/2016/07/06/suspicion-1941/

Roud, Richard (ed) (1980) ‘Alfred Hitchcock II’ by Jean-André Fischi, in Cinema a Critical Dictionary Vol 1, London: Martin Secker and Warburg

Spoto, Donald (1983) The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, London: William Collins

Roy Stafford   17/11/20  

Deception (Tromperie, France 2021)

Arnaud Desplechin’s film was screened at Cannes in 2021 and released in cinemas in some territories in early 2022. It is now available to stream on MUBI. I presume that this means that it is unlikely to appear in cinemas in the UK and US. If so that would be a shame but not perhaps unusual. Deception is an adaptation of the 1990 novel by Philip Roth and presenting such a text in the aftermath of #MeToo does raise a number of questions. Roth, who died in 2018, became more controversial as a writer towards the end of his career as attitudes towards gender relationships changed. As a novelist he adopted several identities, each of which was a version of himself and Deception presents us with ‘Philip’, an American writer who spends time living in London in 1987 attempting to to write a new novel. His practice is to reflect on his previous extra-marital affairs. Each day he leaves the house rented for himself and his wife and visits a small flat intended as a study. Here he meets a younger Englishwoman. The three other women, besides his wife, who feed into his thoughts include an ex-lover and friend in the US, a young Czech exile and a former student from his teaching days at a university. The novel he is writing is dialogue heavy and appears to make use of his conversations with these women. Are they ‘real’ conversations or a product of his imagination?

Distractions at work? (photo Hanna Besson)

1987 is  two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, which is important in terms of Philip’s interest in Eastern Europe, but otherwise the only markers of the time are the phone sets and a red telephone box. Desplechin had wanted to adapt the novel for many years and had actually had a conversation about it with Roth after a reference on the DVD of Desplechin’s 2004 film Kings & Queen. He returned to the idea during lockdown which made him think of the writer’s room which allows Roth’s ‘Philip’ to shut out the world. The Press Notes for Deception include interviews with Desplechin and his two stars, Léa Seydoux as ‘the English lover’ and Denis Podalydès which I read after the screening. I was struck by Desplechin’s assertion that ‘realist cinema’ locks characters into their own little box whereas he likes the idea of the writer’s room where the characters can be ‘free’. This then translates to the director’s approach to the adaptation and his collaboration with his co-writer Julie Peyr and his cinematographer Yorick Le Saux. Despite the English setting, the cast are all leading French actors and the dialogue is in French. The ‘room’ is re-imagined in different ways over the narrative, starting on stage in the Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris. We never see Philip travelling and his memories of meeting a young Czech woman are played out against black and white film footage, back-projected. During the long scenes of interaction with the English lover (who is never named), the camerawork includes many close-ups  and effects like iris-masking.

Anouk Grinberg as Philip’s wife (photo Shanna Besson)

My own preference is for realist/sociological detail but I do enjoy the use of fantasy and effects in scenes so I was quite prepared to follow Philip’s thoughts in this way. I have read some of Roth’s works, but mainly the earlier novels so I didn’t have too much difficulty with the idea of a writer who plays around with his own identity in his texts. The most concrete issue of Philip’s identity is arguably his ‘Jewishness’ which is discussed at various points including his interest in other Jewish novelists, his family history which he traces back to his family roots in Galicia in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and the profile of modern Israel. He also states that English Jewry is ‘soft’ compared to the more vigorous American Jewish culture. It’s at this point that I did find it slightly problematic, wondering if this was only Roth’s viewpoint, one invented by ‘Philip’ or whether there was also a French perspective in there somewhere? ‘Englishness’ appears only in terms of the pub where the lovers meet or complaints about the weather.

Screebgrab (the film is in ‘Scope) of Emmanuelle Devos as the ex-lover in the US

What to make of the world of Philip, the thoughts in his head and his interactions and memories with the four women? Is there a misogynist charge? The film narrative is divided into chapters, one of which, ‘The Trial’, is a theatrical staging of the case against Philip conducted solely by women. Desplechin says this is a pure Kafka sequence and Philip defends himself against all charges. Apart from the director and his lead actor, most of the other significant figures in the film are women. At this point I should say that the five women who play the four lovers and the wife and the women in the court give excellent performances and whatever I do think of the film overall, the actors (including the great Emmanuelle Devos ) are a major source of pleasure alongside the camerawork and art direction. The music by Grégoire Hetzel is also very good. The central question is really about the extent to which Léa Seydoux bought into the script. She is literally the most exposed character in the film with some of the most provocative lines, all delivered with panache and heart. If I have any doubt it is only about Roth’s view of the world. This is a film narrative which plays out within the sealed world of the writer’s head, with only tantalising glimpses into the characters’ relationships to events in the wider world outside. The lover has a young daughter who is never seen and an unhappy marriage, so perhaps she wants to just enjoy the hours away from her family or is her motherhood simply not relevant in the context of her afternoons with Philip? The lovers do discuss what having a child can mean at one point but just as we don’t know what Philip’s wife does while he is away in his room, that’s as far as it goes.

Léa Seydoux, beautifully lit (photo Shanna Besson)

I think I surprised myself by enjoying the film more than I thought I might. That may be mostly because of the performances, the direction and the presentation. Léa Seydoux and Denis Podalydès are a joy to watch at work.

Une belle fille comme moi (A Gorgeous Girl Like Me, France 1972)

François Truffaut was the subject of a major retrospective at BFI Southbank earlier this year and I’ve been trying to find time to return to a study of his films. I wonder what audiences in 2022 made of this film? It is seen by many of Truffaut’s fans as his misfire, leaving many wondering what he was up to. This is surprising, partly because the film presents many familiar Truffaut elements and connections with his other films. The most direct connection is to Truffaut’s early short feature Les Mistons (France 1957) which is included as a very welcome ‘extra’ on the Artificial Eye Region B Blu-ray for Une belle fille. I like Les mistons very much but it probably needs its own post. It features Bernadette Lafont (1938-2013) in her first film and the suggestion is that Une belle fille comme moi is Truffaut’s gift/hommage to the woman who became, in Dave Kehr’s words, “the nouvelle vague‘s most memorable embodiment of earthy sexuality”.

François Truffaut with Bernadette Lafont on set

The second connection is to Truffaut’s love of hard-boiled pulp fiction, published in French as Série noir novels and as part of American crime fiction more generally. There are four distinct Truffaut noirs/polars based on such novels: Tirez sur le pianiste (1960), La mariée était en noir (1968), La sirène du Mississipi (1969) and Vivement Dimanche! (1982). Une belle fille comme moi is perhaps related to Vivement Dimanche as a ‘comedy crime film’, but its plotting is more closely related to La mariée était en noir (which is not a comedy). The original novel which Truffaut and Jean-Loup Dabadie adapted was by Henry Farrell, whose writing career covered novels, screenplays and teleplays. He wrote the novel for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (US 1962) and the screenplays for the follow-ups, Hush . . . , Hush Sweet Charlotte (US 1964) and What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971). These were all ‘gothic horror’ crime stories. Une belle fille comme moi is something rather different. As a crime comedy it also uses elements of the musical and the farce.

Stanislas interviews Camille in prison

Camille Bliss (Lafont) is a prisoner at the start of the film, convicted of murder. She is interviewed by a young sociologist Stanislas Prévine (André Dussollier in his first film feature role) who is preparing a thesis on ‘criminal women’. Camille begins to tell her story through flashbacks and Stanislas soon finds himself in love with her despite the lurid story she tells. He’s convinced she is innocent. In the first flashback to her childhood we get an inkling of the kind of film we are going to see when little Camille is kicked by her drunken father across his farmyard and she literally flies through the air to land on top of a hay wagon. She spends her girlhood in a ‘Home for Observation of Juvenile Delinquents’. Her later escapades involve marriage and her initial escape from that into flings with various men. In all Camille hitches up with six men over the course of the narrative. Five of them are vanquished. The 5:1 ratio is a reminder of Les mistons (five young boys pursuing Bernadette Lafont) and La mariée était en noir with five men despatched by Jeanne Moreau. I won’t spoil the narrative though the film’s critics suggest that the ending is obvious from the start.

Camille after she has successfully seduced the ‘Exterminator Man’ played by Charles Denner

So what is the problem? Critics argue that Truffaut can’t handle a full-blown feature of broad comedy like this and that he made a mistake in making his lead such a trollop. Actually, quite a few call her a ‘slut’ or a ‘tart’ or worse. Some of them seem to suggest that Truffaut’s problems with sexuality lead him into a certain kind of sour prudery. I think that if you take only a casual glance at the film, it can in some instances seem a bit like a series of Benny Hill sketches with Camille in various stages of undress running from lecherous men over whom she eventually triumphs. But look more closely and think a bit more about the narrative and the performances and a different film emerges I think. At the centre of the film is Bernadette Lafont, let off the leash and given the chance to take control of the narrative, in fact she literally narrates her own (fictional) story. She had been a dancer and she commands the screen partly through the way she moves. In my ancient guide to the ‘400 key figures in French cinema’ by Marcel Martin (1971), her entry describes her as having a “gay but unsophisticated frankness”. That seems a good call. Camille is the simple country girl who realises that she can get whatever she wants by offering herself for sex which she clearly enjoys. She may appear to be exploited but in fact she remains in control. It was still unusual in 1972 for a narrative to feature a woman with this kind of narrative ‘agency’. Although Truffaut was adapting an American property, the film does have elements in common with Nelly Kaplan’s La fiancée du pirate (France 1969). This also featured Bernadette Lafont in the lead role as a young woman in rural France living in a marginalised family who eventually turns to prostitution as a way of gaining control over the locals who look down on her. Kaplan’s film (known in the US as Dirty Mary) became something of a feminist text in the UK in the early 1970s and was screened at various conferences (including at the NFT in April 1973) as well as in late night cinema shows. It’s also worth remembering that the early 1970s was a period when there were many European sexploitation films in UK cinemas (usually dubbed) as well as UK softcore productions, whereas in New York when Truffaut’s film opened it was competing with hardcore titles like Behind the Green Door (1972) with Marilyn Chambers and at another extreme one of Bergman’s most powerful films Cries and Whispers (Sweden 1972) which was nominated for five Oscars (and won one).

The young filmmaker who doesn’t want to show his rushes

In the circumstances it isn’t surprising that Truffaut’s film should be rejected by some of the most high profile critics. Jan Dawson suggests in Monthly Film Bulletin (May 1973) that despite using a familiar structure as seen in his other films, Truffaut fails because the “breathless quality that he seeks to impose on his heroine’s odyssey is more suggestive of exhaustion than effervescence”. By contrast Diana Holmes and Robert Ingram (1998) offer a detailed analytic reading which I find most helpful. They point out that the film’s aesthetic presents the scenes involving Stanislas in an almost realist mode, whereas those presenting Camille’s re-telling of her story are much more ‘anti realist’ – drawing on cartoons, slapstick and musical numbers. They suggest that Stanislas represents the familiar Truffaut figure of the patriarchy, the representative of rules and conformity trying to contain Camille’s energy in his book. The book is intended to be about ‘criminal women’ but it is the woman who is the protagonist and the one with whom a popular audience might identify. I think every scene in the film is carefully thought out and I don’t find the overall effect to be one of exhaustion. Every scene deals in some way with the same concerns found elsewhere in Truffaut’s work. To be fair to Dawson she does discuss what she sees as an effective sequence in which Stanislas and his young secretary are searching for some film footage of Camille which could be evidence to use in court. When they find it, they have to negotiate with a 9-year old boy who doesn’t want to show the footage to them because it is not yet edited, as clear a reference to the cinema obsessed young François as you could ask for. Other reviews spend time discussing Truffaut’s various hommages to Hitchcock, Hawks and Renoir but I don’t want to go there just at the moment.

Stanislas dictating his thesis typed up by his secretary Hélène (Anne Kreis) who tries to convince him that Camille is running rings round him

I surprised myself in enjoying Une belle fille comme moi more than I thought I would. At other times I have found Truffaut’s approach to his female characters to be a problem but his approach here is consistent and makes good use of his star. The film has an excellent score by Georges Delerue and the cinematography is by Pierre-William Glenn who also shot La nuit américaine (1972) and L’argent de poche (1976). It was filmed mostly around Béziers in the South of France. There is a mystery about the intended aspect ratio for the film. IMDb suggests 1.85:1 but this is clearly wrong. A contributor on DVD Beaver suggests that it was shot ‘Open Matte’ and that it was intended to be projected at 1.66:1. The Artificial Eye Blu-ray is presented as 1.33:1 and I can’t see how many of the scenes could be cropped for widescreen without destroying the compositions.

Reference

Holmes, Diana and Ingram, Robert (1998) François Truffaut, Manchester: Manchester University Press