Sunday, June 28, 2009

1943: I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur)

Released: March 17, 1943

Director: Jacques Tourneur; Screenplay: Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray based on a story by Inez Wallace; Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt; Studio: RKO Radio Pictures; Producer: Val Lewton

Cast: Tom Conway (Paul Holland), Frances Dee (Betsy Connell), James Ellison (Wesley Rand), Edith Barrett (Mrs. Rand), Christine Gordon (Jessica Holland), James Bell (Dr. Maxwell), Sir Lancelot (Calypso Singer)

Val Lewton oversaw nine horror classics at RKO, working with directors such as Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, and Mark Robson, all of whom would go on to prominence in later independent pursuits. However it would not be a stretch to argue that these directors produced some of their best work in these low-budget masterpieces. While each of the films in the cycle has developed loyal supporters, many seems to have settled on 1942’s Cat People as the gem of the bunch. It’s hard to argue that opinion, as the famed pool scene from that film is among my favorite in all of American cinema. But in deciding on my favorite of the Lewton RKO films, I’ll side with the producer himself, who is said to have declared his own personal favorite as the next year’s collaboration with Jacques Tourneur, I Walked with a Zombie.

I’ll even go a step further. Not only do I feel this is the best of Lewton’s films at RKO, it is also quite easily my favorite of 1943. It may have been a B-movie, but the atmosphere and suspense created is the equal of any full scale blockbusters.

The interesting thing about this film is that although classified as being in the horror genre, it’s not a horror film in the usual sense. I guess a more accurate description would be a mystery film with a tinge of the supernatural, but that’s not nearly as catchy or shorthand as simply calling it a horror movie. Still, it’s worth noting that I Walked with a Zombie isn’t unnerving due to violence or gory spectacles, as has become the staples of modern horror. Not only is there not much in the way of violence, there never really appears to be the threat of serious violence taking place. Instead, Tourneur and company combine a mixture of voodoo folklore and eerie use of shadows to craft a story that serves to make the viewer feel more uneasy than outright scared. There is a certainly a supernatural aspect to the film – after all, how could a film with such a title _not_ involve some type of mysticism – but it is different from other monster or zombie movies.

The story is a unique blend, combining a magazine article by Inez Wallace with certain elements of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. It follows the Betsy Connell (Frances Dee), a Canadian nurse who is hired by Caribbean plantation owner Paul Holland (Tom Conway) to care for his incapacitated wife. The woman, Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon), is still living, but does nothing more than eat and lay in bed, acting like a – surprise – zombie. After arriving on the island, Betsy also meets Paul’s half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison), who speaks disparagingly of his brother and seems to indicate to Betsy that Paul is the reason that Jessica is incapacitated. For his part, Paul does much to reinforce some of these suspicions, talking of death and beautiful things succumbing to it. Even so, Betsy begins to fall for Paul, increasing her determination to bring Jessica out of her paralyzed state.

Traditional medical treatments fail to help her in this mission and so she then begins to turn toward local practices, becoming intrigued by voodoo. The belief in zombies, or living dead beings such as Jessica, is a part of this voodoo tradition. There is a thriving community practicing the art, which traces its origins to the days of slavery on the island, and at the urging of a housemaid, Betsy decides that voodoo medicine may be Jessica’s only hope. This leads to one of the exemplary sequences in the movie, as the nurse leads her barely mobile patient on a clandestine journey through sugarcane fields and plantations in order to reach a voodoo ceremony.

The acting in the film is more than adequate, though it falls well short of amazing. This is unimportant, however, because the true stars of the film are director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer J. Roy Hunt. I’m worried about becoming a broken record in continually praising the atmosphere of my favorite films, but this is such an integral part of the success of this movie that I have to say it again. It both looks and feels like a mystery set in the Caribbean is supposed to. This film is not just dark in certain scenes, but looks as if a cloud or fog is perpetually blanketing the set. This effect is a major reason why certain sections have the unsettling effect that they do. The previously mentioned journey through the plantation fields in search of the voodoo ceremony is spectacular. Adding to the brilliance of this sequence is Tourneur’s decision to let the elements be the only soundtrack accompanying the voyagers. As Betsy and Jessica make their trek, the howling wind and whistling of the plants amplify the uneasiness. Equally as stunning is the earlier sequence in which Betsy follows a then-unknown Jessica as she roams the plantation in sleepwalking-like trance.

The story also benefits from subtle incorporation of the island culture. The sound of the drum that the natives beat throughout the night gives the sense that Betsy is being led on a doomed march. I also love the manner in which the calypso singer (Sir Lancelot) and his song are handled. While Betsy and Wesley Holland dine at an outdoor café, you can hear the lyrics of the song in the background, recounting the story of the Holland family. You don’t initially see the calypso singer, but based on the reactions of Betsy and Wesley, it is understood that the story being told in the song is significant. Thus, the attention of the audience is drawn to the song and more of the previous story of the family is revealed in this fashion. It is a brilliant way of filling in background of the situation with Jessica and her husband without having a character reveal it in a more cliché manner such as an awkward speech or narration.

This is a short, entertaining, quick-moving thriller. It’s amazing that Lewton and Tourneur were able to make a movie that feels so fully developed while clocking in at only 69-minutes. Lewton produced many other outstanding films and Tourneur would go on to direct a film that I personally rank among my 4-5 favorites of all time (you’ll see it in the countdown very soon), but this is one that I always enjoy revisiting.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 1943: As I survey the entire roster of films for 1943, I see a lot of quality films but not quite the number of masterpieces as in other years of the 1940s. The films that I’ll highlight here are more personal favorites than films that are normally considered to be the best of the year. I Walked with a Zombie is not the only excellent collaboration between Lewton and Tourneur in this year, as they also teamed up to make The Leopard Man. I have always liked this one, while still considering it to be a little below the quality of I Walked with a Zombie or Cat People. I have to admit to not having seen the third Lewton film of this year, the Mark Robson directed The Seventh Victim, so I can't compare it. While most see it as a U.S. propaganda film, I’ve always had a soft spot for Howard Hawks’ Air Force. It might be overly patriotic and sentimental but for whatever reason these aspects have never bothered me. Alfred Hitchcock also released a legendary film in 1943, with Joseph Cotton starring in Shadow of a Doubt. While I don’t rate it as high as others that I know – I know some people consider it the equal of films like Rear Window and Psycho – I still think it is very well done and at least in the same stratosphere as his other major films. William Wellman’s western The Ox-Bow Incident is also very well done, as Henry Fonda is very good in his lead role. Also worth of recognition, while not director Henri-Georges Clouzot's best film, is the intriguing mystery Le Corbeau.

The strongest contender in this year, however, came from Denmark and famed director Carl Theodor Dreyer. If The Passion of Joan of Arc isn’t proof enough, Day of Wrath confirms that Dreyer could make a film that would just grab you by the gut and never let go. This story of witch trials and accusations is depressing for me, but it’s so well made and captivating that I couldn’t stop watching.

I would imagine that the Powell and Pressburger film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp will register support as well. I like it, but it has never really been a favorite and was never in contention in my selection process.


  1. My #1 Film of 1943:

    Day of Wrath (Dreyer)

    Runners Up:

    I Walked With A Zombie (Tourneur/Lewton)
    Les Anges du Peche (Bresson, France)
    Meshes of the Afternoon (Deren)
    Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell/Pressburger, UK)
    The Seventh Victim (Robson/Lewton)
    Le Corbeau (Clouzot, France)
    Shadow of a Doubt (Hitchcock)
    My Lerned Friend (Hay, UK)
    The Ox-Bow Incident (Wellman)

    I am myself a lifelong fanatic of I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, director Val Lewton and this entire series. THE LEOPARD MAN is very uneven with some great horror set pieces, but also some preposterous plotting. THE SEVENTH VICTIM is the second masterpieces of that year, though CAT PEOPLE is a minor gem too. But ZOMBIE (which I reviewed months back at WitD) is a poetic and atmospheric masterpiece, that is Lewton's greatest film, and certianly near the top of this year. I can however deny the Dreyer film, which is simply one of the greatest films of all-time in the history of the cinema. Lewton's THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) contains Karloff's greatest performance ever, and it's all one of Lewton's masterworks, while the uneven ISLE OF THE DEAD and BEDLAM still have much to recommend.

    Your review is extraordinary, and I enjoyed reading about this great film again. Sir Lancelot's central song of course is integral to the film's interpretation, and the trip through the sugar cane reeds is the film's visual (wordless) highlight. Mention must also be made of the transitional device of the figure of St. Sebastian, another Lewton trademark.

  2. Sam - Thanks for the compliments. I have to admit to overlooking Clouzot's Le Corbeau for the "Other Contenders" section. It wouldn't have factored in as far as displacing I Walked with a Zombie, but it is worthy of mention (which I'm going to go and add now).

  3. I also forgot to mention, Sam, that I've gone back into the WitD archives and found your review of this film and am going to read it this afternoon. This review was before I found your wonderful site, so I look forward to reading it!

  4. Dave, another well thought out review, which I enjoyed reading. Lewton did so much on a small budget. My own personal pick for the best would be The Ox-Bow Incident, a tense downbeat western with outstanding performances and a strong indictment on mob rule.

    #1 The Ox Bow Incident

    Other favorites in no order are The Seventh Victim, I Walked with a Zombie
    and Shadow of a Doubt.

  5. Hard to argue with that choice, John, as The Ox-Bow Incident is a great film. Sometimes I think it gets lost in the shuffle for me because there are so many westerns that I love!

  6. Sir, you have nailed it! Zombie is the best film, though as a mark for the Archers I rank Col. Blimp a strong second, followed by Shadow of a Doubt, Day of Wrath and Ox-Bow Incident. Powell and Pressburger will be heard from again.

  7. Funny how all of us are mentioning the same three or four films! Thanks for the compliments, Samuel.

    Also, I thought I'd link to Sam's superior analysis of this film than what I have written here:

    Val Lewton's "I Walked With A Zombie"

    Take a look at it, very well-written review and commentary. Great stuff.

    This also just reaffirms the fact that I badly need to see The Seventh Victim.

  8. Dave: That is absolutely an incredible gesture by you there. I am overwhelmed, and don't know how to thank you.

    As far as my review being "superior" I would not say that at all. YOUR review is at least as good, and we both look at the film from different perspectives , even while making similar points.

    Thanks again!

  9. Fair enough, Sam, but I think it's excellent analysis! There's a lot of great stuff in the archives at WitD from before I wandered over there that I'm going to have to go back through and check out.

  10. Though I haven't seen it, I believe Ossessione is supposed to be the premiere contender for the best movie of 1943...

  11. Shubhajit: With all due respect OSSESSIONE is not in the same with Dreyer's DAY OF WRATH, which is one of the greatest films of all-time. There are greater Viscontis too.

  12. Just had a chance to watch this the other night on TCM and thought you did a great job with your review here.

    You pointed out what I also thought was a key to the atmosphere in this movie, which is Tournier's use/non-use of soundtrack during the more tense scenes -- the wind, the drums, the waves -- it all adds to sense of foreboding.

    Also adding to the horror elements of the film are the fact that the ending and the reasons for Jessica's condition are mysterious and ambiguous throughout, with Tournier letting the viewer decide what caused it, leaving no explanations, but plenty of speculation.

    I personally like The Seventh Victim more than Zombie, although I'd put them on equal footing as far as quality goes. I'll bet TCM will be showing it during October, so if you have cable, you should search it out.

    Oh, and it appears that the guys behind the Saw films are remaking this. No, really.

  13. Troy - Thanks for checking this review out. That non-use of soundtrack is what has stuck with me as well.

    I'll definitely be on the lookout on TCM... with the DVR and a recorder, scouring the listings of TCM is an old pastime of mine! :)

  14. A terrific film and excellent pick for best of 1943. I almost forgot Day of Wrath came out that year, but once reminded its selection is a personal no-brainer. I saw it on the big screen in New York a few years ago and it was one of the most moving cinematic experiences I've ever had.

    But if we're talking American films, I would pick Air Force. The propaganda aspects are really superfluous, as the film is perhaps the most archetypal Hawks film out there - the perfect expression of his ethos. Col. Blimp is another favorite - looking over the year, '43 is not as weak as I would have initially thought despite falling right in the middle of the most disastrous and bloody war in the history of mankind. Kind of astounding when you think about it.

  15. racist but funny, one of the guilty pleasures, definitely worthy to be watched.

  16. one of the most creepy movies I've ever seen, the voodo zombie looks kinda creepy.