Saturday, December 27, 2008

Val Lewton - The Seventh Victim

Jacqueline's noose in The Seventh Victim produced by Val Lewton for RKO Radio Pictures, directed by Mark Robson, starring Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Kim Hunter, and Hugh Beaumont
Just Remember - Death is Not the End!

This is part one in a series of articles relating to Val Lewton and the mark he left upon the horror genre. In this series I will concentrate on Lewton as the auteur of the films he produced: the arguments for this are perfectly compelling and generally accepted . . . I will also assume that you have seen the films in question; otherwise, there will be spoilers.

After Orson Welles had nearly bankrupted RKO with Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons the studio was forced to turn to other venues for capital. Universal had made money hand-over-fist with their unique brand of horror: RKO decided that they could do the same. To that end they brought Val Lewton on board from MGM (where he'd worked for David O. Selznick), assigning him to the B-horror segment. As head of this unit, Lewton had three mandates. All films had to be under 75 minutes, cost less than $150k, and all film titles would be assigned. Universal had just released The Wolf Man with great returns, so RKO demanded Lewton's first film: Cat People. You can see what their plan was.

Lewton, however, did not exactly comply, instead producing the kind of atmospheric, subtle films that Jonathan Rosenbaum argues create, and constitute, an entire branch of the horror genre. I will touch more on this subject later, but for now let me say that on their surface all Lewton horror films seem a reaction to the Universal Pictures standard of horror and also to Orson Welles. There were two other mandates that modulated Lewton's primary three: RKO's post-Welles' motto of "showmanship before genius" and Lewton's own rule of "no horror heaped on horror." Universal had made it a point to create world's wholly separate from our own where horrific creatures like the wolf man existed realistically by fact of his world's own alien horror. These films were deeply popular with the WWII crowd because they allowed an escapist pleasure from the terror of day-to-day life, but they could never truly create horror because their world was so detatched. Conversely, Lewton spent most of his movies creating realistic worlds where, it's true, some people could maybe turn into cats, become zombies, or return from the dead. This model is certainly a departure from Universal's and met with good effect in the box office. It's this grounding, also, that makes the films equal reactions to Welles - simple movies made on simple, leftover sets, with little departure or granduer. It was because of Welles that Lewton had to fight for every penny he got to make these films, and even at times artistic control, which certainly didn't help matters.

The Seventh Victim, produced by Val Lewton and directed by Mark Robson, was released in 1943 by RKO Radio Pictures. It is the fourth film Lewton made with RKO and the greatest departure from the "reality with a twist of the supernatural" mode which had made Lewton's first films (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man) box office hits. It is also, I think, Lewton's greatest film, although flawed. His later films come together more successfully in terms of fit and finish, but this, I think, is where we come closest to seeing a true artistic attempt.

In The Seventh Victim, Lewton creates a wholly insular world wherein there is no solace, no light. Unlike his other works, he approached this film with a clear message: "Death is good." And then proceeded to seep the goodness out of all life in reaction to this. The idea of familial love is lost: Mary's love for Jacqueline (accentuated by a kind of hesitant indifference) amounts to an interest in where she might be, Jacqueline's love for Mary is lost in her own ambivalence, the Palladist's love for Jacqueline lost in her betrayal. Romantic love is lost: Ward's love for Jacqueline lost to his love for Mary, Hoag's love lost to insanity . . . New York is an empty place totally void of anything but shadow produced by unseen light. God is a facet of Dr. Judd's intellect, brought forth only in defense. Jean Brooks' Jacqueline is nearly as alive at the end of the film as she is during it, her suicide an escape from nothingness to nothingness.

Shadows in the alley of The Seventh Victim produced by Val Lewton for RKO Radio Pictures, directed by Mark Robson, starring Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Kim Hunter, and Hugh BeaumontShadows In The Alley

There are many precursors to film noir here, most from Fritz Lang's work - and they inform the aforementioned sense of atmosphere in a way familiar to fans of German cinema. The subtle horror that the film attempts comes from the complete meaningless of life within it and the equally meaningless horror of death.

A friend pointed out that the oddness of the film's beginning is not well maintained throughout, and I agree. The beginning of the film sets a breathless pace, with a near-instant change of location, the introduction of a whole cast of characters with intricate, preformed relationships to themselves but not to the protagonist (who we cling to because we have no one else), and a vaguely sinister overtone. But from the time where Jacqueline is reunited with Mary we gain a sense of normalcy that even the Palladists cannot overcome. If Jacqueline succombs to them and drinks the poison we know that there will be a reaction: Mary will find out, she will know why, as will Dr. Judd and Ward. There will be interactions, formulaic reactions - possibly prosecution, retribution, resignation. The materialization of Jacqueline from the shadows provides a point from which the random, colorless chaos of the world can be ordered. That order, and those reactions, create meaning to both Jacqueline's life and death. It will still be bleak, but the terror is now steeped in a familiar tone with familiar outcomes. Where is the terror in the familiar? That, I fear, is far beyond Val Lewton's grip.

Jacqueline contemplating her forced suicide by poison in The Seventh Victim produced by Val Lewton for RKO Radio Pictures, directed by Mark Robson, starring Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Kim Hunter, and Hugh Beaumont
Jacqueline Facing Death

Fritz Lang's Destiny - twenty-two years this film's senior - has at its heart the selfsame message, as would Bergman's The Seventh Seal fourteen years later: Death is inescapable and indeed to be welcomed as a relief to the awful strife of this world. Destiny does not attempt to show the supposed-horror of death in a nihilistic world - a virtually unattainable goal. Rather, it works to show that the bittersweet pain of the world is ended in death, replaced by a utopian beauty where love is forged anew in green pastures. God in this film, rather than a cold intellectual force, shows that "love is strong as death." Conversely, The Seventh Seal creates Death itself as a facet of life, the terrifying part of the-God-within with whom we carry on a constant monologue, praying for a response to our call. That response is the melancholy, everyday beauty of our own lives that prods us ever gently back to the Earth at the same time that it calls us home to Him. "Death is good" by contrast becomes a childish mantra by a man with a vision, but without the words to speak it.

(. . . did I mention speaking the vision? That aforementioned friend also mentioned the film's lack of filmic quality - that it was, at times, merely filmed theater, hardly aware of its transient abilities. One rare exception is the shower scene where Mary is confronted by the unknown quantity of the satanist. This scene has the true potential for horror, and it seems hardly possible that Alfred Hitchcock had not seen it before creating his own in Psycho.)

A precursor to Hitchcock's shower scene in The Seventh Victim produced by Val Lewton for RKO Radio Pictures, directed by Mark Robson, starring Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Kim Hunter, and Hugh Beaumont
The World Beyond the Veil

Everybody's Waiting for the Man with the Bag . . .

I'll catch you with my death bag.  You may think I've gone insane.  But I promise - I will kill again.. . . Christmas is here again!

Saturday, December 13, 2008


This is a story of the grocery business, and I apologize for that. But the grocery business does consume a lot of my time, and the things with which I am preoccupied outside of it certainly apply inside of it as well.

A friend of mine, we‘ll call him Skip, just celebrated his 83rd birthday (the exact same day on which I celebrated my 27th) and - partly out of celebration, partly out of other commitments - his daughter had taken him to Philadelphia to spend the day with her. Skip spent a large part of his life in Philadelphia as a grocery store manager and later as a corporate officer for the same grocery chain. Going back, it seems, evoked a few memories from him that he wanted to share, and I’ve made it a point to always share his memories with him. It was 1968. Skip was the director of merchandising for his company, which is not a small rung on the ladder by any means. He was in charge of setting profit margins for merchandise, setting sale prices, and establishing schematics for store layout. Additionally, he oversaw the pool of buyers who, as their title suggests, buy everything that comes into the warehouse, working out the myriad deals that are intrinsic in that system. Even in 1968 this was a problem: corporations vying for top market position even in small companies like Skip’s were already beginning to slip money into the coffers of those in charge to make sure that their product was top dog. Once there, it becomes difficult for another product to take over. The public buys what they are told to, generally, and it’s very difficult to break that cycle. Make the kid’s parents buy it, lock them in, and the kids will never trust another brand. Their kids won’t even know that another brand is possible.

Skip first encountered this problem when he decided to reset the canned soup sections in his stores. At the time he was selling Campbell’s Chicken Noodle, Tomato, and Vegetable Beef soups at cost everyday. These soups, even today, represent the core of the condensed soup business (a very large and growing category - in 2005 Campbell‘s had revenue approaching $8bn) and a store with everyday low prices on these is sure to net customers en masse. Selling at costs, of course, means losing money, because the cost of each item must also bear the cost to transport it, the cost of labor to warehouse it - and any applicable inventory taxes involved -, and the cost of labor to stock it. The industry calls these items loss leaders - items for which the company is willing to lose money in order to get people into the store. The idea of a loss leader is to get as much exposure for the item as possible while selling as few as possible, thus maximizing profits. Skip, in turn, placed his loss leading Campbell’s cans on the bottom shelf of the set, and the other Campbell’s soups on either side. In the middle he placed the sundry soups, including broths and stocks. Traditional supermarket logic tells us that the middle area - anything from shelf three up - is where customer’s eyes are. Therefore items which do not need help selling are placed on the bottom, because customers are looking for them anyway. In the middle are placed items which do not already have a dedicated following (in cereal, for instance, you will always find large family sized boxes of Cheerios on the bottom shelf, children’s cereals in the middle, and adult cereals on top. Children’s cereals are the only part of the category which consistently change, in order to reflect the newest fad cartoons, movies, etc.). The problem which Skip encountered with this fairly sensible product alignment came from his company’s VP, who had been told that the arrangement could not continue by the president of Campbell’s soup. Attempts to explain the logic behind his choices fell on deaf ears. Nevertheless, and somewhat to the company’s credit, Skip’s new soup schematic was implemented in all of his stores and was a success, but his reputation with that VP had been tarnished.

This small victory was put to the test in a later incident, where the company’s president decided that Crest toothpaste should be placed on sale for 39c. Skip again refused, citing that he could place Close Up toothpaste on sale for the same price with a greater profit margin. The problem with this response is that Crest (incidentally the first toothpaste to include fluoride) is, and was, owned by the multinational juggernaut Proctor and Gamble while Close Up is made by Church and Dwight - even then a much smaller company. Skip’s plan to place Close Up toothpaste on sale was implemented against the president’s wishes, and the resulting row nearly placed Skip on the street. Today he credits these two events as the main reasons why he was unable to achieve a senior executive position within the company - and all because he made it more money than if he had followed the alternative plan.

There are benign reasons for a CEO wanting to place one product on sale over another, but the most obvious reason for this is that there were kickbacks in place about which Skip was not aware. Money talks. Even a few years ago it was common practice for vendors to give grocery managers gifts in exchange for better display spaces, increased shelf space, etc. Companies, purportedly realizing that this created an unfair advantage, have broadly banned this practice. Instead, the corporate offices of those vendors now send huge checks to the company owners in order to get better displays. These kickbacks, which pad the bottom line quite nicely, have resulted in a very narrow field of products (take a look at the detergent or shampoo aisle of your local market and see how many different companies are represented there. For most, non-specialty, markets the answer will be no more than 3 or 4 for both aisles combined) which excludes smaller competition offhand. More importantly, they have resulted in industry standard wages that are only marginally above minimum wage for most positions, generally awful benefits (or, in the case of some well known companies, hardly any benefits at all), and a general cronyism on executive row where the wage divide becomes quite evident.

Of course, these are moderate players in moderate examples from a moderately regulated government. History provides us with better, more telling examples, of what else can happen when that flow of corporate money catches the eye of the right person. In the very same decade that Skip fought for his Close Up sale, the Ford Motor Company had established a prison camp in its Argentina factory, where the military tortured and murdered members of the Union who had forced the company into providing the workers such luxuries as an hour lunch. They were declared enemies of the state.

As for Skip, the moral of his story, as he enunciated it, was to not be smarter than the boss. I told him that I felt the greater imperative was to know who the boss was. He laughed at that and agreed. I felt horrible for him. He came from an era that had told him that he had only to don a suit, go to business school, and he would be initiated into the elite. There was a certain sense of infallibility and empire to his generation, but now he sees - as should we all - that the rulers of the empire only ever were a select, predestined few.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I Come from Great Darkness and Deep Peace

"Foreign monopolies impose crops on us, they impose chemicals that pollute our earth, impose technology and ideology. All this through the oligarchy which owns the land and controls the politics. But we must remember - the oligarchy is also controlled, by the very same monopolies, the very same Ford Motors, Monsanto, Philip Morris. It's the structure we have to change. This is what I have come to denounce . . . I believe that truth and justice will eventually triumph. It will take generations. If I am to die in this fight, then so be it. But one day we will triumph. In the meantime, I know who the enemy is, and the enemy knows who I am, too."

-- Sergio Tomasella