Cat People’s Dark Patches


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I’ll tell you a secret: if you make the screen dark enough, the mind’s eye will read anything into it they want! We’re great ones for dark patches. … The horror addicts will populate the darkness with more horrors than all the horror writers in Hollywood could think of.   (Val Lewton, Life magazine interview, 25th Feb 1946)

Now that the cinemas are packed full of dogs, it seems like a good time to revisit Jacques Tourneur‘s dreamy Freudfest, Cat People. My students are watching it this week, so I was reunited with it after a separation of over a decade. I was utterly beguiled by it once more, so this might eventually become one of those posts that I add to periodically. For now (I hope this blog hasn’t started to display traces of the haste in which it is often prepared…), I’d just like to focus on those “dark patches” noted by the film’s producer, Val Lewton, in the quotation above. Lewton and Tourneur use low-key lighting to create a chiaroscuro effect in many scenes of the film: that is to say, the lighting is arranged to emphasise the distinctions between darkness and light. Chiaroscuro, an Italian word literally meaning “light-dark”, can be an expressive effect that envelops important elements of the frame in a vignette of darkness, as in this 1768 painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, one of my favourites (you can see the original in London’s National Gallery):

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(Want a much closer look at this painting? Go here.)

The strong central light source shuts out the rest of the room, bringing the eye in to the intimate wonder of the scene of a scientific demonstration (one of Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle’s air pumps that creates a vacuum in the jar, thus suffocating the cockatoo). There’s a motif of literal “enlightenment” here, but also an air of trepidation about the unseen zones that are obscured by blackness. That may be a subjective response, but that is Lewton’s point – with the proper cues, a spectator can be encouraged to fill in the blanks with something frightening.

Cat People is the story of a relationship between Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a Serbian-born woman living in New York, and Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), a construction designer who seduces and marries her. Irena is haunted by the legend of King John of Serbia, who supposedly slaughtered the country’s witches, represented in cat form on a statue she keeps in the centre of her apartment.

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Irena believes she is descended from the wisest, wickedest witches who escaped from King John’s sword to the village where she was born. This imagined link to a devil-worshipping, un-Christian heritage makes her distinctly problematic when she is required to fit in with the need to assimilate with the romantic, cultural and spiritual expectations of her adopted homeland in the USA. The job for the film’s spectator is to decide whether or not this is all in Irena’s head, and whether the legend is just a cover for a psychosexual fear, a common-or-garden “frigidity“. We are given lots of teasing clues. In one shot, Irena seems to be scrutinised by cats above her head:

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This is from the painting Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga (1784–1792) by Francisco de Goya. In the full version of the picture, you can see the keen-eyed cats (situated in the dark half of the image) staring at a magpie, while the birdcage to the right foreshadows the pet bird that Irena will later kill when she comes over all feline:

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vlcsnap-17000Cats get spooked every time Irena is near, showing off that sixth sense that animals always seem to have in scary movies, but we’d have to be fairly irrational to confirm Irena’s cat-woman condition on the evidence of a few raised kitty-hackles. Irena’s confinement indoors and in marriage, confirmed by images that imprison her within an oppressive mise-en-scene, cements the empathetic bond she believes she shares with the film’s many caged creatures.

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Irena is thus surrounded by images that foreshadow her fate or point to her feline alter ego so often that we might conclude that these are accumulating influences that create an imaginary cat persona in her mind, weighing her down with illusions of a historically and culturally enforced identity that preserves her with the markers of an ancient nationality: in that sense, Cat People might be an elegant expression of the immigrant experience, as Reed tries to squeeze these influences out of her and turn her into an all-American (i.e. like Alice), sexually pliable bride. His lack of imagination and his distrust of Irena’s culture are signposted throughout. In his  1998 study of Tourneur’s work, Chris Fujiawara notes:

Oliver’s Americanness takes a variety of forms. At Sally Lund’s, a restaurant near his office, he eats nothing but apple pie whereas, at a meeting to discuss whether he should have Irena committed, Judd orders Roquefort and even Alice has ‘the Bavarian creme’. Oliver has never known any artists, and he has never been unhappy. Bodeen’s script has him quoting Keats to Alice in the first scene at the zoo, but this touch is eliminated from the final film, in which Oliver’s prosaic nature is unmitigated. His lack of imagination and his inability to believe in Irena’s experience of the supernatural render him as unable to help her as is Judd and make him the inadvertent cause of her destruction.

Reed has no empathy with her bride. To him, she is all charisma, an enigma, but he’s not interested in the possibility that there might be some reality behind it. When he can’t own (i.e. have sex with her) he loses interest and transfers his attentions back to the readily available Alice. So, Irena’s otherness, and her problems of reconciling her culture and her location make this partly, in Fujiawara’s words “a tragedy of displacement.”

Most strikingly perhaps, Tourneur generates a fearful atmosphere by using darkness to shrink the space around individual characters. This might involve a strong central light source that emphasises the dark zones on the periphery of the frame:

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Or it might be a more subtle vignetting effect that encircles the figures, casting strong shadows that depict a dual identity or allow the darkness to impinge upon the light areas of the frame:

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Fujiwara argues that these dark spaces at the edge of the frame create a space around the characters which extends into offscreen space and “merges into, and mirrors, the darkness surrounding the film audience.” Sometimes this is actual darkness, sometimes it is the figurative darkness of a sensed but unseen presence. Two sequences stand out. The first sees Alice walking home and apparently being followed by Irena. The shadowed areas of the shots gradually overpower the light, suggesting a menace closing in, but aligning Irena’s presence with the darkness itself.

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The second sees Alice pursued by a presence she can barely set eyes on in the swimming pool of her YWCA building. Cutting between shots of Alice’s mounting fear and eerie shots of empty spaces (a stairwell, the ceiling, the sides of the pool), Tourneur creates tension from Irena’s absence. We know that she is in the building, but just as in the pursuit scene previously, during which her footsteps drop out of the soundtrack (maybe because she has changed her high heels for panther paws), the ellision of Irena from the image transforms her into a presence detected by the viewer’s imagination. She slips into the darkness, and even into the gaps between shots: where continuity editing usually synthesises the presence of an actress from disparate fragments of footage, here Irena’s presence is felt because it is expected, because the sequence of shots seems to suggest that she is moving around the room. But still she refuses to materialise; the only hint we get of her feline presence is a glimpse of a shadow which plays on the wall for a couple of seconds, actually a shadow made by Tourneur’s fist. J.P. Telotte has said of this absence that it “signals a black hole or vacant meaning in the physical realm which, in spite of man’s natural desire to fill it with consciousness and significance, persistently and troublingly remains open.”

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The use of dark patches is not an entirely expressionistic device – the first time she takes Reed back to her apartment, she realises that she has forgotten to put the lights on (she finds comfort in the dark), and the shot where she undergoes hypnosis, and her face is isolated in a spotlight is shown to be not a visual representation of her psychological state, but a shot of a room with the lights off. The scare scene in the swimming pool is ended when Irena switches the lights on and dispels the shadows in an instant. Tourneur permits this oscillation between manipulated, expressive imagery and rationalised reality, perpetuating the spectator’s own hesitation in accepting that Irena’s condition might be a genuine curse.

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Read More:

Ed Gonazalez. “Whispers in a Distant Corridor: The Cinema of Jacques Tourneur.” Slant Magazine, 2002.

Jacques Tourneur biography at Screenonline.

1942 Variety review.

2006 Roger Ebert review.

Review at Noir of the Week.

Reviews and quotations at Celtoslavica.

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The 180 degree rule


If you’re new to the study of film form, you’ll find a lot of jargon thrown your way. At first, it’ll be difficult to spot the difference between a medium shot and a medium long shot, and you might find it frustrating that many shots don’t fall easily into the classifications offered by this limited terminology. But soon it will become second nature, and you’ll be able to analyse editing and composition and editing strategies as they unfold before your eyes. Techniques of continuity which were designed to pass unnoticed will reveal themselves to you whenever you choose to look for them.

One of the best ways to illustrate the workings of continuity editing as practised in the Classical Hollywood Cinema is to look closely at a sequence of film, shot by shot, and in this case I’m going to look at 10 shots of one scene from Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940), and paying particular attention to the 180 degree rule. This was a convention developed to aid the spatial orientation of the viewer. Let’s put that another way; almost every sequence of film is edited together to give the impression that it is taking place in real time before the spectator, and to mask the truth that it has been assembled from pieces of film shot separately at different times. Each shot is connected to the shots before and after it in a logical way so as to limit discrepancies between them that might give the game away – if an actor wears a carnation in his lapel in one shot, but it is missing in the next, unless we are given some indication that his character has removed it suddenly, we have to see this as a continuity error, since it reveals the temporal gap between two shots which are supposed to be hiding that gap from our perception.

I won’t recap the plot of His Girl Friday, except to say that in the scene in question, newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) is dining with his ex-wife and best reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), along with her new fiancé Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). Even if you watch this scene in isolation, it should become clear from its construction and the performances that Grant’s character is trying to prevent Hildy from remarrying, and that the dialogue between the three people is filled with subtexts, barbed comments and various agenda. The scene is pieced together in order to keep these nuanced performances to the fore and to emphasise or magnify important bits of character detail.

[If you want to watch this clip but don’t have access to a DVD or video, the scene I’m looking at is available on YouTube. It begins at 5:35 in this post: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NM_Jes_poE and continues until 1:23 in the next one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NM_Jes_poE]

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Shot 1a

Shot 1:

The first shot brings the characters into a restaurant, tracking them from the background to foreground and setting out in a long shot the seating positions that they will occupy for most of the rest of the scene. Note that Cary Grant manipulates the seating so that he is inserted between Hildy and Bruce. The arrangement of the seating will become very important, and his “coming between” the engaged couple is both a figurative and a positional statement. But actually, it’s a round table, so they could still be seated next to each other if they wanted to shuffle round a bit!

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Now that the opening shot has established the setting (and differentiated it from the office scene into which it has dissolved, the shots will move closer to the speakers, shutting out most of the background. Everything behind the speakers drops out of focus so we can concentrate on the important narrative information that the conversation provides.

Shot 2

Shot 2

Shot 2 is kind of a jump cut, in that it doesn’t offer us much new information, just a slightly closer view of the scene from the previous one. This may have been done to enable the adjustment of lighting and other equipment following the tracking shot, but the potential mismatch is offset by a smooth match on action: at the end of shot one, Grant turns to the waiter, and at the start of shot two, his head is still turned to deliver his line. The completion of an action started in one shot and completed in another bonds the shots together by suggesting that they represent continuation rather than a sticking together of disparate elements.

Shot 3

Shot 3

Shot 4

Shot 4

Shots 3 and 4 are both medium shots. They also give us a good example of a shot/reverse shot (or shot/counter shot) pairing, and illustrate the 180 degree rule. Both shots still privilege Cary Grant as the important character here, focusing on his efforts to thwart the relationship without appearing to do so. But notice that his seating position changes slightly from shot to shot, even though his character is not moving from side to side: in the first he is closer to Bruce, and then closer to Hildy in the next. This is a particularly subtle cheat cut, where the the composition of each shot overrules the strict requirements of precise continuity – moving the positions plays up the dynamics between them. Each of these shots is taken from a different take, photographed from a different angle. Imagine an invisible line running from Bruce’s right elbow to Hildy’s left elbow. We can call this line the axis of action. The camera can shoot from anywhere on this side of the line (i.e. looking at them from the side of the table where there is an empty seat), and we cut between the two positions allow us to look at Bruce and Hildy’s faces in turn. This is sometimes called an over-the-shoulder shot, because we tend to be looking over one character’s shoulder to see the face of the other speaker. This is a very standard way of shooting dialogue scenes. If the line is “crossed”, for example, if there is a shot from the other side of the table, behind Cary Grant, it might seem as though the speakers have switched sides. An easy way to think about this is a football game. Although you sometimes get close-ups from a variety of angles, especially during slow motion replays, for the most part your TV shows you a football game from above and at one side of the pitch. If these master shots of the pitch were to keep cutting to a view from the opposite position on the other side of the stadium, it might get confusing as to which direction the game is travelling. Who is attacking? Who defending? Which way are they going? You could probably figure it out from what you know about football (players shouldn’t be shooting at their own goal), but it doesn’t hurt to maintain spatial clarity at all times. In case this is still vague, I’ll borrow a diagram from Screensite.org before moving on:

Once you recognise the facets of spatio-temporal continuity and acknowledge its prevalence in narrative film, you can see how these techniques are supposed to reduce the disruption and disorientation that might caused for the spectator if the links from shot to shot were made to appear anything other than causally, logically, seamlessly linked. You will also be able to identify deliberate transgressions of the rule which might be performed for dynamic or subversive effect: this is very common nowadays.

Shot 5

In shots 5-8, we cut in to medium close-ups of Rosalind Russell reacting to Cary Grant’s teasing small-talk with Bruce. The closer view of her face serves to emphasise Grant’s impertinence by showing that Hildy has noted his intentions and is holding back from a full-blown angry response. In shots 7 and 8, you can see another precise match on action. Russell raises her hand to indicate to Grant that he should shut up, and in the next shot, which again takes in all three characters, we can see her lowering her hand again. So, with a very simple movement, the connection is cemented between two shots which are graphically very different.

The last two shots in this discussion continue the back-and forth between two predominant camera positions, always on the same side of the table.

Shot 9

Shot 9

Shot 10

Shot 10

In shots 9 and 10 we cut to a closer shot, of just Walter and Bruce. Shot 10 is also kind of a reaction shot, capturing more of Grant’s performance in detail, and reinforcing the fact that he is now directing his attention in Bruce’s direction, ignoring Hildy’s injunction. By observing the 180 degree rule (note that, although this is an established convention, it’s not really a rule, and nobody was ever, to my knowledge, spanked for breaking it), the relationships between the characters is clarified, never inverted – Grant stays between them and maintains a wedge between the couple, and the constant positioning of Bruce and Hildy on the left and right hand sides of the frame respectively reinforces that. Graphically, they never switch sides. We are also kept as privileged voyeurs of the scene, as if we occupy that fourth chair. If the three figures were to position themselves evenly around the round table, we would have to insert a camera between them rather than sitting back on eavesdropping conveniently on their conversation.

This all sounds very rigid and restrictive, and it certainly benefits a production line studio system to have guidelines that make it easy for film-makers to efficiently capture a scene safe in the knowledge that all the various shots and coverage can be pieced together into a cohesive whole at the editing stage. But the system of production is capacious enough to incorporate so much variation in performance, staging, lighting and dialogue (not to mention the broader narrative, thematic and tonal variables) that the similarities in structure between many scenes in many films can easily pass unnoticed.

Postscript

I hoped in this article to clarify, mostly for the benefit of my students, the 180 degree rule and some associated principles of continuity editing, as used in the Classical Hollywood cinema and beyond. I should add reference to Vance Kepley Jr’s analysis of the same scene from ‘Spatial Articulation in the Classical Cinema’ in Wide Angle 5:3 (1983), pp.50-8. I mentioned above that in some shots it is evident that the actors’ seating positions have been altered between shots so as to allow distinct compositions that privilege certain elements of the scene at the expense of strict spatial continuity. Kepley makes this the crux of his argument: while it might be seen that the imperative in Classical Hollywood cinema was to maintain a theatrical viewpoint, with the spectator looking in on a spatially consistent scene (albeit one which has been edited together), in actual fact it is manipulations such as the positions of the sitters which demonstrate to the contrary that this is a cinematically fabricated image of spatial continuity. The relationship between the shots is not defined only by adherence to a realistic presentation of space, but an ideologically inflected representation of space that has been altered to display the hierarchical relationships between the characters, cutting to reaction shots or to show a speaker or listener to greater or lesser advantage and positing Grant as the pivotal figure in the action. As Kepley puts it:

The manipulation has a formal significance in the finished scene in that it keeps the figure of Walter prominent near the centre of the frame. If Walter were not relocated on each reverse angle, he would be obscured in whole or in part by the figure closer to the camera. by moving Walter back and forth on each reverse-angle cut, Hawks creates a fluid mise-en-scene in which Walter remains constantly visible.

So, the arrangement of the scene is altered to facilitate views of important character traits, business and expressions, and this disrupts the idea of a theatrical, non-interventionist mise-en-scene. This supports the assertion that even when the presentation of continuous space was considered paramount, the needs of narrative might take precedence at any time:

The important lesson here is not that Hawks “cheats” and gets away with it. In fact the degree of spatial manipulation in the scene seems rather slight, and there are segments in the classical cinema which include bolder uses of space. Rather the consistent nature of the spatial manipulation in this example, where the single character who controls the scene also dominates the mise-en-scene, suggests the degree to which various codes in the classical cinema are subordinated to a narrative dominant. The efficient establishment of the character hierarchy emerges as the dominant trait of this scene, and the spatial code is one of several which work together economically to define that hierarchy. No aspect of the scene – not the character action, nor the dialogue, nor the spatial articulation – creates anything we could call a natural situation. In this lunch scene where the characters never consume their meals, every ingredient proves artificial.

Hey, I never noticed that nobody eats anything in this scene. I learned something today…

If you still need more information about the 180 degree rule, the following links might help:

David Bordwell, who has been instrumental in setting the standard for the formal analysis of Classical Hollywood Cinema, has a lovely article about his passion for His Girl Friday on his blog. He used the film to illustrate continuity editing with his students, as did my teachers, and as do I now…