*. Picking a favourite Val Lewton movie is a challenge. I’d go with Cat People, but I know a few people who would say I Walked with a Zombie. And while I don’t think this movie would get as many votes, I wouldn’t put it out of the running. It’s very good.
*. What I think makes this such a successful movie, aside from the cast (which I’ll get to), is how it manages its theme.
*. It’s based on a Robert Louis Stevenson story that was in turn based inspired by the Burke and Hare murders, but the screenplay is a very free adaptation for which Lewton (under the alias Carlos Keith) deserves much of the credit.
*. I don’t think it’s a great script (in particular the subplot about the little crippled girl seems too prominent for how weak and sentimental it is), but it has some great moments and overall has a remarkable focus.
*. The theme, as I see it, is the class system.
*. This is most obvious in the relationship between Doctor MacFarlane and Cabman Gray (whose first name is John, but his job becomes him). As the sign over the pub puts it, they represent gentlemen and the commonality.
*. The parts are perfectly cast. Henry Daniell has a refined presence with a touch of the sinister about him, of aristocratic villainy. That suits him well here, as despite being miles above Karloff in the social scale, on a moral level they are equivalents.
*. Does that sound extreme? I don’t think so. Notice how, after he gets rid of Gray, he rushes to get back into the graverobbing game on his own. Not that Fettes needs much persuading to join him.
*. Boris Karloff is nothing short of brilliant as Cabman Gray. And the part reflects his own aspirations to be a real actor, one of the dramatic quality, not just someone playing a monster under thick make-up.
*. Gray is one of the greatest screen villains ever, with his dirty, slicked-down hair, sideburns, stubble, and smiling menace. And yet he’s first introduced to us as a kindly figure, carrying Georgina, introducing her to his horse and letting her pat him on the head, and he’s sorry for mentioning running and playing to her. There’s nothing sinister about him. He even seems a bit embarrassed and sad when Meg glares at him from the doorway.
*. He maintains some of this even as the film goes on and gets progressively darker. He clearly loves his horse and cat (his only companions), and seems upset that he has to kill the dog guarding the grave. Listen to that pause in his line where he mentions how people care about . . . dogs. Meaning they don’t care about people. Or at least people like him.
*. And even at the very end he remains somewhat sympathetic. He’s the guy who does the gentry’s dirty work, and it has made him bitter: “I’m a small man, a humble man. And being poor, I have had to do much that I did not want to do. But so long as the great Dr. MacFarlane jumps to my whistle, that long am I man. And if I have not that, I have nothing. Then I am only a cabman and a grave robber.” It’s class codependency.
*. But the class theme is worked out on other levels as well. There is also MacFarlane’s relationship with his wife, Meg. It’s hard to tell, but they appear to be a socially mismatched pair and they have to keep their marriage a secret, with her pretending to be a housekeeper (someone beneath him). She is anxious he might leave her for a “great lady,” as she is only a highland lass given to folksy visions, Edinburgh’s idea of a hillbilly or white trash.
*. Another example: What sort of morality accepts the murder of the street singer in order to cure Georgina? One that sees the singer’s life as expendable (she doesn’t even have a name, and MacFarlane considers them to be dime a dozen), while Georgina is obviously a little princess. The singer is sacrificed merely so that the doctor can get some practice in. She dies so that a member of the upper class can walk again.
*. Lugosi is also well cast — the wholly manufactured part of Joseph adapted to his limited range and abilities at this point in his career. He is a pathetic dim-wit, easily disposed of by Karloff, but again someone whose villainy is made sympathetic.
*. David Thomson on Robert Wise: “his better credits are only the haphazard products of artistic aimlessness given rare guidance.” There’s something to this. Wise edited Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, but Thomson suspects Welles deserves most of the credit. We may think the same of his work with Lewton. This is a good movie, but not because of the direction, which has nothing special about it.
*. Lewton, meanwhile, was the Roger Corman of his day, running a sort of film college to bring up talent on low-budget genre fare. And doing a great job.
*. Even the ending here works very well, ditching Stevenson’s hint at the supernatural for an exciting burst of weirdness before full closure. No one is quite sure how they got Karloff to glow in the dark, but he looks great, as does the carriage tumbling down the cliff.
*. When you think about it, the movies have given us very few really penetrating and realistic portrayals of human evil. The best known screen villains have been figures out of melodrama. Karloff’s Cabman Gray is something different, and should be better known. But then, he’s such a quiet, humble man.