Film 405: Film Noir




Wynn G. Hamonic


                In my films, I have always tried to suggest the presence of this supernatural world, never to caricature it. I don’t mock those who have extra-sensory perceptions, mediums or strange forces. Dramatically, the result is far more effective. The less you see the more you believe.[1]

                                                                                Jacques Tourneur, Interview by Bernard Tavernier




When one reflects upon the motion picture output of RKO, one imagines a large ape climbing the Empire State Building, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) walking back into Bedford Falls, now Pottersville, after wishing himself out of existence, and Charles Foster Kane’s (Orson Welles) last word “Rosebud”, probably the single most famous word uttered in American cinema. Directors such as Dorothy Arzner, John Cromwell, George Cukor, William Dieterle, John Ford, Sam Fuller, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and Otto Preminger, all made legendary films at RKO. Max Steiner developed the art of film scoring at the studio. RKO also had a number of firsts in the motion picture industry. “RKO was the first sound studio to be formed, the first major studio to declare bankruptcy during the Depression, the first studio to make extensive deals with independent producers, the first to be involved publicly in the Communist witch-hunts of the late forties and early fifties, and the first to feel and eventually succumb to the effects of television.”[2]


                Yet probably one of the most unheralded and little-known achievements at RKO would be in the development of a specific style or aesthetic movement in American film, later termed “film noir” by Nino Frank in 1946. While claims have been made by the French for having produced the first film noir by the deep pessimism expressed in the “French poetic realist films of the latter part of the 1930s (exemplified by the work of Marcel Carné, Julien Duvivier and Jean Renoir),”[3] it wasn’t until a cross-fertilization of these French films, the German expressionist style of shadowy, low-key lighting, claustrophobic framing, extreme camera angles, distorting mise-en-scene, and tension-inducing oblique and vertical compositional lines, the Weimar “street films” which featured the alienation and loneliness of the individual trapped within the violent streets of industrialized city-bound society, and the American influence of paranoia, sadism, and excessive brutality as a result of the effects of the ongoing Second World War, that film noir was born.


While much has been written about the RKO noir masterpieces with screenplays by writers Charles Schnee [They Live By Night (1949)], John Paxton [Murder, My Sweet (1944); Cornered (1945); Crossfire (1947)], and Daniel Manwaring [Out of the Past (1947); Roadblock (1951)], films directed by Edward Dymytryk, Nicholas Ray, and Jacques Tourneur, very few historians appreciate that the studio can be credited with producing the first film noir, The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) directed by Boris Ingster. Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward note in their seminal work on film noir:


Stranger on the Third Floor is the first true film noir; and it represents a distinct break in style and substance with the preceding mystery, crime, detection, and horror films of the 1930s. To begin with, there is the oneiristic blurring of the distinction between dream and reality. But more significantly, this unheralded B film noir, made a full year before Citizen Kane, demonstrates the most overt influence yet of German expressionism on American crime films to that time.[4]

George Turner writes that Stranger on the Third Floor “is the first example of a truly indigenous American film style now called film noir…(with) all the elements of full-fledged noir, including moral ambiguity, hovering fear, menacing shadows and angular POVs, dark streets, precarious stairs, unexpected noises --- the works.”[5] Stranger on the Third Floor is important not only because it was the first film noir predating the Maltese Falcon (1941) (generally regarded as the first noir by many historians), but because the film established the RKO house film noir style, was the first collaboration between cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca and art director Albert S. D’Agostino, and was a virtual preview of Val Lewton’s noir-horror productions at RKO.


                Between 1943 and 1946, producer Val Lewton brought to the screen nine noir-horror film gems: Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), The Ghost Ship (1943), Curse of the Cat People (1944), The Body Snatcher (1945), Isle of the Dead (1945), and Bedlam (1946). From this list, three are now recognized as classics in the horror genre (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, Curse of the Cat People), while the other six are considered minor noir-horror works of art.




The success of the Lewton films in terms of their distinctive RKO noir-horror vision and style, and their ability to produce Lewton’s desired effect: to send the frightened viewer jumping out of his seat, can be attributed not to the screenwriters or actors but to their crack technical staff.  When giving credit to the major artists and technicians that worked on the Lewton noir-horrors, Thomas Schatz writes that “the key figures were Jacques Tourneur, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, art director Albert D’Agostino, set designer Darrell Silvera, composer Roy Webb…”[6] From this small list, three individuals, what the author refers to as the “RKO Noir-Horror Trinity”, had the most influence on the final product: director Jacques Tourneur, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, and art director Albert S. D’Agostino. Tourneur directed three of the nine films (most notably two of the three films that are now considered horror masterpieces), Musuraca light the sets and was behind the camera on five of the nine (like Tourneur is credited with work on two of the three horror classics), while D’Agostino was involved in all nine productions (see Table 1).  The work of these three neglected masters in their ability to create a world of creatures that inhabited the shadows helped to shape and define the look of a new sub-genre, the noir-horror, as well as influence the look of the horror film for decades to come. 




Table 1. Production Credits for the Val Lewton Noir Horrors, 1943-46





Art Director





Cat People (1942)

Jacques Tourneur

Nicholas Musuraca

Albert S. D'Agostino

I Walked With a Zombie (1942)

Jacques Tourneur

J. Roy Hunt

Albert S. D'Agostino

Leopard Man (1943)

Jacques Tourneur

Robert De Grasse

Albert S. D'Agostino

Ghost Ship (1943)

Mark Robson

Nicholas Musuraca

Albert S. D'Agostino

Seventh Victim (1943)

Mark Robson

Nicholas Musuraca

Albert S. D'Agostino

Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Robert Wise

Nicholas Musuraca

Albert S. D'Agostino

Body Snatcher (1945)

Robert Wise

Robert De Grasse

Albert S. D'Agostino

Isle of the Dead (1945)

Mark Robson

Jack MacKenzie

Albert S. D'Agostino

Bedlam (1946)

Mark Robson

Nicholas Musuraca

Albert S. D'Agostino


The trio of Tourneur, Musuraca, and D’Agostino can be seen as a production “trinity” in both the theological and non-theological sense. In a non-theological perspective, the trio’s successful noir-horror interpretation of the first Lewton production Cat People had established the visual style of the sub-genre and what was to be expected in the following eight films. Unfortunately, the success of Cat People separated Tourneur from Lewton as RKO figured that they were making so much money on the films that by pulling them apart into different productions they would make twice as much money than by keeping them together. By the time Tourneur had left at the end of the third film in the series, there was very little left for directors Robson and Wise to formulate. While the two auteurs left traces of their own distinctive style on the remaining six productions, the success of the first three in the series left them largely trying to emulate Tourneur’s vision.


As far as the other two members of the “trinity” D’Agostino would be designing sets on the series for its entire run while Musuraca’s cinematographic film noir expressionistic style that he developed in Stranger on the Third Floor and refined for the horror genre in Cat People would be applied with some success by Hunt, De Grasse, and MacKenzie on the four thrillers Musuraca was not involved. The fact that D’Agostino was involved with all three of the most successful films from the series (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, Curse of the Cat People) while Musuraca was behind the camera and Tourneur in the director’s chair for two of the three films gives further credence that these three masters were the artists largely responsible for the success of the series.


From a theological standpoint, the three could also be viewed as a production “holy trinity” in that like “gods” they created a world, albeit one of celluloid, populated not just by humans but also by all kinds of spirits and creatures of our imagination. Tourneur could be seen as the symbolic ultimate godhead (the Christian being “God the Father”), the “overseer of filmic reality”, having existed since the beginning (prior to the arrival of D’Agostino and Musuraca on the series) with his power over all the technicians and artists that produced the motion pictures. Tourneur was the overseer ultimately responsible for the final shape, structure and form of this world and the one who instructed and guided, if not dominated, the people (the actors and actresses), even animals, who moved around in this filmic space, the mise-en-scene captured by the camera.


According to Christian tradition it was the son (Jesus Christ, the second member of the holy trinity) begotten of the Father who created the world. Like the Judaeo-Christian God in Genesis 1:1 who in the beginning created the heavens and the earth, D’Agostino, the “maker of filmic space”, the one who was responsible for the construction of this world comprised of sets and props. It was D’Agostino who built the world in which the humans and animals (such as the leopard in Cat People and Leopard Man) would carry out their duties as actors and actresses, and it was he who determined both weather patterns and the place of the heavenly bodies overhead, the stars and moon, in this artificial filmic universe. 


As the final part of this noir-horror “holy trinity” Musuraca could be seen as the one who like the Judaeo-Christian God in Genesis 1:3 had power over light and darkness in this world. It was Musuraca, “the giver of filmic light”, who determined not just whether light would exist but how much light, in which tonal range, and in what intensity and direction this light would be applied. Musuraca could therefore be seen as the third part of this trinity, the “Holy Ghost” (or “Holy Spirit”) in that his was a world of creating ghost-like images, and like the ethereal invisible Holy Ghost, Musuraca is still present on screen even though we do not see him. The images he created on screen, his imprint, was also ethereal, a world of shadows, reflections, and creatures that filled the screen, and although the viewer never glimpsed Musuraca, they knew his presence by the atmosphere and the feeling he created for the viewer.


Like the great mystery of the Christian trinity of all three “gods” being separate but at the same time being one God, all three artists can also be seen as being one “god” in that their noir-horror vision was a unified one. The end product on all nine films was remarkably similar even though they only worked together on the first film. While two of the three worked together on six of the other eight films, and only one on the other two, it appears that the noir-horror vision of the first film, Cat People, dominated the other films. Therefore, even though other members of this “holy trinity” were not “physically present” on eight of the nine films, by being one “god” they were nevertheless “spiritually present” as one and able to successfully carry this noir-horror vision forward on the films produced after Cat People.  




                Jacques Tourneur was born on November 12, 1904 in Paris, France, the son of director Maurice Tourneur. He moved to the United States with his family in 1914 and attended Hollywood High School. He joined MGM as an office boy in 1924, labored as an actor, and undertook work as a script clerk for his father’s last six American films. When his father became involved in a dispute over the production of Verne’s The Mysterious Island, the family returned to France where Jacques edited his father’s films and directed his first film in the French capital in 1931. The work of Jacques Tourneur can be seen simply as a continuation of his father’s directorial style. Maurice Tourneur, a former book illustrator and decorator, likely influenced his son’s approach to the cinematic medium and reliance on his cameraman Musuraca and set designer D’Agostino to carry the narrative. In directing such films as The Wishing Ring (1914) Maurice Tourneur was able to produce almost hypnotic lighting effects by relying “almost completely on his imagination and the talents of his photographer and set designer rather than the realities of on location shooting.”[7]


By 1935, Jacques Tourneur had returned to Hollywood and rejoined MGM as an assistant director. During this period he met Val Lewton where both worked as second-unit directors on A Tale of Two Cities for Jack Conway becoming close friends. It was Tourneur and Lewton who directed the brilliant storming of the Bastille sequence for the film. While Tourneur remained at MGM directing over 20 subjects and began directing B features, Lewton moved to become David O. Selznick’s story editor. Lewton left Selznick to head his own production unit at RKO and remembered his old friend who he wanted to direct his first production at the studio.


Unfortunately, many biographical articles on Tourneur found in film reference books fail to give the director credit for his contributions to film noir style, more particularly the noir-horror sub-genre. Ephraim Katz writes:


Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie are two fine examples of literate, low-keyed suspense films in which the horror is implicit, looming ominously in the background but rarely seen. Shock comes in small and effective doses and is enhanced by a sustained ominous mood. The same restraint and cultured taste have been characteristic of Tourneur’s subsequent films in other genres, but with the passage of time his misses outnumbered his hits and he turned to television for many of his assignments.[8]


It is interesting to note that no mention is made in the article of how Tourneur was able to produce and maintain the level of suspense in the Lewton films. While the omission is excusable considering Katz was likely under pressure from the publisher to keep his biographies succinct, his failure to make note of Tourneur’s film noir classic Out of the Past (1947), as well as the highly rated horror picture he made in England, Night of the Demon/Curse of the Demon (1957), is glaringly careless[9].


                Film critics and historians have much discussed the relative influences of producer Val Lewton[10] (nicknamed the “Sultan of shudders” and “Chillmaster” by the critics) and director Jacques Tourneur on the success of the noir-horrors, specifically the three films that Tourneur directed. When viewing the nine noir-horrors, much of the visual composition and noir style can be traced to the first film of the series, Tourneur’s Cat People (1942).  John McCarty writes:


The now famous style of Cat People with its emphasis on atmosphere and understatement was a far more personal, less generic approach to the “horror film” and an abrupt departure from the graphic traditions established in the thirties. Its innovation has largely been attributed to Lewton, and I think this is true. But its execution is something else again. Comparisons to those Lewton films directed by Tourneur and to films made in later years by Tourneur indicate that the style and essential preoccupations of Cat People belong very much to Jacques Tourneur.[11]                             


In his interview to Bernard Tavernier, Tourneur elaborated on his working relationship with Lewton:


With Val Lewton, we really worked together as a team. Everyone participated in the preparation of the script, and yet he never set foot on the set. He left you completely free. What mattered to him above all was the overall conception of the film.[12]


While Tourneur may have had a hand in the preparation of the scripts, Lewton not only had the final say on all the screenplays but also on the choice of actors. “For a range of studios and with varying budgets, and despite the fact that he almost never had much say about scripts or casting, Tourneur would continue to exercise a remarkable degree of control over the feel of his films.”[13] The end result was that Tourneur and the other Lewton directors Robson and Wise spent their considerable talents on photography, set design, editing, and sound.


Manny Farber noted that: “…his [Lewton’s] directors (he discovered Robson and Wise in the cutting department) became so delirious about scenic camera work that they used little imagination on the acting.”[14] Farber added: “But the sterile performances were partly due to Lewton’s unexciting idea that characters should always be sweet ‘like the people who go to the movies’…”[15] When Tourneur had input into screenplays, he wisely refused to accept scenes with long stretches of dialogue. “When confronted with such scenes, he typically frowned and said, ‘It sounds so corny.’”[16] Lewton therefore “forced his crew to create drama almost abstractly with symbolic sounds, textures, and the like that made the audience hyper-conscious of sensitive craftsmanship.”[17] Without Lewton on set, Tourneur relied on Musuraca, and D’Agostino to create some of the most frightening scenes of horror in motion picture history. 




                Nicholas Musuraca’s achievements as cinematographer during Hollywood’s golden age remain unjustly obscure. He was born on October 28 [25], 1892 in Riace, Italy. He was hired as the chauffeur for J. Stuart Blackton working his way quickly through a number of positions at Vitagraph before becoming camera assistant there in 1919.[18] In the early 1920s he became a cinematographer. J. Stuart Blackton, who by the late 1920s was a struggling film producer, brought over Musuraca to England. With Musuraca behind the camera, Blackton filmed three features in England: The Glorious Adventure (1922), A Gypsy Cavalier (1922) and The Virgin Queen (1923). It was during this period that Musuraca was developing his distinctive style, a uniform personal aesthetic that he would later apply in the RKO noir-horrors. Blackton’s daughter recalls Musuraca’s work on The Virgin Queen, a drama on the life of Queen Elizabeth I, filmed entirely on location at Beaulieu Castle:


We did not use a single studio set during the entire production. Instead we took our cameras and equipment directly into the castle and abbey. For daytime shots we combined artificial light with sunlight and the effects achieved were superb. Much of the credit for the spectacular camera affects that distinguished this otherwise mediocre motion picture belongs to Nick Musuraca…[19]


Musuraca moved back to Hollywood and worked behind the camera on numerous early silent and sound Westerns [Lightning Lariats (1927), The Cherokee Kid (1927), Phantom of the Range (1928), The Cheyenne Kid (1933)] and low-budget mystery and action pictures [Conspiracy (1930), Murder on the Blackboard (1934), Law of the Underworld (1938)]. By the late 1930s, he was developing into RKO’s prime cameraman.[20]


                In 1940 he was behind the camera for The Stranger on the Third Floor helping to define the visual conventions of American film noir as well as codifying the RKO look.[21] 


Musuraca’s photography begins and ends with shadows, owing a major debt to German expressionism, and can be seen as the leading factor in the resurrection of the style in Hollywood in the 1940s. The dominant tone in his work is black, a stylistic bias that lent itself to the film noir and the moody films of Val Lewton. But even within the confines of the studio system Musuraca succeeded in transposing his style to other genres. The western Blood on the Moon and George Stevens’s nostalgic family drama I Remember Mama are both infused with the same shadowy visuals that Musuraca brought to the horror film in Cat People and the film noir in The Locket.[22] 


Musuraca’s cinematographic style can be fragmented into five identifiable pieces. The first is the application of the complete tonal range of black and white. “Best exemplified by the outdoor sequences in Out of the Past, Musuraca created the moving equivalent of Ansel Adam’s ‘Zone System’ of photography in which deep blacks, smooth grays, and sharp whites coexist within the frame.”[23] By using a rich deep tonal range Musuraca was able to give low-budget features an opulent texture.


His second trait was the low placement of light sources often using table lamps, fireplaces, and campfires. The end result was a highly expressionistic look as the illuminated character was trapped by his shadow looming on the walls and ceiling above creating a claustrophobic atmosphere within the frame. In Cat People, in a dark office Musuraca effectively uses a drafting table lamp that lights up below like an x-ray machine providing a sense of menace while a snarling presence of a stalking animal makes itself felt in the room. In Blood on the Moon (1948), Musuraca’s expressionistic low-key lighting pervades every indoor scene where even the saloon is underlit with only a few dusty lanterns.


                The third imprint of the Musuraca style was the use of a tightly defined high-key light focused on objects, most often faces, in the black void. The technique directs the viewer’s eye to the primary point of interest within the frame such as the look of horror on the face of someone trapped in a dark room thereby emphasizing the surrounding darkness where creatures may prowl heightened by a conflict between the two disparate tones. Musuraca makes use of it effectively during fight sequences such as the saloon gunfights and barroom brawls in Blood on the Moon.


The fourth Musuraca cinematographic mark is a “skimming-silhouetting technique” where figures and faces in the foreground are lit from the side or from behind emphasizing a contour, while most importantly leaving the front largely dark. The silhouetted object is thereby separated from the background adding depth to the frame and was effectively used by Musuraca in the Lewton noir-horrors as well as in The Locket and Tourneur’s Out of the Past. In The Spiral Staircase, Musuraca’s effective use of light can be seen on the spiral staircase with its shadowy recesses and silhouetted banisters that stretch and shift as Helen makes her descent down to the darkness below.


                The final Musuraca trait is a shattering of the frame into geometric patterns of light and shadow. “In The Seventh Victim a cosmetics factory at night becomes little more than a collection of rectangular shapes by varying tone.”[24] In Out of the Past, San Francisco under moonlight becomes a city shaped by black quadrangles and white squares rather than brick, mortar, and steel.


                While the 1940s gave rise to a number or creative directors of photography such as John Seitz [This Gun for Hire (1942), Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950)], Arthur Edeson [The Maltese Falcon (1941)), Joseph LaShelle (Laura (1944), The Fallen Angel (1945)], Woody Bredell [Phantom Lady (1944), Christmas Holiday (1944)], Milton Krasner [Woman in the Window (1945), Scarlet Street (1945)], Norbert Brodine [Kiss of Death (1947)], Russell Metty [Touch of Evil (1958)], George Turner argues that Musuraca was “probably the most influential of all” where his noir vision dominates the mise-en-scene of the Lewton noir horrors.[25]




                Albert S. D’Agostino was born on December 27, 1893 in New York City. He studied architectural and mechanical design at Columbia University and the Mechanics Institute before embarking on a career as a scenic designer for the theater in 1915. D’Agostino established himself as a leading stage designer during the golden age of theater where dozens of major productions were on Broadway. During the early 1920s he was occasionally employed by Lewis J. Selznick Productions and by MGM who produced a few films in New York during the mid-twenties.


                In 1925 he made his big step to film production when he joined Universal as a unit art director and moved to Hollywood. One of D’Agostino’s major artistic influences was Charles D. Hall, the influential art director on the Gothic horrors produced by the Universal studio [Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)], who combined both Gothic and modern architecture in the décor which D’Agostino would also use in his designs on Universal films The Raven (1935) and Werewolf of London (1935). A good example is D’Agostino’s efforts on Dracula’s Daughter (1931) where he redressed Hall’s sets with murky London streets, the misty bridge, the fog-shrouded funeral pyre, and the title character’s studio apartment


In 1940, D’Agostino joined RKO as a unit art director but would soon replace Van Nest Polglase as Supervising Art Director at the studio. From 1940 through to the studio’s demise in the mid-fifties, D’Agostino would create the studio’s most important set designs.[26] In Stranger on the Third Floor, D’Agostino moved away from Polglase’s style of sensuous glamour dominated by Art Deco influences to work with Musuraca who influenced D’Agostino’s style for the next two decades. Gone is Polglase’s romantic vision of American cities replaced by D’Agostino’s dark, menacing urban landscapes that avoided all sense of physical attractiveness. While Van Nest Polglase designs were large and opulent, D’Agostino’s were smaller, more conservative, but no less impressive. Among the classic noirs D’Agostino would be associated with include The Spiral Staircase (1946), Notorious (1946), Crack-Up (1946), Deadline at Dawn (1946), Out of the Past (1947), Berlin Express (1948), The Set-Up (1949), The Window (1949), Where Danger Lives (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1951), Macao (1952), and Clash by Night (1952) where he used highly stylized sets built on RKO’s back lot and soundstages.


For D’Agostino the move from Universal to RKO “was a move from the shuffling monster school of horror to a brand of narrative grounded in psychological casualty.”[27] D’Agostino was able to effectively make this transition to RKO underpinning character psychology in his set design that would be later effectively used in the Lewton noir-horrors. In Stranger on the Third Floor, the protagonist’s sense of guilt is conveyed in D’Agostino’s sets that grow increasingly abstract to the point where a jail cell is suggested by merely a bed and the shadow of bars. In The Spiral Staircase, a large Victoria mansion serves as a home for those suffering from various physical and mental ailments. Although the set is now a cliché it was fresh and exciting at the time. He also gave the sets an extra dimension through the “imaginative use of mirrors to reflect both the visible deformities of the characters and the interior, psychological deformity of the murderer.”[28]


Not all of D’Agostino’s sets are overt in the linkage of characters’ subconscious states with physical surroundings. Hence a single realistic setting would serve as a psychological metaphor for an entire film. Most of the film sets designed by D’Agostino and Walter Keller for the Lewton thrillers feature at least one set that serves the metaphoric function. I Walked With a Zombie contains a fountain in the form of St. Sebastian that materializes the characters’ personal sense of martyrdom and pain. In The Leopard Man, a film with a seemingly random haphazard narrative, the ball suspended by the waters of a fountain at the center of that film appears to be controlled by larger, intangible forces. “Isle of the Dead recreates the Arnold Bocklin painting that inspired the movie and centers much of the film’s polemic about faith and death on a parapet on which a votive burns.”[29] The Seventh Victim’s key set is a room decorated with just a chair and a noose, an allegory of the heroine’s philosophy of life and death. Important to the film is the double staircase, an overt symbol of life’s choices available to the film’s characters. Often in many of the films stairs function in many of his sets as a pathway to sexual invitation or initiation.


Despite the budgetary concerns that afflicted the Lewton productions, D’Agostino was able to effectively re-use sets for very dramatic effects. The massive, ornate staircase from The Magnificent Ambersons was reused numerous times in slightly altered forms. The 18th-century English insane asylum in Bedlam was a frugal refitting of sets left from The Bells of St. Mary’s. On almost non-existent budgets, D’Agostino was able to create convincing sets for The Body Snatcher (a 19th-century Edinburgh) and Mademoiselle Fifi (a small French village caught up in the Franco-Prussian War).


Despite his achievements, the contributions of D’Agostino on the designs for the Lewton noir-horrors have been in dispute. The reason for this is that he was often the principal or only credited designer on the film (as is the case in Out of the Past).[30] On the Lewton pictures, D’Agostino worked with Walter Keller in the set design.


However, there is no dispute the fact that Keller did most of the actual designs for the series. D’Agostino worked closely with his associate and the basic style was his, developed at Universal a decade earlier. Keller was the most successful interpreter of D’Agostino’s gothic/expressionist style most notable (aside from the Lewton productions) are the striking films noirs Born to Kill (1947) and The Window (1949), for which D’Agostino also received credit.[31]


One point on D’Agostino’s career appears to be in little dispute: his influence on contemporary cinema. His mastery of scenic design for black-and-white films, influenced by European traditions, was unequaled for his time. He has been credited as the most influential art director of the 1940s and his work on the Lewton thrillers which “represents 1940s Hollywood art direction at its most poetic and ingenious”[32], the sets designed for Orson Welles’ masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and his film noir sets for such films as Tourneur’s Out of the Past with its dark, smoky interiors, rainy urban landscapes and deceptively tranquil sunny/tropical scenes that fade into portentous storms support this claim.[33] His set work on the Berlin Express (1948) for Tourneur was seamlessly blended with on-location shooting in Frankfurt. “The exterior sets and most of the interiors were built at Pathé, including a car-by-car reproduction of the Main Seiner.”[34] The result was nothing short of a cinematic triumph in visual design. 




                All nine Lewton noir-horrors have a similar treatment of the horror genre, where the horror is implicit and the shock comes in small and effective doses enhanced by an ominous sustained mood and atmosphere. Understatement is key to the development of suspense. Jacques Tourneur takes the concept one step further by using lighting, set design, and camera direction to convey the presence of an “unstoppable dark force”.[35] It is this cinematic technique that makes a Tourneur-directed film a truly eerie viewing experience.


                Tourneur first establishes the presence of a creature on the loose by marking an absence with a signifier. By doing so the absence recedes thereby magnifying the signifier. In Cat People the chain in front of the panther’s cage signifies an absence—that of a cat on the prowl in the city. In Night of the Demon, traces of a demonic creature are left behind bringing about the situation where one ‘world’ leaves its imprint on or in the territory of another. It is this absence that sets in motion a chain of signifiers that can only be brought to an end when this absence is somehow effectively dealt with. It is this elusiveness in many of Tourneur’s films, always moving from one layer of the narrative to another, forever circulating but never being pinned down, that surfaces as a central theme in many of Tourneur’s films.


Sometimes Tourneur highlights this signifier with the introduction of something inexplicable in a shot giving the viewer the impression that something is indeed lurking in the darkness. Tourneur explains the root of this practice.


I believe my childhood has exerted a great influence on me. It was as a child that I had my first confrontation with fear. I was four going on five and we lived close to the Luxemburg Gardens. Before he became a cineaste, my father used to paint a lot and he had worked with Puvis de Chavannes, in whose house he lived. His studio was a huge mysterious room that filled me with apprehension. On Christmas Eve, my parents would put my presents in this room and say to me: “You must go and get them all by yourself’. There was a long corridor, pitch dark, and in the distance I could see the white shapes of my presents. I went all on my own, torn between my desire for the toys and a fear which nearly paralysed me, especially as the toys in their wrappings began to take on ghostly shapes. On top of that, if I hadn’t been a good boy, my parents would put the maid in the cupboard and she used to jiggle a bowler hat while my parents would tell me: ‘That’s the terrible Thunderman”. This is the root of one of my obsessions: to suddenly introduce something inexplicable into the shot, such as, for instance, the hand on the balustrade of the staircase in Night of the Demon; in the reverse shot, the hand isn’t there anymore. Incidentally, I spent a great deal of time looking for the right hand and finally I chose that of an old man very close to death.[36]


After having established the presence of the possibility of something lurking in the shadows, Tourneur would use various lighting techniques to heighten the suspense and apprehension of an unstoppable dark force ready to emerge from the shadows.


                Many of Tourneur’s films (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, Leopard Man, Out of the Past, Experiment Perilous, Night of the Demon) have a characteristic device: the insertion of a shadow barrier between the space of the viewer and that of the diegesis, or the created world of the narrative. This signifies that the real interval between the audience and the screen were insufficient, or perhaps not sufficiently visible. The barrier gives the viewer the impression that a distance has to be traversed and that the spectacle is in no way natural. The shadow barrier pushes the horror narrative further back into the space of the diegesis giving the viewer the impression that the characters are being swallowed up in the shadows, a sense of entrapment emerges, and that a dark force can intrude both from the shadowy foreground as well as in the shadows of the diegesis. The suspense is magnified because the shadowy barrier forces the viewer to first traverse the barrier before entering the diegesis. This dark foreground technique was likely Tourneur’s and not Lewton’s idea. Maurice Tourneur was a great believer in dark foregrounds as was his habit of studying famous paintings with interesting lighting effects.


In I Walked with a Zombie, the shadow barrier effect is achieved by the insertion of an area of darkness in the foreground of the diegesis, the insertion of physical obstacles between the camera and the scene, such as foliage, tree branches, motor vehicles, and furniture, and the use of shadows that overlay the characters such as slats of light coming through the louver shutters imprinting themselves as black lines on the clothes of the characters.  In Cat People, the characters’ eyes search for the cat in the dark foreground and even probe the darkness beyond the screen occupied by the audience giving the viewer the impression the cat has somehow escaped off screen and may be lurking in the shadows of the theater.


                In Leopard Man, a child has to cross a small open space on the way to the shop where the space is divided into a lit area and a pitch-black area. In Night of the Demon, this feature finds it sway on screen by the headlights of a car rushing through the night, where the diegesis has a solid area of darkness in the foreground. The camera is positioned in forest so that the black outlines of the trees form an extra barrier. The use of this technique implies the notion of a ‘blind spot’. A visible absence automatically refers to something that could have been there, was there, or could come there. Black areas signify that some dangerous object or person could emerge from those blind spots at any moment.  Tourneur was able to effectively create this “unstoppable dark force” through the artistry of Musuraca and D’Agostino.




1. Cat People (1942)


                The plot of Cat People centers around Irena, a Serbian-born fashion artist living in New York, who is haunted by the fear that she is descended from a race of cat-women who, when physically aroused, turn into panthers. Oliver Reed and Irena fall in love and marry and despite Oliver’s best efforts trying to convince her that her fears are groundless, Irena is afraid to consummate the marriage and begs Oliver to be patient. With such a storyline, there is no surprise that the film has been subject to numerous psychoanalytic theories. Irena Dubrovna appears as a classic case of compulsion neurosis stemming from sexual repression, an allegory of sexual repression for all to decode. Ina Rae Hark examines the film and using Freud’s Totem and Taboo sees Irena as one who “becomes psychologically obsessed, as we have seen, with altering her gender by identification with the male panther whose potential for destructive drives seem perverse.”[37]


                Linda Paige Rohrer views the cat woman as one who rejects patriarchal dictates. By her inner nature refusing patriarchal constraints, her metamorphosis represents her greatest rebellion against patriarchy resulting in the death of Dr. Judd, a symbol of patriarchy, but at the same time she succumbs to patriarchy by becoming a cat locked away at a “‘cat house’ at a zoo, a place where beautiful creatures, once wild and dangerous, become man’s pets.”[38] E. Ann Kaplan sees race issues in the film, unconscious fears about white/African-American boundaries, about the black panther woman mixed with both Irena and the panther. “The monstrosity of woman/animal displaces fears of African-American/white American ‘mixing’, yet it images forth a repressed desire for such mixing in Dr. Judd’s erotic fascination for Irena.”[39] Tom Gunning examines the film in relation to Todorov’s figurative discourse in The Fantastic where the “figurative transforms into the diegetic.”[40] Conversely, John Berks looks at the character of Alice, a working woman during World War II, as a socio-political monster rather than Irena, the psycho-sexual monster. “Thus the real monster in Cat People is not Irena at all, but Alice.”[41]


                Psychoanalytic theories aside, the success of Cat People does not depend upon the narrative but rather in the combined efforts of Tourneur, Musuraca, and D’Agostino.  D’Agostino’s work on Irena’s apartment adorned with feline artifacts: statues, flowers, paintings, and even a folding screen upon which is painted a mural-sized art deco black panther bring about an unseen presence of a cat within Irena. Once again D’Agostino plays upon set design to underpin character psychology in the scene where Irena tries to clean her conscious in a bathtub decorated with cat paws.


                Three scenes stand out in the movie that reveal the mastery of the RKO Noir-Horror trinity: the Central Park walk sequence, the swimming pool scene, and the confrontation between Alice/Oliver and the cat.  In the Central park walk sequence, Alice sets out to walk through the park alone at night, and Irena follows. The sequence is cut from full shots to close-ups as Alice’s pace picks up and she hurries through pools of dark between shafts of light wonderfully light by Musuraca. Suddenly she is isolated entirely in a black screen as the unstoppable dark force makes it presence. Footsteps click on concrete and Alice realizes that someone is following her. When she can no longer hear the footsteps, the signifying of this absence creates panic causing her to run just as she is brought up short as a bus glides swiftly into frame with a panther-like hiss of air-brakes. The film editor, Mark Robson, explains:


Looking over her right shoulder in terror, this girl backed away from the mysterious sound, ready to accept anything that might jump on her. From the other side of the park a bus came by, and I put a big, solid sound of air-brakes on it, cutting in at the decisive moment so that it knocked viewers out of their seats. This became the “bus”, and we used the same principle in every film.[42]


 While the “bus” is the punchline, the stalking sequence is the set-up and the real reason that the scene really works and the credit goes to Musuraca. The stalking sequence would be referred to by critics as the “Lewton walk” and would be featured in other of the Lewton noir-horrors. With Alice on the bus, the scene is not over. The “disturbed trees” (credit to D’Agostino) and bleating sheep suggest action beyond our sight. A keeper with a lantern checks on a flock of sheep and we see four dead lumps among the animals reminding the viewer of what had followed Alice in the darkness.


                The swimming pool scene is the set-piece for the film. Alice is in a deserted indoor swimming pool and has just finished swimming. She turns off the lights turning the screen into a stark chiaroscuro of shadows and reflections. She is about to make her way up the stairs as the room is suddenly too quiet. A low, slinking shadow is seen descending the staircase. Thinking fast, Alice jumps into the swimming pool. Simmering reflections move about the walls and ceiling, accompanied by the splashes of Alice desperately treading water as she looks about the pool’s darkened perimeter.


The atmosphere – which exudes an almost hypnotic power – is so specific that we are placed into the environment totally, allowing us to empathize more completely with Alice than we otherwise would. As the sequence is shot in such a subjective manner (and because it is so evocatively done) we feel it is us who are in the pool as much as Alice.[43]


Schaefer pays homage to Musuraca referring to the swimming pool scene.


In Cat People threat is conveyed by the changing density of the reflected patterns of rippling water on the walls and ceiling surrounding an indoor pool. Musuraca formulated a personal style that dictated that any place could be threatening at any time. The shadows with which he spoke were just as ominous in the warm kitchen of a turn-of-the-century home as they were in a contemporary landscape or an 18th-century insane asylum.[44]


In the pool, Alice hears a low growling sound and a large shadow moves near the pool’s edge.[45] We hear a loud feline shriek and in a blink of an eye Irena appears out of the shadows as she turns on the light.


                The swimming pool sequence has been credited to the genius of Val Lewton but Dyson sees differently. “I would argue in fact that it is the archetypal Jacques Tourneur sequence, demonstrating clearly his skill at combining cinematography, editing sound and efficient direction of his actors to produce and effective and disturbing whole.”[46] A conclusion that may also be supported by the fact that it was based on an actual incident in Tourneur’s life where one of his friend’s pet cheetahs escaped and was prowling around the water’s edge while he swam before it was shooed away by a gardener.


                The third scene involves Alice and Oliver working late at the office. The dark room is eerily lit by the soft glow of the drafting table lights. When they are about to leave, they find the exit door, which was open moments before, is closed and locked. The snarling presence of a stalking animal makes itself felt in the room. Musuraca’s strong underlighting from the drafting table shines merciless spotlights on Oliver and Alice as they back into a corner. Musuraca uses light as inventively as shadow to terrify. The cat or “unstoppable dark force” inhabits pools of darkness low-down in the room prowling between items of furniture while in stark contrast in the harsh bright whiteness of the walls are its two prey frozen in fear. Oliver grabs a T-square and holds it up casting a cross-like shadow on the wall scaring away the animal. Joel Siegel sums it up best: “The real stars of the film, apart from Lewton and Tourneur, are cameraman Nicholas Musuraca and art directors D’Agostino and Keller.”[47]


2. I Walked With a Zombie (1942)


                The plot of I Walked With a Zombie centers around Betsy, a Canadian nurse, who comes to St. Sebastian in the West Indies to care for Jessica Holland, an invalid who seems to be suffering from a rare form of mental paralysis. She falls in love with Paul, Jessica’s husband, although she is courted by Wesley Rand, his half-brother. She selflessly takes Jessica to a voodoo ceremony in hope of curing her for him. While her efforts fails, the mother of Paul and Wesley admits she had employed voodoo to turn Jessica into a zombie before her daughter-in-law was going to leave the island with her husband’s half-brother. The movie ends with Wesley killing Jessica to free her of the voodoo curse and then he dies in the sea himself.


                 The central set piece of I Walked with a Zombie is Betsy’s walk with Jessica through the moonlit canefield en route to the Houmfort to seek her cure. While Musuraca was not behind the camera on this picture, the film becomes a virtual tour-de-force for D’Agostino.


Despite the exploitative implications in the title, I Walked with a Zombie is a truly great motion picture that is both literate and very cinematic. Its Caribbean island setting was of course recreated on RKO’s vast soundstages, most memorably in a jungle sequence in which a female character seeks out voodoo cultists in an eerie night scene. D’Agostino/Keller designs for this sequence – indeed throughout the film – show strong influence of the Gothic and expressionist elements that D’Agostino had first encountered at Universal in the 1930s.[48]


There will be no sudden jolts or Lewton “buses” during this hypnotic walk through the cane fields and jungle. Siegel gives credit to the wonderful D’Agostino sets.


In long, slow tracking shots, the camera moves with the women in their black and white robes. They glide past the skull of a horse decorated with a garland of faded flowers, an odd Caribbean version of an Aeolian harp, a human skull, and finally Carre-Four, the gaunt, giant black zombie who guards the Houmfort. The effect – lateral tracking shots melting into one another while the wind whistles through the reeds – is hypnotic and quite the best argument for studio shooting of certain kinds of films. Everything in the sequence is artificial and arranged; everything is perfect. [49]


D’Agostino’s use of cane fields and jungle foliage that appear to swallow the travelers to Houmfort adds to the suffocating atmosphere of the walk. Viewers may be disappointed by the uneventful outcome of the Houmfort walk and the failure to turn Carre-Four into a killing machine but repeated viewings make Zombie more enjoyable.


Especially memorable are the interior scenes of the Fort Holland house with its ambiguous layout suggestive of a maze. Jacques Tourneur paid homage to D’Agostino in a 1969 interview.


The sets, particularly the house, were wonderful. We had a harp with a very soft tulled drape and as the camera went by, the wind blew the drape and it made music. The sets were beautifully dressed.[50]


While for some viewers Zombie may be too “artistic” for its own good, many critics consider I Walked with a Zombie an unqualified classic. “Near the end of his impressive directing career, Jacques Tourneur called I Walked with a Zombie ‘the best film I’ve ever done in my life.’”[51]


3. Leopard Man (1943)


                Jacques Tourneur’s last directed film for Lewton was a mixed effort. The plot involves a nightclub entertainer accidentally releasing a black leopard, part of a publicity stunt, in a small New Mexico town. The leopard kills a young girl out buying groceries for her mother. Two more girls are killed, but this turns out to be the deeds of a deranged psychopath. Eventually, the murderer is apprehended and shot by the lover of one of the dead girls.  D’Agostino’s work on the fountain with a jet of water supporting a hollow ball as the central image of the film providing it with a metaphorical significance is effective although not as highly charged as the St. Sebastian figurehead in Zombie.


                The use of the “Lewton walk” or “Bus” was used not once but twice in the film but without Musuraca behind the camera, the scenes fail to impress. In one scene a Mexican girl is forced by her mother to go out into the darkness to buy flour for an evening meal. The child is frightened by the stories of an escaped leopard but her mother forces her outside and bolts the door. The girl goes to the neighborhood store but it is closed, so she must cross a dried riverbed and go under a railroad overpass to get to the only open grocery. After being frightened by a piece of tumbleweed she arrives at the distant store, buys the flour and starts home. This time at the overpass she sees the eyes of a cat glowing in the darkness. The eyes vanish only to be followed by a great Lewton “bus” – the sudden crossing of a train above the child’s head. Once through the tunnel, she confronts the leopard, and tries to run home. The mother, angry that her daughter took so long, makes her wait outside as punishment. When she is at last convinced that her daughter is in danger it is too late. She looks down to see her daughter’s blood under the door spread through the cracks of the floorboard.


                All three murders, the other two involving a young girl and a castanet dancer, are less horrifying and more gratuitously sadistic. While the film lacks sufficient unity and meaning, the sets are stylishly constructed. As noted by Bansak, the creepy set design added immeasurably to the atmosphere:


The spooky cemetery is replete with claustrophobic mazes, creepy statues, and freshly dug open graves. The gatekeeper’s dying wood fire, flickering through the latticework above the heavy double doors of the cemetery gate, also produces an eerie effect; there are some great shots of the moon past the high cemetery wall.[52]


The scene of a traditional New Mexican procession of monks hooded in black like Klansmen against the New Mexico desert landscape is brilliantly captured. Unfortunately, the film amounts to “little more than an exercise in sadistic voyeurism.”[53]




                Although Tourneur was separated from his two artists and technicians after the third film, the remaining six films from the series showed a consistency of artistic quality that was respectful of the Tourneur vision. Curse of the Cat People involves a young girl (Amy) who worries or antagonizes the people around her with her daydreaming. The more they reprimand her, the more she withdraws into her fantasy world. When she finds an old photograph of her father’s deceased first wife (Simone Simon, the cat woman of the earlier film) she imagines her as one of her playmates. The ending of the film concludes with the warning that her father should have had more trust and faith in her daughter’s visions.


The opening scene of Curse of the Cat People is especially memorable which director Wise credits to Musuraca’s work. It begins with a vivid, richly composed shot, a group of elementary school children following their teacher down a wooded path as the sun casts its sparkling radiance through networks of tree branches.


The texture of the photography in Curse’s wonderfully intricate daylit scenes is extraordinarily crisp and vivid, providing visuals that appear rooted in childhood memories. Surely we have not lately viewed the natural world with such brilliance as we see here. The close-ups of Amy, her blonde hair backlit by the sun, are especially good. Even when some of Curse’s exterior scenes become obviously set-bound, they possess a lyrical quality that transcends their artificial origins, much in the way that the set-bound I Walked with a Zombie achieved a poetic brilliance.[54]


Director Wise uses a Lewton “bus” when the hoof beats of a Headless Horseman Amy is imagining turn out to be the clanking snowchains of a passing motor vehicle. “Those who don’t consider Curse a horror film must shut their eyes during these scenes, which display a fine grasp of genre set decoration (Albert S. D’Agostino) and lighting camerawork (Nick Musuraca) and are unmistakably an inspiration for the look and emotional pressure-cooker atmosphere of the Bates house in Psycho.”[55]


                Much of D’Agostino’s set pieces are a result of his analysis of famous paintings of the period. In The Body Snatcher, D’Agostino shines with a wonderful reconstruction of 1831 Edinburgh. Two shepherds guiding their sheep down a cobbled street is so accurately conveyed that the viewer will find it difficult to believe it was shot on a Hollywood set and “the shot of the shepherd’s tending their flock is an early nineteenth century painting come to life.”[56] Likely this was a practice carried over from the work of Jacques Tourneur whose father studied famous paintings to analyze lighting and visual composition.


In Bedlam, D’Agostino’s art direction shines in the scene of London following Sims’s visit to Mortimer by capturing the atmosphere of the period. Musuraca and D’Agostino’s collaboration in the scenes of the insane asylum are the highlight of the film bringing terror without the need for a “Lewton walk.”


Instead there is a gradual building of dread via a frightening point of view shot as we slowly approach the door to the huge room, a virtual amphitheater of babbling inmates. The door remains locked, but we hear unearthly chants and animal-like wails growing in volume with every step we take. When Sims unlocks the door and they enter this area of lunacy, we are given a tight shot of Nell as her face reacts to the nightmarish spectacle before her. With Nell’s appalled face as the central point of the frame, we pull back long and slow to view both the immensity of the room and the astonishing number of its occupants.[57]


D’Agostino designed the set in an appropriately dismal fashion with straw and other unidentifiable debris scattered about. Slanted bars of light from the prison-like windows pierce the dusty confines of this one room asylum. With Nell confined to Bedlam, some of the shots are so visually striking that they adorn the covers of both books about Lewton, Joel E. Siegel’s The Reality of Terror and J.P. Telotte’s Dreams of Darkness.         




The success of the nine Lewton films in terms of their distinctive RKO noir-horror vision and style, and their ability to create for the viewer a sense of intense fear, shock, and dreadful apprehension of something evil lurking in the shadows is largely the efforts of director Jacques Tourneur, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, and art director Albert S. D’Agostino. The trio can be seen as a production “trinity” because the most frightening sequences from the Lewton films, most notably the Central Park walk sequence, the swimming pool scene, and the Alice/Oliver office shots in Cat People, have been largely credited to these three production masters of suspense working together.


From a metaphysical perspective, the three draw upon the Trinitarian-like images from the first Chapter of Genesis with Tourneur the ultimate “overseer of filmic reality”, D’Agostino as the “maker of filmic space”, and Musuraca as the “giver of filmic light.” The three together producing a cinematic world where humans populate the light and demons haunt the shadows. At the same time the three-in-one Christian mystery of the trinity is reflected in these films as the central vision of the first film (where all three worked together) was carried forward into the other eight films where the generation of fear and suspense was largely dependent on the work of the cinematographer and set designer.


The key to the success of the Lewton films was in not revealing a monster but allowing the viewer to attribute the darkness with more horror, frightfulness and suspense than the most imaginative writer or makeup artist could dream up.  The master of creating this world of shadows where an “unstoppable dark force” lurked within the darkness was Jacques Tourneur. He was able to create this world by marking an absence of a creature by a signifier such as an imprint of a beast on the ground, or drawing upon the inner turmoil of the characters by using specific psychological set pieces of D’Agostino, and then applied specific lighting techniques, particularly those perfected by Musuraca such as the use of dark foregrounds or shadow barriers, to heighten the suspense and apprehension of an unstoppable dark force ready to emerge from the shadows. Particularly memorable are the “Lewton walk” or “bus” sequences from the Lewton thrillers.


Tourneur must be given credit for developing this “unstoppable dark force” motif as the thematic thread was found not only in his Lewton works best epitomized by the black panther in The Leopard Man or the supernatural curses in The Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, but also his non-Lewton films such as in the irreversible supernatural hauntings in Curse of the Demon, the Nazi menace in Days of Glory (1944), the psychotic state of Paul Lukas in Experiment Perilous (1944), the corruption and mob violence of Canyon Passage (1946), murderous kidnappers in Berlin Express (1948), the constant threats of gangs of drunken cowboys in Wichita (1955), or a belated act of revenge in Out of the Past (1947). While Tourneur left after the third film, D’Agostino and Musuraca were able to successfully carry on the vision of the director, a style that dictated that any place could be threatening at any time, into the other six films. With darkness, light, and moody and atmospheric sets as their instruments, Tourneur, Musuraca, and D’Agostino prowled the topography of menace with unparalleled technical consistency and artistry.




[1] Claire Johnston and Paul Willemen, Jacques Tourneur ([Edinburgh]: Edinburgh Film Festival, 1975), 55.

[2] Ron Haver, “The Mighty Show Machine. RKO: Story of a Unique Hollywood Movie Studio,” American Film 3, no. 2 (1977): 57.

[3] Susan Hayward, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2000), 129.

[4] Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press, 1992), 269.

[5] George Turner, “Wrap shot [origins of film noir],” American Cinematographer 78 (October 1997): 112.

[6] Thomas Schatz, “Val Lewton (1904-1951),” in The Oxford History of World Cinema (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 318.

[7] John McCarty, “The Parallel Worlds of Jacques Tourneur,” Cinefantastique 2, no. 4 (Summer 1973): 22

[8] Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia: The Most Comprehensive Encyclopedia of World Cinema in One Volume (New York: Harper Perennial, 1994), 1356-1357.

[9] Tourneur also directed three excellent westerns for Joel McCrea, Stars in My Crown (1950), Stranger on Horseback (1955), and Wichita (1955), which featured McCrea as Wyatt Earp, as well as Great Day in the Morning (1956), an RKO western with Robert Stack and Virginia Mayo. In the 1960s television direction occupied Tourneur’s time for the decade. He retired in 1966 and died on December 19, 1977 in Bergerac, France.

[10] Val Lewton was born Vladimir Ivan Leventon in Yalta, Russia, in 1904. He immigrated to the United States about 1914 and was raised by his mother and her sister, stage and screen star All Nazimova. After attending Columbia University, he enjoyed considerable success as a writer before working for MGM’s publicity department. In 1933, David O. Selznick signed with MGM as a unit producer and recruited Lewton as a story editor. When Selznick left MGM in 1935, Lewton accompanied him to Selznick’s new production company, Selznick International Pictures (SIP) serving as west coast story editor working on such films as Gone With the Wind (1939) and Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) before moving to RKO in 1942 as producer. 

[11] McCarty, 22.

[12] Johnston and Willemen, 52.

[13] Geoffrey O’Brien, “Artisan of the Unseen. The Parallel Worlds of Jacques Tourneur,” Film Comment 38, no. 4 (2002): 49.

[14] Manny Farber, “Films [Lewton, Vladimir, death of].” The Nation, 14 April 1951, 354.

[15] Farber, 354.

[16] DeWitt Bodeen, “Tourneur, Jacques,” in International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Directors, Tom Pendergast and Sara Pendergast, eds., 4th ed., vol. 2 (Detroit: St. James Press, 2000), 998.

[17] Farber, 354.

[18] Tim Cawkwell and John M. Smith, eds., The World Encyclopedia of Film (London: Studio Vista Publishers, 1972), 196.

[19] Anthony Slide, “American Cinematographers in Britain,” American Cinematographer 67 (November 1986): 38.

[20] After RKO folded, Musuraca worked freelance often for television. He passed away on September 3, 1975 in Los Angeles, California.

[21] Although some credit must be given to Gregg Toland’s masterful work on Citizen Kane (1939).

[22] Eric Schaefer, “Musuraca, Nicholas,” in International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Writers and Production Artists, Tom Pendergast and Sara Pendergast, eds., 4th ed., vol. 4 (Detroit: St. James Press, 2000), 629.

[23] Schaefer, 629.

[24] Schaefer, 629.

[25] Turner, 112.

[26] D’Agostino was nominated for Academy awards for Magnificent Brute (1936), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Flight for Freedom (1943), Step Lively (1944), and Experiment Perilous (1944), but never won the Oscar.

[27] Eric Schaefer, “D’Agostino, Albert S.,” in International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Writers and Production Artists, Samantha Cook, ed., 2nd ed., vol. 4 (Detroit: St. James Press, 1993), 188.

[28] Michael L. Stephens, Art directors in cinema: a worldwide biographical dictionary (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, c1998), 67.

[29] Schaefer, 188.

[30] A similar situation was present at Paramount Studios where Hans Dreier was the Supervising Art Director.

[31] Stephens, 68.

[32] Stephens, 67.

[33] D’Agostino retired in the late fifties after RKO closed down. He died on March 14, 1970 in Los Angeles, California in relative obscurity.

[34] George Turner, “Life and death on the Berlin Express,” American Cinematographer 78 (August 1997): 96.

[35] The notion of what you don’t see is scarier than what you do found its way into the screenplay of Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful, the brilliant gimmick that launches Kirk Douglas’s career - a rare instance of film theory becoming a plot point in a Hollywood movie.

[36] Johnston and Willemen, 48.

[37] Ina Rae Hark, “That Obscure Subject of Desire: Gender, Sexuality, and Subjugation in the Lewton/Tourneur Cat People,” New Orleans Review 14, no. 2 (Summer 1987): 50.

[38] Linda Paige Rohrer, “The transformation of woman: the “curse” of the cat woman in Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, its sequel, and remake,” Literature/Film Quarterly 25, no. 4 (1997).

[39] E. Ann Kaplan, “‘The Dark Continent of Film Noir’: Race, Displacement and Metaphor in Tourneur’s Cat People (1942) and Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1948),” in Women in Film Noir, E. Ann Kaplan, ed. (London: British Film Institute, 1998), 188.

[40] Tom Gunning, “‘Like Unto a Leopard’: Figurative Discourse in Cat People (1942) and Todorov’s The Fantastic,” Wide Angle-A Quarterly Journal of Film History, Theory Criticism & Practice 10, no. 3 (1988): 38.

[41] John Berks, “What Alice does: looking otherwise at The Cat People,” Cinema Journal 32 (Fall 1992): 38.

[42] Kim Newman, “Cat People,” in British Film Institute Film Classics, vol. 1, Edward Buscombe and Rob White, eds., (London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2003), 562.

[43] Jeremy Dyson, Bright Darkness:  The Lost Art of the Supernatural Horror Film (London: Cassell, 1997), 118.

[44] Schaefer, 629.

[45] The shadow of the cat on the wall was produced by Tourneur’s fist. In a June 1969 interview, Tourneur reported that the public still believed there was a cat by the swimming pool.

[46] Dyson, 118.

[47] Joel E. Siegel, Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror (London: Secker and Warburg in association with the British Film Institute, 1972), 106.

[48] Stephens, 67.

[49] Siegel, 109.

[50] Joel E. Siegel, “Tourneur Remembers,” Cinefantastique 2, no. 4 (Summer 1973): 24.

[51] Edmund G. Bansak, Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1995), 160.

[52] Bansak, 170.

[53] Siegel, 119.

[54] Bansak, 226.

[55] Kim Newman, “Bring back the cat - Only Val Lewton could have devised a sequel so strange and enticing as The 'Curse of the Cat People', but is it a horror movie?” Sight and Sound 9, no. 11 (November 1999): 22. 

[56] Bansak, 286.

[57] Bansak, 314.








Bansak, Edmund G. Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1995.


Berks, John. “What Alice does: looking otherwise at The Cat People.” Cinema Journal 32 (Fall 1992): 26-42.


Bodeen, De Witt. “Tourneur, Jacques.” In International Dictionary of Films and Filmakers: Directors.  Tom Pendergast and Sara Pendergast, eds. 4th ed. vol. 4. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000.


Cawkwell, Tim and John M. Smith, eds. The World Encyclopedia of Film. London: Studio Vista Publishers, 1972.


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