Charlotte Brontë, in her 1847 Victorian bildungsroman novel Jane Eyre, employs the invented figure of Bertha Mason as a kind of fictional entity, or a haunting spectre of a full-fledged character, in order to imbue the central setting of Thornfield Hall with a potent sense of atmospheric dread which is permeated by a colonial subtext related to Bertha’s origins in the West Indies. The Val Lewton-produced, B-movie chiller I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943), which notably interweaves elements of the Jane Eyre narrative into its own tale of a Canadian nurse sent to the West Indies to attend to a “zombified” mad woman, capitalizes on the novel’s appropriation of colonialist subtext as a source of dread, magnifying it into a primary form of terror.
The filmmaker Jacques Tourneur, one of classical Hollywood’s foremost poets of doom, renders this colonialist horror visually in terms of cinematic space by creating a racialized dialectic within the film’s mise-en-scène. The interplay of light and darkness (of stark white shafts of light and noirish shadow, of normalized white characters and zombified black bodies) within the frames of the work serves to create a kind of racialized, formalist doom amidst the Caribbean setting. On a narrative level, the film seems to equate lapses of coherent thought and mental ailments with forms of indigenous paganism, though ultimately Tourneur suspends belief by shrouding the ideological components of his work in supernatural, Hawthornian ambiguity. Although Jane Eyre appears to be the jumping-off point for Tourneur’s radical dive into this spectral, colonialist realm, the film ultimately doesn’t seem to be offering any kind of meaningful critique of its earlier source material. Rather, Bronte’s novel seems to pervade elusively in the background, providing a kind of reversed Victorian subtext that becomes an essential part of the film’s flavor.
Chris Fujiwara, in his excellent biocritical study of Tourneur entitled The Cinema of Nightfall, notes that I Walked with a Zombie utilizes “[a] camera style that subordinates human figures to the decor and to patterns of light.” Fujiwara makes this observation about Tourneur’s distinction of character in order to support his own reading of the film as a non-linear example of “pure cinematic poetry,” but his critical comment might be more helpful in discussing the film’s pictorial tension. Tourneur’s visual overlaying of expressionistic lighting schemes atop, around, and against the physical figures of his actors serves to permeate the surfaces of the film with a racialized dissonance that exists as a formal substitution for conventional horror movie effects.
Consider, for example, the ways in which Tourneur’s oppressive patterning of light, as well as the opposing forces of shadow, affect our perception of the sequence in which nurse Betsy (Frances Dee) leads her mentally remote patient through the crossroads of a sugar cane field toward an indigenous voodoo ceremony. Even before the two women have departed to carry out this journey, Tourneur’s establishing shots of the empty garden at the home of the white plantation owner where they live are bathed in the voluptuous sensuality of shadow, rendered more vividly here than the plants allegedly producing the silhouettes. These tracking shots conjure an unsettling feeling of the uncanny primarily because of their relation to the proceedings of the narrative: the dark contours produced by the moonlit shadows over the stark white surfaces of the garden create a kind of nocturnal poetry which recalls the racially-delineated boundaries of the island community, which the two female protagonists are about to transgress.
When the two white women are finally seen entering the sugar cane field, wide shots of them walking are juxtaposed against medium shots of Carrefour, the huge, non-speaking black man who acts as a zombie-like guardian figure and unofficial representative of the black population in the film. Tourneur’s portraiture of Carrefour is cast in a luminous, dark silhouette, with his shadow looming large over the two women when they inevitably approach him. Though we cannot see Carrefour distinctly in this scene, Tourneur eerily depicts him by portraying the outline of his largely racialized features, with particular emphasis placed on his large, round lips and nose. The women cower low in the frame beneath Carrefour’s murky countenance, as they likely would in an encounter with a real supernatural figure in a more conventional horror movie. It is significant that the two women are also largely cast in shadow, with the main difference being that the lighting hits only the features that distinguish them as white characters, notably their straight hair and more petite facial features.
Tourneur uses the contrast of light and shadow in this scene to potently accentuate his characters’ racial and gendered differences. This functions as an example of the film’s mise-en-scène absorbing, on a visual level, a sense of discomfort arising out of racial tension that is only addressed very superficially at the narrative level. In this regard, Fujiwara’s claim that Tourneur “subordinates” his characters to patterns of light is not exactly accurate; it would be more precise to say that he uses light against or around characters in order to imbue cinematic surfaces with a creepy dissonance that effectively heightens the colonialist associations of the film’s setting.
In contrast to Tourneur’s film, the colonialist subtext of Brontë’s Jane Eyre is exactly that: a pervading, yet highly elusive, undertone that exists in an abstracted space below the level of the eponymous protagonist’s coherent narration. Susan Meyer, in her essay “Colonialism and the Figurative Strategy of Jane Eyre,” discusses the ways in which Bertha Mason, Rochester’s first wife of Jamaican Creole descent, is ambiguously racialized in the novel, writing that, “Bertha’s coloring in the passage.. is ‘discoloured,’ ‘purple,’ ‘blackened’… [and] conventionally marks her as black.” Because Bertha functions as the “mad woman in the attic” figure responsible for most of the frightening activities within Thornfield Hall, albeit unbeknownst to Jane for much of the novel, some modern commentators have provocatively posited her origins and racial ambiguity as the indirect source of Thornfield’s distinctly Gothic atmospheric dread.
Although this underlying link to British colonialism is never thoroughly explicated within the psychological interiority of Jane’s clear-eyed narration, it has become an important part of much of the critical rhetoric surrounding the novel in recent decades. I Walked with a Zombie, which narratively bears similarity to Brontë’s novel in that it contains a young, female caretaker coming to a troubled new setting and encountering a hidden, mentally ill woman of sorts, might be said to be an inversion of the Jane Eyre archetype in that it enacts a kind of reversal of subtext. In the film, colonialist horror is appropriated as primary subject in terms of visual language, with racialized dialectics in the interplay of blacks and whites present in nearly every scene, whereas the form of characterial interiority that was so important to the narrative style of Jane Eyre is here rendered as a cryptically inaccessible, novelistic subtext, similar to the way that the colonialist links in the earlier work functioned.
The frenzied, dance-like surface movements of Tourneur’s film, wherein characters act against physical forces and figures amidst the natural setting, embody the ideological component of the work, while the psychological interiority of the film’s characters remains remote and largely inaccessible to the viewer. This can be seen as the opposite of Brontë’s strategy, wherein all action is filtered through the perception and mental weight of a central character. Tourneur communicates ideas to the viewer largely through images, rather than through the function of character or narrative, and this is perhaps why some commentators, Fujiwara included, have somewhat inaccurately called him a “non-narrative” filmmaker. However, during a few key moments in I Walked with a Zombie, an ambiguous belief is expressed by a character, allowing a sense of novelistic interiority to creep through the work, and as such function as a psychological subtext that exists in counterpoint to the racialized weight of the tactile images.
This is perhaps most evident in the scene near the end of the film in which the island doctor arrives at the plantation home for an official inquiry into Betsy’s patient’s illness. The inquiries made by the doctor, as well as the various responses expressed by the family, invoke a confessional outburst in Mrs. Rand, the patient’s mother-in-law, in which she expresses her belief that the patient is in fact not mentally ill, but rather a supernatural “zombie.” After admitting that she turned to paganistic voodoo rituals instead of her purported Christian practices to help cure her daughter-in-law, her confession is met with a sense of measured disbelief by the listeners. As the film’s narrative comes to a close, the mystery regarding the cause of this ailment remains unresolved.
Tourneur, by way of the character of Mrs. Rand, seems to be equating lapses of mental sanity with the indigenous rituals and beliefs of the black islanders on a superficial level, but the relationship between these things remains elusive as he refuses to unravel them in any coherent way. Tourneur’s suspension of characterial interiority in this prickly sense of Hawthornian ambiguity adds yet another elusive layer to the film, one that exists in a separate plane from the colonialist associations of his visual mise-en-scène. Mrs. Rand might be a more interesting character in a more conventional movie, but because Tourneur’s strategies are so rigidly cinematic, her character’s statements and the sense of disbelief surrounding them are forced to exist in an abstract and mysteriously incoherent space – a novelistic subtext which takes a back seat to the sensuality of the film’s racialized visuals, but that nonetheless pervades alluringly in the background. Tourneur foregrounds setting and de-centers psychology simultaneously, and this is another way that he invokes a feeling of discomfort – by scrambling the expectations of the conventional viewer.
I Walked with a Zombie was recently screened at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City as part of their impressively wide-ranging retrospective series devoted to the filmmaker’s works, entitled “Jacques Tourneur, Fearmaker.”
Tourneur’s great film noir melodrama Out of the Past played at the IU Cinema during the 2013-2014 season.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He studies literature, and has been a habitué of the local film revival scene since he moved to Bloomington a few years ago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.