I Walked With a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)
I Walk With a Zombie, director Jacques Tourneur's second collaboration with producer Val Lewton after the huge commercial success that is Cat People (1942), is laced with such enigmatic flavor that despite its B-movie roots, it begs to be seen and re-seen, understood and re-understood for beneath the overly simplistic plotting is an indiscriminate mystery, forcing varying reactions and appreciations in every viewing. From the initial scene, a long shot of the serene beach where a woman and a tall Black man are walking side by side which is accompanied by the opening credits, the film at once commands a sense of camouflaged complexity. While that scene is an obvious literal visualization of the film's title since the woman, Betsy (a lovely Frances Dee) the Canadian nurse who narrates the events that ensue, is literally walking with zombie Carrefour (Darby Jones, whose roles in films seem limited to African natives, or zombies), it doesn't dwell on the exact sensationalism the title seems to try to invoke and instead shifts the picture's direction elsewhere, somewhere calmer, possibly romantic, and infinitely open.
The film, or at least most of it, is structured like the memoir of Betsy. Told without a notion of urgency, her story formally begins with her being interviewed for a job as a nurse in the Caribbean island of St. Sebastian. She is then employed by Paul Holland (Tom Conway), the island's sugar plantation manager, to take care of his wife Jessica (Christine Gordon) who is suffering from what logically could be a mental illness. Holland, whose apparent sorrow and other Byronic qualities seem to have a desirous effect on Betsy, as she starts toying around the idea of developing love for the poetically somber manager. To complicate matters, Wesley Rand (James Ellison), Holland's half-brother, sees Betsy's arrival as a repetition of the longstanding feud he has with Holland over Jessica's affection, a feud that is suggested to be the primary cause of Jessica's current situation. Betsy gets involved in a whirlwind of familial and romantic controversies spiced up by local traditions of voodoo and a general atmosphere of blanketed island misery.
Quite interesting is how Lewton (who, though uncredited, comes up with the final draft of his films' screenplays) keeps almost the entire film within the perspective and point of view of his female protagonist. Thus, whatever intrigue or controversy the film touches upon is limited to Betsy's actual knowledge from whatever she witnesses, overhears, participates in, and remembers, which is very scarce considering that she is a newcomer to the island and not privy to the whispered conversations in the mansion or the littered gossip in the streets. This turns the film into an jigsaw puzzle with several of the key pieces missing, showcasing an incomplete yet still delectable and appreciable portrait of a story that weaves both the supernatural and the familiar, and requiring further participation and a great dose of imagination and creativity from the viewer to truly come alive. This is what essentially makes the film a towering achievement in B-movie making. Instead of covering all the corners of essential storytelling and spoon feeding the audience with what essentially is a quickly manufactured and ultimately commercial narrative, it leaves considerable spaces for mystery and intrigue thus converting the humble confines of the plot into a myriad of eternally morphing emotions and directions.
Moreover, the female perspective reinforces the essentially amorous thrust of the film despite its unglamorous title and its horror film tendencies. I Walked With a Zombie is conveyed with what feels like a quietly cognizant tendency. It is as if the film was being told through the eyes of a passive participant who gets thrown in an affair that catches her unaware and awakens her longings for the unworldly and the dreamy. This makes the exotic setting even more irresistible and alluring. Most remarkable is how Tourneur's expert use of the shadows keeps the visuals three-dimensional in a way that what happens outside the frame of the picture is also conveyed through the movements of the shadows, thus enunciating the importance of setting to the overall tone of the film.
In a rather startling although largely unobserved turn in the film, the perspective is taken away from Betsy. Wesley, troubled by the revelation of her mother (Edith Barrett) regarding Jessica being a zombie, decides to end everything by releasing her from the estate, pulling out the arrow from the figurehead (called "Ti-Misery") and piercing Jessica with it, before being forced into the shores of the island. It's a remarkable sequence, one that doesn't exactly share the consistent tone of the film, purging whatever female psychology and logic into the equation and replacing it with a cryptic and clearly mystical rationale. Apart from the suggested guilt and pity of Wesley, there is little clear motivation that would drive the deathly conclusion and to add further curiosity to the affair, Carrefour's towering presence, following Wesley in his doubtable salvaging of Jessica's soul, becomes the solitary logic in the abrupt madness. His presence, made overtly poetic and surreal with Tourneur's dramatic blocking (the scene where Carrefour's body accentuates the frame which details Wesley carrying Jessica's body in the beach is remarkably beautiful), becomes the climax's ingenious rallying point, the radical shift from Betsy's point of view to that of the island's. After all, the only witness to the portrayed sequence is Carrefour, zombie, servant of the island and quite possibly the symbol of the islanders' servile psychology.
From then, we no longer hear Betsy's ethereal voice-over which is replaced by a male one, more earthy and hardened, probably coming from one of the islanders' as the accent suggests. From dreamy and romantic, it becomes shaded with a pious dolor. It wraps up the film with a moralistic tone, accusing Wesley and Jessica with sinfulness and deserving of death and wishing the virtuous living, Holland and Betsy who is nestled in the former's close embrace and is now a subject of observation rather than an observer, a blessed life. The most interesting thing about the shifting of perspective from Betsy to the islanders is the thematic implication it suggests. Throughout the film, we are enchanted by the regales of the privileged Caucasian woman, living outside the perimeters of the culture that at first is represented by its beauty ("Palm trees," she repeats as she plays around with the idea of working in a Caribbean isle) but is then modified by the romantic entanglements that ensued. Such is aptly diluted by an ending that suggests and puts into a more palpable manner the disillusionment Holland so poetically manifests to Betsy while she was daydreaming on the ship to St. Sebastian. For a brief yet momentous instance, we get a glimpse of the natives' psychology, the simplistic morality, the faithfulness to the whims of nature and fortune, the subservient mentality that backdrops the ending's patent although slightly hopeful melancholy.