In Praise of Elizabeth Russell
The Serbian woman in Cat People who disrupts a wedding party to call Irena (Simone Simone) out as a kindred spirit; the anguished shut-in of The Curse of the Cat People, pure product of a stifled childhood; the consumptive neighbor surrendering herself to a certain death in The Seventh Victim. If we follow Alexander Nemerov’s contention in Icons of Grief: Val Lewton’s Home Front Pictures that such cameos exert a kind of silent authority over Lewton’s subterranean cinema (the shared emphasis on bit players being one of many suggestive suggestive links with Preston Sturges, whose run at Paramount almost exactly coincided with the RKO period), then Russell is the most privileged figure of this uncanny elect, running like a red thread through Lewton’s films. In Cat People, she brings the party and the film itself to a standstill. Any lingering uncertainty as to whether the fantastic curse is “true” falls away; with Russell’s entrance, the suggestion is damning enough. Where the other returning actors in The Curse of the Cat People more or less reprise their earlier roles in Cat People, Russell has metamorphosized into the tragically spurned adult daughter; in some subliminal way, at least, she is the point at which the plots break down. As the consumptive in The Seventh Victim, she finally stands wholly outside plot—a hallucinatory vision of the death drive in this, Lewton’s most personal and harrowing film.