Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows
Between 1942 and 1946 Val Lewton produced a series of horror films for RKO Studios, movies which would be celebrated not only for their own unique execution and thematic complexity, but also for taking what had become an over formulized product – particularly as practiced by Universal Studios with their Frankenstein, Wolfman and Mummy franchises – and breathing new creative life into it. While the Russian born Lewton, a former production assistant to mega producer David O. Selznick, was primed to helm RKO’s new horror unit, he was not always so enamored with the projects and storylines that landed before him, some little more than titles and/or the sketchiest of concepts. With Orson Wells no longer reigning supreme on the lot and new production head Charles Koerner calling the shots for the financially ailing company, it was decided that emphasis would be placed on showmanship before genius. Nonetheless, Lewton opted to go for something different and new in his horror pictures, to gamble on a more psychologically sophisticated approach to his characters and plots.
The series opener was Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur with a screenplay by DeWitt Bowden. Like all the features to come from the Lewton unit it bore the producer’s indelible creative stamp both in conception and in its dramatic execution and was a critical and financial triumph for the studio. The pressure of success, however, was a difficult one for the mercurial and doubt-marinated Lewton to come to terms with, particularly as RKO was anxious if not obsessed with his being able to deliver the goods on a regular and timely basis. His products were budgeted $125,000 per picture and he was subject to a demanding, backbreaking and often nearly impossible schedule. While one film was in full production and another was undergoing pre-production analysis a third was already being envisioned. Still, Lewton’s team, which would come to include writers Arday Wray and Clifford Siodmak and directors Robert Wise and Mark Robson, rose time after time to the occasion turning out a string of films which, if not always flawless, were consistently intriguing and compelling including The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, The Leopard Man, Curse of the Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie and Lewton’s three collaborations with the screen’s greatest bogeyman, Boris Karloff (who he initially balked at working with but who he later came to greatly admire and respect), Isle of the Dead, Bedlam and The Body Snatcher. Rondo Awards, www.classic-horror.com
Following his tenure at RKO, Lewton would go from one studio to another, usually involved in projects that either never saw the light of day or working on disappointing efforts such as Please Believe Me (for Metro), My True Love (Paramount) or Apache Drums (Universal). In 1951 he signed a two-picture deal with independent producer Stanley Kramer but died shortly afterwards.
Lewton’s legacy has been the basis for a number of books including Joel Siegal’s seminal Val Lewton: Reality of Terror, Edmund Bansak’s Fearing the Dark , and Icons of Grief by Alexander Nemerov in addition to several DVD documentaries which have appeared on Lewton film collections.
Martin Scorsese Presents Val Lewton: Man In The Shadows is the most recent and best of the latter. Produced by Turner Productions and written and directed by Kent Jones, the 87 minute documentary is not so much a routine, linear history of Lewton and his body of work as much as it is an exploration of the creative instincts and artistic vision which he, along with the help of his talented writing and directorial staff, introduced into his films. Jones is to be congratulated for his narrative prose, effectively delivered by Martin Scorsese, which possesses a textural quality and poetic ambiance which nicely compliments the subtlety and evocative nature of Lewton’s own work.
The documentary is helped along by interviews with a number of critics, film scholars and filmmakers including directors Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Jacques Tourneur and Roger Corman and author Geoffrey O’Brien who pretty much add the requisite interpretative and historical commentary. More interesting, but regrettably fleeting, are appearances by director Robert Wise and one-time child actress Ann Carter who gave such a memorable performance as Amy in Curse of the Cat People and who was located after years of searching. More camera time for Ms. Carter would have greatly enhanced the viewing experience. Fortunately, Lewton’s son, Val Lewton Jr., has a generous amount of footage and contributes much to a fuller understanding of his father’s life and the myriad of forces, artistic and personal, that combined to shape him.
Small reservations and minimal complaints aside, Martin Scorsese Presents Val Lewton: Man In The Shadows, is an impressive and compelling documentary work which contributes significantly to the much-deserved legacy of this remarkable filmmaker.
The documentary is available on DVD at a discount price from our sponsor, CoverOut.com., Thriller television TV episode guide
Bruce Dettman is the author of The Horror Factory: The Horror Films of Universal, 1931 – 1955 (Gordon Press) and is a frequent contributor to Scarlet, the film magazine.
www.thrillerguide.net, Midnight Marquee Press