Monday, January 14, 2008

profile and review: val lewton: the man in the shadows

Premiering Monday, Jan 14 at 8 pm (est) on Turner Classic Movies will be a new documentary by master film maker Martin Scorsese. This time Scorsese turns his lens towards another master film maker: Val Lewton. I recently got a chance to preview Val Lewton - The Man in the Shadows and also to talk with Lewton's son, Val E. Lewton, about his dad's life and career.

Val Lewton – The Man in the Shadows is simply one of the best documentaries about a film maker in a while. Often on DVDs we are treated to short extras about directors or actors, which mostly include comments from admirers about why they admirer so and so. Vignettes about biographical information are tossed in as filler and the most they offer are treatises about the greatness or not so greatness about the subject at hand. I’ve seen some good ones in the past few years, and we’ve reviewed them here at the Shelf, and the good ones are often the feature length docs that delve into the person, their legacy or lack thereof, and why they might matter. Martin Scorsese, who has shown his ability at creating great documentaries, equals his deftness as a film maker, joined writer and director Kent Jones to bring Val Lewton out of the shadows, so to speak. And what they tell about the man, and what you can learn about the history of film, acts as bridge in a way between the pre 1940s Hollywood and the movements that followed after World War II. In fact, it is partly what Lewton saw happening on the home front that affected what an audience saw on the screen. And his skill and abilities as a writer, a storyteller and his insight into what makes us all click led his work to rise above the mediocrity of small budgets, contracts and sensationalistic titles.

Why is Lewton important? Beyond the immediate enjoyment of his films, Lewton’s work serves as evidence that storytelling and characters matter more than budget and even better, that creative technique in film goes a long, long way. Today we often admire the great “indie” films that were filmed on a shoestring budget. Then the celebrated director gets a movie deal with a big distribution network and budget to match and then, more often than not, the subsequent efforts don’t measure up to previous potential. There could be any number of reasons for it, but one has to ask why money hadn’t made a difference.

Lewton was born in Yalta, Russia in 1905. When he was 5 years old, his mother immigrated to the United States with Val and his sister in tow. Although he was somewhat too young to remember much of Russia, his heritage was not necessarily forgotten. His son Val E. Lewton remembers his father as being fascinated by Russia and all things Russian. It was partly this fact, and his mother that brought Val to the attention of David O. Selznick. Val had been a journalist and an author. His mother worked for the MGM PR department in New York. Selznick needed a story man to work on the film adaptation of Taras Bulba. Someone preferably who had some Russian background. Val’s mother put his name in contention and Selznick hired him.

Selznick saw much in Lewton’s work and soon Val was working on several big MGM projects, often suggesting and writing key scenes and elements integral to the films; among them, A Tale of Two Cities, Rebecca, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and Gone with the Wind. The latter, Lewton famously advised Selznick against filming. Nevertheless when Selznick proceed with it, Lewton was brought in as story editor. In fact, Lewton claims to have written one of the more famous shots in the film: the one-track boom shot of Scarlett among the wounded at the Atlanta Depot. Val E. Lewton couldn’t verify for sure the veracity of the story, but said his father did indeed claim credit for it, saying he wrote it as a lark, never imagining that MGM would seriously undertake the sequence because of cost and difficulty. But it is exactly that imagination and ability to visually tell a story that served Lewton so well in the next phase of his career. RKO came calling looking to place Lewton in charge of their newly formed “horror” unit. Having recently lost money on their “wunderkind” Orson Welles and Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, RKO was looking for a way to generate quick revenue. They looked to the success of the recent vogue of horror films, especially those being churned out for little money and time at Universal. Lewton was unsure about leaving Selznick and taking the deal, but he accepted. Selznick, a big believer in Lewton, had even helped to negotiate the terms for him.

RKO gave Lewton’s unit (which became known as “The Snake Pit”) two things to work with: a pre-ordained title and a small budget. Although a producer, Lewton’s touch on his films is apparent; it is why he is often talked about in the sense a director would be discussed. He worked on the stories, often devising plots and themes which were at once literary and immediate; belying the cheesy titles given to him by the studio. During his stay at RKO, Lewton produced 11 films, nine of which were considered “horror” films. He worked with several directors who would find even further success and impact on the industry later, including Jacques Tourner (Out of the Past), Mark Robson (The Bridges at Toko-Ri and Peyton Place) and Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Sound of Music and a host of others). Lewton elevated Wise from editor to director on Curse of the Cat People when the previous director was over schedule and over budget.

Lewton also worked with the great Boris Karloff, eventually making three films together, which included some of Karloff’s best work. Initially reluctant to work with the horror icon, Lewton’s objections were resolved on their first meeting. For his part, Karloff was understandably wary of churning out endless amounts of “monster films.” He had grown tired of it at Universal, feeling like he didn’t have the chance to break away from Frankenstein and the seemingly endless sequels. It didn’t take long for Karloff to see something of a kindred spirit in Lewton; someone who was eager to do more. The two saw eye to eye on the craft of film making and as fellow artists. Karloff once said of Lewton: he had “rescued me from the undead and restored my soul.” Among the pictures the two made together, Karloff did some of his best work in years, relishing the chance to delve into characters that were neither mad scientists or monsters, at least of the non-human variety.

Perhaps what is most unique about Lewton’s films is the style in which he told his stories. Hampered by a small budget, he relied on creative lighting ( and shadows) and sound and a company of wonderful stock players and character actors to convey the story. His techniques have inspired other film makers (including Scorsese, Hitchcock, M. Night Shyamalan to name a few). The basic philosophy was to trust the intellect of the audience- that the unseen could be just as chilling as the seen. In many ways, Lewton’s films are almost like a radio suspense show on screen. The ambient sounds, the selective use of music and the shadows all combine to create an effect that allows the audience to feel the tension and fill in the blanks, without having everything splashed across the screen. His son Val E. Lewton agreed with that observation (a fan of radio shows himself) and further noted that his father considered “the imagination a function of the audience. It [his technique] may have had a lot to do with the budget, but it also was his instinct in knowing the audience.” (On a side note Val E. Lewton also told me that his father once told him that he had written the first radio soap opera script while working as a radio writer in New York: The Luck of Jane Christopher, something he hadn’t been able to verify.)

As Lewton built upon the styles of film making that came before him, he served as a style that others would build upon. In this way, Lewton presaged the Film Noir directors. Even his own director, Jacques Tourner, whose cinematography style matched Lewton’s storytelling perfectly, directed a film considered to be one of the first fully formed in the Film Noir style, Out of the Past. Lewton’s films are not really horror films, but psychological films of suspense and terror, almost preceding Hitchcock in someways, who was a contemporary and admirer (Val E. Lewton says that while he never really worked with Hitch, the two were friendly and spoke often) What Scorsese and Jones do so well in the documentary is to demonstrate not only how Lewton had an effect on film, but also how he was able to tap into the feelings of apprehension, fear, distrust and anguish that was happening in World War II America- feelings and a mood that changed film making after the war.

Val Lewton is almost a lost master in a way, who definitely has many fans, but is now having a renaissance of sorts. Many are discovering or rediscovering his films, thanks in part to the 2005 DVD box set, and outlets like TCM and Netflix. Val E. Lewton states his dad never anticipated DVDs, cable etc, but he thinks it is primarily this access that is creating a new generation of fans.

I cannot recommend this documentary any more highly than to say you should not only watch it Jan 14 or 15 on TCM, but also to recommend adding it to your DVD collection when it hits the stores at the end of the month. It is one of best documentaries about a film maker that I have seen in a long time. And trust me when I say I haven’t spoiled too much for you. And don’t forget to take in the Lewton marathon that follows. Here is the schedule: (all times eastern)

Monday, Jan. 14
8pm: Val Lewton – The Man in the Shadows
9:30 pm: Cat People (1942)
10:45 pm: I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
12am Repeat showing of Val Lewton – The Man in the Shadows
1:30 am: The Leopard Man (1943)
2:45 am: The Seventh Victim (1943)
4am: The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
5:15am: The Body Snatcher (1945)
6:30am: Isle of the Dead (1945)
7:45am: Bedlam (1946)

Tuesday, Jan. 15th
9:15 am : Val Lewton – The Man in the Shadows
10:45 am: Youth Runs Wild (1944)
12 pm: Mademoiselle Fifi (1944)

The Val Lewton Box set is still available, and will be re-issued to include this documentary in the set at the end of January. It will also be available as a stand alone purchase, for those who already own the set. We’ll have a review of the set here at The Shelf when the new set comes out.

Thanks to Turner Classic Movies for preview copies, information and setting up the interview with Val E. Lewton
And special thanks to Val E. Lewton for his time and kindness during our interview and the work he is doing to preserve his father’s work.
All comments from Val E. Lewton from this article are taken from an interview with this author on January 10, 2007.

Update: The Self-Styled Siren directed me to a great Val Lewton blogathon over at The Evening Class. Author Michael Guillen has included some great resources and articles about Lewton, as well as an interview with Ann Carter-Newton, the remarkable child actress from The Curse of the Cat People. Check it out! And thanks for the tip Siren!

Oh, I know it's a penny here and a penny there, but look at me. I worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.

I like the dark. It's friendly.


Anonymous said...

Very good review. I've seen Cat People and Zombie and have long argued with many friends that these are overlooked classics.
I've missed the first showing, but I've set the DVR! Thanks for the heads up.

The Siren said...

Excellent article. You should amble over to The Evening Class, Michael Guillen's blog, and leave a link to it in comments. Michael is having a Val Lewton blogathon and this piece would fit in well. Lead more people to it!

J.C. Loophole said...

Thanks for your kind words, Rob & campaspe {aka the awesome Self-Styled Siren!} By the way gentle Shelf readers - you should catch Siren's past couple of articles on pre-code and post code films- they were great Siren!
And thanks for the tip as well on Michaels blogathon- I'm headed there now.

Michael Guillen said...

Campaspe, I'm so pleased you pointed J.C. over to the Lewton blogathon so I include this great overview of Lewton's career. Thanks J.C. for pitching it into the stew.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff! I really enjoyed the article and the film the other night. I had seen Cat People as a kid, but confused it with the vastly inferior remake. Once I saw it again, I won't make that mistake again!

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