Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows (2007)

June 27, 2008 § Leave a comment

Produced and narrated by Martin Scorsese, Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows pays tribute to a filmmaker who worked for legendary producer David Selznick for eight years, polishing the script for Anna Karenina or standing around with a stopwatch to determine when Gone With the Wind should have an intermission, before striking out on his own to join RKO and produce low budget films that’d be under his control. Aside from B-movie budgets the studio stuck him with titles like Cat People (not really caring what he did, as long he stayed under budget), but he supervised every aspect of production, rewrote scripts (often without credit) and produced polished films but also “strange, poetic films” that sometimes barely acknowledge the awful titles he was stuck with, films “satisfied the demand for horror, but delivered much more,” a world where “characters slip into a mysterious, troubling grey zone where real life and dream life come face to face.”  He called them his “poor, simple, lucky little films,” and Hollywood never celebrated Lewton during his life — there are no recordings of his voice anywhere — but he made a string of nine films that are all deeply worthwhile, if not small masterpieces that reflect his thoughtful, melancholy nature:

Cat People (1942) is dark and atmospheric, and interesting for having to merely imply so much about passion in 1942.   The 1980 remake has the cat people transforming into leopards after sex, but in 1942 it’s a mere kiss that causes the change. Some of the acting is extremely clunky (and unfortunately, the dork hero is pretty boring) but these performances sit next to some amazing casting of very catlike, elegant people, and the atmosphere is impressive for its tension and great use of shadow.

The Curse of the Cat People (1944) isn’t a sequel as much as an unusual fairy tale from the point of view of a lonely child, with the central character showing up as a pleasant ghost.

I Walked with a Zombie (1943) is incredibly atmospheric, with unforgettable moments, and the zombie in question is simply a sick woman, seemingly oblivious to the presence of others.

The Body Snatcher (1945) is a compelling story about body snatching for medical experiments, with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi together for a final film. Karloff would later say he felt rescued by Lewton, given that he was able to finally demonstrate he could do much more than the Universal horror films he was already famous for, like Frankenstein.

Isle of the Dead (1945) also has Karloff, and an assortment of characters stranded on an island, and as they’re picked off they can’t seem to clarify if it’s a plague, a vampire, or group hysterics.

Bedlam (1946) again has Karloff as the corrupt head of an asylum refusing to make improvements, even as a courageous woman challenges him.

The Leopard Man (1943) has enough atmosphere for several films, as a small New Mexico town isn’t sure it should blame a series of murders on a leopard or a madman.

The Ghost Ship (1943) doesn’t have a ghost at all, it’s a morality tale about a power struggle between a quietly deranged captain and one of his officers, with the idea of a ghost ship used as a metaphor for hopelessness.

The 7th Victim (1943) is an eerie, quietly bizarre film about an innocent woman stumbling across a group of devil-worshippers.

As you can see from the dates, these films were produced quickly, while a particular team that Lewton trusted was allowed to work together. Thanks to a lucky fluke, Cat People was a hit, and allowed Lewton to produce films without much studio harassment for a period of time. Finally, studio changes, evolving trends and a series of heart attacks got in the way of Lewton making many more films he was happy with before he died quite young. It’s a shame he’ll never know how much his films were eventually appreciated, but he’s certainly recognized now for taking charge of a series of small, cheap productions intended only to make money and giving the world far more. There’s a collection out there with all these films in it, and as you may already guess, I’d suggest it’s well worth tracking down.

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