Judge Jim Thomas says: "I can relate to Lewton's struggles—my production team at work consists of me, myself, and I."
"My task is to initiate a program of horror pictures, to be made at the comparatively low cost of $125,000 each, which should compete successfully with the Universal horror films, which cost anywhere from $300,000 to a million…I feel I can do this quite easily, as the Universal people spend a lot of money on their horror product, but not much on brains and imagination."—Val Lewton
Seldom has one man done so much with so little.
In 1942, RKO, struggling in the wake of the box-office failures of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, hired Val Lewton away from David O. Selznick to head up their horror division. RKO coveted the profits raked in by the Universal horror movies, and hoped that Lewton could do the same. The studio made three stipulations: 1. Each film could cost no more than $125,000. 2. The films could be no longer than 75 minutes. 3. RKO's marketing department would give Lewton the titles. Beyond that, Lewton was on his own. Despite those restraints and the insanely lurid titles thrown at him (e.g., I Walked With a Zombie), Lewton and his team created intelligent, evocative movies that, to the surprise and delight of RKO, found wide audiences, and hold up well today.
Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, a new documentary that examines Lewton's life and works, is packaged with the re-release of The Val Lewton Horror Collection (the new doc is also available separately). There are a few talking heads, most notably a series of reminiscences and analyses by one of Lewton's team, director Jacques Tourneur. But our main escort into Lewton's oeuvre is Scorsese, abetted by quotes from Lewton's letters and memos (voiced by Elias Koteas).
The film opens in media res, with Lewton being hired at RKO. A series of clips accompanies an overview of key themes in Lewton's movies. From there, we move back to the beginning, getting a carefully layered presentation of Lewton's life, from childhood though his work at MGM; in that childhood we see the genesis of some of Lewton's broader themes. Once we come full circle back to RKO, we have the necessary foundation for a more careful consideration of individual films. The structure demands more attention than one usually expects from a documentary, but that's not necessarily a bad thing; it makes it easier to appreciate how fully Lewton transformed the horror genre by infusing it with realism and intelligence.
The realism was more of a matter of necessity than anything else; Lewton's budgets did not allow for complex sets, costumes, or special effects. Consequently, Lewton relied heavily on standing sets or sets from other productions that had not yet been struck. (Lewton's French drama Madame Fifi has the dubious distinction of being the least expensive period film in the history of American cinema.) To balance the lack of makeup or special effects, Lewton relied on lighting and sound effects, suggesting rather than showing. The pool scene from Cat People illustrates Lewton's narrative economy; it's a brief scene, but stunningly effective. We know that there's something there, moving in the shadows just outside our field of vision, and so we share the character's terror. From that moment on, any doubts about Irena's curse fall by the wayside.
The intelligence was a matter of Lewton's drive to make truly intelligent films, regardless of genre. Lewton's "secret" was that he always focused on making a good movie; the fact that it was a horror movie was almost incidental. When saddled with a title like I Walked With a Zombie, Lewton shrugged, and then calmly proceeded to produce a loose adaptation of Jane Eyre set in the Caribbean. The care with which Lewton developed his films extended to the writing. He always wrote a final draft of the screenplay before the start of filming—though he never insisted on a writing credit. RKO didn't care if the films were intelligent or not, but the cast and crew seemed to be energized by the ideas loosed by Lewton's team. Boris Karloff, who starred in three of Lewton's later films, came to RKO after years of formulaic work for Universal. The classically trained Karloff found new life in Lewton's films, saying that "[Lewton] rescued me and restored my soul." Two of the films, The Body Snatcher and Bedlam, are widely considered to be Karloff's finest performances.
The documentary gives a fascinating glimpse into how Val Lewton's work may have shed light on not so much his inner demons, perhaps, but rather on his childhood fears. Lewton comes across as a relatively private person—perhaps not introverted, but certainly a far cry from the gregarious glad-handers seen as the typical Hollywood operators. One possible weakness of this approach is that the reasoning is largely inductive, as Lewton spoke and wrote little about himself. It's clear, for example, that a major subtext in Cat People is the desire for immigrants abandon their roots and assimilate into American culture—the Leventons immigrated from the Ukraine in 1909 and became the Lewtons—but that is a more a reflection of the early 20th century immigrant experience rather than something specific to an individual. Some of the claims are more speculative in nature—they could be true, or they could be a product of Hollywood mythmaking.
Without question, though, the strength of the film is the inspired manner in which clips of Lewton's works are used to illustrate the broader themes. Sometimes the clip is brief, sometimes it's extended, but in all cases, the clips are arresting—there is something compelling in every single frame. It may be the way in which a stone staircase appears to be suspended in air, the play of light across an actor's face, or the way in which a character's movements through both light and darkness destabilize our perceptions of what darkness and light convey. The clips are supported by narration with an almost elegiac rhythm.
Scorsese's delivery of that narration is somewhat problematic, however. I've seen Scorsese discuss film at length, and little of his renowned energy and passion are in evidence here. Instead, we have an extremely measured, clipped delivery that occasionally veers towards monotone, with Shatner-esque pauses that suggest that someone should have cranked the Teleprompter up a notch. It's as though they have 80 minutes of narration but have to stretch it out to fill 87 minutes. Perhaps tellingly, the narration becomes more animated later in the documentary, when Scorsese begins to recount Lewton's growing problems with studio interference—perhaps empathy for a fellow filmmaker.
A side effect of the inner focus is that the films are left in a cultural vacuum, artifacts of the inner man rather than artifacts of cinema. What the film does not do—and, to be fair, probably never intended to do—is provide a sense of how Lewton's work influenced future filmmakers. The notable exception is a brief discussion with director Robert Wise, who joined Lewton's team after editing Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Years later, Wise later took everything that he had learned from Lewton about the power of suggestion and adapted Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House into one of the best haunted house stories ever committed to film, 1963's The Haunting (not to be confused with Jan deBont's 1999 abomination of a remake).
The 2005 release of The Val Lewton Horror Collection featured its own documentary, Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy. The earlier documentary, as the name suggests, examines how Lewton's films inspired future directors. That documentary isn't as meticulous in its analysis as this newer documentary; however, it does provide a strong sense of how Lewton's legacy lives on, with testimonials from the likes of William Friedkin (The Exorcist) and Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth). Because the two films explore different terrain, they complement each other well. Fortunately, the re-released box set includes both documentaries.
If you are at all interested in classic horror movies, you owe it to yourself to pick up Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows. (If you don't have any Val Lewton in your collection (shame on you!), you can whack multiple birds at one go by buying the new box set.
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