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Producers are not always in high repute today, so it’s worth remembering that there was a time when literate, intelligent producers played a crucial role in Hollywood.
Everyone knows the names of David O. Selznick and Hal Wallis, but Val Lewton is perhaps not so well remembered except among film buffs and historians. A couple of those buffs, producer Martin Scorsese and writer-director Kent Jones, have collaborated with Turner Classic Movies on a telling portrait of Lewton, who reinvented the horror genre during the 1940s. “Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows” was shown at AFI Fest and will be seen on TCM, where it will be appreciated as one of the network’s most penetrating portraits of a forgotten filmmaker.
Lewton was born in Yalta, on the coast of Ukraine, and emigrated to America with his mother and sister. His mother worked as a script coordinator, and his aunt was the legendary actress Alla Nazimova, providing Lewton with family connections in the fledgling film business.
He actually served his apprenticeship under Selznick and then was hired by RKO to head up a film unit specializing in low-budget horror films that might compete with Universal’s popular horror entries. Lewton’s first production, “The Cat People,” cost $130,000 and ended up grossing more than $1 million.
It made film history by introducing subtlety and even visual lyricism into the horror genre. Lewton worked with talented directors Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, and Mark Robson (the latter two had helped to edit “Citizen Kane” at RKO), but he often rewrote the scripts and supervised every aspect of the bargain basement productions.
The great strength of the documentary is its use of generous clips that convincingly illustrate the artistry of Lewton’s films. (No doubt this was possible because Turner owns the RKO library.)
Viewers will savor the elegant style and eerie power of “I Walked With a Zombie,” “Curse of the Cat People,” “The Body Snatcher,” and others. The weakness of the film is its overly verbose narration, which is read by Scorsese himself. (Elias Koteas provides the voice of Lewton in excerpts from his letters and memos.) Sometimes one gets the impression of listening to a Ph.D. thesis rather than a film.
Still, an excess of intellectual chatter isn’t the worst sin in the world. Unlike so many trivial, gossipy docus on Hollywood subjects, this one has a heft that is quite satisfying. Interviewees include Roger Corman, who followed in the Lewton tradition, and Japanese director Kyoshi Kurosawa; Jones also makes judicious use of earlier interviews with Tourneur and Wise.
The film argues, with psychoanalytic fervor, that the dark, haunted spirit of most of the Lewton films grew out of the producer’s own melancholy temperament. In this sense he was more the auteur of these films than their credited writers or directors. Once the genre had run its course, Lewton tried to branch out to other kinds of films, but with limited success. He died in 1951, at the age of 46. This new film does him proud.
VAL LEWTON: THE MAN IN THE SHADOWS
Turner Classic Movies, Turner Entertainment Co.
Director-Screenwriter: Kent Jones
Producers: Martin Scorsese, Margaret Bodde
Executive producer: Tom Brown
Director of photography: Bobby Shepard
Editor: Kristen Huntley
Narrator: Martin Scorsese
Running time — 77 minutes
No MPAA rating
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