Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows

Val LewtonOne of the true masters of the Cinema, Val Lewton
In the 40s, RKO contracted producer Val Lewton to develop a number of low-budget horror movies to compete with Universal's string of Frankenstein, Dracula and Wolfman films. With little money and saddled with lurid titles like 'Cat People', 'I Walked with a Zombie' and 'The Leopard Man', you could hardly expect much. Against the odds, however, Lewton produced not only some of the best horror movies to come out of Hollywood in that era, but some of the best movies full stop.
I just had the good fortune to watch a TCM documentary on the great man, 'Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows', narrated and produced by Martin Scorsese. It was a welcome insight into this relatively little known figure, who, besides those low-budget gems, is not known for much.
But was Lewton just lucky? After all the first director he worked with, Jacques Tourneur, is a subject of much study in his own right. Certainly you could never look at classics like 'Cat People' or 'I Walked with a Zombie' without admiring Tourneur's hand at work (remember his later 'Night of the Demon?). But if it were just Tourneur then how might we explain a series of films that also included 'Isle of the Dead', 'Bedlam', the brilliant 'The Seventh Victim' and the masterful 'Curse of the Cat People', all films directed by other men.
Lewton seems to be the common thread, and certainly he had a huge involvement in choosing literary properties for adaptation (eg. R.L. Stevensons's 'The Body Snatcher') and steering their development in dark and subtle directions. It is also tempting to see an emphasis on a producer like Lewton as simply a redirection of the overblown auteur theory. Concentrating on Lewton too much fails to take note of the group he gathered together, a group comprised of editor/director Robert Wise (editor on 'Citizen Kane' and director of 'The Sound of Music'), editor/director Mark Robson, composer Roy Webb (you won't forget Webb's lovely use of the French 'Do-Do' theme for 'Cat People's lullaby), screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, art directors Albert S. D'Agostino and Walter E. Keller, etc., not to mention cast members he used again and again (even as a kid I fell in love with Simone Simon). Each member of his crew was a unique talent and deserves to be remembered in their own right. But Lewton had the genius to recognise talent, bring it together, steer it and make the most of the meagre resources alloted to him. Every movie made under his stewardship likes startling, not starved. He was undoubtedly a genius far ahead of his time and for me blows the likes of other cash-strapped moguls such as Roger Corman (who I admire) out of the water.
I have been very vocal in the past about my admiration for 'Cat People', one of my all time favourites, but other films in his oeuvre are just as good, each being modern, distinctive and memorable. 'I Walked with a Zombie', for instance, manages to make studio bound sets as poetic as anything made with ten times the budget (he was restricted to $130,000 or so per picture). In the Horror genre, arguably only Bava managed to come close to such poetry, and that was years later. It tells its 'Jane Eyre' story with sensitivity and intelligence. 'The Seventh Victim' anticipates 'Rosemary's Baby' and in a lot of ways surpasses it; I love the pettiness of its coven of Satan worshippers. And as to 'Curse of the Cat People', it is quite simply one of the greatest movies ever made about being a child.
Tragically Lewton died of a heart attack at the early age of 46. His protegées, Wise and Robson, broke his heart when they refused to make him a partner in their production company, while the major studios seemed to lose faith in his projects when he graduated to 'A' pictures. He was perhaps the greatest producer Hollywood ever produced (you can keep your Selznicks et al), using his lack of money as a key to artistic freedom and a despised genre as the setting for intelligence and daring. I only wish there were someone like him around today.
The documentary itself is a serious and affectionate piece of work that is worth tracking down if you can. Scorsese narrates respectfully, while Elias Koteas reads from Lewton's own letters with an appropriate world-weariness. Just the opportunity to see clips from all those wonderful films was enough for me though. I still jumped when from that coffin in 'Isle of the Dead' there was a scream....

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