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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
I Walked with Val Lewton
by Donald Levit

A full month before “TCM and Martin Scorsese Pay Tribute to the Master of Unseen Chills,” the Film Society of Lincoln Center screens the “Scorsese presents” Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, accompanied by Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie. The January 14th Turner Classic Movies special is to be followed by eight “Classic Lewton Thrillers.”

Acknowledging the help, clout and voiced narration of Scorsese, with whom he co-wrote My Voyage to Italy, a history of that nation’s cinema, director-writer Kent Jones was onstage to discuss the new documentary. Originally conceived more in line with traditional factual considerations, he revealed, the project wound up taking shape around the films rather than the image of the man himself. This is partly because the literary and cultured Lewton was so personally retiring that, while overseeing most aspects of the work, he avoided self-credits and twice used the co-writer pseudonym “Carlos Keith”; only a single unavailable voice record of him is rumored to exist, there is no home movie footage, and the low-salaried career was fenced in by early death and aggressive Hollywood big fish who kept the unassertive Russian-born American on short leash.

The lucky coming-together of such logistical restrictions has led to a uniquely organized documentary. Limiting itself to some half-dozen brief interviewees and readings from the letters to his mother and daughter, Val Lewton tells its tale through the dreamlike chiaroscuro films that he put together. In keeping with this approach, there is not much of the usual outside analysis, psychological or otherwise, though the term “melancholy” recurs, even from his son. Unmentioned, too, lamentably, is the 1952 Hollywood-on-Hollywood The Bad and the Beautiful, from which producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) and The Cat Men director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan) are regularly cited as movie-à-clef Lewtons. Whether he is Lewton or maybe control-mogul David O. Selznick, Shields observes that “what scares you the most, darkness, is the eyes in the dark.”

After working with that also Russian-born MGM executive, notably on Gone with the Wind, a novel he advised against buying but then (uncredited) envisioned its film zoom-out above wounded troops at Atlanta’s Depot, Lewton left for RKO. On salary contract at the latter, he headed the horror film division meant to outdistance popular Universal. Hired to turn out works that ran under an hour-and-a-quarter and $150,000, for which the studio would supply titles, he engineered eleven films during the war era.

The first of these, the 1942 Cat People and the following year’s I Walked with a Zombie, both directed by friend and interviewee Jacques Tourneur, set the tone and, unlike much early horror, remain chilling and atmospheric. Finances curtailing special effects and costuming, their final drafts red-and-blue penciled by Lewton, these minor classics relied on suggestion, a sense of the unseen just beyond camera frame, such as Simone Simon’s pool scene in the former and nurse Frances Dee’s walk through cane fields in the latter, which is actually little Brontë Jane Eyre and lots William B. Seabrook’s The Magic Island.

In these, and subsequent ones directed by Robert Wise and Mark Robson after a third Tourneur, The Leopard Man (1943), Lewton was careful to have scenes kept brief, therefore suggestive, and to avoid the over-explicit.

His eleven films for pre-Howard Hughes RKO starred capable minor character actors or those whose stars had waned but also gave Boris Karloff the opportunity to demonstrate his considerable non-monster craft in the Robert Louis Stevenson “crawler,” The Body Snatcher (1945), and Bedlam (1946). Though the title was the studio’s imposition, to cash in on first success, and though it refers to that film and its characters, The Curse of the Cat People (Wise/Gunther von Fritsch; 1944) is at heart about isolation and loneliness, a perceptive view of childhood peopled with secret gardens and fairy-godmother ghosts (Simon).

More than the other clips amply represented, this latter receives some psychological analysis, though brief compared with that in other biography documentaries. Raised by his mother and admired dancer-actress aunt, Lewton was obsessive in work and able to relax, not with wife and two children, but aboard his Nina with Tourneur. Childhood, innocence -- the innocence of childhood -- and the black-and-white mental terror of what is misunderstood or unseen, inform the best of his filmmaking, but guesswork in that direction is wisely not pushed.

Though even his lesser RKO work is worthy of inclusion, as for example the Youth Runs Wild (1944) whose depiction of juvenile delinquency was censored out as unhealthy for wartime morale, Wise and Robson left Lewton behind, and he drifted to Paramount and on to Metro. Light comedy not his forte, underappreciated and –paid, Val Lewton died at forty-six of a heart attack. The best of his brooding works of darkness have lived on. Kent Jones has admirably brought back to life as much of their insecure creator as seems possible.

(Released by Warner Bros. Home Video; not rated by MPAA.) 

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