Monday, April 15, 2013

Val Lewton (1904 - 1951)

Few film producers have reached auteur status, but Val Lewton’s series of horror films for RKO Pictures in the '40s certainly grants him that honor. A novelist, screenwriter, and producer, Lewton made the finest WWII-era American horror films, somber works of subtlety and isolation. Born in Yalta in Imperialist Russia (now part of the Ukraine), Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon, soon to be known as Val Lewton, emigrated to the U.S. as a child, grew up in New York, and studied journalism at Columbia. Lewton got his start as a writer and produced a relatively large volume of novels, poetry, and nonfiction, including the novel No Bed of Her Own, which was made into a film starring Clark Gable. He got a job writing film novelizations for MGM before moving to Hollywood to work as a publicist for legendary producer David O. Selznick. 

After a successful run as Selznick’s assistant and as an uncredited writer for MGM, Lewton was promoted to run RKO’s horror film section. After a series of financially exhausting Orson Welles pictures, RKO was nearly bankrupt and desperate for a few hits. Lewton was given a limited budget, a 75-minute time limit for the films, and a campy title he was forced to stick with, but otherwise he had creative license to chose a team to work with and come up with horror films to rival Universal’s success in the ‘30s. 

Cat People (1942), starring Simone Simon, Kent Smith, and Jane Randolph, was Lewton’s first film. This was also his first time working with Jacques Tourneur, the director with whom he had the most successful partnership. Based on a short story by Lewton himself, Cat People concerns Irena, a suspicious, but lovely young Serbian woman living in New York and working as a fashion designer. She meets Oliver, a marine architect who is smitten with her and soon proposes marriage. Though she agrees, she explains that she is terrified to consummate their marriage, because she thinks she will transform into a murderous leopard. She believes in a legend that the women in her village were Satan-worshipping witches who would transform when overtaken by lust or anger. When their marriage begins to deteriorate and Oliver falls in love with his coworker Alice, Irena begins to lose control...

Cat People was so successful - it made almost $4 million - that Lewton was given license to continue making horror films, though he was forced to keep whatever title the studio chose for him, a low budget, and a short running time. His next film, I Walked With a Zombie (1943), one of his finest, was also directed by Tourneur. Sort of a Jane Eyre mixed with Caribbean voodoo, a young nurse is called to the island of Saint Sebastian in the Caribbean to care for a sugar plantation owner’s wife who is in a sort of waking coma. She falls in love with the plantation owner and is determined to cure his wife at any cost, even if it means experimenting with voodoo and discovering some dark family secrets. 

Lewton and Tourneur made one final film together, The Leopard Man (1943), which is my personal favorite. Based on crime writer Cornell Woolrich’s Black Alibi, the film concerns a series of murdered women in New Mexico whose deaths are blamed on an escaped leopard. Soon the evidence begins to point to something far worse: a human culprit. One of the first American films to portray a serial killer, The Leopard Man is one of Lewton’s finest films and though it is his most violent and lacks any hint of the supernatural, it contains most of his trademarks - beautiful black and white scenes plunged in shadow, subtle horror, the agonizing pain of loneliness, and the redemptive power of love. 

These first three are some of French-American director Jacques Tourneur’s finest films and it is a shame he and Lewton were ever split up, which RKO did because they thought the men would be more profitable apart. His only other horror film to reach the heights of his work with Lewton was Night of the Demon aka Curse of the Demon (1957), a subtle tale of occult horror.

For his next film, The Seventh Victim (1943), Lewton promoted Canadian editor Mark Robson to director. Though he went on to direct major films like Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls, this is one of his finest films and is also one of Lewton’s darkest. A young girl leaves boarding school to search for her missing sister. It turns out that her suicidal sister has hooked up with a satanic cult and is on the run, convinced they are going to murder her. Is she suffering paranoid delusions or are satanists really on her trail? The noir-like visuals make this one of Lewton’s finest films, but it is also one of his most difficult with its depressing, nihilistic tone. 

Their next film together, The Ghost Ship (1943), is unfortunately their weakest. A new crew member on a merchant marine ship becomes convinced that the captain is mad and possibly murderous, though the crew believes the ship is either haunted or cursed. This slow paced psychological thriller was actually unavailable for almost 50 years due to a plagiarism issue. After this, Lewton made another of his weakest films with director Robert Wise, Mademoiselle Fifi (1944), a romantic drama based on a story by Guy de Maupassant. Like Robson, Wise got his directing break from Lewton, who knew him as an incredibly talented editor, and he went on to make one of the most important American horror films - The Haunting - along with The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and some of the most important American musicals, like West Side Story and The Sound of Music

Wise and Lewton went on to make one of their most surprising films together, The Curse of the Cat People (1944). Austrian-American director Gunther von Frisch began the film, but was soon replaced by Wise. A sequel to Cat People in name only, this dreamy film reunites the cast of Cat People to make a fantasy-horror film about the world of an overly imaginative child and continues to investigate some of the themes of the first film, such as the often damaging power of imagination and the horror of loneliness. During this year he also made Youth Runs Wild with Marc Robson, a drama about troubled, misbehaving teens. 

Boris Karloff teamed up with Lewton for the producer's last three films. Though Lewton was initially reluctant to include Karloff in their first film together, The Body Snatcher (1945), the two men became good friends and Karloff credited Lewton for saving his career. His performance in The Body Snatcher remains one of his finest, as he deftly blends terror, revulsion, charm, wit, and charisma. Based on the story by Robert Louis Stevenson, a young medical student learns of a body snatching racket between his mentor, a famed surgeon, and a local cabbie (Karloff). An almost unrecognizable Béla Lugosi appears as the doctor’s nosy servant. 

Robson directed their next film together, Isle of the Dead (1945), yet another moody, atmospheric film about loneliness and the danger of superstitious beliefs. Karloff plays a Greek general who quarantines a small number of people on an island during what may be an attack of vampirism or an outbreak of the plague. This is Lewton's only film to directly reference WWII, though all of his films were made during wartime. Lewton and Robson's final final together, Bedlam (1946), is more of a historical drama and less a horror film, but the themes of cruelty, insanity, violence, and isolation, as well as the presence of Karloff means many horror fans will potentially enjoy it. A rebellious young woman challenges the head of the local asylum (Karloff), Bedlam, and he has her institutionalized. She learns to make the best of it with simple acts of human kindness.

Lewton produced out a few non-horror and non-RKO films, My Own True Love (1949), Please Believe Me (1950), a romantic comedy with Deborah Kerr, and a Western, Apache Drums (1951). Lewton’s early death at age 46 in 1951 is often attributed to the extreme overwork conditions of the final decade of his life (he had two heart attacks, the second of which was fatal) and the difficulties surrounding changes to the studio system at this time. He churned out 14 films in less than 10 years and wrote the final draft of nearly every film he produced, though he usually refused credit. He worked on nearly every aspect of his films, often all hours of the day and night, bolstering the low budgets with borrowed sets and costumes from other RKO productions. 

Lewton's films are ominous, subtle, and psychological, with existential themes of loneliness and isolation. Though he made films during the war, his films are not about the events of the war, but rather the feelings behind it. His films have few scenes of violence or jump-out-at-you scares, but they are steeped with a stylish sense of dread and horror at the simple pain of existing in the world. Many of his characters are obsessed with death and suffer from psycho-sexual issues. It is easy to see genesis of more contemporary horror classics like Hitchcock's Psycho in Lewton's body of work. 

All of his horror films are available in a wonderful boxset from Turner Home Entertainment. Most of the films have commentary tracks and a few special features, and there is a wonderful documentary about the great producer, Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy. A wide variety of writers, filmmakers, and many other personalities tell stories about Lewton, analyze his films, and discuss the influence he has had on multiple generations of writers and directors. 

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