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VAL LEWTON: THE MAN IN THE SHADOWS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Narrator: Martin Scorsese
Director: Kent Jones
Audio: English
Subtitles: English, French
Video: Black & white and color, full-frame
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: None
Length: 77 minutes
Release Date: January 29, 2008

Horror is what causes physical revulsion.  Terror is what causes fear.

Documentary ****

The name “Val Lewton” resonates strongly in the annals of film horror.  Like no producer before him and few afterwards, Val Lewton defined psychological horror long before it garnered recognition as a popular sub-genre of horror cinema.  Lewton's name may not be a household name, but his best films - Cat People or I Walked with a Zombie, for starters - are well-known to anyone with a taste for classic Hollywood chills and thrills.

The documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, produced and narrated by Martin Scorsese, traces Lewton's career from his early days as a writer through his most successful period as an RKO producer.  Born 1904 in Russia, Lewton emigrated to the United States while still a child; he was raised by his mother, a story editor herself, and his famous aunt Alla Nazimova, a star of American film and stage in her day.  This upbringing by such independent women would later be reflected in the strong female protagonists that frequented Lewton’s films.

Lewton's own early literary career involved a bit of everything from poetry to news articles to pulp fiction.  He eventually graduated to a stint as script doctor and story editor at MGM, where Lewton would meet his mentor, legendary film producer David O. Selznick.  During his eight years with Selznick, Lewton learned the fine craft of producing films.  It was during the production of Selznick's 1935 film A Tale of Two Cities that Lewton would meet Jacques Tourneur, the first (and probably most talented) of three directors who would eventually work with Lewton at RKO.

Lewton’s big opportunity at RKO arrived at the expense of Orson Welles.  After Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons drove RKO to the brink of bankruptcy in the early 1940's, the desperate studio jettisoned the mercurial Welles and offered Lewton an opportunity to produce a series of cheap but hopefully profitable horror films.  Universal was making a killing with their big budget monster flicks, and RKO wanted to offer the filmgoing public a competing product.  However, RKO could only afford to give Lewton a budget of $125,000 per film.

No matter.  Despite these constraints and regular studio interference, Lewton was able to churn out quality horror pictures which would become famous for their creative and suggestive use of sound and shadows.  Lewton's own background as a writer served him well, as he often refined his films' scripts without credit and injected them with numerous cultural and literary references that elevated the films above the level of mere B-picture (of course, the use in his films of already-standing sets from the mega-budgeted The Hunchback of Notre Dame or The Magnificent Ambersons didn't hurt the look of his films, either).  Lewton was able to assemble a fine troupe of solid actors for his films, including Anna Lee, Tom Conway, Simone Simon, and most famously Boris Karloff, whose stage training served him particularly well within Lewton's literary-minded productions.  Lewton even recruited a pair of highly talented RKO cast-offs from the ill-fated Orson Welles days, Robert Wise and Mark Robson, first as editors and then as directors.

Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows focuses chiefly on this RKO period.  We see numerous clips from all the Lewton horror films, including the tale of sexually-repression, Cat People, the hypnotic Jane Eyre adaptation I Walked with a Zombie, devil worship in the dangerous world of The Seventh Victim, the Robert Stevenson adaptation The Body Snatcher, and more.  Lewton’s non-horror films are also mentioned, although these are mostly forgettable with the exception of the period costume drama Mademoiselle Fifi.

Val Lewton essentially saved RKO from bankruptcy during the war era.  However, after the war, he would drift from one film studio to another with little success.  Lewton’s post-RKO career declined into a series of disappointments and uncompleted projects, and his deteriorating health ultimately forced Lewton from the movie business altogether.

Fortunately, Val Lewton’s legacy remains to inspire generations of future film makers, and Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows is essential viewing for any fan of this highly-influential producer.  The Warner Bros' The Seventh Victim DVD also has a documentary about Val Lewton's life, but Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows focuses more on the producer's RKO years and the films which have immortalized him.  Be forewarned, however, that many of the film clips included in this documentary do give away essential plot elements.  The clips are complemented by interviews with former collaborators such as Robert Wise and Mark Robson or son, Val E. Lewton.  A few modern horror directors, such as Roger Corman, also contribute.

Today, many horror films emphasize special effects or blood and guts over suspense and atmosphere, often to the detriment of the film.  Val Lewton proved that a good horror film did not require expensive effects or buckets of blood, only creative filmmaking and solid story-telling.  He was probably right.

Video ** ½

Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows is shown in a full-frame format.  Most of the film clips are in black & white, although a few are in color.  Scratches and dust specks are to be expected along with a varying degree of image clarity and graininess, given the age of these film clips.  The modern interviews are in color.

Audio ** ½

Audio is English stereo.  It is nothing spectacular but does display creative usage of the old sound clips from various Lewton films to create a consistently eerie ambiance throughout the documentary.

Features zero (no stars)

There are no special features.  Note that the running length is 77 minutes, not 87 minutes as indicated on the back of the DVD case.

Summary:

Available separately or as a supplement to the box set The Val Lewton Horror Collection, this documentary provides a great introduction for new viewers to one of Hollywood's finest horror film producers.

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