Although Orson Welles is frequently cited as the grandfather of American independent cinema, his contemporary Val Lewton deserves just as much credit for showing what could be done with very little money. In the 1940s, Lewton produced a series of successful B-horror movies for RKO studios, effectively recouping the money lost on Welles' critically acclaimed but financially disastrous "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons" and saving the studio from bankruptcy. The films were commissioned with the intention of competing with the more high-profile horror movies at Universal, but Lewton had greater ambitions than just creating quick moneymakers. With an eye for visuals and an emphasis on storytelling, he created some of the most hypnotic and poetic horror films of the era, indeed of all time. With no money for horrific costumes or special effects, Lewton drew instead on atmosphere, mood, and suggestion to make films that haunted viewers rather than shocked, and he assembled a loyal group of collaborators to ensure that his creative vision came through.
Written and directed by Kent Jones, "Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows" was produced by Martin Scorsese for Turner Classic Movies to shed light on the private man behind this legacy of quietly enduring films. Scorsese narrates the film that examines the life and career of Val Lewton, who yearned to break out of the horror genre and yet whose own personal demons seemed best expressed through it. With no recordings of his voice or surviving interviews, all that is left of Lewton's personal thoughts are letters (read by actor Elias Koteas) and, of course, his films. Interviews with those who knew him, including his son, Val E. Lewton, as well as photographs and passages from his early pulp novels are used to construct a portrait of this melancholy artist.
While Universal put out major hits like "Dracula," "Frankenstein," and "The Wolf Man" in the 1930s and early 1940s, RKO was in the middle of a decline that was bordering on bankruptcy. What ultimately pulled the studio back into the black were Lewton's low-budget horror movies, such as "Cat People," "I Walked with a Zombie," and "The Body Snatcher." Though these films drew large crowds to the theatres, Lewton wanted to do something more. Kent Jones illuminates the producer's early life as a Russian immigrant whose mother and aunt were both involved in the film industry. With a background in European art and literature and an ear for poetic dialogue, Lewton hoped to eventually break away from the horror cycle and work on more prestigious projects, but in the era of the studio system, making bigger movies meant having less creative control. Sticking with the B-movie circuit in order to retain control and continue to work with his trusted directors and editors, Lewton nonetheless felt constricted and pigeonholed in horror and was consistently dissatisfied with his output.
The most fascinating aspect revealed in this documentary is the way Lewton's suppressed emotions were embodied by his cinematic characters, who were frequently tormented by inner turmoil, isolated from society, or confused and disillusioned with the circumstances around them. Though RKO imposed often lurid titles on Lewton (of which "I Walked with a Zombie" must be the most extreme), his stories transcended what could have been exploitative and sensational material by emphasizing the psychology of his characters rather than physical horrors. He never directed his own films, though he sometimes worked on the screenplays, either remaining uncredited or using a pseudonym. In contrast to the patriotic and borderline propagandistic Hollywood movies made during World War II, Lewton's films presented bleak, despairing views of humanity, where death was frequently a blessing. He explored heretofore untapped subject matter like sexual hysteria, childhood insecurities, and satanic worship, which might have resulted in a series of potboilers had they not been handled with such contemplation and artistry.
To help put these films in perspective, interviews with film experts and Lewton collaborators are interspersed throughout. B-movie legend Roger Corman and Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa discuss Lewton's influence on their own films and on filmmaking in general, while archival interviews with directors Jacques Tourneur ("Cat People") and Robert Wise ("The Body Snatcher"), as well as a new interview with actress Ann Carter Newton ("The Curse of the Cat People") provide further insight into Lewton's methods and personality. Tourneur and Wise, not to mention another Lewton director, Mark Robson, would of course go on to have great careers in their own right. The interviews provided in this documentary perfectly uncover just how instrumental Lewton was in bringing a respectability to the low-budget scene and in bringing forth new talent to the film industry. The analyses of his films reveal the work of an unheralded artist whose dark reflections captured the hidden fears and suspicions of American audiences during World War II.
At a brisk 87 minutes, "Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows" presents a relatively short overview of the producer's life and career, but the extensive research conducted by Jones is evident. It is not surprising that a man with such a private personality and comparatively lowly Hollywood stature should have little information available. What this film succeeds in is taking a new approach to Lewton's films, analyzing them in light of his background, his private thoughts, and his own struggles, positioning him as a true auteur and an innovator in the history of both the horror genre and low-budget filmmaking.
The documentary is presented in a fullframe aspect ratio on Warner Home Video's DVD. As the clips used throughout are from films made, in some cases, more than 60 years ago, image quality varies widely. The clips from the movies that are available on DVD match the quality of the transfers on those discs. Clips from some of the producer's lesser-known works that have yet to be released on home video show that they are in great need of restoration. The interviews throughout look just fine, though obviously this is not the type of release that is meant to showcase great visual quality.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is used quite minimally, of course, as Scorsese's narration and the guest's interviews are the primary sounds heard. As with the image, the sound varies in the clips, but it is as good as these old films will sound, which is not bad at all.
To accommodate this new release, Warner Home Video has re-packaged their "Val Lewton Horror Collection" from 2005 (which was reviewed on this site by Guido) with the documentary included. Fortunately for those of us who already own the collection, Warner has also made "Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows" available separately. Anyone who has this collection or has an interest in classic horror movies should pick up this new documentary immediately, and while you are at it, you might as well start re-watching the films in the collection. The insight that is brought out here will certainly make you want to go back and reevaluate the films for yourself.
The influence that Val Lewton has had on the industry and the ways in which we look at horror films is unquestionable, and his movies continue to conjure up frightful images in viewers' imaginations. In this enlightening documentary, Kent Jones reveals a man who struggled so much to achieve an ideal of greatness that forever eluded him. What the man apparently did not realize was that, for at least one decade, he did produce truly great works that reached beyond the studio's immediate goal of financial profit to hit a nerve with wartime audiences and inspire a generation of filmmakers. Like his haunted characters, Lewton seemed plagued by fear and insecurity, but his films will live on to tell the tale of a creative master whose grand ambitions were not in vain.