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Val Lewton was another one of these guys (Sol Wurtzel was another) who
was terrific at making "A" pictures on a "B" budget. To this day,
Lewton's horror films are fairly well-known and receive wonderful
notices by critics and film historians.
This look at the somewhat-but-not altogether famous filmmaker is a 77-minute very interesting excursion that was made, I believe, for the Turner Classic Movie (TCM) network, and was aired several times recently (mid January of 2008). I assume it will run numerous times on the network, in future months. Director Martin Scorcese narrates this tale about Lewton, his history and his films.
Some of the comments that particularly caught my ear, made by either Scorcese, Val Lewton's son, or by someone else in here, included:
"His movies moved and spoke to audiences in a different way....Lewton's films were more terror than horror....He was always at odds with his bosses but never satisfied with is own achievements....There is no film footage of him, no voice recordings of him.......He had no inkling he would be remembered by posterity......Many scenes in his films reflected his own phobias and views on life, as an outsider......We are all potentially evil and possible murderers."
Some of Lewton's films are examined in detail, beginning with "The Cat People," followed by "I Walked With A Zombie," "The Leopard Man," "Curse Of The Cat People," and to a lesser extant, films that followed those. It was interesting to hear about his struggles with RKO and his unexpected success later with Boris Karloff in several of his movies ("The Body Snatcher" being his best, in many people's opinion.) We also hear from directors Roger Corman, Jacques Tourneur (who worked with Lewton on a number of films) and the famous Robert Wise.
This is a long documentary - and it is definitely slanted in favor of Lewton - and might have been more effectively edited down to an hour, but still pretty fascinating. I recognized the voice of actor Elias Koteas, who was reading some of the comments Lewton made over the years, almost in dairy or autobiographical form.
Some of the Lewton's film clips shown here will just about give you chills watching them. This man was a master at frightening you with things unseen.
Strange how sometimes one does not always see what others see. That is
the germ of the artist.
Scorcese clearly delves deeply into the world of Val Lewton, practically an unknown artist in the golden era of the movies which was sadly unlauded sufficiently during his law.
We see what so many of us probably didn't see or were not able to analyze as adeptly as Scorcese in Lewton's work. Certainly, these are not the grade A pictures we all know about, but Scorcese thrusts them into their well-deserved prominence by explaining how really fabulous Lewton's falsely relegated B-pictures they were. Sure they were low budget - but WHAT Lewton did was nothing short of miracles of mood, suspense and mystery, contrast and hue and the deep character development which exists within a movie and not necessarily a protagonist. We are shown, and it is explained just how Lewton worked his magic with shoestring budgets.
I've seen some of these movies, but never in this way...and after this, I will always bring with me the wonderful aura of the prodigious talent of Val Lewton.
VAL LEWTON gave us many wonderful horror films throughout the '40s, but
at one time he worked as a reader for David O. Selznick and told the
producer his feelings about GONE WITH THE WIND: "This is the biggest
piece of rubbish I've ever read. You'll be making the biggest mistake
of your career if you decide to make this." (paraphrasing, of course).
Well, he may never qualify as an accurate prophet, but he did know how
to use subtle horror to make films like THE CAT PEOPLE and I WALKED
WITH A ZOMBIE.
MARTIN SCORSESE narrates this thoughtful documentary on the producer with many interesting film clips from the low-budget horror films that are now considered film classics of their kind by a man who was "drawn to the darkness of the shadow world." He trusted many of his associates when he began filming the features at RKO with men like Jacques Tourneur, Nicholas Musuraca, DeWitt Bodeen, Roy Webb, and later Mark Robson. His films had an hypnotic effect on audiences, providing subtle horror through the power of suggestion.
In private, he was a sensitive man, never fully satisfied with his work or his assignments, but happily married to a woman who understood him and his needs. He was really not tough enough to be a Hollywood survivor and had a few heart attacks before the major one that killed him at the age of 46.
The documentary tells how he ignited the career of BORIS KARLOFF when Karloff was assigned to films like ISLE OF THE DEAD, THE BODY SNATCHERS and BEDLAM. As the war drew to a close, people began to turn away from horror films and Lewton's career began to decline when the defining films of his earlier career were no longer being made.
His low-budget films really were low-budget: for CAT PEOPLE he was given a budget of $150,000, but the film was a huge hit, made a million at the box-office when only A-budget features made as much and stayed in big city theaters longer than CITIZEN KANE that year!
New Documentary produced and narrated by Martin Scorsese on the life and work on the films of Val Lewton. It premiered tonight on Turner Classic Movies and has occasioned the reissue of the box set of the Lewton RKO horror films on DVD. To be honest I don't think this is really a documentary so much as its film essay on the Lewton produced films and his life. There is no nitty gritty about the making of the films (the fact that one of his films occasioned the last screen teaming of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi is not mentioned). If one wants details one has to look to the documentary that was originally released with the DVD set, Shadows in the Dark:The Val Lewton Legacy. Here Scorsese talks about the deeper meanings of the films Lewton over saw and how they affected the people who saw them.Its clear that Scorsese is in love with the poetry of the movies, and its nice to have him as a guide into their recesses, indeed watching the film I picked up a good many details that I had never noticed before. It also reveals symbols and character types that reoccur in his movies. Its an examination of how Lewton's melancholy nature produced some very dark and troubling films, films which echo to this day. I liked the film a great deal but I'm not in love with it. While I learned some new things I didn't learn enough (I think the earlier Shadows in the Dark is slightly better, but that may be purely a matter of personal taste).Its very good but there is something that keeps me from saying its great. Is it worth seeing, absolutely, it will reveal many things to you about the films that you probably never noticed. Ultimately it will make you want to see all the films again, which is a pretty good thing if you ask me
Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows (2008)
** 1/2 (out of 4)
Martin Scorsese produced and narrates this documentary that takes a look at the life and career of producer Val Lewton who hated the horror genre but become best known for his horror titles like The Body Snatcher, Bedlam, I Walked with a Zombie and Cat People. I personally find many of Lewton's horror movies overrated but they are popular so I understand the need to do a documentary on them but to do one on Lewton never really made much sense to me. It's even more senseless when you consider that another documentary, Shadows in the Dark was just made in 2005. As with that documentary, there really isn't much to Lewton so we learn very little. He didn't do interviews, didn't have any on camera stuff and in reality there's very little known about him so we don't learn a thing. When they discuss the movies we still don't learn anything outside the fact that Lewton hated horror movies and didn't want to work with Boris Karloff. Since there's nothing to Lewton I just can't justify having two documentaries about him and in the end neither of them do much. Roger Corman, Robert Wise and Japanese director Kiyoski Kurosawa are the only movie people interviewed and both only get a few clips.
Born in Yalta in the early 1900s to Russian parents, film producer Val Lewton was raised in America by his mother and sister, honing a colorful imagination even through his years at military school; he wrote articles and published a few pulpy stories before landing in Hollywood as protégé to David O. Selznick. Selznick turned out to be a helpful boss but was no father-figure, rarely if ever giving Lewton credit for the work he did on pictures such as "Anna Karenina" and "Gone With the Wind". A movie-producing offer eventually came from financially-strapped RKO, who hoped a series of low-budget thrillers would get them back in the black, and Val Lewton was on his way. This documentary on Lewton's career (produced in conjunction with Turner Classic Movies by Martin Scorsese, who also narrates) is nearly bereft of details on Lewton's personal life, mostly due to the fact no documents exist of his recorded voice. Photos and letters written by Lewton help to fill in the gaps, but we never get much sense of the reported turmoils and trouble Lewton went through while working in Hollywood. We also are not privy to much information that went on in the RKO offices with each new Lewton release, only that his films were "successful" up to and including 1946's "Bedlam". If all or most of his films were so popular, what accounted for Lewton's anxieties? He and his wife raised two children--a girl who is unaccounted for here, and a son who has grown up seemingly in the dark regarding his father's business affairs--but what happened to his supporters? Editor Mark Robson and director Robert Wise, themselves protégés of Val Lewton, later found success on their own but failed to extend an olive branch to Lewton once tastes in Hollywood changed. Yet, instead of acknowledging the fact that Lewton was out of step with the times, Robson and Wise are left looking like false friends. The special is clip-heavy, with a finely-tuned parallel atmosphere to compliment the array of sequences, yet it doesn't cut very deep. Still, if the central desire here was to create an interest in Val Lewton's productions for audiences unaware of his languid, elegiac and stylized mood pieces, then "The Man in the Shadows" certainly succeeds. It thoughtfully whets the appetite for an evening's worth of Lewton product, and the artful way in which he was able to combine good and evil with the most subtle of touches.
Martin Scorcese waxes poetic over one of his favorite talents, Val
Lewton, the producer of cult classics such as The Cat People, The
Seventh Victim, I Walked with a Zombie, etc. Lewton's unique outlook on
life was present in all of his dark films, which were actually B horror
movies with some heavy messages. The most interesting of these for me
was The Cat People, which I first saw as a child, and Curse of the Cat
People, which I saw recently, and these were my main reasons for
watching this documentary, that and the fact that Nazimova was his
aunt. I confess that I saw The Seventh Victim and either I wasn't
paying attention or I'm thick or both, but I didn't get it. I'm not a
horror person so I definitely wouldn't be able to get through anything
else of his.
Of interest was the fact that he started off in movies working for David O. Selznick, so he learned from a master. The other interesting thing is that not much is really known about Lewton himself, evidently a very private person. Like many artists, he wasn't fully appreciated while he was alive - which wasn't long. He died when he was 46.
The Cat People remains one of the most fascinating movies ever made, and it was good to hear one person comment that the Kent Smith character seems like a really nice guy but actually isn't -- my feelings exactly; and what a treat to see the child Veronica Lake lookalike, Ann Carter Newton, all grown up, and hear what she had to say about making The Curse of the Cat People.
Viewers should find this interesting, and if you like the genre and aren't familiar with Lewton's work, you will be inspired to see it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Satanists.....split personalities obsessed with felines.....mental
institutions abusing their patients....corpse thefts for medical
research....obsessions with the undead. Just some of the subjects of
the Val Lewton unit at RKO that lasted only four years. The dream-like
photography of these cult thrillers fascinate film students to this
day, and are studied by horror filmmakers who have utilized many of the
aspects that these films have made legendary. If there is a genre
called horror noir, then Val Lewton created it.
A great look at the life and career of this cult film figure, exploring the concepts of the technology that to some aspect is really the star. Big names like Karloff, Lugosi, Simone Simon, Tom Conway and Henry Danielle added box office interest, but ultimately it is the look of the film that remains the focus of conversation with aficionados of his work. Photography, lighting, editing, shadowing and music are important aspects of his work, revealing more than the words of the characters even do.
If you ever have the chance to see his films on a big screen, I highly recommend it. The echoes of silence become so much more frightening in what he has his technical crew doing. What makes these films more fascinating is that there is a sensuality in the themes, and much is left to the imagination. More ironic is the fact that Lewton only produced these films, directing only the director, and many of those men went onto impressive careers of their own.
You can tell by the narration of legendary modern director Martin Scorsese is that he was greatly influenced into going into filmmaking by seeing these films as a kid. Certainly, the earlier horror films of James Whale and Tod Browning had some influence on the technology that Lewton took a step further. I can get watch his films over and over and pick up something new every time. Make that his movies and this documentary.
Val Lewton is a deeply respected hero of American cinema, but his works
are best appreciated without scholars telling you why Lewton's
contributions are so important. To begin with, it's disrespectful to
the directors of Lewton's films to have film historians waxing on about
every detail and crediting Lewton almost exclusively, as if he was the
director. In the event that you never noticed before, Hollywood is
collectively its own biggest fan. Watching Turner Classic Movies on a
regular basis will expose you to film experts and movie people gushing
over past works as if God himself, or perhaps they were interim Dr.
Frankensteins acting as proxy creators. Martin Scorsese is almost as
well known for his embellishments on the topic as he is for his own
"Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows" is a library of prose praising the visual style, the dialog, the lighting, the mood -- attributes normally credited to the director, as if the actual directors of these films were merely showing up and collecting a check while Lewton commandeered every job on and off the set. The fault is, as noted before, the self-referential adoration from the industry itself of its own offspring. Imagine for a moment having to hear such praise of one's work from carpenters, mechanics, teachers, civil servants, construction crews...it would be appalling to be subjected to poetic essays on the greatness of their jobs which are, truth be known, of much greater significance to society as a whole.
The moral of the story: the entertainment industry needs to get over itself, do its job and go home. The single benefit of this production is that the films highlighted can be looked at as more detailed trailers, even though the films represented are quite a bit overstated. Let movies entertain you and forget the idea that experts need to teach you how to enjoy them.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Val Lewton was born in Russia and emigrated as a child with his family
to America. He worked around the outskirts of Hollywood for a while
before becoming a producer of what were called horror films at RKO
Studios. This was in the early 1940s. He died shortly after the end of
the war, of a heart condition.
During his active period, this melancholy and retiring man -- who rewrote all his scripts without taking any screen credit -- led a unit of friends and compatible colleagues that produced some of the most haunting, small-budget, eerie movies to come out of Hollywood, about nine all together.
This documentary by Martin Scorsese is an appreciation of Lewton's work, and nicely done it is. Lewton deserves all the attention and thought that went into the documentary. There are abundant excerpts from his films and interesting commentaries from a handful of talking heads, including that of the little girl from "The Curse of the Cat People", now fully grown.
"The Curse of the Cat People" is emblematic of the titles and material being thrown at Lewton while he was at RKO. The studio had just produced "Citizen Kane," a ruinously expensive flop at the time, and its new motto was "Showmanship, Not Genius." An additional impetus to the formation of Lewton's unit came from the success of Universal Studios' monster movies: "Frankenstein," "Dracula," "The Wolfman," "The Curse of Frankenstein," "The Briss of Dracula," and what not. The intention was for Lewton to make competitive monster movies at less cost. He did considerably more than that. He was stuck with the lurid titles and the sometimes irrational plots but he managed to polish the stories and see that they were filmed with impeccable taste.
The narration is well written and insightful. Here's an instance of what I mean. I'd never realized it before but the most hair-raising moments in Lewton's movies are handled very briefly. They last only an instant or two -- a bus hissing to a halt, a trickle of blood under a door, the hoof beats of a horse turning into a flapping old automobile tire -- whereas today one would find these effects not only made more explicit but lingered over until the audience was on the edge of exhaustion or maybe beyond that.
For those who are interested, there is a boxed set of nine of Lewton's best films now available on DVD, and each film is accompanied by a knowledgeable commentary.
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