The Val Lewton Blogathon
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Along with David O. Selznick (his boss in the 1930s), Lewton is one of the few Hollywood producers to be discussed as an auteur, most of his films sharing themes and elements seldom repeated by their writers or directors. Granted modest budgets at RKO, he used low key lighting as a gimmick ostensibly to enhance the mystery of horror stories, but actually to camouflage cheap sets and fabricated backdrops. This part of Lewton inspired the producer ‘Jonathan Shields’ in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), who is observed concocting a picture similar to Lewton’s Cat People (1942).
His story will undoubtedly be making the rounds on the internet this week, along with the expected hosannas from the intelligentsia. It would be foolish of me to take these defenders to task, as my argument—that Lewton’s films are often plodding, dull and consciously morose—stems from a deep rooted childhood dissatisfaction. I loved horror movies as a kid and, conditioned by the crude and boisterous monsters of Universal Pictures, the stuff of Lewton always possessed for me the stodgy lifelessness of a codeine fix. Isle of the Dead (1945), for example, could lull any reasonable person into a coma after twenty minutes.
Repeated exposure to Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie (1943) over the decades has made me appreciate their beauty. Lewton’s scripts (he apparently rewrote or embellished the finished drafts of his screenwriters) are densely poetic and play heavy with dramatic license. Indeed, the Cornell Woolrich novel Black Alibi is virtually undetectable in Lewton’s adaptation, The Leopard Man (1943). Depending on where one stands with Woolrich or the art of staying faithful to source material, this could be seen as an improvement. Personally, I think the book knocks the snot out of the movie.
His stable of first-time or sophomore directors for the horror-mystery pictures—Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson and Robert Wise—were equally flexible when it came to modifying whatever vision they may have had to suit the producer’s needs. Lewton’s piousness wafts through every scenario, from Boris Karloff’s pontifications about military duty in Isle of the Dead to Anna Lee’s knee-jerk socialism in Bedlam (1946).
Those two pictures came at the end of the war, and questioned the rights of the individual under the thumb of autocratic rule; while the earlier Cat People and The Seventh Victim (1943) retreat to alternate worlds where archaic legends gasp their last breath in the 20th century. In Curse of the Cat People (1944)—arguably Lewton’s best film—reality is abandoned for a fanciful existence instigated by loneliness and isolation. Its characters are running from the noise of an insufferably cruel world…or could be reflections of a manic-depressive producer stuck with churning out product he thinks is beneath him.