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The Man in the Shadows

Val Lewton Val Lewton

05/09/2008

"The Man in the Shadows" was originally aired on TCM, and this PBS-style documentary was geared mainly for film buffs like me. It probably would not be interesting to people in general, but it's still fascinating either way. The movie is now available on DVD.

Directed by Kent Jones, the editor-at-large for Film Comment magazine, a New York-based film criticism literary publication, this documentary broadcasts the biography of World War II-era movie producer Val Lewton. Produced and narrated by Martin Scorsese, the doc tells of how Lewton, who lived in darkness, somehow managed to translate that into illuminating films.

Val Lewton was born in Yalta in the former Soviet Union. His mother separated from his father, immigrated to the United States, and cut them off completely from their heritage. Lewton grew up to be a writer. His pulp novels were published to some success, but it wasn't until Lewton's mother recommended him to David O. Selznick that Lewton got into the movie business.

Lewton was apprenticed to Selznick during the filming of "Anna Kerenina" (1935) and "Gone With the Wind" (1939). Lewton was a good researcher, organizer, and writer. Lewton, like Selznick, caught the bug for producing motion pictures, and wanted to do it full-time.

In 1940, Lewton went to RKO, one of the biggest movie studios at the time, known for its hit monster flick, the original "King Kong" (1933). Lewton went to that company to oversee their horror film unit. Lewton became a writer and producer. He turned directing over to Jacques Tourneur, a French collegue Lewton had met in 1936.

Much in the same way that Robert Rodriguez proclaimed in the 1990s, Lewton held that he could compete with Universal Pictures, RKO's rival movie company, and the horror films it was producing more cheaply and at higher quality. Lewton's tag was A-movies at B-movie prices.

No one at RKO complained. Probably because they had a firebrand by the name of Orson Welles to deal with. They figured, as long as Lewton worked fast and with little money, they'd leave him alone, and for nearly a decade, they pretty much did just that.

As a result, Lewton had a lot of freedom to do the kind of movies that he wanted to make. Many of them were crazy, horror films like "Curse of the Cat People" and "I Walked With a Zombie." However, in this documentary, what Jones and Scorsese do is break down those titles and many other Lewton films to explain how they're actually very poetic and very much personal movies.

Unlike with the big budget, Universal Pictures horror films that relied on scary monsters and the traditional, jump out and scare you technique, Lewton instead, stressed subtler and more psychological methods.

For example, in Lewton's film "Leopard Man" (1943), you never see the leopard in a very critical pool scene. Lewton uses sound and shadows, along with creative camera angles and set pieces in order to build heightened anxiety and fear. The truth was with Lewton's limited, and sometimes independent budget, he couldn't afford a leopard, or even the proper special effects to simulate one. He did end up using a black cat for some scenes, but the point is the lack of big budget money forced him and his crew to come up with creative alternatives.

Later in life, you see that Lewton's family life wasn't all that happy. He became very much consumed with his work. Unfortunately, Lewton never rose above making B-horror films. Some of which were quite successful. Many weren't. RKO kept him busy, but, at the same time, always on a shoestring.

Lewton seemed bitter by that, but also, strangely, thankful. Like the song, Lewton felt mo' money, mo' problems. He knew like Orson Welles, if he did get promoted up, then movie studio scrutiny would intensify. He didn't want that. At least, doing B-movies allowed him more creative control, allowed him to work with his own people, and to do his own personal style. He would basically set the standard for indie filmmakers like Roger Corman.

Complaints about Lewton's movies were, that despite being horror films, they lacked horror. They were almost too artistic. Lewton loved to mess with mood, using contrasting visuals and haunting music that played with people's subconscious. As Scorsese describes, Lewton enjoyed integrating elements that were real and unreal, both familiar and strange, beauty with destruction, and characters in gray zones, an almost precursor to "The Twilight Zone."

Tourneur did go to direct an episode or two of "The Twilight Zone" later in his career. Yet, more complaints about Lewton included his spotlighting of minor players who were great character actors but not given leading roles, probably for a reason. Essentially, Lewton would create great brief moments that shadowed his movies and never propelled them. He focused a lot on quiet moments and not a lot of drama, but more psychodrama.

Was he using his films as therapy? Most artists do to a degree. It just goes to show that Lewton was really a thinking man's filmmaker. The rest of his life plays out like an episode of "E! True Hollywood Story," but Lewton worked with Boris Korloff. Some might draw Ed Wood comparisons, but Lewton was the one who promoted Robert Wise and Stanley Kramer, two Oscar-nominated film directors.

For many filmmakers who aren't about the spectacle, this is a man with a legacy that should be lasting. His personality and spirit, as melancholy as it was, added to his films. Yes, he was drawn to darkness and to shadows, but only to shine his audiences out of it.

Four Stars out of Five
Unrated but Suitable for All Audiences
Running Time: 1 hr. and 27 mins.

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