MARTIN SCORSESE PRESENTS VAL LEWTON: THE MAN IN THE SHADOWS
(director/writer: Kent Jones; cinematographer: Robert Shepard; editor: Kristen Huntley; cast: Martin Scorsese (Narratorr), Elias Koteas (Val Lewton’s voice); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Margaret Bodde/Martin Scorsese; Turner Classic Movies; 2007)
“A well-deserved homage to producer Val Lewton.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Writer and director Kent Jones helms this compelling documentary that is narrated with great feeling and authority by Martin Scorsese. It plays out as a well-deserved homage to producer Val Lewton. He was known as the man behind the scenes who turned cheapie B-films into works of art; they were highly imaginative, made with integrity and always set an intelligently reflective mood.
Lewton was born in 1904 in Yalta, Russia; his family emigrated to Germany and then to America soon afterwards. His mom Nina left Lewton’s German father in Germany, and when in America raised Val as an Episcopalian. Originally the family was Jewish, but converted to Russian Orthodox for convenience sake while living in a bigoted Russia.
Val graduated from Columbia, wrote several successful pulp novels and through his mom’s connections got a job as a researcher and right-hand man with the demanding film mogul David O’ Selznick, where he learned how to make films. He was then hired by RKO to produce low-budget horror films and in the 1940s with his team of the French director Jacques Tourneau, director Mark Robson, editor and director Robert Wise and writer Dewitt Bodeen he produced some of the greatest horror pics of the 1940s. It started with the Cat People in 1942, which was made for $130,00 but made a profit of over a million dollars. The horror was suggestive, and it told a good story. That was followed in 1943 with the captivating moody film I Walked With A Zombie.
The film traces Lewton’s battles with the studio bosses to make a quality film over a bottom-line film (after RKO came Paramount, MGM and Univeral). Lewton died in 1950 at the age of 46 from a heart attack. Some of the other outstanding horror films he left as his legacy were The Seventh Victim (1943), The Body Snatcher (1945), Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946). If the studio didn’t mess up his film, what you got with a Lewton produced film was an A-film that was made on a B-film budget. He was someone who knew how to use the conventions of the horror film to allow him entrance to the dark side of life. His psychological films blurred reality where things appear real but strange, in a gray zone where dreams and real life come face to face. His name on a film was enough for me to want to see it.
REVIEWED ON 1/15/2008 GRADE: B+