Val Lewton 1904-1951
(Born Vladimir Ivan Leventon) Russian-born American producer, screenwriter, novelist, poet, and nonfiction writer.
Considered a brilliant producer of B-movie features, Lewton is primarily known for the series of low-budget horror films he created in the early 1940s. Beginning with 1942's Cat People and ending with Bedlam four years later, Lewton's creative and critically-acclaimed motion pictures were said to have revived the flagging horror genre by injecting it with a renewed psychological intensity. Critics have since generally focused on Lewton's innovative use of shadow to create an encircling mood of terror in his pictures, a now staple method of the contemporary horror film.
Lewton was born on May 7, 1904 in Yalta, Russia. His mother brought him to the United States when he was seven years old, and he was granted citizenship while still a child. Lewton attended Columbia University in New York City, and later began his career as a writer and as an employee of the publicity department at MGM studios. One of his earliest works, a book en-titled The Cossack Sword (1926) caught the attention of film producer David O. Selznick, whose staff Lewton joined in 1933. While a script editor for Selznick for nearly a decade Lewton penned several novels, most of them published under the assumed names H. C. Kerkow, Cosmos Forbes, or Carlos Keith. In 1942 Lewton left Selz-nick to join RKO as a producer—part of a new low-budget film studio designed to compete with Universal's like division. It was during the years 1942 to 1946 that Lewton—teamed with such directors as Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robeson, and Robert Wise—created a string of nine successful B-grade horror flicks, each shot over a period of about a month for approximately $150,000 apiece. In 1946, after his work on the last of these was complete, Lewton left RKO and continued his career as an independent producer. He made three more movies outside the horror genre with various studios before his death from a heart attack on March 14, 1951.
While he wrote an assortment of novels and nonfiction, Lewton's primary artistic contribution remains his collection of nine horror pictures produced in the 1940s.
The first, Cat People, plays upon the theme of lycanthropy, and features a young New York fashion designer who claims to possess the ability to transform herself into a large, deadly feline. I Walked with a Zombie (1943) demonstrates Lewton's literary imagination. Its story is a version of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre set in the West Indies, and follows the activities of a young woman hired by a planter to look after his catatonic wife. The wife's nightly walks lead the natives to believe she is under a spell of voodoo, and is a member of the living dead. The setting of The Leopard Man (1943) is small-town New Mexico, where the locals suppose a leopard is the cause of several murders that in reality are the work of a psychopath. Lewton returns to Manhattan for The Seventh Victim (1943), a tale of satanic worship set in Greenwich Village. The Curse of the Cat People (1944) is a psychological thriller that explores the imaginary fantasy world of a seven-year-old girl. Derived from a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Body Snatcher (1945) takes place in nineteenth-century Scotland and recounts the activities of two unseemly men who supply doctors and medical students with fresh cadavers for anatomical research. Isle of the Dead (1945) features a woman buried alive, while Bedlam (1946), Lewton's final horror film, visits the notorious London insane asylum of the same name.
Panther Skin and Grapes (poetry) 1923
Improved Road (novel) 1925
The Cossack Sword [also published as Rape of Glory and Sword of the Cossack] (novel) 1926
The Green Flag of Jehad (nonfiction) 1926
The Theatre of Casanova (nonfiction) 1927
The Women of Casanova (nonfiction) 1927
Manual and History of Cosmetics [as Sidney Valentine] (nonfiction) 1930
The Rogue Song (screenplay novelization) 1930
The Fateful Star Murder [as H. C. Kerkow] (novel) 1931
The Unemployed Working Girl in the Present Crisis (nonfiction) 1931
Four Wives (novel) 1932
No Bed of Her Own (novel) 1932
Where the Cobra Sings [as Cosmo Forbes] (novel) 1932
Yearly Lease (novel) 1932
A Laughing Woman [as Carlos Keith] (novel) 1933
Rasputin and the Empress (screenplay novelization) 1933
This Fool Passion [as Carlos Keith] (novel) 1934
Cat People [producer; directed by Jacques Tourneur] (film) 1942
The Ghost Ship [producer; directed by Mark Robson] (film) 1943
I Walked with a Zombie [producer; directed by...
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SOURCE: "The Seventh Victim: The 'Haunted Eyes' of Jean Brooks—Val Lewton, 1904-1951," in Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror, The Viking Press, 1973, pp. 7-100.
[In the following excerpt, Siegel discusses Lewton's career and the production histories of his films, from Cat People through The Curse of the Cat People.]
It is generally nonsensical to speak of producers as creators when, in all but a few cases, they were the enemies of creation. One of the exceptions was Lewton who, though credited only as producer, was unarguably the artistic creator and prime mover of his films. Apart from his last, troubled productions, Lewton's films were easily identifiable by their attention to detail, their unusually literate screenplays, their skillful, suggestive use of shadow and sound. Although his production unit at RKO was fully democratic, with each member having a full say on artistic matters, Lewton's eleven RKO films constitute an uncommonly personal body of work.
Lewton contributed a great deal to the screenplays of his films, from the original story-lines, which were often his, through the various drafts and revisions; and he always wrote the final shooting scripts himself. Lewton employed writers, although he really did not need them, for several reasons. As a literary man, he enjoyed the company of writers, and as a chronic dawdler, he often could not get projects into gear...
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SOURCE: Classics of the Horror Film, The Citadel Press, 1974, pp. 179-87.
[Everson was an eminent film historian, collector, and educator. In addition to the work excerpted here, his other scrupulously researched and enthusiastically written books include A Pictorial History of the Western Film (1969), The Detective in Film (1972), and American Silent Film (1978). In the following excerpt, he discusses The Body Snatcher, Cat People, Night of the Demon (which, though directed by Jacques Tourneur—arguably Lewton's most distinguished collaborator—was neither produced nor written by Lewton), and The Curse of the Cat People.]
Val Lewton produced nine horror films for RKO Radio, all of them aiming at horror by suggestion, rather than statement, and employing intelligent writers (DeWitt Bodeen in particular) and new, young directors, still fresh and full of enthusiasm. Cat People was the first, and probably the best, even though it has been so acclaimed in later years that those coming upon it now for the first time must inevitably be disappointed. One of the perennial problems of "B" pictures is that critics see so few of them; when they do stumble across a good one, they lose all sense of proportion, and extol the film for virtues and intentions which need the sense of surprise and discovery for those virtues to remain intact. A Cat...
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SOURCE: "Val Lewton: Curse of the Critics?" in Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 48, July, 1981, p. 148.
[In the following essay, Jenkins summarizes the critical reception of Lewton's films, examining the various positions taken regarding the relation of the producer to his films.]
American producer, former writer, notable for a group of low-budget, high quality horror films made for RKO in the Forties. … Later films unremarkable. (Leslie Halliwell, The Filmgoer's Companion)
The above 'definition' is a neat guide to Val Lewton's accepted place and significance in film history and criticism. He is considered primarily responsible for the particular qualities discernible within a group of generically locatable films produced within a definable Hollywood context (history, studio). Working with sympathetic collaborators, and with strict financial constraints, the creative producer turned pulp titles into low-budget poetry, stamped with the seal of 'quality.'
The writings of Manny Farber and James Agee in The Nation and New Republic helped form this picture, but also revealed 'Lewton' as a figure constructed in order to grind particular axes. For Agee, Lewton "and the rest of his crew … have a lot of taste and talent and they are carrying films a long way out of Hollywood". It was "startling to see such a film as...
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SOURCE: "Write It Black: Roy Webb, Lewton and Film Noir," in Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 48, August, 1981, p. 168.
[In the following essay, Palmer examines composer Roy Webb's contributions to Lewton's films.]
Film noir attracted some outstanding individual scores from composers generally better known for their work in other contexts: Hans Salter's Phantom Lady, Max Steiner's The Big Sleep, Miklós Rázsa's Asphalt Jungle, David Raksin's Force of Evil. But Roy Webb, one of the least fêted and most underrated of all Hollywood composers, displayed a particular talent for translating both horror and violence, and their more subtle and far-ranging nuances, into musical terms—largely through a wide spectrum of modern harmonic resource and an intuitive understanding of the atmospheric properties of orchestral colour.
Webb was born in New York in 1888 and attended Columbia University. While there, he was asked to take charge of a sixteen-year-old boy who was already an outstandingly gifted melodist, but who needed help to put his ideas down on paper. Nearly sixty years later, Richard Rodgers paid a warm tribute to his former teacher in his autobiography Musical Stages. While still at Columbia, Webb made his début on Broadway conducting the musical Wildflower, and this led eventually to a full-time career as a Broadway musical director. A...
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SOURCE: "Val Lewton's Cat People," in Cinefantastique, Vol. 12, No. 4, May-June, 1982, pp. 23-7.
[In the following essay, Turner describes the production history of Cat People.]
The great days of the horror film had become wistful memories. By the early '40s only an occasional worth-while chiller emerged from the morass the genre had become. And these few films served only to keep alive the hope that a successor to James Whale and Tod Browning would herald a rebirth.
Finally, a new master of horror did appear. A man who opened new directions for the horror genre by purposely going against the established grain, throwing out the old, stale conventions, and producing something new. From producer Vladimar (Val) Lewton's first picture, Cat People, he started a small renaissance that breathed new life into the stagnant pond that horror films had become, bringing with him a cadre of talented men whose influence went far beyond the atmospheric horror films made at RKO.
Of course, in the film industry renaissance doesn't happen because of artistic need, but because of money. And Lewton's horror unit was born as a consequence of the periodic management shakeups at RKO. Such upheavals were due to the failure of expensive productions to make money for the studio.
Charles Koerner, a former theater executive, was appointed production...
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SOURCE: "The Horror Mythos and Val Lewton's Isle of the Dead," in Journal of Popular Film and Television, Vol. 10, No. 3 Fall, 1982, pp. 119-29.
[Telotte is a film scholar and educator whose well-respected books include Dreams of Darkness: Fantasy and the Films of Val Lewton (1985) and Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir (1989). In the following essay, he discusses the ways in which Lewton's horror films—specifically Isle of the Dead—embody and transform fundamentally mythic notions about the individual's relation to the world.]
We return to Greece in order to rediscover the archetypes of our mind and of our culture. Fantasy returns there to become archetypal. By stepping back into the mythic, into what is nonfactual and nonhistorical, the psyche can reimagine its factual, historical predicaments from another vantage point.
—James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology
Myths, Claude Lévi-Strauss hints, have both creative and destructive functions. On the one hand, they provide man with "a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction" in his culture, while on the other, they act as "instruments for the obliteration of time," effectively blasting away our preconcern with that cultural present and a personal history, and replacing it with another,...
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SOURCE: "A Photogenic Horror: Lewton Does Robert Louis Stevenson," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 1, 1982, pp. 25-37.
[In the following essay, Telotte examines the specifically cinematic qualities of Lewton's adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's short story "The Body Snatcher" (1895).]
Before becoming a story editor for David Selznick and then going on to produce his famous series of B-films at RKO, Val Lewton had embarked on a writing career, working first as a reporter and then churning out a broad range of historical novels, romances, and thrillers. That literary background apparently served him well in his film work, for according to his associates he "rewrote everything that his writers turned in; the last draft [of each script] was always his" [Joel Siegel, Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror, 1973]. Perhaps more importantly, he made that literary atmosphere felt everywhere in his productions; as Mark Robson, director of five Lewton films, recalls, "we were sort of brainwashed, in a way—brainwashed into thinking in poetic terms" [quoted in Joseph McBride", "Val Lewton, Director's Producer," Action, January-February 1976]. However, that almost tangible literary quality for which the Lewton films are justly esteemed has often made for a strangely uncinematic evaluation of them. They have been praised as "ambitiously literary," "poetic," and have been lauded for...
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SOURCE: "Structures of Absence: Cat People" in Dreams of Darkness: Fantasy and the Films of Val Lewton, University of Illinois Press, 1985, pp. 21-39.
[In the following excerpt, Telotte argues that elements of the mise-en-scene in the film Cat People (for example the shadows that dominate many of the scenes and the off-screen depiction of horrific events) represent a thematic concern with mythological, psychological, and philosophical notions of absence—that is, an absence that implies the presence of something too awful to imagine concretely.]
From seeing the bars, his seeing is so exhausted
That it no longer holds anything anymore.
To him the world is bars, a hundred thousand
Bars, and behind the bars, nothing.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, "The Panther"
While Val Lewton, like few other producers in Hollywood, generally wielded a free and creative hand in crafting his unit's films, his first production, Cat People (1942), demonstrated the typical studio distrust of any tampering with traditional and box-office-proven formulas. Alarmed by his unconventional approach to what was seen as a simple horror "programmer," and especially the substitution of little more than shadow and suggestion in place of the usual monstrous presences of the genre, the RKO front office demanded that the...
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SOURCE: "Val Lewton and the Perspective of Horror," in Forms of the Fantastic: Selected Essays form the Third International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature and Film, edited by Jan Hokenson and Howard Pearce, Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. 165-74.
[In the following essay, Telotte discusses the ways in which the horror in Lewton's films comes from the undermining of individuals' perceptions of the world.]
The modern horror classic Night of the Living Dead concludes with the protagonist, Ben, survivor of a night of terror, suddenly shot down, as he is mistaken for one of the zombie flesh eaters inexplicably threatening society. Despite the sense of inevitability that clings to the scene, the conclusion is unsettling, particularly since his death occurs just as normalcy seems restored, and it is at the hands of his fellow man, trying to rid his world of those horrors. Ben is simply the victim of a certain "distanced" perspective, as he is glimpsed through the telescopic sight of a rifle; a product of the modern, technological mind, here employed rather irrationally to "kill" the already dead. I recount this scene because it effectively dramatizes a fundamental motif of the horror genre, occurring in both its modern realistic form and that older concern with monsters and an "otherness" that seems to reside threateningly outside of us, in the dark, ever ready to interrupt our normal world....
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Bansak, Edmund G. Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career. Jefferson, N. C: McFarland & Company, 1995, 571 p.
Biography of Lewton that primarily focuses on his major films of the 1940s.
Clarens, Carlos. "Horror, the Soul of the Plot." In An Illustrated History of the Horror Film, pp. 111-17. New York: Capricorn Books, 1967.
Overview of Lewton's films. Clarens considers Lewton as a maverick producer in the context of the otherwise seedy horror-film genre of his day.
Telotte, J. P. Dreams of Darkness: Fantasy and the Films of Val Lewton. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985, 223 p.
Contains critical evaluations of Lewton's major productions.
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