The frightening talent of Lewton

Times Staff Writer

You cannot accuse TCM of underestimating the intelligence, or at least film geekiness, of its viewers. “The Man in the Shadows” dispenses with the usual niceties of introducing its subject, producer Val Lewton, up front. We get no clearly marked montage of his films, not even an explanation of the relationship between him and the film’s narrator, Martin Scorsese.

Instead, we are plunged headfirst into the hijacking of Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons” by meddling studio executives at RKO who had decided, we are told, to place pageantry over genius.

If the connection between that lead and the subject seems vague, you don’t have enough film buffs among your acquaintance. Because that decision, my friends, sparked RKO’s decision to create a new unit devoted to horror and lift the publicly modest Val Lewton from servitude as editorial assistant under David O. Selznick to run it.

There, and I will tell you now because it takes a while for “Shadows” to get around to it, Lewton produced such classics as “Cat People,” “I Walked With a Zombie,” “Isle of the Dead,” and “Curse of the Cat People.” Scorsese, who also produced “Shadows,” must believe scenes from these films are as instantly recognizable as the bike-flying bit in “E.T.” because a slew of them whiz by unidentified during the first 10 minutes of the film.

It’s sweet of him in a way, this assumption that we are all so cinematically literate, and I suppose one could argue that those of us incapable of reciting “Cat People” chapter and verse have no business watching a doc on Lewton, but there’s plenty of reason to do so. Because once “Shadows” settles into a more standard narrative of Lewton’s life and career, it explores most effectively not only the man and his legacy, but also the history of Hollywood, the language of film and the exquisite tension between vision and fear one finds in so many creative people.


Lewton was a Russian immigrant whose mother and aunt found success in early Hollywood. He wrote a series of pulp novels and then became editorial assistant to Selznick, providing services as diverse as rewriting scripts and standing outside a men’s room during early screenings of “Gone With the Wind” to figure out when the intermission should be.

When RKO asked him to head a new unit dedicated to horror, Lewton was less worried about his tiny budget than whether he could use it to make art.

“Cat People,” which chronicles the plight of a woman who believes that she turns into a murderous panther whenever she feels a sexual urge, was at first derided by RKO for its seeming lack of horror -- no monsters! But audiences loved it, and Lewton became the B-film golden boy.

With its sexual undertones and seductive use of shadow and light, “Cat People” essentially created a new genre -- one based in psychological terror rather than actual horror. Lewton used tension almost as a character, playing with the emotional vulnerabilities of the people in the film and those watching it. Without his work, it is hard to imagine a “Sixth Sense” or “The Others” or even “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

So the path Lewton’s life followed becomes even more poignant. After a string of successes, he moved from studio to studio, never finding the chance to take his talent to the next level. There was no fateful rupture or event, no blacklisting or breakdown. Lewton’s career simply followed a pattern sadly familiar in this town: After a few years in the sun, he just disappeared into the maw of “in development.” Still, considering what Lewton accomplished, and how he was increasingly perceived as an old man past his prime, it is a shock to learn, at the end of “Shadows,” that he was only 46 when he died. And we think Hollywood is ageist today.

Of course, the debut of “Shadows” arrives amid a marathon of Lewton’s films, which is a darn good thing. Because whether you can recite his work scene by scene or if you only vaguely remember watching “Cat People” as a kid, Scorsese’s documentary leaves you longing to see all of Lewton’s films, one after another. So isn’t it great that you can?



‘Martin Scorsese Presents: Val Lewton, the Man in the Shadows’

Where: TCM

When: 9 tonight

Rating: TV-PG-V (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for violence)