A peerless film portrait of a major if under-recognized Hollywood moviemaker, “Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows” elegantly encompasses the work and career of a producer who doggedly transcended the seeming limitations of B-movie production and horror-genre scripts and made a unique body of work in American cinema. As conceived by writer-director and film critic Kent Jones, the docu is paced like a Lewton film and allows viewers a vivid sense of what his movies feel and sound like. Pic is set for a Jan. 14 TCM airdate after AFI Fest launch, pointing to an evergreen vid future.
Lewton has long been a subject of fascination among critics and historians, since he was alone in creating a film unit with its own stylistic stamp within RKO Pictures after the studio cut its ties with resident artist Orson Welles. Lewton also stands as a fascinating case of a producer who exerted his influence over every detail of production, a true child of David O. Selznick, whom Lewton assisted on “Gone With the Wind,” “Anna Karenina” and other epics.
Viewers acquainted with Martin Scorsese first-person docs on Italian and American film may assume pic reps Scorsese’s take on Lewton, since he serves as the extremely effective narrator.
Instead, Scorsese is giving impassioned and heartfelt voice to Jones’ thoughtful text; this is a film by a film critic — indeed, one of the most penetrating of contemporary film critics — and as such goes far beyond fan-based summary to synthesize, describe and interpret Lewton’s work in the context of the director’s own life.
Lewton isn’t an easy subject, since there are no audio recordings, filmed interviews or homemovie footage, a sign of how private and unassuming he actually was. Born in 1904 in Yalta to a Russian-Jewish family that converted to Christianity, Lewton grew up among women, with a ne’er-do-well dad his mom left behind for a better future in the U.S.
Without overdoing the theme, Jones emphasizes that Lewton’s upbringing was directly felt in his movies. The central characters tended to be young, somewhat naive women who stumbled or ventured into unknown or terrifying shadow worlds — whether it’s a woman encountering an occult society in “The Seventh Victim,” women haunted by the presence of spirits and plague in “Isle of the Dead,” or a little girl moving dangerously into total fantasy in “The Curse of the Cat People.”
With son Val E. Lewton providing valuable texture and insight into his father’s dark, pessimistic and troubled nature, pic also draws strong conclusions about how Lewton imbued his disturbing creations with his own personal feeling of dread — particularly his collaborations with the brilliant emigre helmer Jacques Tourneur (“Cat People,” “I Walked With a Zombie,” “The Leopard Man”), who speaks about his friend in a rare archival interview.
Lewton’s short, swift decline, brought on by poor health and the fact that he was out of step with postwar trends, is one of Hollywood’s sadder stories. Lewton’s offers of a partnership were even ignored by Robert Wise and Mark Robson, his once-prized younger helmers at RKO.
Editor Kristen Huntley plays a critical role in achieving a hypnotically gripping tone and pace matching the Lewton style. The state of the prints is, with little exception, superb, and the nightmarishly powerful blacks and whites (images and people) in “I Walked With a Zombie” seem to leave Scorsese in awe as he reads Jones’ accompanying text. Doc is dedicated to film critic Manny Farber, one of Lewton’s earliest and most eloquent champions.