Nowhere else on television is such a genuine love for filmmaking consistently on display as in the Turner Classic Movie documentaries, especially when they have the audacity to stretch beyond household-name stars and directors. So it is with Martin Scorsese’s heartfelt tribute to Val Lewton, the producer responsible for such movie-buff fare as “Cat People” and “I Walked With a Zombie.” As always, the doc is linked to a retrospective of the subject’s work, and “The Man in the Shadows” more than achieves its objective of stoking interest in Lewton’s filmography.
It’s easy to see what attracted Scorsese (who produces and narrates for writer-director Kent Jones) to Lewton, who made an art of creating movies with a distinctive look and style in the 1940s, despite operating with extremely modest budgets.
Beginning as an assistant to producer David O. Selznick — where his resume included conceiving the boom shot in “Gone With the Wind” — Lewton segued to a special unit at RKO to produce inexpensive horror fare.
Yet Lewton (working with such directors as Robert Wise, Jacques Tourneur and Mark Robson) aimed higher than his employers ever intended with his artfully constructed productions, which as much out of necessity as anything else demonstrated the value of implied horror. He also jump-started the mummified career of Boris Karloff, who was reluctantly foisted upon him, allowing the actor to demonstrate, in films such as “Body Snatcher” and “Isle of the Dead,” that he was capable of more than just playing Frankenstein’s guttural monster.
An unassuming figure who emigrated from Russia to the U.S., Lewton left behind diary entries the producers deftly weave in to help tell his story. Jones also seeks out such logical suspects as Roger Corman and Kiyoshi Kurosawa — filmmakers familiar with the challenges of low-budget production — to heighten appreciation for the nearly lost art that Lewton mastered, creating thrills minus the benefit of CGI effects, and suspense without resorting to spurting streams of gore.
Despite his cinematic legacy, Lewton’s is not an especially uplifting story, from the callous way he was treated by various studios and former colleagues near the end of his career to his untimely death. For a man who worked in relative obscurity, however, even that aspect of his life — much like the shadowy little black-and-white gems he oversaw — proves strangely and perhaps ironically illuminating.