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Val Lewton - Part 2

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Born Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon in Russia in 1904, film producer Val Lewton (the pseudonym he is best known by) is an often-overlooked but potent contributor to horror cinema history.  I talk him up and share his background here.

Val Lewton's WWII-era stint at RKO was profitable for the studio, but as time marched on, Lewton's horror output was overshadowed by the Universal monster movies with which Lewton's films were produced to compete.  If you've never seen a Val Lewton production, or if it has been a while since you've delved into the striking Lewton / RKO slate, here is a breakdown of what this remarkable, trail-blazing producer pulled off.  Take a read, then pick a Lewton film to help you kick off the new year.

Cat People (1942)

Director: Jacques Tourneur

An American man meets a Serbian immigrant who may or may not transform into a deadly cat person if she becomes sexually excited. 

Val Lewton was RKO's antidote to Orson Welles, who's deficiency in box office profits nearly shut RKO down.  The new RKO regime established a showmanship-instead-of-genius policy, and hired Val Lewton to produce low-budget, lurid, attention-grabbing horror movies.  Though he had spent many years working under legendary producer, David O. Selznick (King Kong, Gone With The Wind), Lewton had never produced a film. 

For his maiden voyage, Lewton selected Jacques Tourneur to direct Cat People.  They had previously worked together on second unit of Selznick's A Tale Of Two Cities (1935), with Tourneur directing, and Lewton handling the logistics. 

Cat People was not the pulpy horror spectacle RKO expected.  Instead, it was a poetic and intelligent tale of suspense.  The studio's fury over this evaporated when Cat People turned out to be a highly profitable box office hit.  With a financial triumph right out of the gate, Lewton was granted more freedom with his subsequent RKO horror pictures.  However, the lurid titles would remain an RKO requirement.  Case in point:

I Walked With A Zombie (1943)

Director: Jacques Tourneur

A young nurse travels to the West Indies to care for the wife of a plantation manager. The wife is suffering from a kind of mental paralysis - and a voodoo ceremony may be her only hope for a cure.

Saddled with one of the worst, most inappropriate titles in film history, I Walked With A Zombie continued Lewton's trend of elevating the filmmaking to his standards, instead of lowering his standards to match the studio's priorities.  While RKO insisted on the title, they otherwise left Lewton to do whatever he wanted with the actual film.  What could have been empty-headed schlock would later be regarded as Tourneur's finest work... a beautiful and eerie nightmare - a chilling spiral into superstition and desperation.

The Leopard Man (1943)

Director: Jacques Tourneur

A leopard used for a publicity stunt escapes and kills a young girl.  When another young woman is killed, it's suspected that she was murdered by a man who has made the death look like a leopard attack.

This film built upon the inventive suspense techniques implemented for Cat People, and became a financially successful and critically celebrated exercise in horror, despite its misleading title.  Tourneur's three profitable collaborations with Lewton led to bigger projects for the director.  However, his passion project, Stars In My Crown (1950) derailed his career and left Tourneur to direct a string of mostly-forgotten b-movies and television episodes until he finally called it quits in the mid-60s.

The Seventh Victim (1943)

Director: Mark Robson

A young woman searches for her missing sister, and soon crosses paths with an upscale Satanic cult.

Editor of Lewton's first three RKO horror pictures, Mark Robson graduated to helming this film, his debut as director.  What makes this film noir thriller pop is the subtext, about maintaining control of one's life, and living it to the fullest, while simultaneously embracing one's inevitable doom.  Health problems were creeping up on Val Lewton at the time this film was made, and this may have influenced the film's themes.

The Ghost Ship (1943)

Director: Mark Robson

Aboard the ship Altair, third officer Tom Merriam and Captain Stone form a unique bond, but after the mysterious deaths of crew members, the captain is suspected to be a madman obsessed with authority.

The highlight of this film is the engrossing character arc of Captain Stone - wonderfully played by Richard Dix - from likable father figure to frightening murder suspect.

Upon The Ghost Ship's theatrical release, Val Lewton was sued for plagiarism by Samuel R. Golding and Norbert Faulkner, who claimed that Lewton based the film on their play, which they'd submitted to Lewton's office during the period of The Ghost Ship's development.  Lewton asserted that Golding and Faulkner's manuscript was returned unread, and that The Ghost Ship was an original work (penned by Austrian playwright and filmmaker Leo Mittler and novelist Donald Henderson Clarke).  Still, the court ruled against Lewton and RKO.  The studio was forced to pull The Ghost Ship from theaters, and the film remained vaulted and unseen for the next fifty years.  Already suffering the physical effects of overworking himself, this additional stress further eroded Val Lewton's health.

The Curse Of The Cat People (1944)

Directors: Gunther von Fritsch, Robert Wise

An imaginative child, Amy, has either conjured an imaginary friend or has befriended the ghost of her father's deceased first wife. 

This loose sequel to the initial Val Lewton / RKO horror outing is beautifully photographed by Nicholas Musuraca, who surpassed the expert cinematography he'd provided Lewton on Cat People, The Seventh Victim, and The Ghost Ship

The Curse Of The Cat People was to be directed by Gunther von Fritsch, who only had a few short films on his resume at the time.  The Curse Of The Cat People started falling behind schedule almost as soon as production began, and Lewton fired the director. 

Lewton then offered Robert Wise the job of completing the film.  Wise had spent years toiling in post-production, first as a sound effects editor for RKO in the 30s.  He quickly rose through the ranks to become a film editor, soon landing in the editor's chair for Citizen Kane (1941).  Lewton granted Fritsch and Wise co-directing credit on The Curse Of The Cat People, which became the feature film directorial debut for both men.  Fritsch was seen as the problem, and his career never really took off.  Wise was seen as the hero who not only cleaned up Fritsch's mess, but pulled an impressive, gorgeous film out of the ordeal as well.  Wise's career took off like a rocket.  He went on to win a landslide of awards, including two Oscars.  He would direct more than 35 feature films, including The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), West Side Story (1961), The Haunting (1963), The Sound Of Music (1965), The Sand Pebbles (1966), The Andromeda Strain (1971), The Hindenburg (1975), Audrey Rose (1977), and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), in addition to Val Lewton's next RKO horror picture:

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Director: Robert Wise

A callous doctor and his amiable prize student find themselves harassed by their menacing cadaver supplier, played impeccably by Boris Karloff of the Frankenstein films.

Karloff was essentially forced upon Val Lewton by RKO when the studio decided their horror flicks needed more star power.  Initially hesitant and irritated, Lewton quickly warmed up to Karloff, and their friendship, working relationship, and mutual respect flourished over the course of three film collaborations. 

The Body Snatcher represented the eighth and final time Boris Karloff appeared in a movie with Bela Lugosi (Dracula, White Zombie, The Wolf Man).  Lugosi was already struggling, but Karloff would continue to enjoy a successful career, following his Lewton films up with The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (1947), The Black Castle (1952), The Haunted Strangler (1958), Mario Bava's Black Sabbath (1963), and nearly non-stop television work, including the beloved Chuck Jones CBS holiday special How The Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966).  Lugosi, on the other hand, continued to wither toward zero-budget Ed Wood films.

Isle Of The Dead (1945)

Director: Mark Robson

Within a group quarantined for the plague on an eerie Greek island, a superstitious old peasant woman suspects a young girl of being a vorvolaka - a vampire-like demon.

Filming of this atmospheric, dripping-with-dread thriller actually started before production began on The Body Snatcher, but the plug was pulled when star Karloff required back surgery.  (After recovering from his surgery, Karloff made The Body Snatcher with Lewton, then resumed shooting Isle Of The Dead.)  The setback was one of many for this troubled production.  Though revered today as a brilliantly executed tale of superstition and paranoia, Isle Of The Dead did less-than-spectacular business at the box office - an especially painful sting, as the film had the highest budget yet of the Lewton / RKO horror pictures.  This undoubtedly worsened the producer's stress-related health problems.

Bedlam (1946)

Director: Mark Robson

Nell Bowen, critical of the conditions at notorious St. Mary's Of Bethlehem Asylum, attempts to conjure support to reform the madhouse, but the cruel Master Sims who runs the insane asylum has her committed there.

RKO head and Lewton supporter Charles Koerner died the year of Bedlam's release, leading to much studio upheaval, hiring, and firing.  Perhaps due to the general post-war decline in horror film attendance, or due to the chaos of a film studio in turmoil and disorder, Bedlam was another financial letdown.  Still, Val Lewton had created superior films and, in general, tremendous profits on the tiniest of budgets.  He was the low-risk, high-return hero of RKO Radio Pictures.  In fact, nearly single-handedly, Val Lewton had rescued RKO from the brink of disaster, saving the studio from bankruptcy after the Orson Welles financial catastrophes.  Following Charles Koerner's death, the new regime at RKO terminated their partnership with Val Lewton. 

The producer had given Robert Wise and Mark Robson their first film directing jobs.  Lewton continued to remain loyal to Wise and Robson in the years that followed - even compromising his own career trajectory to maintain his support of the two directors.  Following the end of the Lewton / RKO era, the three men formed their own independent production company, but Lewton's participation would be short lived.  Due to creative differences, and the slower pace the older, ailing Lewton was forced to maintain, Wise and Robson ejected Lewton from the company.

Unemployed, abandoned, and in worsening health, this exceptional film producer limped along for only a couple more years, passing away in 1951.

Personal taste will ultimately dictate which Lewton / RKO horror film is your favorite, but Bedlam may very well be mine.  It is satisfying to observe that Val Lewton went out on an artistic high note at the end of this triumphant phase of his arduous and otherwise unfruitful career, producing a thoroughly engrossing film about terror, madness, and betrayal... elements that seemed ever-present during Val Lewton's voyage through the film industry.

Thanks for reading.

- Eric Stanze

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