MARTIN SCORSESE PRESENTS VAL LEWTON: THE MAN IN THE SHADOWS. I have been too long remiss concerning this brand new documentary which I saw a month ago but am just now talking about. It's naturally about legendary producer Val Lewton who, in the 40's, was given the task of producing a slew of low-budget horror films for RKO. The studio would provide the sensationalistic titles and Lewton would have to come up with the movie. Subversively, Lewton decided to forgo the typical monster rallies Universal was churning out and instead make subtle, haunting and literate "terror" films. His first shot at it was "Cat People" and the little movie shocked everybody by becoming a runaway success. This started Lewton off on a string of classic terror films including the lyrical Jane Eyre meets voodoo adaptation "I Walked With A Zombie", the vastly underrated (and one of my faves) "The Leopard Man", the child psychology disguised as horror film sequel "Curse of the Cat People", the subtly creepy devil worshipping opus "The Seventh Victim", one of the greatest Boris Karloff film portrayals in "The Body Snatcher" and others. With directors like the master Jacques Tourneur and proteges Robert Wise and Mark Robson, Lewton produced some of the greatest horror films of the 40's.
This new documentary was written and directed by Kent Jones and produced and narrated by Martin Scorsese in exactly the same manner as the previous documentaries "A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Films" and "My Voyage To Italy". While not quite as eye-opening as Scorsese's docs, Jones' take on Val Lewton is done with a great deal of style and mood. Of course, copious clips from Lewton's films are used as well as Lewton's life story and personal writings. As in Lewton's own films, this documentary uses sounds beautifully; mixing sound effects from Lewton's films into a mood-enducing soundscape to enhance the points being made about Lewton's film work. While nothing revelatory is found in this new documentary, it does show a real feel for Lewton's work. There is particularly good use of slow motion -- that is, some scenes from Lewton's films are slowed down so they appear even more dream-like than normal. This is seen to particularly haunting effect at the very end of the documentary when a scene from "The Leopard Man" is slowed down and fades to black and the end credits (which are effectively scored not with music but with a mixture of classic Lewton sound effects. Beautiful and brilliant!).
While not much is new here there are three strange omissions which one would expect to find in any discussion of Val Lewton. First there is absolutely no mention of the fact that Lewton's film "The Ghost Ship" was not released until many MANY years after it was made. Second there is absolutely no mention of the famous Lewton "bus" and it's subsequent use in all manner of films from that day to this. For those not in the know, a Lewton "bus" first occurred in "Cat People". A woman is being stalked by the ferocious "cat creature" on a darkened street at night. The woman hurries along while the unseen cat creature is apparently at screen left. Suddenly, a loud, startling sound is heard on the soundtrack and a bus screeches to a halt from screen right. This sudden startling noise/fake scare was promptly labelled a "bus" and makers of scary movies have been using this technique ever since. However, the Val Lewton documentary doesn't make any mention of this fact. And third: there is no mention that Bela Lugosi also appeared in "The Body Snatcher". Now, these are not really criticisms -- just odd omissions in an otherwise fairly complete biography of one of the most effective (if short-lived) producers Hollywood ever had. And this is a documentary I can recommend.