Val Lewton (1904-1951) ‘The Sultan of Shadows’
The Russian-American novelist, film producer and screenwriter was the driving force behind the new, low budget, dedicated horror ‘B’ film unit at RKO in the 1940’s. Lewton produced a string of strange, poetic, arty films like 1942’s Cat People, 1943’s I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man and 1945’s The Body Snatcher.
Low budget and with tight shooting schedules, these modest B films frequently provided actresses with strong, well written starring roles. Lewton the writer, sent naive young women on strange journeys into danger, where they came of age in a brutal fashion. No one else in that period (1942-1947) was making American films quite like Lewton. His cryptic haunting films struck a chord with wartime audiences who were fascinated by the hidden worlds he revealed.
Lewton was raised by two educated, high achieving women with strong personalities; his mother Nina, was one of the first story editors in America and her sister, his aunt Alia, was better known as the famous movie and theatre phenomenon Nazimova. Lewton never knew his father. His family fled Russia and began new lives in America, deliberately erasing their language and their history along the way. Lewton enjoyed several careers before he landed at RKO studios in 1942. Among them- a pulp fiction writer of nine racy best sellers in the 1930’s; a writer of promotional copy and as Gone with the Wind’s producer David O’Selznick’s right hand man and story editor. At RKO Lewton’s brief was to shoot a 75 minute film in under $150,000, but otherwise he had free rein. This gave him the rare status of a producer-auteur. Lewton rewrote every script himself but took no screen credit. He worked closely with the director, who was often a friend/protégé like Robert Wise or Mark Robson.
In his début RKO film, Cat People, he created a strong female part, a Serbian born fashion designer. Then he personally sought out actress Simone Simon, partly due to her catlike eyes and meow-like accent and her exotic otherness, which emphasised the character’s felinity. Lewton always insisted his characters be employed and be shown in their workplace. In a rather daring storyline for the time, Irena who is recently wed, believes she is cursed and will transform into a panther if she acts on her sexual impulses and kill her husband. The film’s focus on Irena’s mental state made it a pioneering example of psychological horror. Audiences flocked to the film and it earned more than $1 million at the box office; single-handedly putting RKO back in the black.
Irena was the first of Lewton’s female characters who were melancholic, moody, sexually repressed or tormented, verging on madness but never one dimensional or all-American in their wholesomeness. His women went wandering, searching (rather like Lewton in his own life) for answers and this led them into dark, dangerous alternative worlds where they had to fight to survive. (The Seventh Victim the heroine played by Kim Hunter encounters a group of Greenwich Village devil worshippers).
The film’s low budget provided Lewton and the director, Jacques Tourneur with the opportunity to experiment with low key lighting, clever editing, sound effects and unusual angles. In Cat People during the set piece in the swimming pool, we hear the big cat growling whilst stalking the girl in the pool and the shadows move constantly suggesting a panther, but we never see the animal. In another scene Irena’s true feline state is recognised in a restaurant by an elegant Latvian woman, (Elizabeth Russell, an ex model, who appeared in five Lewton films), who speaks only one line, but what a line! “Moia sestra, moia sestra?”(My sister?). It was Russell’s most memorable screen moment.
In Martin Scorsese’s excellent 2007 documentary on Lewton subtitled ‘The Man in the Shadows,’ (available for sale on DVD from amazon), Lewton’s only son, Val E Lewton, is interviewed. He admits that his father had a number of phobias and one of them ironically was ailurophobia, the fear of cats. He also believes his father had a deep streak of melancholy in him and a sense of dislocation, born of continually denying his Russian roots. Much of Lewton’s self, his phobias and family history went into the writing of the characters in his films.
What is interesting is that Lewton transferred the genders, creating a series of forceful female characters who have depth whereas by contrast, the male roles are cyphers. Lewton constantly revisited the theme in his films of two women, one bad and one good, in opposition to or collision with each other. Two facets at war, perhaps born of Lewton’s Russian/American nationality. We see this in Cat People with the tortured heroine Simone Simon (Irena) set against the good girl Jane Randolph (Alice) and in The Leopard Man, with the nice girl Jean Brooks (Kiki) offset against the exotic, jealous, impulsive Margo (Clo-Clo).
In 1943’s I Walked with a Zombie, a voodoo-infused tale inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, (such literary weight is a recurring motif of Lewton’s work) but set in the West Indies. Lewton plays with the ideas of voodoo, magic, trance like states, infidelity and mad wives, all set to a soundtrack rich with the sounds of drums beating, which on viewing the film has an almost hypnotic effect on the audience. This time the lead female character is a nurse played by Frances Dee, who is sensible, calm, heroic and decent. She is paid to look after the Mrs Rochester figure, the ‘zombie’ of the title. The memorable set piece in this film is the women’s walk at night through a silent field of sugar cane. Not much happens, but much is implied and it is quietly horrifying. Significantly it is not the hero undertaking the journey but the heroine in her quest for answers.
Lewton paid close attention to the crafting of even the minor characters in his films and they were fully realised. He reused the same actors several times, like the aforementioned Elizabeth Russell. |Many of Lewton’s films displayed a sympathetic attitude for the disenfranchised and marginalised, and featured supporting actors from a range of backgrounds and ethnicities. He employed stars on their way down, like Evelyn Brent and stars on the fringes who never quite made it, like Frances Dee or the British born Anna Lee. The advantage is that these actresses didn’t bring the Joan Crawford style baggage to the role, or the same strong look. They are malleable and we the audience have no preconceptions about them or what their character might do. Lewton’s characters surprise us and feel contemporary.
In The Body Snatcher, 1945 (based on R.L Stevenson’s book) Lewton focused on the blind street singer, played by Donna Lee, giving her great importance in his film. She is another one of his innocents who is swallowed by the cruel dark world. We last see her venturing into the maws of a dark tunnel where her voice is silenced with a gasp. Lee was a child musical prodigy who made only five films – two of those for Lewton.
In Bedlam, 1946, inspired again by a Robert Louis Stevenson short story, also by two paintings by Arnold Böcklin and an engraving by William Hogarth, Lewton penned another bitter self portrait. He transferred his voice to the character of a young woman, Nell Bowen (played by Anna Lee) who begins her strange journey as a rich ward living the high life in London of the eighteenth century and ends up as an inmate at Bedlam experiencing a world of madness. Boris Karloff, starring in his third film with Lewton, provided some of his most naturalistic work.
Bedlam was Lewton’s last RKO horror film. He left the studio worn down by his contract’s demands, the punishing hours he worked, the constant demand for product and the rows with the RKO bosses. His health was suffering; he’d had a heart attack. He never again found a stable working base or a dedicated creative team so he drifted, producing very few films till his untimely early death in 1951, aged only 46.
Edmund G. Bansak. Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co,1995.
Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, 2007 documentary by Martin Scorsese
Brilliant article on Cat People: https://deepfocusreview.com/definitives/cat-people/