Val Lewton, a shadowy retrospective

Val Lewton is best known as the father of the low-budget horror film. Best known for Cat People, he created dark masterpieces of psychological terror at the time of the movie monster.

The Body Snatcher takes places in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1831. The science of modern medicine is in its infancy and students have to unravel the mysteries of the human anatomy by working with whatever cadavers are made available from local morgues. Donald Fettes studies under Dr. MacFarlane, who sometimes pays a cabdriver named John Gray to dig up newly buried bodies to further his own research in surgery. Fettes had promised a cure to a paralyzed girl and wants MacFarlane to perform the operation, but the surgeon needs to experiment on a spinal column before he will risk cutting open a little girl. Seeking out the grave robber, Fettes gives alms to a young street singer who gives him directions and continues filling the neighborhood with her beautiful and haunting melody. Gray tells the young doctor’s assistant that there are no suitable bodies available at the morgue or newly buried. Exasperated, Fettes leaves in defeat, passing the young singer who is still filling the streets with song and rattling her beggar’s bowl. Gray decides to take his cab out to see whether he can dig up something that will satisfy the doctors’ needs. We see the horse-driven cab amble up the cobblestone streets and make a turn off-camera as we hear the strains of “Will Ye No Come Back Again” coming from the girl. We only see the street as we hear the girl’s ballad abruptly end with a tiny choke. We don’t just feel the building suspense and payoff of terror, we feel the sadness of the extinguished voice.

The movies produced by Val Lewton aren’t as much scary as they are unsettling. Known as one of the fathers of modern low-budget B-movie horror films, Lewton influenced the darker side of cinema by exploring shadows, creating tension by obscuring terror in the bleak corners of commonplace settings through ambiance and mounting sexual menace. Long before Rosemary’s Baby was delivered in the comfortable surroundings of her Upper West Side apartment, surrounded by friendly neighbors who turn out to be a satanic cabal, Lewton gave us The Seventh Victim, where trendy devil-worshippers make cosmetics in the artsy neighborhood of Greenwich Village.

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Val Lewton was born Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon in Yalta, Imperial Russia, which is now in the Ukraine, in 1904. He immigrated to the United States in 1909 with his mother and sister and they settled in Port Chester, N.Y. His aunt was the famous stage star and silent screen actor Alla Nazimova, who was born Miriam Edez Adelaida Leventon, also in Yalta and who had been a major star in Moscow and St. Petersburg before coming to New York. Lewton studied journalism at Columbia University and went to work for MGM’s New York City publicity office writing promotional copy and novelizations of movies. Lewton wrote 18 works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry before his 1932 novel No Bed of Her Own became a bestseller that was made into the romantic drama No Man of Her Own in 1932. No Man of Her Own starred Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Lewton went to Hollywood to write an adaption of Gogol’s Taras Bulba for the producer David O. Selznick. He wrote the screenplays for David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities, which were made into films in 1935 and he was one of the uncredited writers for Gone With the Wind.

RKO Pictures was known for its musicals. The studio gave the world Fred and Ginger, as well as Katherine Hepburn and Robert Mitchum. In 1942 RKO put Lewton in charge of its low-budget horror division where he worked with directors such as Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson and Robert Wise to create some of Hollywood’s most influential horror movies and created the atmospheric, half-shaded movies that would become Film Noir. No matter who sat in the director’s chair, it was Lewton’s vision that was projected onscreen. He guided every aspect of the movies he made, using a pen name or taking no credit for the work he did on each of his films’ screenplays. In darkened meeting rooms, Lewton guided his directors, Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise and Mark Robson, to find ways to generate suspense through the things the audience didn’t see. Lewton also revolutionized the way sound was used at the time.

Val Lewton adapted his own 1930 short story, “The Bagheeta,” to make his debut as B-movie producer with Cat People in 1942. To direct, he chose French-born Jacques Tourneur, the son of film director Maurice Tourneur, who had been working in film since he was in high school, acting as an extra in silent movies.  Tourneur met Lewton while working as second unit director on the film A Tale of Two Cities. Restricted to a tight budget, Tourneur used the stylish lighting of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, rather than frightening felines, to build anxiety. On this film, Tourneur also created the “Lewton Bus,” a horror technique still used today. In a scene where Irena, the cat person played by Simone Simon, is stalking her rival, Alice, played by Jane Randolph, through the dark of Central Park. Alice knows she is being stalked, she can feel it, and the audience, used to Universal Pictures’ monsters, are expecting Irena to sprout claws or cough up a hair ball or something. Just as the panther is about to pounce her hiss turns into the hissing of the air brakes of a city bus. Cat People also starred “The Falcon” Tom Conway as Dr. Louis Judd, the same name as the character he plays in The Seventh Victim, also set in New York, although it is not the same character. Or is it? In Lewton’s shadowy universe, nothing is really out of the question. The Curse of the Cat People (directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise), which came out two years later, has many of the same character names as Cat People, but their stories are not related. It is a skewered take rather than a sequel. Kent Smith again plays Oliver Reed, Jane Randolph again plays Alice Reed and Simone Simon plays Oliver Reed’s dead wife, but that’s not how Cat People ended.  

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In between the two Cat People films Lewton produced I Walked With a Zombie, a title that the studio insisted on, and The Leopard Man, the first American movie ever made about a serial killer. For I walked With a Zombie, Lewton instructed his writers to research Haitian voodoo and look to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre for structure. Tourneau returned as director. Originally dismissed as dull and disgusting, I Walked With a Zombie was later lauded as intelligent, exceptional and elegant by such critics as William K. Everson, Leonard Maltin and British critic Tom Milne. Zombie is based on William Seabrook’s 1929 book The Magic Island and magazine writer Inez Wallace’s experiences with voodoo in the West Indies. The original screenplay was by Curt Siodmak, who wrote The Wolf Man, but was rewritten by Ardel Wray. There are no zombies walking in this zombie pic, which starred James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway and Edith Barrett, and the voodoo spell may be nothing more than a jungle fever, but sultry spooks abound.  Based on the novel Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich  and made for $150,000, The Leopard Man was also directed by Tourneau and starred Dennis O’Keefe, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Marguerite Sylva, Margo as Clo-Clo and Dynamite, the same black leopard Lewton used in Cat People. Once again, there is no leopard-man hybrid in Leopard Man, but, rather a man so excited by wild cats that he tears people apart.

Mark Robson was plucked from the editing room against the wishes of RKO brass to direct The Seventh Victim and The Ghost Ship in 1943. He went on to direct The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Peyton Place, Valley of the Dolls and Humphrey Bogart in his final film, The Harder They Fall. The cinematography is again done by Nicholas Musuraca, who shot the first film noir, Stranger on the Third Floor, starring Peter Lorre. The Seventh Victim is Jacqueline Gibson, played by Jean Brooks, who would one day tear up her contract with RKO and disappear from Hollywood, a mystery unsolved for decades. Her sister Mary is played by Kim Hunter in her first film role after originating the part of Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway. Hunter would win an Oscar and a Golden Globe for the movie version before being blacklisted and hiding out Beneath the Planet of the Apes with Bad Ronald. Evelyn Brent is beautifully grating as Natalie Cortez, her shower scene probably gave Alfred Hitchcock an erection. Tom Conway again plays Dr. Louis Judd, but it’s not the same Dr. Louis Judd from Cat People. Unless it is. Looks are deceiving and deception is the underlying reality in the film. Good doesn’t conquer evil in The Seventh Victim and these evil followers of the Left Hand Path aren’t played as crazed cultists. Catholic kids who saw this movie at the time had to confess it. The devil-worshippers in this movie don’t even have to resort to violence, which they renounce; they can kill someone through suggestion. The demonic acolytes call themselves Palladists. The Order of Palladium was reputed to be a real Theistic Satanist society. It was either created by an American Freemason and an Italian writer in Paris in the 18th Centuries to debunk links between Satanism and Freemasonry or a diabolical Masonic sect that was formed to expose the connections. Or it was a hoax by the writer Marie Joseph Gabriel Antoine Jogand-Pagès to mock Masons and the Catholic Church for being charged with libel for his book The Secret Loves of Pope Pius IX. It is a suitably enigmatic choice for a film that hides so much on bright city streets. These people could be anywhere or anyone.

Released on Christmas Eve in 1943, The Ghost Ship is a rarity. Lewton was successfully sued for plagiarism by Samuel R. Golding and Norbert Faulkner, two playwrights who had submitted a screenplay about ghost ships to Lewton’s office and the film was pulled from theaters. Lewton was reportedly depressed by this for a long time. Forever doing his homework, Lewton hired Dr. Jared Criswell of the Fifth Avenue Spiritualist Church of New York City as a technical consultant on psychic phenomena. The crew believed there was a ghost on the ship, but one of the officers thought it was more likely that the captain spent a little too much time out of port. As if that’s not scary enough for the time, the almost-all-male cast movie has been called “one of the most homoerotic films Hollywood ever made.” Edith Barrett is the only actress in the film, and as they said on The Simpsons, “women and seamen don’t mix.”


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Mademoiselle Fifi and Youth Runs Wild, the two films that bracketed The Curse of the Cat People, were outside of the horror genre. Mademoiselle Fifi was a period piece based on two short stories by Guy de Maupassant. It marked the debut of Robert Wise, who had replaced Gunther von Fritch as director of The Curse of the Cat People, as a solo director and starred Simone Simon, who wore falsies to improve her figure. Mademoiselle Fifi was shot on leftover Hunchback of Notre Dame sets and in front of cardboard boxes. Lewton tried to have his name taken off the juvenile delinquent propaganda pic Youth Runs Wild, which the studio had recut. It was written by John Fante, Herbert Kline and Ardel Wray. Directed by Mark Robson. the movie starred Bonita Granville, Kent Smith, Jean Brooks, Glen Vernon and Vanessa Brown. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t say much about it.

The last three of the nine films Lewton produced for RKO were collaborations with the Frankenstein Monster. The grinchy pairing began in 1945 with The Body Snatcher, which marked the last time Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi acted together in a movie. Boris Karloff’s Body Snatcher is one of cinema’s great villains and he plays it with an intimidating bonhomie. He snuffs the drunken life out of Bela Lugosi’s Joseph cheerily while singing pub songs. The Body Snatcher would soon be out of a job when Parliament gave doctors and anatomy professors free license to chop up bodies with The Anatomy Act of 1832. Lewton wrote the script under the pen name Carlos Smith and Robert Wise darkened the director’s chair. 

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Isle of the Dead from 1945 was inspired by a painting of the same name by Arnold Böcklin. The painting was featured in I Walked With a Zombie. Karloff plays Gen. Nikolas Pherides, a Greek soldier stranded on a quarantined island after coming home from the Balkans with a boatload of plague. Pherides suspects that the plague is spread by a vampire and goes to great measures to find out who this human mosquito might be, including a creepy premature burial, not that there are any other kind. Superstition is reasonable on the Isle of the Dead. The movie was the most expensive of Lewton’s RKO Radio Picture offerings, at a still-reasonable $246,000. It was re-issued on a double bill with Mighty Joe Young in 1953.

Bedlam’s screenplay was credited to the painter William Hogarth who’s painting A Rake’s Progress inspired the film. Directed by Mark Robson, Bedlam explores efforts to reform St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum, where the lunatics ultimately rule. Karloff’s Master George Sims gets the reformer, Nell Bowen, played by the English actor Anna Lee (Sister Margaretta in The Sound of Music), committed. Very true to the times it portrayed, Bedlam was an indictment of political corruption masquerading as terror. It was also an indictment to Universal, which had largely wasted Karloff behind monster masks. As witnessed in the closing shot, Karloff doesn’t need to use anything more than his eyes to scare the living shit out of us.

Charles Koerner, who was the head of RKO, died in 1946 and the studio restructured, putting Lewton out of work and not feeling well after a heart attack. He got a job at Paramount on the merits of a screenplay he rewrote about Lucrezia Borgia that became Bride of Vengeance starring Paulette Goddard in 1949. Lewton produced My Own True Love for the studio before going back to MGM to make Please Believe Me with Deborah Kerr. After placing a screenplay about Fort Ticonderoga’s battles in the Revolutionary War at Universal, the studio gave him Apache Drums to produce. It wasn’t the least bit creepy. Stanley Kramer offered Lewton a chance to produce a series of films for Columbia Studios, but Lewton died after a series of heart attacks instead. He had been working on the film My Six Convicts. Kirk Douglas’ portrayal of Jonathan Shields in The Bad and the Beautiful was based on Val Lewton.

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Val Lewton will forever be associated with low-budget horror, but that sounds like he made cheap pictures. He didn’t, he made inexpensive psychological thrillers that elevated fright to the highest levels of cinematic art. I Walked With a Zombie was rated as the fifth best zombie movie of all time by Stylus Magazine. Martin Scorsese called Isle of the Dead the eleventh scariest movie of all time. Lewton shared innovative techniques with some of the best-known and best-funded directors in the history of film, but he did it on a budget. Why pay for expensive monsters when people are more scared by the things they don’t see, visions their imagination have to fill in, sounds they are not quite sure they even heard. There’s more terror in the things you only catch a glimpse of out of the corner of your eye than a green monster with knobs in his neck. Val Lewton showed the monsters that lived next door, across the hall, the monster you passed every day by the mailbox at the bottom of the stairs.