Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows

There are some things a woman doesn’t want other women to understand. — Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simone), Cat People (1942)

You don’t get the idea, mister. These cops banging those pans, flashing those lights, they’re gonna scare that poor cat of mine. Cats are funny, mister. They don’t want to hurt you, but if you scare them they go crazy. These cops, they don’t know what they’re doing.
— Charlie How-Come (Abner Biberman), The Leopard Man (1943)

The legacy of Val Lewton, B-movie producer, has more to do with intimation than business. His signature films, made for RKO from 1942 to about 1946, are weird and provocative, allusive invitations to imagine. Unlike today’s horror films, Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943) linger on frightened faces and deep shadows, leaving acts of violence and violation off-screen. “He realized,” observes Alexander Nemerov in Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, “that he could use that effect of surprise to satisfy the horror audience which wants to have a sudden shock, and also create these very strange, poetic films, where nothing that happens is expected.”

Lewton himself remains something of a mystery in Kent Jones’ documentary. “It’s interesting,” narrates Martin Scorsese, that so many characters in his films “are women, young women receiving quick brutal educations in the ways of the world.” While this point probably is “interesting,” it’s left unexplored here. Lyrical and respectful, the documentary doesn’t press many points about Lewton, but instead makes a few suggestions, some tantalizing, others banal. His focus on young women, Scorsese suggests, might be connected to the fact that he grew up around women, namely, his mother Nina, her sister Alla, and his sister Lucy. Émigrés to the U.S. around 1909, after Nina left her military officer husband in Yalta, the family renamed itself (Levinton to Lewton), became Episcopalians, and stopped speaking Russian, under Nina’s assimiliationist edict. She found work at MGM and Alla remade herself as the stunning actress Nazimova. When Val showed interest in the “business,” Nina recommended him to David O. Selznick, a famously hands-on producer in need of a story editor and assistant.

Even if this basic biography is “interesting,” the film doesn’t spend much time on it, but instead uses as a point of departure, a reason to show a redolent scene in Cat People, when Irena (Simone Simon) is reminded of her own hidden history when someone from Serbia speaks to her in their native tongue. Again and again, the documentary pause in its description of events in Lewton’s career in order to let you watch scenes from his films. This makes the film less informative in a conventional sense, but more allusive, more like Lewton’s work.

That’s not to say Man in the Shadows, imperfect but worthy precisely because of its subject, doesn’t offer up some interpretive efforts. These are voiced by an array of Lewton admirers, including Nemerov, author of Icons of Grief: Val Lewton’s Home Front Pictures, as well as directors Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Roger Corman, both fully appreciating Lewton’s independence of mind. Choosing to make low budget films even after his early projects made RKO some money, Lewton, says, Corman, was doubtless constrained, but was also able to “gamble a little bit more.” To this end, he worked closely with his directors, including his friends Jacques Tourneur and Mark Robson, regularly revising scripts without credit or under a pseudonym, Scorsese narrates, “To a certain extent, you could say he pre-directed his films on paper.”

The result, according to Man in the Shadows, was a set of movies that reflected his personal concerns, with characters who refracted his experiences. The documentary submits some rudimentary psychological readings (particularly in the unconvincing testimony by Glen Gabbard, who wrote Psychiatry and the Cinema, citing “Freud’s idea of the death instinct” as a route to understand the scary, gorgeously metaphorical voodoo in I Walked with a Zombie). But it is more compelling when it lets the pictures speak for themselves. Inspired by Jane Eyre and set in the West Indies, the film is justly famous for the gradually building scene in which white girl Betsy (Frances Dee) meets the zombie Carrefour (Darby Jones) in a sugar cane field. The camera’s patient pursuit of her journey produces a peculiar sort of disquiet, with views limited by cane stalks and shadows, emotional states made memorably visible without dialogue or cheesy action.

This film, like Lewton’s others, focuses on in-between experiences. Kurosawa’s description of this theme evokes its elusiveness and awkwardness: “I don’t know if I would call it feminine,” he says, “but it’s sensual, that ability to pass between darkness and light, to drift along that borderline. That boundary that had seemed so clearly defined just dissolves.” Repeatedly, Scorsese and the interview subjects point to the “darkness” in Lewton’s movies — as idea, effect, and symbol. They speak less grandly concerning the films’ politics, their allusions to real world complexities. Geoffrey O’Brien (The Phantom Empire) does note that I Walked with a Zombie‘s sub-plotty reference to slavery was “most unexpected in a Hollywood film,” but this seems a fleeting thought, unpursued. Similarly, Curse of the Cat People, directed by Robert Wise, is described as less a straight-up horror movie than a provocative “study of a lonely six-year-old girl.” Such simple assessment, along with reports that it’s been studied “college psych classes,” doesn’t get at the many details that make the film resonate: young Ann Carter’s startling performance, Simone Simon’s perfect face, the efforts of the girl’s parents to suppress her fears and order their own lives.

The documentary also gives brief attention to the wartime context of Lewton’s movies, though again, interviewee observations are more cursory than insightful, concerning the most obvious mother-daughter tensions. Still, a couple of speakers raise the specter of World War II as context for Lewton’s scenes of fear, loss, and suspense. “The war,” says Nemerov, “is their inspiring secret. It is the thing that gives them their sadness.” Though this context is allowed only slightly more screen time than the mention of Lewton’s daughter’s melancholy (she’s “a problem,” Lewton is quoted by Elias Koteas, reading from letters, “She doesn’t seem to be a happy child. She’s a true Lewton in that sense”), it is completely intriguing, and grants all kinds of specific and broad frameworks for some of the filmmaker’s most iconic images: spiral staircases, snowy graveyards, dark woods, the panther pacing in its cage at the zoo.

Such imagery is, of course, Lewton’s lasting, ever fresh legacy. However anyone might explain his melancholy and dissatisfaction, his poor fit with any sort of studio mandates (see: his comedy with Deborah Kerr, made toward the end of his life, following a couple of very weird and worthy pictures with Boris Karloff), and his death from heart disease at just 46, Lewton left behind films, Scorsese says, that show “things… you don’t see in most films of the era, even other horror films: human harshness and callousness, irrational impulses, real fears and disturbances.” Challenging and intelligent, Lewton’s distinctive, lyrical, and essentially eerie B pictures stay with us.

RATING 7 / 10