Monday, December 17, 2007

Val Lewton: Art vs. life

“Life isn’t a support-system for art,” Stephen King writes in his wonderful book “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft." “It’s the other way around.”

Those words came back to me this week while watching the fascinating and sobering new documentary “Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows," produced and narrated by Martin Scorsese and premiering on TMC Jan. 14, with a DVD release to follow.

In the 1940s, Lewton was the unquestioned master of the American horror film. Tapped by RKO to produce a series of thrillers to compete with Universal - home to Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man - Lewton took a more subtle approach. Beginning with 1942's CAT PEOPLE and through the Boris Karloff-starring BEDLAM four years later, Lewton's films were moody, evocative, sensual, surprising and often disturbing. They included I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (loosely based on JANE EYRE), THE BODY SNATCHER (Karloff's greatest performance) and THE SEVENTH VICTIM, a deadly serious drama about a devil-worshiping cult in Greenwich Village that's a spiritual predecessor to ROSEMARY'S BABY. Lewton's films were the cinematic equivalent of the dark and haunted novels of Cornell Woolrich. He even adapted Woolrich's novel BLACK ALIBI into the classic 1943 film THE LEOPARD MAN.

Overseeing every aspect of the productions personally, from costumes to script rewrites, Lewton was a true auteur, even though he worked with - and mentored - a stable of talented directors, including Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise and Mark Robson. Despite the constraints of both the censors and RKO's B-picture budgets, Lewton produced an unprecedented number of quality films in a short period. However, as Scorsese says in his narration, "He was always at war with his bosses, and he was never satisfied with his achievements."

When CAT PEOPLE became a surprise hit, it turned RKO's fortunes around. But Lewton was still bound to a contract and salary he referred to as "almost picayune." However, he refused to go along with the standard Hollywood practice of letting his agent break the contract and renegotiate. "I can't quite reconcile myself to that," he wrote at the time. "It's a great problem with me, self-interest against self-respect."

Instead, Lewton soldiered on, sometimes with less than a month between wrapping one film and beginning another. He produced four films in 1943 alone. Though his work was already being acclaimed by critics such as James Agee, to RKO Lewton was just another workhorse contract producer. Plagued by insomnia, Lewton soon found himself exhausted. "There's hardly a night ... that I got home before midnight," he wrote. "For the first time in my life, I am really tired."

The pace took its toll. He suffered his first heart attack in 1946 at age 42. After recovering, he eventually made his way to other studios, including Universal, where he produced only one film, the Western APACHE DRUMS. He had just signed on to work on an independent unit with up-and-coming producer Stanley Kramer when he suffered another - fatal - heart attack in 1951. He was 46.

TCM will follow MAN IN THE SHADOWS with a marathon of eight Lewton films. The documentary will also be available as a bonus disc on the revamped VAL LEWTON HORROR COLLECTION due out Jan. 29.

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