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Martin Scorsese Presents
Val Lewton:
The Man in The Shadows

Val Lewton:
The Man in The Shadows

Warner DVD
2008 / B&W & Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 87 min. / Street Date January 29, 2008 / 19.97
Voices of Martin Scorsese, Elias Koteas
Film Editor Kristen Huntley
Music Roy Webb (mostly)
Written and Directed by Kent Jones

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The average documentary about a film career will leapfrog from one film clip to another and dispense obvious or 'safe' information while maintaining a wholly superficial outlook. Val Lewton: The Man in The Shadows takes a sensitive approach toward one of Hollywood's least flamboyant great artists, repeatedly showing the linkage between the man and his creations, a series of (mainly) horror films made during the war years. Splendid montages and an intelligent and probing script go the heart of RKO's most individualistic producer, producing a portrait of talent, integrity and melancholy to match Lewton's often despairing films.

In an unlikely chain of events, RKO hired Val Lewton and gave him free rein to make his little horror films the way he wanted, as long as he used their committee-approved titles. Lewton personally fashioned the chillers-in-miniature in the manner taught by his previous employer, David O. Selznick. Lewton's full RKO horror cycle was released two years ago in a previous Warners' boxed set, now being reissued with this new docu as a special added disc. Produced for Turner Classic Movies and narrated by Martin Scorsese, it's an exceedingly rich and illuminating experience. Writer-director Kent Jones often bypasses the most famous scenes from the Lewton horrors to instead choose the quiet, unsettling moments that define Lewton's personal style. The reviewer for the L.A. Times, clearly not in the spirit of the proceedings, complained that the opening montage of baleful situations didn't identify the specific movies being excerpted. It's a great little collection of uneasy, unresolved frissons that immediately peg Lewton's uncanny appeal. He reaches past Universal's menagerie of stock monsters and 'Boo!' situations to uncover the real things that set us on edge, like unidentifiable sounds in dark places that our imaginations fill with irrational fears.

The feature-length docu is never boring, not for a moment. Lewton's Russian background is sketched just enough to suggest a talented boy dominated by women; the script notes that many of Lewton's protagonists are innocent women investigating strange mysteries, but doesn't push the connection. What's amazing is that Lewton is so interesting considering what a tiny footprint he left -- practically nothing beyond his producer credit. There are few photos of him and no movies, and no recordings of his voice. The biggest publicity push he got was a photo layout in a major magazine (Life? Look?) that promoted him as the 'Sultan of Shudders'. Lewton nurtured the careers of his direct associate Jacques Tourneur and his protégès Mark Robson and Robert Wise. He gave Boris Karloff a new lease on life by producing three of the actor's best films. After only five years, the producer's RKO tenure came to an end. Shunted between studios and finishing only three movies unsuited to his temperament, Lewton was discarded by the now-successful talents he launched, and dumped by fellow 'artistic' producer Stanley Kramer.

The expertly edited (by Kirsten Huntley) clips from Lewton's films neatly express parallels between Lewton's life and his pictures -- the domineering female figures that suggest the producer's mother and aunt; characters like Skelton Knaggs' mute sailor in The Ghost Ship that suffer a poetic sensibility that cannot be expressed. Once into the films themselves, Kent Jones examines Lewton's impressive set-pieces, letting their power persuade us while Scorsese's narration provides the connective tissue. We also see pieces of Lewton's little-seen wartime productions Youth Runs Wild (with its disturbingly prescient scenes of abused and neglected delinquents) and Mademoiselle Fifi.

The interesting slate of interviewees includes Lewton's son; Ann Carter, the child star of The Curse of the Cat People, Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa and a psychologist. One very welcome section runs quickly through a dozen or so of Lewton's recurring stock company of RKO players. A montage of war-related death imagery alludes to but does not specify the fate of Lewton actor Erford Gage, who had a major part in The Seventh Victim and finished a bit in The Curse of the Cat People just before being shipped out to the South Pacific, where he died in combat.

Most of the film clips do not contain spoilers, but a couple do, which makes Val Lewton: The Man in The Shadows still an iffy show to recommend before seeing the films themselves. But that conclusion is debatable, as plenty of modern viewers seem unable connect with the movies when viewed cold. Lewton doesn't feed the audience with constant agitation, as do many modern ADD-aware genre pictures. The appeal is partly literary and partly poetic, with delicate touches standing in for cynical humor. I was told last week of a film executive who gave the Lewton Box a try but quit after sampling only the beginnings of two movies. That's what's likely to happen when one isn't prepared to appreciate something. This docu does a terrific job of generating interest in a kind of movie that marches to a different drummer.  1

Val Lewton: The Man in The Shadows wisely doesn't try to analyze each picture; some of them, like I Walked With a Zombie work on levels that need to be experienced first-hand. The Seventh Victim may at first seem the most stilted of the bunch, but it turns out to be the show that best expresses Lewton's moody morbidity and quiet despair. The docu stays close to its human subject, and succeeds admirably in showing what makes Lewton unique and valuable. 2

Warners' DVD of Val Lewton: The Man in The Shadows is a fine encoding of the handsomely assembled docu, which is edited not for flash, but for effect. The graphics are sharp and intelligently used, and the film clips are allowed to play as units instead of being chopped up and troweled over 'holes' that need to be covered. The quality varies with the quality of Turner's transfers -- some of the movies look exceptionally clean while others show speckles of dirt. The lesser-seen productions indicate that much older transfers were used.

The audio design is exceptional. Many of the scenes chosen to highlight subtle effects -- breathing, growling, wind noises -- that in and of themselves create a cumulative dread. Plenty of Roy Webb's music tracks peek through, but just as often the track will revert to something quiet and familiar, like the telegraph beeping behind the RKO logo.

No extras are included. The English track is accompanied by English and French subtitles.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Martin Scorsese Presents Val Lewton: The Man in The Shadows rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case, and also packaged with a new release of the Val Lewton Horror Collection
Reviewed: January 17, 2008


1. I was introduced to the films of Val Lewton in an ideal way. After reading couple of chapters in books by Carlos Clarens and Ivan Butler, Joel E. Siegel's great little book The Reality of Terror came along and convinced me that I had to see all of the films, as soon as possible. A couple of the bigger titles showed at UCLA and the museum, but I had to wake up at 3:30 AM to catch an hour-of-the-wolf airing of The Seventh Victim, a life-changing experience. But I can certainly understand when someone sees Victim cold and dismisses it as uninvolving ... one can't watch these pictures with eyes and minds attuned to The Bourne Ultimatum and Pirates of the Caribbean.

2. Many of the film clips will make horror fans think of Mario Bava, especially a slow truck-in to a wooden coffin with water dripping on its lid. Near the end of the show we see a clip from Lewton's last film, a color western (Apache Drums) that compensates for its lack of action with bizarre color contrasts and brightly painted Indian attackers. Lewton had expressed ideas about suggesting horror moods with splashes of green and purple light ... Bava and Lewton shared another similarity in that each were given the opportunity to move up to a more expensive level of filmmaking. Both declined to take the obvious career step, preferring to continue working at a 'safe' budgetary level where they could maintain control of their work.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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