I Walked With a Zombie, 1943, Jacques Tourneur

Val Lewton

March 13 to March 25, 2009
A special moment in American cinema is associated with the name of Val Lewton (1904–51). The nine horror films which Lewton produced for RKO between 1942 and 1946 and which he outfitted with a very personal sensibility and world view, are widely considered to mark the birth of a kind of cinema in which horror was only suggested, rather than spelled out. There were financial reasons behind this method (with budgets of no more than 150,000 dollars, resourceful inventiveness had to replace special effects); most of all, however, it was a reflection of Lewton's European background and his literary preferences.
The surprise success of his first production Cat People (1942) gave him the creative space to work on an intelligent and astonishing vision of the uncanny. With their distinct atmosphere, Lewton's films create a hypnotic vortex – precisely because the spectator's powers of imagination are involved. This art of suggestion defined a decisive new tradition in the cinema of the “unreal”. At the same time, Lewton also hinted at real fears: the USA at war, afflicted by doubts at home and full of sadness over its fallen soldiers overseas.
His first RKO productions – Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and The Leopard Man – have achieved the status of classics, not least because they were directed by Jacques Tourneur, a master of fleeting nuances, who found a perfect partner in Lewton. Yet the subsequent films are no less amazing. Behind the sometimes sensationalistic titles decreed by RKO, one finds the cultivated tone and melancholy which defined Lewton's tragically short career. His artistic successes were worth precious little in the arena of B-picture production, and he was not on good terms with the commercial requirements of the studio system. "He may have lacked the temperament for the movie business, but he had the temperament for movies", as Kent Jones puts it in his poetic film portrait Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows. This homage (produced and narrated by Martin Scorsese) will be shown by the Film Museum at the opening of the series, with Kent Jones present for the occasion.
Lewton's temperament shows traces of his Ukrainian background, even though his family quickly endeavoured to repress them after they emigrated to the US in 1909. According to Lewton, his tendency towards the mysterious stemmed from his aunt, the rumour-enshrouded diva Alla Nazimova. Lewton started out as newspaper reporter, but soon he was churning out pulp fiction and poetry. When one of his books became a bestseller and was adapted for the cinema, he moved to Hollywood. Working for David O. Selznick, Lewton’s diverse talents were recognized and he was soon entrusted with running the horror unit at RKO.
Lewton's philosophical tales of terror go beyond the genre's usual boundaries. The Curse of the Cat People, for example, is an extraordinary excursion into a child's fantasy world, and far removed from the standard "sequel" to a box office hit. Inspirations from literature and painting – Arnold Böcklin, William Hogarth – also contribute to the paradoxical richness and variety of the films. Due to budget constraints, Lewton’s team was obliged to make use of existing studio sets. The most frequently recycled item was the staircase from Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, which RKO had gruesomely mutilated; a coincidence of what might be called "perfect" premonition, as both Welles and Lewton were not blessed with good fortune at RKO. After having promoted his editors Mark Robson and Robert Wise into the director's chair, he found the restrictions placed upon him by the studio bosses more and more offensive. They regarded his films as "confusing". When asked about his "message", Lewton's laconic response was: "Death is good".
At the end of Lewton's career, the actor Boris Karloff was forced upon him. It turned out, however, that they shared many artistic affinities, and Karloff enriched three of Lewton's best works, the last of which, Bedlam, amounts to a legacy. "That's why I'm here", says an 18th Century asylum inhabitant who has envisioned the invention of cinema in his imagination. Shortly thereafter, Lewton was dismissed by RKO. At the age of 46, he was engulfed by that eternal darkness which held such an irresistible attraction for his characters.
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