Tomorrow evening at 8:PM EST, Turner Classic Movies premieres a major tribute to producer Val Lewton followed by an eight film marathon. Cinema Retro was provided with an advanced screener of the documentary, Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows and we found it to be one of the most unique and informative documentaries about a filmmaker that we've ever seen. The tribute is a collaboration between Martin Scorsese and writer/director Kent Jones. I confess to not having had much knowledge of Lewton, so the documentary was very revealing and fascinating. Lewton was assigned to churn out low budget horror films for RKO. In the utlimate "tail wagging the dog" scenario, studio hacks would assign him a title and the film he created was then based on that premise. What no one could anticipate was that Lewton, a perfectionist who took great pride in his work, would end up creating moody and atmospheric films by utilizing talented directors and writers. His first major success was Cat People, released in 1942. Although dismissed by short-sighted critics as a B horror film, the movie was an immediate boxoffice hit. Over the decades, it's been acclaimed as one of the most creative and influential horror films ever made. With RKP seeking to rival Universal's success with the horror genre, Lewton was given more leeway, though not much in the way of budget increases, to continue to develop films that would maximize profitability. If he could do it in a creative fashion, all the better. The films he produced were always hampered by childish titles that gave little evidence of the professionalism that went into every aspect of their production. Films such as I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship all bore the unmistakable mark of being Lewton productions. Lewton often contributed to writing the screenplays, though rarely took credit for his work.
I don't want to go into too many details regarding this remarkable man's life and career. It's best you let these fact unravel as you watch the documentary. Director/writer Kent Jones has worked wonders with the little material that is available on Lewton. There is no known film footage of him or even any audio recordings of his voice, thus the documentary's sub-tirle, The Man in the Shadows. The film contains interviews with Roger Corman, Lewton's son Val, Ann Carter Newton (star of Lewton's Curse of the Cat People) and archival interviews with directors Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise, both of whom distinguished themselves by working on Lewton films. Martin Scorsese does yeoman work narrating the documentary. He is among the few directors in history (along with Hitchcock) whose voice has become immediately recognizable to movie fans and this personal touch adds immeasurably to the enjoyment of the program.
This documentary is just another example of why Turner Classic Movies remains the gold standard of cable movie networks. At one time, they had close competition from American Movie Classics but that network was taken over by the same type of hacks who Lewton had to battle for the sake of artistic integrity. AMC (it now doesn't make the pretense that there is anything "classic" about their presentations) shows chopped up films, devoid of any informative introductions - and engages in the nauseating practice of putting crass promos over the final credits. TCM stands alone in staying true to their mission of paying homage to the great filmmakers - and Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows stands as one of the network's finest achievements.