Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows Review
In October 2005, Warners released The Val Lewton Horror Collection, a five-disc box set containing all nine of the low-budget horror films Lewton produced for RKO between 1943 and 1946. For an overview of Lewton’s life and career and links to the reviews of the original films, start here. Now, in January 2008. Warners have reissued the set with an extra disc containing this newly-made documentary, which is the one under review. Fortunately for those who already have the boxset, you can buy Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows on its own.
Unfortunately no film of Lewton himself is known to exist, so Kent Jones’s documentary has to rely on still photographs and extracts from his writings (read by Elias Koteas) to convey some sense of the man himself. Narrated by Martin Scorsese, The Man in the Shadows begins with the changing of the guard at RKO, with Orson Welles being removed from The Magnificent Ambersons and the film being re-edited without his consent. Lewton, who had previously worked for David O. Selznick, was brought in to oversee a series of horror B movies, following the example – and hoped-for success of Universal’s horror films of the previous decade.
The first Lewton production for RKO, Cat People, was a considerable success. Over the next three years, Lewton’s productions made a considerable impact: for its use of atmosphere, the light and darkness of black and white photography not far removed from film noir, for the intelligence and literacy of the scripts (cowritten or rewritten by Lewton, often without credit), for providing strong, non-stereotypical women and black characters (remarkable for the time). In front of the camera, he gave defining roles to such as Boris Karloff, who made three films for Lewton, not to mention making good use of RKO’s repertory company. Behind the camera, he recruited director Jacques Tourneur (whom he had met on the Selznick production A Tale of Two Cities) as well as promoting Robert Wise and Mark Robson from the editing desk. Nicholas Musuraca, one of the key noir DPs, shot five of the films, while Roy Webb scored all but one. But behind it all was Lewton, overseeing eleven films in four years – the nine in the set plus the non-genre items Youth Runs Wild and Mademoiselle Fifi, both from 1944 - overseeing every aspect of the productions from inception to release. He was clearly a workaholic, and this may well have contributed to his poor health and early death from a heart attack, aged only forty-seven.
The documentary takes a straight-ahead chronological approach through Lewton’s life and career. Each film is given a generous sampling of clips, which will no doubt make you want to rewatch the films, or watch those you haven’t seen for the first time. There are some odd omissions though. The documentary rather skates over The Ghost Ship, overlooking the fact that it was unavailable for years due to a plagiarism lawsuit that Lewton lost. The earlier Lewton documentary, Shadows in the Dark, available on the Seventh Victim disc in the box set, simply mentions this episode as an example of Lewton’s integrity without backing this up at all. Do I detect a desire to avoid too much ambiguity by glossing over episodes which could potentially show Lewton in a not-altogether-good light? Lewton’s son, Val E. Lewton, is justifiably proud of his father, though acknowledges thatl Lewton Senior’s workaholism did affect family life at the time.
Admirably, some attention is given to the two non-genre items, particularly the problems that Youth Runs Wild had with the censors. It does make you wish that Warners had dropped the word “Horror” from the title of the box set and released simply The Val Lewton Collection, with these two films on their own disc. I suspect that might be less marketable though. We also see clips from the three, inferior films that Lewton made after leaving RKO, which is a nice touch as they are not often shown these days.
As always, interviews are a staple of documentaries of this type. Jones scores a coup by tracking down Ann Carter Newton, the young lead of The Curse of the Cat People. She was unable to be traced for the 2005 DVD release and she must be one of the very few Lewton castmembers still alive. Jacques Tourneur (speaking in French with subtitles) and Robert Wise appear in archive interviews. As well as with Lewton Junior and Ann Carter Newton, new interviews have been shot with Roger Corman, Dr Glen Gabbard, Kiyoshi Kurosawa (talking in Japanese, with English subtitles), Alexander Nemerov and Geoffrey O’Brien.
Made by, and first shown on, Turner Classic Movies, The Man in the Shadows has to strike a balance between the needs of a general audience with that of an expert in the subject. The latter will find little new here, though the rarer film extracts and the interviews will be valuable. The documentary is pitched more towards someone newer to Lewton’s work, and as such this is recommended.
Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows is a single-layered, NTSC-format disc encoded for Regions 1,2,3 and 4. It is available as part of Warner’s reissue of The Val Lewton Horror Collection, or singly.
Picture quality is hard to rate, as the documentary is made up of extracts from films made over sixty years ago, almost all of them in black and white, plus still photographs. The aspect ratio is 4:3, to match that of the film extracts. The interviews are in colour, and are letterboxed into 16:9. The new footage is very sharp, the archival interviews with Tourneur and Wise inevitably less so. Generally the DVD transfer does what it is asked to do, and I doubt anyone will have any complaints.
The soundtrack is flagged as Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, but it’s pretty much mono from start to finish, as you might expect from a film made up from clips with films made up of single-channel soundtracks, narration and voiceover, and interviews. Only a music score expands the soundstage a little. Subtitles are available in English or French. Two of the interview subjects speak in languages other than English and are subtitled. There are seven chapter stops, but no scene access menu.
There are no extras, but then this disc is one feature-length extra to the nine films in the boxset. If you haven’t bought the set yet, the inclusion of this disc with no increase in price makes it even more enticing.. If you have the set already, then this additional disc is at least reasonably priced. Don’t wait for a UK edition as Warners don’t have the rights to the RKO catalogue. Universal, who do own the rights, show no signs of releasing these films on DVD, and it’s unlikely they would include the same extras if they did.
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