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Wednesday, 29 March 2017

DOORWAY TO DARKNESS: An introduction to VAL LEWTON

In 1942 RKO studios was in trouble. They were losing money every month, and on the edge of receivership by June their president George J. Schaefer was forced to resign. His replacement, Charles Koerner, would be a saviour who managed a truly remarkable turnaround in the company’s fortunes. His famous mission statement declared: ‘Showmanship in place of genius’, signing the death certificate for worthy, artistic ventures that were not geared directly to commercial success. A drastic swathe was cut through existing staff such as long-serving studio manager Sid Rogell and many producers. Even Orson Welles, the golden boy auteur behind 1941’s Citizen Kane, was dropped. Despite enormous critical praise, Welles’s masterpiece had failed at the box office due to distribution problems caused by the all-powerful media baron it clearly satirised, William Randolph Hearst.  The last straw for his employers was the young writer-director’s follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which was deemed so uncommercial that RKO took it away from Welles and re-edited it, not even permitting him to strike a print of his cut for posterity.

Future decades would triumphantly resurrect Citizen Kane and mourn for his lost Ambersons vision, but in 1942 there was no room in the tough new regime for anything that could not translate into profitable mass entertainment. To stave off the studio’s imminent demise, Koerner needed a talented producer who could create no-nonsense packages of sure-fire commercial hits. He was about to get a lot more than he bargained for…

Val Lewton was born Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon in Yalta, Russia on May 7th 1904. Along with his sister, they emigrated with their mother Nina after her failed marriage firstly to Berlin, and then America in 1909, settling in New York. Vladimir’s name was Americanised to Val Lewton as part of the family’s assimilation into their new homeland. They were fortunate to already have a Hollywood connection. Val’s aunt was silent screen star Alla Nazimova, who found Nina a story reader’s job at major studio M-G-M. Already the young Val was enjoying the powerful influence of strong women in his life. This would be reflected in the female protagonists around which he would base many of his best films.

Val inherited his mother’s literary streak, though as a sixteen-year old he lost his reporter job at the Darien-Stamford Review over a fabricated story involving kosher chickens in the city. This error of judgement didn’t stop his writing ambitions, nor his taste for fantasy which would crucially gain him much more positive attention. After journalism studies at Columbia University, he had eighteen books published, many in the disparagingly-named ‘pulp’ field. The most notable was No Bed of Her Own (1932) which Paramount bought and partly adapted for that year’s Clark Gable and Carole Lombard movie No Man of Her Own.

Lewton was already working in the film business when his novel struck gold. Like his mother, he was employed by M-G-M, in his case to convert their hit films into novelisations intended for newspaper serialisation.  No Bed of Her Own’s success gave him the confidence to quit his job and turn full-time novelist, but his next three books flopped in comparison. Once again though, luck and family connection rescued him when Nina was asked by her boss, renowned producer David O. Selznick, to urgently source writers of genuine Russian extraction to work on the script of his abortive Taras Bulba. Selznick was famous not only for his extreme demands, but for an unbending pursuit of authenticity in any project he undertook. His meeting with Lewton would lead to a hugely inspirational apprenticeship for the young writer, learning much from his mentor aside from a passion for veracity that would be reflected in his later choices as a filmmaker.

Across eight years Lewton served under Selznick in multiple roles, gaining industry experience as his assistant, studio publicist and story editor. It was while working on A Tale of Two Cities (1935) that Lewton’s other key relationship was forged with second-unit director Jacques Tourneur. Together, from page to screen, they realised the critically-acclaimed revolutionary scenes of the storming of the Bastille. Typically, Selznick had hired Tourneur for his French ancestry to direct these sequences, but it was the Frenchman’s real talent that went on to make his name as a director in partnership with Val Lewton.

Jacques Tourneur was born in the same year as Lewton, and similarly emigrated to America with his father Maurice Tourneur in 1913. They headed straight to what was the original Hollywood in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Maurice was an established film director for the Éclair company of Paris. Keen to expand into the lucrative American market, his bosses sent him to manage their U.S. studio after its original state-of-the-art complex burned down in 1914, taking all their stored film negatives with it. Éclair American struck a deal to distribute their short films and then features with Carl Laemmle’s Universal Film Manufacturing Company. By 1915, Tourneur Senior had allied himself with World Film on the same lot, a move that linked up the family with that of Lewis J. Selznick, father to David, who began his feature-producing dynasty here.

Maurice Tourneur passed on to his son a strong belief that the star system in Hollywood was wrong-headed, and that it limited a story’s focus unrealistically. This expansive view would influence the films that Jacques would make, where often the most interesting characters are to be found as small supporting parts. Before his own employment by David O. Selznick on A Tale of Two Cities, Jacques worked his way up the business for his father through script editing onto short film direction, developing his talents behind the camera.

Before Lewton and Tourneur collaborated again, Lewton was involved in the gargantuan labour of love that became Selznick’s Gone With the Wind (1939). He famously tried to persuade his boss that 
Margaret Mitchell’s book was unfilmable, yet he himself shot the memorable pre-intermission scene, a stupendous single take where the camera gradually pulls back to reveal Scarlett among literally hundreds of wounded soldiers at Atlanta Depot.

As for how Lewton came to RKO, one story told by film historian Steve Haberman in the TCM documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows (2007) dealt with potential carnage of a different kind. Allegedly, newly-installed president Koerner saw him at a party and, enquiring about him, was told that Lewton was the writer of those ‘horrible’ pulp novels. Koerner misinterpreted this as a pipeline to the horror genre he thought could save the studio and immediately suggested recruiting him.

Even if the anecdote is fiction, Koerner was actually gunning for a slice of the money-spinning horror renaissance enjoyed by Universal. The only problem was that, unlike their rival, RKO did not own the copyright on any recognisable creatures for their features. They would have to invent their own, and this is where the studio needed to bring in a unique visionary to create new crowd-pleasing terror for war-time audiences with all the quality of their wealthier competitors, but at a low cost.
Val Lewton signed to RKO to undertake the opportunity of a lifetime in 1942. It was to be his first ever position as a film producer, a powerful, creative role whose pressures might have been daunting enough without the imminent creditors at the door. There was no time for being gently eased in to the new role. Lewton however had spent eight years learning from a master. Selznick not only taught him well, he had the generosity to broker the deal with the studio that had tempted away his young protégé, an act that only increased Lewton’s gratitude to him.

Lewton was far from the stereotypical image we have of a Hollywood producer. He was neither brash nor crude in manner, or loudly overconfident in his opinions. Instead, he was meticulous, tasteful and exuded a quiet power much like his films, concealing his intense ambition behind modesty just as the roaming Irena in Cat People (1942) hid her desires in the shadows. Lewton was also no simple packager of other people’s talent. He was supremely hands-on, overseeing every detail of his department’s scripts and often rewrote them, which is why the nine remarkable horror films he produced between 1942 and 1946 bear the stamp of his personality as much as their own directors.

(L-R) Robert Wise, Mark Robson and Val Lewton
This is not to downplay the achievements of the superb team Lewton assembled around him. There was cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, composer Roy Webb and two editors who gained their first film directing assignments thanks to him. Robert Wise, the Oscar-nominated editor of Citizen Kane, as well as The Magnificent Ambersons, was given 1944’s Curse of the Cat People to direct by him. Secondly, Mark Robson, Wise’s assistant editor on the Welles films, began working for Lewton as his own production assistant and editor before earning his directorial debut on The Seventh Victim (1943) and going on to four others including Lewton’s non-horror teen feature Youth Runs Wild (1944). Robson was Academy Award-nominated himself for Peyton Place in 1958.

In the meantime, Lewton needed a stylish director whose taste was sympatico with his own to take charge of the all-important opening movie of his tenure: the audacious Cat People. Recalling his time on A Tale of Two Cities, he knew the perfect collaborator…

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