Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Val Lewton Documentary

Last week I saw the new documentary about the film producer Val Lewton called Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows. It is written and directed by Kent Jones, well-known film critic and the editor of Film Comment and is narrated and produced by Martin Scorsese. (Martin Scorsese is all praises for these films in his documentary My Personal Journey Through American Movies too. He specially singles out I Walked With a Zombie and The Seventh Victim.) Given such big names, I was expecting much more but in the end it was actually a disappointment. The documentary successfully makes a convincing case of the producer as an auteur - specially finding evidence of his melancholic temperament (it even speculates that it was something "Russian" in origin) as it found expression in the movies he produced. Unlike regular producers he was involved in every aspect of the production, most notably the script though he never took credit except in a few circumstances in which he agreed to the use of a pseudonym. He was actually a very well-read man. His job when was working as an editorial assistant to David O. Selznick was to ensure that the screenplays and the production design were historically and culturally accurate. His breadth of knowledge of other cultures and history is evident in some of his films that came later - like The Body Snatcher which was based on a Robert Luis Stevenson story which was itself based on a true story of a doctor taking help of professional killers for finding cadavers meant for dissection. Bedlam and Isle of the Dead have authentic historical context to their stories as well.

Regarding the question of the contribution of director Jacques Tourneur, it is generally acknowledged that while the three films directed by Tourneur - Cat People, The Leopard Man and I Walked With a Zombie - have something mysterious and dreamlike which other films don't have but when it comes to visual style and thematics all the nine films hold up very well together and in many different ways come out as works of a single creative force. It might be the case that Lewton and Tourneur created a prototype which the other directors just imitated and used, even when the stories were very different. I actually loved all the nine films in the canon - probably The Curse of the Cat People, which is a truly imaginative and sympathetic portrait of childhood loneliness and terror, and The Seventh Victim, eerie, bleak, strange and well-ahead of its time in its representation of suicidal despair and death - more than others from the non-Tourneur set.

An excellent short essay on Lewton and his films here. It explains what I love about these films:

"THE MAYHEM in Lewton's movies is never rigged. Every victim, however flawed, is missed and mourned for. Every life has value, every madman is a tragedy and pity always matches the possibility for horror. Watching the decline of Captain Stone, or the Greek general Karloff plays in Isle of the Dead, you can think, Oh, what a noble mind is here overthrown. "

It is precisely this feeling of mournfulness and tragedy I find lacking in most movies of the genre and few which have this are some of my favourites. There has been a recent revival in the horror genre, mainly originating in Japan, which inspired some hope, though it seems it has already devolved into cliches and readymade tropes (girl with hair over her face? Yawn!). But still a few films from the recent cycle rank with the best like Dark Water (Hideo Nakata), Audition (Takashi Miike) or the Korean film A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Jie-Woon).


Eric Kohn said...

I wrote about the TCM series for the New York Press a week ago: http://www.nypress.com/21/2/dvds/tv.cfm

Alok said...

thanks for the link Eric!