One of the most anticipated documentaries to ever air on Turner Classic Movies is The Man in the Shadows which combines two of the greatest geniuses the American cinema has ever produced. This documentary will be hosted by Martin Scorsese, who needs no introduction, and the subject will be Val Lewton, who needs an introduction only to those people who proudly announce their mastery of film knowledge while being as oblivious about the subject as George W. Bush is about everything. The documentary, which I cannot personally comment upon at this time as I have not seen it, obviously, will last 90 minutes and, if past documentaries hosted by Scorsese are any indication, will contain far more depth about the artistry of Lewton and the meaning of his movies than any filmed analysis thus far.
To give some background on why those people woefully ignorant of American cinema history should set aside time to watch The Man in the Shadows, it is important first of all to understand what makes Val Lewton worthy of such treatment. To put it simply: Val Lewton was responsible for some of the moodiest and atmospheric films ever to come out of Hollywood. He worked in mostly B-movies, yet many of his films are better than the movies that were nominated for Oscars in the years in which they were released. For instance, the list of Oscar nominees for Best Picture in 1943 included The Song of Bernadette, The More the Merrier and Madame Curie, none of which can hold a candle to Lewton’s original version of Cat People. The very next year Going My Way won Best Picture, and I defy anyone to explain to me how that movie is better than Lewton’s masterpiece, I Walked With a Zombie.
Yes, Lewton excelled in low budget horror movies and what makes his tame horror flicks so much better than today’s gorefests, aside from all the other aspects of filmmaking at which he and his directors were so much better, is that they were actually more like psychoanalysis than horror films. Of course, all the greatest horror films are about the subconscious fears that we all face, but Lewton’s films focus on this aspect of the genre rather than going for the cheap thrill of someone jumping out and going boo! Cat People, for instance, which is ostensibly about a young woman from a foreign land who fears she is going to turn into a cat based on an ancestral curse, is actually an intense examination of the repression of female sexuality bubbling to the surface courtesy of good old-fashioned jealousy. Likewise, The Seventh Victim is, on the surface, one of the earliest films ever made about devil worshipers, but the subconscious content deals with sibling rivalry and the extent that sexual jealousy can come between sisters. And then there is I Walked With a Zombie which, despite the lurid title, was probably the most intellectually challenging film ever made during World War II in Hollywood.
I Walked With a Zombie is a pre-Romero zombie film and, with the possible exception of the original Dawn of the Dead, still, the greatest zombie movie ever made. The amazing thing is how the film carefully constructs a coherent sense of duality to nearly everything that it touches upon. This duality begins with the most obvious of whites/blacks and Christianity/voodoo but then expands to include all these aspects as it probes the ultimate duality, that of the conscious mind versus the subconscious mind and, in the process, smudges the differences so that they become so distorted it becomes impossible to distinguish them. For instance, the zombie wife is both dead and alive, yet neither fully dead or alive and the figure at the center engages in both scientific medicine and black voodoo magic. Even more inspiring is that the central thematic conceit at play in I Walked With a Zombie is perhaps one of the most stunning and unexpected revelations of any movie made in the 1940s.
Almost as good as I Walked With a Zombie is Curse of the Cat People. While this purports to be a sequel, it is quite possibly the strangest sequel of all time. Whereas Cat People qualifies as a horror/suspense film, Curse of the Cat People is more of a fairy tale. The only thing that really makes it qualify as a sequel is the inclusion of the main characters in supporting roles from the original film, but the sequel focuses on the fantasy world of the young daughter of two of those characters and her strange relationship with the ghost of Irina, the cat woman. Or is she a ghost. This movie features one of the great ambiguous endings of all time by raising the question of whether the woman supposed to be a ghost really did exist after all.
Val Lewton did more than just produce and write classic horror films, however. He had a great hand in writing the only Alfred Hitchcock movie to ever win the Best Picture Oscar, Rebecca, and he was one of the dozens of uncredited writers who contributed to the script for Gone with the Wind. In fact, it was Lewton who came up with what is probably the most famous shot in that movie, and one of the most famous shots in movie history: that panoramic pullback of the camera to reveal the thousands of wounded Confederate soldiers. Of course, Lewton’s place in Gone with the Wind lore probably rests more upon the advice he gave to David O. Selznick. Lewton considered Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel to be rubbish and advised Selznick against purchasing the rights and attempting to make a movie of it.
Martin Scorsese is the best possible choice to host a documentary about this fascinating man who also managed to author ten novels and a handful of non-fiction books. (He even wrote one pornographic novel.) The legend of Val Lewton is based greatly upon those novels. When movie studio execs at RKO were casting a net for producers they, according to the legend, misheard the description of Lewton as a writer of “horrible novels” as a writer of “horror novels.” Of such things are Hollywood superstars born. The Man in the Shadows premieres on TCM on January 14, 2008.