The following is the schedule for the documentary premiere and marathon of Lewton classics (all times Pacific; again for Eastern listings please check here).
Monday, January 14, 2008
5:00PM Martin Scorsese Presents: Val Lewton: The Man In the Shadows.
6:30PM Cat People (1942), starring Simone Simon, Kent Smith and Tom Conway.
7:45PM I Walked with a Zombie (1943), starring Frances Dee and Tom Conway.
9:00PM Martin Scorsese Presents: Val Lewton: The Man In the Shadows.
10:30PM The Leopard Man (1943), starring Dennis O'Keefe and Margo.
11:45PM The Seventh Victim (1943), starring Kim Hunter, Tom Conway and Hugh Beaumont.
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
1:00AM The Curse of the Cat People (1944), starring Simone Simon and Kent Smith.
2:15AM The Body Snatcher (1945), starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Henry Daniell.
3:30AM Isle of the Dead (1945), starring Boris Karloff, Ellen Drew and Marc Cramer.
4:45AM Bedlam (1946), starring Boris Karloff, Anna Lee and Ian Wolfe.
6:15AM Martin Scorsese Presents: Val Lewton: The Man In the Shadows.
7:45AM Youth Runs Wild (1944), starring Kent Smith, Bonita Granville, Jean Brooks and Glenn Vernon.
9:00AM Mademoiselle Fifi (1944), starring Simone Simon, John Emery, Kurt Kreuger and Alan Napier.
Likewise, all the films—save Youth Runs Wild and Mademoiselle Fifi—are readily available on DVD, specifically through the Val Lewton Horror Collection boxset, recently amplified to include the Scorsese/Jones documentary. The TCM website for the Lewton festival generously includes TCM's original promo for the marathon plus several clips from the films and the original trailers for I Walked With A Zombie and The Seventh Victim. Several of the other original trailers can be found on TCM's main site. Thus, there are multiple opportunities to view or sample the films and—for those wishing to participate in the blogathon—feel free to notify me of links to your sites at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the comments section here at The Evening Class. The Val Lewton blogathon will run through Friday, January 18, 2008. I'll be supplementing this entry throughout the week as contributions come in.
For up-to-date news on Val Lewton there's no more comprehensive a site than The Val Lewton B-Unit Website hosted by Erik Weems. Erik's passion for the man and his work is richly evident, no less so than in his seminal bio-essay. He's replicated some wonderful material, most notably Manny Farber's review of Curse of the Cat People for the March 20, 1944 issue of The Nation, as well as Farber's eulogy for Lewton written for The Nation's April 14, 1951 issue. He also lovingly pays homage to Lewton's acting ensemble with separate pages for Simone Simon, Jane Randolph, Sir Lancelot, and Frances Dee (including the following enchanting YouTube photo tribute).
Yet another fantastic source of information on Lewton is the Val Lewton Screenplay Collection, which includes scripts for not only Lewton's more familiar vehicles—Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie, The Leopard Man, The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, The Curse of the Cat People, Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher and Bedlam—but, the script for Apache Drums and for The Fact of Murder, a film noir collaboration between Lewton and Mark Robson that was never realized. Further, the Val Lewton Screenplay Collection provides a working biography and filmography, several articles downloadable in PDF format, including the July 1930 Weird Tales publication of a short story by Lewton entitled "The Bagheeta"—a clear precursor to Cat People—and the American Weekly Magazine article written by Inez Wallace cited as the alleged "source" for I Walked With A Zombie. They've also gathered newsclippings regarding the legal controversy surrounding The Ghost Ship, Robert Louis Stevenson's source short story "The Body-Snatcher", and have provided galleries for Arnold Böcklin paintings that inspired (and are featured in) The Isle of the Dead, as well as William Hogarth's work which informed the overall look of Bedlam.
The American Film Institute's tribute page to director Robert Wise includes film-specific pieces on Curse of the Cat People, Mademoiselle Fifi, and The Body Snatcher.
I highly recommend Mark A. Viera's essay on Lewton—"Darkness, Darkness: The Films of Val Lewton"—originally published in Viera's volume Hollywood Horror: From Gothic To Cosmic (Harry N. Abrams, 2003) and reprinted in the November 2005 issue of Bright Lights Film Journal.
In that same issue of Bright Lights Film Journal are two additional essays; the first, Roderick Heath's "Les Fleurs du Mal: The Leopard Man and Le Corbeau" wherein he tracks Tourneur and Clouzot's delivery of "homefront perversity, paranoia, and subversion." Erich Kuersten follows suit with his own ruminations on The Leopard Man: "What It Takes To Make A Softie: Breaking Noir Tradition."
Meanwhile, over at Senses of Cinema, Brad Weisman reviews Cat People and Martha P. Nochimson reviews I Walked With A Zombie.
Rouge 8 (2006) features Donald Phelps' analytical synopsis of The Ghost Ship. "[O]ne is repeatedly aware of [Lewton's] personal concern, a private identification with the significance of ancient beliefs and practices. Although his presentation sometimes falters, Lewton delivers overall a consistent image of our present civilization as fragile and possibly illusory; repeatedly invaded, like a mansion's skeletal remnants, with vagrant visitors from mythology, legend and, above all, religion."
"Bijou" Bob Statzer's two-part overview of Lewton's career (here and here) is likewise informative reading, not the least for providing the term "ailurophobia"—the fear of cats—which rumor alleges Lewton suffered.
Bay Area film scholar Richard Van Busack contextualizes the Lewton oeuvre within the body of the horror genre by noting their sensationalistic titles belie their sophistication and elegance. I envy him the opportunity he had to view these films projected on a large screen at Palo Alto's Stanford Theatre.
The Reeler's Miriam Bale reviewed I Walked With A Zombie when it recently screened at the Walter Reade and caught a few words from director Kent Jones. She also references a telling quote from Lewton champion Manny Farber.
Steve-O, the editor at Noir of the Week raises the question of whether or not The Seventh Victim is film noir.
There are several books on both Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur—which I hope to detail in a separate entry after holding off to see if anyone contributes essays on same—but, with regard to online resources, a satisfying portion of Chris Fujiwara's Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (John Hopkins University Press, 2001), namely his analysis of The Leopard Man, is available at Fujiwara's website.
One of the talking heads in the Jones/Scorsese documentary is Alexander Nemerov, whose Icons of Grief: Val Lewton's Home Front Pictures (University of California Press, 2005) is reviewed at Senses of Cinema. His thesis culls a pervasive awareness of the losses of World War II informing Lewton's films and he utilizes Lewton's own novels to strengthen his proposition.
Speaking of which, though Lewton's novels are generally out of print and existing copies rare and hard to locate, kudos must be given to Marc Baines at Kingly Books for reprinting Lewton's Depression-era novel No Bed Of Her Own, with hopes that he will secure the rights to publish further volumes. TCM synopsizes No Bed Of Her Own. Weems likewise has a fine overview of critical studies on Lewton.
Though disappointed in Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows when he caught it at the Walter Reade Theatre, Alok Zembla nonetheless concedes at his site Dispatches From Zembla: "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."
At Film Journey, Doug Cummings caught Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows when it screened at the AFI Fest last November. Though debating that it's not much of an improvement over Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy already included with the Lewton DVD box set released a couple of years ago, Doug confirms that "Jones' film trumps its predecessor in its improved pacing and writing." He questions and (fairly) critiques the "bountiful spoilers" in the Scorsese/Jones documentary, wondering "who the intended audience is, Lewton cinephiles (who will probably learn little they don't already know) or Lewton newbies (who likely won't want to know the endings of films they haven't seen)?"
At The Shelf, J.C. Loophole is much more enthused about Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows and supplements his overview of Lewton's career with some key quotes from his recent interview with Val Lewton, Jr.
At Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind, Bob Turnbull surveys "the glitter of putrescence" in Lewton's nine-film box set and shapes his rambling thoughts into a comprehensive survey strengthened by screenshots and Werner Herzog ranting on the horrors of nature. Bob earns the Val Lewton Gumshoe Award for noticing that "Arnold Bocklin's painting 'Island Of The Dead' shows up not only in the opening credits of Isle Of The Dead … but also in I Walked With A Zombie which was made a few years earlier." I've not read that anywhere! Good catch, Bob!
I incorporate Merge Divide's Serendipty entry on Cat People and Curse of the Cat People, though not specifically drafted for this blogathon. With a pseudonym like "Merge Divide", I hardly feel he will object.
At Film Forno Joe D'Augustine observes a transitional device used in Cat People that's almost—but not quite—a fade to black and back. He describes it as: "[A]n optical that mimics a shadow passing in front of the camera, like a black panther wiping the lens."
At Films Noir you'll find an effective slideshow on Cat People, "A visual feast and a multi-layered literate tale of darkness." As for Simone Simon? "[H]er engaging performance gives the erstwhile demon a fragile humanity."
Aaron W. Graham at More Than Meets the Mogwai justifies the sensationalist titling (and to some, mistitling) of The Curse of the Cat People by noting that by "today's context, RKO's insistence on retitling takes on a different, elegiac meaning for what these B-movie programmers came to represent: the smuggling in of far more intellectual conceits or ideas than their guise would otherwise suggest. It's a blessing and a curse, but I've come to believe that the unfavorable title is a test for prospective viewers to leave their preconceptions about "these types of films" at the door."
Mrs. Emma Peel appreciates The Body Snatcher at The House of Mirth and Movies: "Few films get under my skin like this chilling and macabre tale of corpses and souls. The delicious irony is that the characters become tradesmen in death, when it seems that's what they fear most."
Peter Nellhaus at Coffee, Coffee, and more Coffee takes a coffee break with Boyd Davis and Richard Dix from The Ghost Ship, and then interestingly considers that Lewton's The Leopard Man may have influenced William Friedkin's most recent venture Bug. Peter observes: "The parody of the 'Lewton style' comes literally from the hands of the first victim's little brother, with his inappropriate penchant for creating a shadow that resembles a fierce creature" and concludes that The Leopard Man truly lives in the shadows where darkness "is a form of sanctuary."
At Tractor Facts Mark Osborn synopsizes that "[w]ith low-rent sets, soft scripts, fresh actors, and green directors (Tournier, Wise, and Robson) Lewton turned the cutting room floor into an artistic device." He then insightfully explores the "murder by audio" in The Leopard Man and underscores the prurience of Lewton's 1943 audiences in the film's implied sexual deviancy.
Over at TCM's Movie Morlocks, Richard Harland Smith amplifies appreciation of The Leopard Man with ample screenshots and conjectures that the film's biggest selling point is its "honest story of misperception, both on a personal level as a denial of driving emotions, and also on a broader level in the way that people see (or fail to see) one another." Richard extols The Leopard Man's "cinematographic legerdemain" through its "bait-and-switch" strategies and meandering narratives.
Josh Bell at Signal Bleed fulfilled one of my hopes: that someone compare Lewton's Cat People with Paul Schrader's 1982 remake. Doing so with wry sensual humor—"As Irena, Nastassia Kinski never passes up an opportunity to take off her clothes, which is much appreciated but makes the movie seem like something that would have gotten a lot of late-night airplay in the early days of Cinemax (and very well may have, for all I know)"—Josh effectively confirms that the remake's excess, explicitness, and overexplanations fail to improve the original formula. It gives one cause for concern with remakes greenlit for The Body Snatcher, I Walked With A Zombie and Bedlam by (shudder) the creators of the Saw franchise, as reported last Summer by Variety.
Anticipating TCM's broadcast, Eric Kohn wrote an overview for the New York Press and has kindly offered it for the Lewton blogathon. In his overview, Eric articulates that "in the era of torture porn and feeble J-horror remakes, Lewton's meticulous creations are a retroactive revelation." He notes: "Lewton tapped into the base ingredients of chilling storytelling by focusing on the precise lack of action—an original formula that imbued any sudden development with powerfully visceral impact."
At Bright Lights After Dark C. Jerry Kutner utilizes Tourneur's directorial absence from The Seventh Victim to characterize the creative collaboration between Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur. "Just as John Lennon's acid cynicism was tempered by the melodic sweetness of Paul McCartney, so the melancholic morbidity of producer/writer Val Lewton was tempered by the subtle spirituality of director Jacques Tourneur. Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Seventh Victim (1943), the first film in the RKO horror cycle that was written and produced by Lewton without Tourneur as director." Kutner distinguishes, "Where The Seventh Victim differs significantly from the Lewton/Tourneur collaborations is in its utter absence of the supernatural or anything suggestive of a spiritual reality behind physical appearances." Intriguingly, he likewise suggests that "the sudden appearance of a cult member behind a shower curtain as [Kim] Hunter is taking a shower prefigures Hitchcock's Psycho."
Marilyn Ferdinand—"Ferdy" at Ferdy on Films, etc.—has published Roderick Heath's erudite essay on Isle of the Dead. Heath—author of the aforementioned Bright Lights Film Journal piece exploring Tourneur and Clouzot—measures the three-film collaboration between Lewton and Boris Karloff: "Karloff's presence threatened to bend Lewton toward the Universal approach, which had degenerated into monster mash hilarity. However, Karloff, a gifted actor, gave Lewton a strong frame around which to build his films, an improvement over Lewton's earlier films, which wobbled with unreliable lead actors." Skillfully synopsizing the events of Isle of the Dead, Heath concludes: "Punctuated by Leigh Hurline's atmospheric score, the best in a Lewton work, Isle of the Dead isn't as symphonic an achievement as The Body Snatcher or as poetic as The Leopard Man and I Walked with a Zombie, but it is the most fully developed metaphoric drama of Lewton's films."
Earlier at Ferdy on Films, etc., Marilyn had tackled another of the Lewton/Karloff pairings—Bedlam—and established that "Bedlam was inspired by the engravings of William Hogarth of London's notorious Royal Hospital of St. Mary's of Bethlehem, an asylum for the insane better known as Bedlam. Indeed, Lewton gave Hogarth (1697-1764) a writing credit, so much does the atmosphere of the picture derive from Hogarth's tortured rendering of Bedlam's inmates in The Rake's Progress." Describing Lewton as "the acknowledged master of the eerie", "Ferdy" characterizes Bedlam's atmosphere as "a first-rate example of the eerie genre that seeks to unsettle and, possibly, to teach" and praises Nicholas Musuraca's cinematography in recreating the look of Hogarth's engravings so vividly on camera.
"What other black actor got to scold a white woman in 1943?" Michael McMorrow stresses in his response to Sir Lancelot's menacing performance in I Walked With A Zombie. Likewise at Cult Film Confidential, Michael cues us in on the subtle joke in I Walked With A Zombie's opening credits.
Before his site Welcome to L.A. bid farewell, Larry Aydlette profiled Skelton Knaggs—yet another of Lewton's remarkable ensemble actors—while strolling the deck of Ghost Ship and listening to its "power of stillness". "[O]ften captured in a luminous, disturbing image that floats in the mind and stays with you long after the film is over," Larry wrote, the power of stillness is "usually a close-up. There is no hurry, as in today's films, to cut away. Lewton is not afraid to linger, to let the disquiet seep in."
At Self-Styled Siren, Campaspe filters her appreciation of Mademoiselle Fifi through a feminist lens and with an admitted affection for Guy de Maupassant whose short stories "Mademoiselle Fifi" and "Boule de Suif" Lewton's screenwriters—Josef Mischel and Peter Ruric—combined to create the screenplay. Retaining "the anti-bourgeois bite of [Maupassant's] short stories, in part by adding lines to make sure no one could possibly miss the point", the Siren praises Lewton's "complex, dynamic treatment of women", specifically in the film's fleshed-out heroine Elizabeth de Rousset (Simone Simon), the "little laundress" (as she is billed in the credits). "She is by far the most principled character in the movie," Campaspe writes, "and she comes into peril only when she allows weaker people to gain influence. In movies, as unfortunately across cultures and centuries, a woman's chastity is drafted into maintaining the purity of all sorts of things that really should take care of themselves—country, race, family. In Mademoiselle Fifi, yes, the heroine stands in for France. She's her own woman for all that, resisting the movie's onrushing allegory even as she resists the leering von Eyrick. She's dealt one blow after another, but picks herself up each time, principles intact. 'I don't eat with Prussians,' she says proudly, and instead of seeming ridiculous or petty that seems like a declaration of human rights."
With the bases loaded, film historian John McElwee scores a triple at Greenbriar Picture Shows and brings all the players on home. I don't know where he digs them up but his graphics alone are worth the price of admission. He scores first with the controversial supposition that the praise Lewton received from champions like Manny Farber, James Agee and David Selznick might have actually done Lewton more harm than good, enflaming jealousies among his compatriots and rankling studio execs whose hands Lewton preferred not to shake. He likewise has a fascinating and detailed account of marquee and theatre lobby dressings promoting The Cat People, many which "looked like Grand Guignol." His reception study of I Walked With A Zombie underscores the obstacles Lewton faced in creating his films.
McElwee continues his study of Lewton's reception with The Seventh Victim. "We must have been the eighth victim; patrons walked out. Business poor. Some of the kids would not sit through it," complained one theatre owner. He then tracks Lewton's budgetary genius in recycling sets and props with a focus on The Ghost Ship, "a wraith largely unseen." And I'm heartened to read that John and I agree that The Curse of the Cat People might be considered Lewton's finest work. He provocatively suggests that The Curse of the Cat People might have had a timely influence upon Vincente Minnelli's Meet Me In St. Louis whose Halloween segment McElwee identifies as "a glossier recap of Ann Carter's frightful walk through the night. Atmospheric, set-bound parallels between the two features are striking." McElwee ends his second piece with commentary on Youth Runs Wild and Mademoiselle Fifi.
McElwee's third piece spotlights the Lewton/Karloff triptych. "We can sit home with our DVDs and think we've seen The Body Snatcher," McElwee writes, "but that's like steak without garnishment compared with banquets 1945 audiences reveled in." McElwee proves his point with some mindblowing photographs recording the take-no-prisoners marquee adornments for Lewton's The Body Snatcher. McElwee then counts up box office receipts for Isle of the Dead and Bedlam. I'm in awe of McElwee's erudition which proves downright entertaining!
Whereas John McElwee discerns a connection between Vincente Minnelli and Val Lewton via Meet Me In St. Louis, Flickhead acknowledges the better-known and well-documented connection between Lewton and Minnelli: "Granted modest budgets at RKO, [Lewton] used low key lighting as a gimmick ostensibly to enhance the mystery of horror stories, but actually to camouflage cheap sets and fabricated backdrops. This part of Lewton inspired the producer 'Jonathan Shields' in Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), who is observed concocting a picture similar to Lewton's Cat People (1942)." Flickhead, however, qualifies his lack of enthusiasm for Lewton by admitting: "It would be foolish of me to take [Lewton's] defenders to task, as my argument—that Lewton's films are often plodding, dull and consciously morose—stems from a deep rooted childhood dissatisfaction. I loved horror movies as a kid and, conditioned by the crude and boisterous monsters of Universal Pictures, the stuff of Lewton always possessed for me the stodgy lifelessness of a codeine fix." Though conceding that repeated exposure to some of Lewton's films has heightened his appreciation, Flickhead remains attractively contrarian.
Val Lewton was Russian, Jacques Tourneur and Simone Simon were French, and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca was Italian, so it only seems appropriate that the Val Lewton Blogathon should strive to be international. With Vincent Innisfree's French entry at Innisfree, we achieve just that!