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Val Lewton - Man in the Shadows Documentary


MissGoddess
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Critic and screenwriter James Agee wrote of Val Lewton:

 

"I think that few people in Hollywood show in their work that they know or care half as much about human beings as he does."

 

 

I got a sneak peek at this documentary last night at Lincoln Center, which was followed by a Q&A with the director, Kent Jones. He and Scorsese can be very proud, it's quite a fitting and feeling tribute to the mysterious producer. It is also crammed with wonderful clips from just about all of his best films. The intent seems to be to show how Lewton's melancholy, idealistic personality and temperment shaped his career and the films themselves. There are excerpts of archival interviews of Robert Wise and Jacques Tourneur which contribute additional insights, especially from Tourneur who admitted (contrary to what you'd gather from his films) he didn't have "poetic bone in his body" until he met Lewton. He felt they worked so well together because Lewton was a complete idealist with his head in the clouds and he, Tourneur, a practical man with his feet on the ground who knew how to implement those ideas.

 

The documentary also gave the devil his due, by making it clear how much Lewton gleaned from his years as Selznick's right hand and that Selznick himself negotiated his contract with RKO for him.

 

Scorsese's narration is excellent, precise and perceptive. So much so that I felt the inclusion of a psychiatric talking head was completely unnecessary (and the only annoying note). Jones weaves the sounds of Lewton's films and the music throughout to capture the spirit and mood of his RKO classics. Simone Simon's lilting siren's voice is heard periodically crooning the French carol, "Il Est Ne Le Divin Enfant" and you know you are not in Kansas anymore.

 

Scorsese and Japanese director Kiroshi Kurasawa spoke of the brevity of Lewton's most powerful scenes and images. I thought that was a salient point because I have always felt that there are moments in all his films you just wish he would have lingered over longer...they end so quickly that the reaction to them doesn't settle in until after they are over and the story has moved on. Perhaps this is what he intended. It adds to the unsettling nature of the movies.

 

The film also gave praise to my Val Lewton step-child movie, the underappreciated Mademoiselle Fifi, which was music to my ears.

 

In the Q&A, Kent Jones spoke of having approached John Carpenter about participating in the documentary but the horror director made it clear he had no use for Lewton's films and thought they were silly. :P

 

After the documentary and Q&A, they screened I Walked with a Zombie, one of my favorites.

 

I hope everyone will tune in on Jan. 14th (8:00pm EST) when TCM premieres this excellent and informative tribute to a man who until now remained a shadowy figure in cinema. And

 

For those interested, the screenplays to Val's movies are online here:

 

http://www.whiskeyloosetongue.com/lewton_biography.html

 

I've learned alot from reading them myself.

 

And here is a first rate website that focues primarily on the RKO period of Val's career:

 

http://www.eeweems.com/val_lewton/

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Bonjour, Mademoiselle Gigi -- So you decided to brave the elements and the cold? Woo Hoo! Good for you. Your write-up was exceptional. Lots of great detail. It really sounded like a fantastic evening.

 

This is something that I personally associate with Lewton:

 

Lewton was a complete idealist with his head in the clouds

 

Val was a filmmaker who crafted the most personal of films They were often about his own personal demons and fears. That's why I believe Lewton's films have so much emotional depth. It's why I personally connect with them more than most films.

 

In the Q&A, Kent Jones spoke of having approached John Carpenter about participating in the documentary but the horror director made it clear he had no use for Lewton's films and thought they were silly. :P

 

:) That's not a good statement by Carpenter, although I like his honesty.

 

Carpenter, who is a favorite of mine, doesn't really go for the emotional kind of horror. His films have always lacked this. Carpenter's strongsuit is atmosphere, which is something Lewton's films are dripping with thanks to directors like Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise. You get the best of both worlds (emotional & atmospheric) with Lewton, which is why I'm enamored with his films.

 

Thanks for the terrific recap of the evening. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I can't wait to see Marty's doc because Marty IS a director who understands the power of emotional filmmaking.

 

 

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Thank you for those pictures of the shadow Man, Frank! And I am sure you will enjoy the documentary alot. To give credit where it's due, the documentary is really Kent Jones', not Martin Scorsese though he was instrumental in getting TCM on board and contributed along the way in more ways than one. Jones was also the writer of Scorsese's documentary on Italian cinema.

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Hi Bronxie---I did read your comments on The Iron Horse and I'm so glad you got to see it!

 

I don't exactly live close to LC, no (I'm on the Eastside), but not so far that it's an excuse not to go when good stuff happens. My favorite venue for classic movies, however, is MoMA which is much closer and I love that area. Full of tourists, I know. ;)

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Thank you for those pictures of the shadow Man, Frank!

 

You are welcome. I'll see if I can post a few more. Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

 

To give credit where it's due, the documentary is really Kent Jones', not Martin Scorsese though he was instrumental in getting TCM on board and contributed along the way in more ways than one. Jones was also the writer of Scorsese's documentary on Italian cinema.

 

Thanks for setting me straight. I'm definitely looking forward to Kent Jones' doc. I really liked the featurette on Lewton that's included in the Lewton box set. It's quite informative. I learned a lot about Val through that and the DVD commentaries. It's one of my favorite DVDs in my collection.

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I know this is a highly anticipated program for Janaury 2008 but why, oh why, did we have to start a thread on it already. This is as bad as putting up Christmas Decorations in October. You just know this thread is going to make FrankGrimes more agitated and surly because he hasn't seen it yet. And January 14th is still a month away! I hope you are all happy.

 

Kyle (dripping with sarcasm) In Hollywood

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What's up, Soaking in SoKyleasm -- When it comes to Val Lewton (and other favorite buttons o' mine), I'm cheap and easy. You just pick the spot and time, and I'll be there.

 

I hope you are all happy.

 

Hey, thank you. I'm happy tonight.

 

I hope you are happy and well, too, Kyle.

 

Now who would have ever thought such happiness would show up in a Val Lewton thread?

 

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You didn't shut the thread down, Kyle. Your humor is always welcome.

 

An icestorm hit my area pretty hard and either I have had zero power or family members that I'm concerned about. It's been a screwy weekend for me. I'll post a little more on this thread once I get the time.

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  • 4 weeks later...

I very much enjoyed Kent Jones' "The Man in the Shadows" documentary on Val Lewton this evening. I feel as if Martin Scorsese's narration really brought to life Lewton's fascination with death. Scorsese had a very serious and, at times, somber tone to his speech. It was quite effective.

 

I was very pleased to see Mademoiselle Fifi, Youth Runs Wild, The Woman on the Beach, and some of his post-RKO productions mentioned. I'm also glad they covered Robert Wise and Mark Robson's heartless decision to abandon Lewton when he needed them the most.

 

Val Lewton's films continue to speak to me unlike any other filmmaker's. I relate to both he and his productions. He was a true poet.

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I really enjoyed the Lewton doc and if I don't get the box set for my birthday tomorrow then I'm gonna go ahead and just buy it myself. The only film I haven't seen in it is *Ghost Ship* and it looked good too. I loved it when they told the story about how *Cat People* ran one week longer than *Citizen Kane* in theaters. That's pretty cool.

 

I'm not a fan of Mark Robson b/c of the way he treated Gary Cooper and Roberta Haynes when they were filming *Return to Paradise* (1953). He acted like a little dictator and was just mean for no reason. One example was Roberta basically having to beg him to get them some mosquito netting for the huts were living in during the shoot. He kept refusing to do it so she showed up on the set one day with bandaids all over her body to cover up the mosquito bites. After that he finally gave in. What a jerk!

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Hi Frank: My goodness! You watched *3* movies and a documentary! "clapping" :D I see it took a man in the shadows to make you do it.

 

I agree with both you and Angie about the sadness of the Robson/Wise dumping. At the screening someone asked Kent Jones about that and both he and the other lady who was also a producer of the doc said that he was a man who had a courtly approach to negotiations & dealings that left him wildly disadvantaged in the dog-eat-dog business of making movies. Those who could be tough when necessary are the kind that can survive out there and he was just not capable of bending that way. I can just imagine him taking lots of things to heart and personally when in the minds of the rest of Hollywood it was just "business as usual."

 

Angie - I think you will like *Ghost Ship* but it's slow, meditative pace turns some people off. I find it has a creeping sort of psychological horror and one scene in particular with the chains really disturbed me. You'll see what I mean. Richard Dix was great at playing loose screws.

 

 

P.S. RKO and the deal Selznick laid out for him there was definitely the best period of his career.

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If I could have my wish, the only thing I might have added to the documentary was more about Roy Webb's musical contributions. He is intriguing me more and more as I see his name credited with an astonishing variety of scores, many of which are really moving and poetic. I feel his music perfectly captures the spirit of the Lewton movies he participated in...especially in I Walked with a Zombie. You can "hear" the restlessness of the sea, the spiritual aspects, the hauntedness of the characters! What a remarkable composer!

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Hiya, Coopsy's Clara! -- I really enjoyed the Lewton doc and if I don't get the box set for my birthday tomorrow then I'm gonna go ahead and just buy it myself. The only film I haven't seen in it is Ghost Ship and it looked good too.

 

The Lewton box set is one of my favorite DVDs in my collection. I have watched all of the films in the set many, many times over. The majority of commentaries are quite entertaining and very informative and there's an excellent Lewton featurette included. It's a wonderful collection.

 

I'm not a fan of Mark Robson b/c of the way he treated Gary Cooper and Roberta Haynes when they were filming Return to Paradise (1953). He acted like a little dictator and was just mean for no reason. One example was Roberta basically having to beg him to get them some mosquito netting for the huts were living in during the shoot. He kept refusing to do it so she showed up on the set one day with bandaids all over her body to cover up the mosquito bites. After that he finally gave in. What a jerk!

 

I never heard this story before. Thanks for sharing it. Ahhh, directors... so very understanding. :D

 

So are you getting ready to blow out those 16 candles? ;)

 

Hola, Miss Goddess! -- My goodness! You watched 3 movies and a documentary! "clapping" I see it took a man in the shadows to make you do it.

 

Hold the applause. I merely watched (and taped) the documentary. I did have the Lewton films on in the background last night, though. Does that count as "watching," Miss Fast-Forward?

 

So if Lewton can't get me to sit down and watch some films, who can? Nobody? Good answer.

 

At the screening someone asked Kent Jones about that and both he and the other lady who was also a producer of the doc said that he was a man who had a courtly approach to negotiations & dealings that left him wildly disadvantaged in the dog-eat-dog business of making movies. Those who could be tough when necessary are the kind that can survive out there and he was just not capable of bending that way. I can just imagine him taking lots of things to heart and personally when in the minds of the rest of Hollywood it was just "business as usual."

 

Excellent point.

 

Lewton was a procrastinating artist (hmmmmmm) above all else and the business side of filmmaking ran counter to his soul. Most restless "artists" run into this trouble in Hollywood. I doubt Lewton would have ever made his kind of pictures if they weren't "B" horror films. His creative mind thrived under those circumstances.

 

 

If I could have my wish, the only thing I might have added to the documentary was more about Roy Webb's musical contributions. He is intriguing me more and more as I see his name credited with an astonishing variety of scores, many of which are really moving and poetic. I feel his music perfectly captures the spirit of the Lewton movies he participated in...especially in I Walked with a Zombie. You can "hear" the restlessness of the sea, the spiritual aspects, the hauntedness of the characters! What a remarkable composer!

 

Ohh, goodness. That's two wonderful points by you in the same day. I'm scared.

 

Sound effects, music, and silence all play a significant role in greatly enhancing Lewton's films. They lead us and our fears into the darkness alongside the characters. It's eerily sensual.

 

You can "hear" the restlessness of the sea, the spiritual aspects, the hauntedness of the characters!

 

Oooohh, I like it!

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