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Video: The Films of Val Lewton

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

Val Lewton was one of the most influential producers during the Golden Era of Hollywood in the 1940s.

I have blogged before – actually, four years ago – on the films of Val Lewton, but now Curt Bright has made a video on Lewton for our Frame by Frame series, in which I discuss Lewton’s work as a filmmaker creating an entirely new style of supernatural cinema – and his legacy goes well beyond that. Lewton was David O. Selznick’s right hand man on Gone With The Wind, one of the most ambitious and lavish films ever made, and shortly after that film wrapped, he accepted an offer from RKO Radio Pictures to create a series of low-budget horror films designed to break the Universal mold of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man and so on.

Lewton stepped into the job, making superb films on minimal budgets – roughly $100,000 a film, using pre-sold titles assigned by the publicity department, on very short shooting schedules, and created some of the most effective and atmospheric films of the era, such as I Walked With A Zombie and The Cat People. Of all the producers working in Hollywood during the 1940s, Lewton was clearly the most intellectual, the most artistically ambitious, and perhaps the only producer of the era – though others might argue with this – who could rightly be called a creative artist, someone who contributed to his films on more than a bottom-line level.

Working with such talented people as well known director Jacques Tourneur, ace cinematographers Nicholas Musuraca and Roy Hunt, and giving people like Robert Wise and Mark Robson their first directorial assignments, Lewton created a series of memorable Gothic films in a very short space of time, and then – suddenly – it was over. A brief period at MGM, and finally Universal, led only to his early death from a heart attack in his late 40s – a tragic loss to the cinema. Clearly, he could have done so much more, but time was limited.

Here, let’s celebrate the films of Val Lewton – timeless classics, that still enthrall and thrill today.

Val Lewton

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

If you don’t know the work of producer Val Lewton, you should.

Lewton came up working for David O. Selznick, and then accepted an offer from RKO in the early 1940s to head up their horror film unit, using pre-sold titles, miniscule budgets, and existing sets to create a series of Gothic films to rival those of Universal, then the reigning kings of 1940s horror.

Instead, Lewton created a series of poetic, atmospheric masterpieces, working with directors Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise and Mark Robson (Wise and Robson both apprenticed under Lewton; Wise, an editor who had cut, among other films, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane [1941], was anxious to direct, and Lewton gave him the chance to do so).

It all happened very quickly, and Lewton’s reign was brief but incandescent; in slightly less than four years, he produced, designed, and brought to life eleven films, of which nine comprise the body of work on which his reputation rests.

Lewton’s key films are:

Cat People (1942)
I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
The Leopard Man (1943)
The Seventh Victim (1943)
The Ghost Ship (1943)
The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Isle of the Dead (1945)
Bedlam (1946)

Click on any of the titles above for more information on these films.

Just for the record, Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie (Jane Eyre transported to the West Indies, with remarkable results), The Seventh Victim (devil worship in Greenwich Village), The Body Snatcher and Isle of the Dead are my personal favorites.

Much has been written on Lewton’s tragically short career; perhaps one of the best overviews of his films in the first major book on his work, Joel E. Siegel’s Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror; there are also no less than two box sets of DVDs of Lewton’s work, and several documentaries.

Lewton’s films aren’t really horror films at all, as everyone now realizes; they are the deeply personal testament of a literate man, steeped in the classics, who saw a chance to bring his vision of the world to the screen, and seized it with both hands. When Lewton departed from RKO, his career was essentially finished; he died at the age of 46 on March 14, 1951, after a series of heart attacks.

Lewton’s films can be seen again and again, revealing with each viewing multiple levels of depth and detail that makes his work as resolutely modern as Universal’s 40s horror films are now dated; Lewton’s world is the world we all live in, with its joys, difficulties and problems, and his films, very much a product of wartime America, resonate in our consciousness today as much as they ever did.

Below: Val Lewton in the projection room at RKO, mid 1940s.

Click here, or on the image above, for a detailed list of Lewton’s films.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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