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Posts Tagged ‘Val Lewton’

Jean Renoir on Val Lewton

Saturday, December 7th, 2013

Renoir worked briefly with Val Lewton on Woman on The Beach (1947).

As he observed in a 1954 interview, “I’ll say a few words about Val Lewton, because he was an extremely interesting person; unfortunately he died, it’s already been a few years. He was one of the first, maybe the first, who had the idea to make films that weren’t expensive, with ‘B’ picture budgets, but with certain ambitions, with quality screenplays, telling more refined stories than usual. Don’t go thinking that I despise ‘B’ pictures; in general I like them better than big, pretentious psychological films they’re much more fun. When I happen to go to the movies in America, I go see ‘B’ pictures. First of all, they are an expression of the great technical quality of Hollywood. Because, to make a good western in a week, the way they do at Monogram, starting Monday and finishing Saturday, believe me, that requires extraordinary technical ability; and detective stories are done with the same speed. I also think that ‘B’ pictures are often better than important films because they are made so fast that the filmmaker obviously has total freedom; they don’t have time to watch over him.”

You can read more about Renoir’s thoughts on this by following this link.

The Final Fade Out – 75% or More of Silent Films Lost Forever

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

I have a new article in Cinespect on the loss of silent films; read the entire essay by clicking here.

As I write, “completed in September 2013, but just generally released today, David Pierce’s report The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912–1929, sponsored by The Council on Library and Information Resources and The Library of Congress Washington, D.C., tells a grim tale, though most film historians and archivists have known that the news wouldn’t be good for a long time. But the shock here is how bad it really is. As the report’s introduction by James Billington notes,

‘Pierce’s findings tell us that only 14% of the feature films produced in the United States during the period 1912–1929 survive in the format in which they were originally produced and distributed, i.e., as complete works on 35mm film. Another 11% survive in full-length foreign versions or on film formats of lesser image quality such as 16mm and other smaller gauge formats.

The Library of Congress can now authoritatively report that the loss of American silent-era feature films constitutes an alarming and irretrievable loss to our nation’s cultural record. Even if we could preserve all the silent-era films known to exist today in the U.S. and in foreign film archives—something not yet accomplished—it is certain that we and future generations have already lost 75% of the creative record from the era that brought American movies to the pinnacle of world cinematic achievement in the twentieth century’ (vii-viii).

This is the result of a number of factors: the death of the silent film as a commercial art form, and the resultant neglect of the film negatives by the Hollywood studios; nitrate film decomposition, which plagues all films made prior to 1950; but mostly, it’s a ringing indictment of the fact that we simply don’t value our cinematic heritage as much as we should, and now, it’s gone forever. We can’t get it back, no matter what we do. Unless some long forgotten print or dupe negative turns up in a vault somewhere, these films have been consigned by neglect and indifference to perpetual oblivion, and even if such materials do turn up, they will probably be in very poor shape.”

The article also includes link to a pdf to the complete report; essential reading for anyone interested in cinema.

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 numerous books and more than 70 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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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