Producer. Nationality: American. Born: Vladimir Ivan Leventon in Yalta, Russia, 7 May 1904; emigrated to the United States at age seven. Education: Attended Columbia University, New York. Family: Nephew of the actress Alla Nazimova. Married Ruth (Lewton); one daughter, one son. Career: Writer: novels published under his own name and as Carlos Keith, Cosmo Forbes, and Herbert Kerkow; worked in MGM publicity department; 1933–42 —editorial assistant to David O. Selznick; also wrote radio scripts ( The Luck of Joan Christopher , 1933); 1942—in charge of low-budget RKO production unit. Died: Of heart attack, in Hollywood, California, 14 March 1951.
Films as Producer:
Cat People (J. Tourneur)
I Walked with a Zombie (J. Tourneur); The Leopard Man (J. Tourneur); The Seventh Man (Robson); The Ghost Ship (Robson)
Mademoiselle Fifi (Wise); Youth Runs Wild (Robson); The Curse of the Cat People (Wise and von Fritsch)
The Body Snatcher (Wise); Isle of the Dead (Robson)
My Own True Love (Bennett)
Please Believe Me (Taurog)
Apache Drums (Fregonese)
By LEWTON: fiction—
Improved Road , Edinburgh, 1925.
The Cossack Sword , Edinburgh, 1926, as Rape of Glory , New York, 1931, as Sword of the Cossack , London, 1932.
The Theatre of Casanova , New York, 1927.
The Women of Casanova , New York, 1927.
Manual and History of Cosmetics , New York, 1930.
The Fateful Star Murder , New York, 1931.
The Unemployed Working Girl in the Present Crisis , New York, 1931.
No Bed of Her Own , New York, 1932.
Where the Cobra Sings , New York, 1932.
4 Wives , New York, 1932.
Yearly Lease , New York, 1932.
A Laughing Woman , New York, 1933.
This Fool, Passion , New York, 1934.
By LEWTON: other books—
Panther Skin and Grapes (verse), London, 1923.
The Green Flag of Jehad (nonfiction), New York, 1926.
The Rogue Song (novelization of screenplay), New York, 1930.
Rasputin and the Empress (novelization of screenplay), New York, 1933.
On LEWTON: books—
Siegel, Joel, Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror , London, 1972.
Telotte, J.P., Dreams of Darkness: Fantasy and the Films of Val Lewton , Urbana, Illinois, 1985.
Bansak, Edmund G., Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career , Jefferson, North Carolina, 1995.
On LEWTON: articles—
Sight and Sound (London), May 1951.
Bodeen, DeWitt, in Films in Review (New York), April 1963.
Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1965–66.
Cinema (Los Angeles), March 1966.
Photon (New York), no. 1, 1969.
Films in Review (New York), March 1970.
Focus on Film (London), Winter 1972.
National Film Theatre booklet (London), July-September 1973.
Action (Los Angeles), January-February 1976.
Monthly Film Bulletin (London), July 1981.
Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 10, no. 1, 1982.
Post Script (Jacksonville, Florida), Winter 1982.
American Classic Screen (Shawnee Mission, Kansas), May-June 1983.
Cinématographe (Paris), May 1984.
Filmcritica (Florence), vol. 35, no. 348–349, October-November 1984.
Classic Images (Indiana, Pennsylvania), January 1985.
In Aspects of Fantasy , edited by William Coyle, Westport, Connecticut, 1986.
In Forms of the Fantastic , edited by Jan Hokenson and Howard Pearce, Westport, Connecticut, 1986.
Cineforum , vol. 31, no. 304, 1991.
Midnight Marquee , no. 44, Summer 1992.
Washington Post , section D, 30 January 1993.
New York Times , section C, 2 July 1993.
Village Voice , vol. 38, 6 July 1993.
Saada, Nicolas, "Universal Contre RKO," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), April 1994.
Brunas, M., "The Cat Behind the Door!" in Scarlet Street (Glen Rock), Fall 1995.
Fischer, D., in Cinefantastique (Forest Park), no. 6, 1996.
Ambrogio, A., "What if The Uninvited Had Haunted Universal or RKO?" in Midnight Marquee (Baltimore), Spring 1997.
Newman, Kim, "Bring Back the Cat: Cat People ," in Sight and Sound (London), November 1999.
* * *
A minor novelist and story editor for David O. Selznick, Val Lewton joined RKO Studios in 1942 to form a "horror" unit, producing low-budget films to compete with Universal's successful monster series. Gathering about him young but talented directors like Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, and Robert Wise, and writers like DeWitt Bodeen and Ardel Wray, Lewton put together a production group that turned out a string of critically acclaimed and financially successful films between 1942 and 1946. More than simply the producer for this group, Lewton served as a kind of creative centerpiece, overseeing every project, and contributing his considerable skills as a writer and judge of what is cinematic.
While forced to work within a number of severe limitations, Lewton did find substantial room for creativity within the horror/fantasy format. The budgets for his films typically ran to $150,000 and the shooting schedules to approximately 28 days. Whenever possible, standing sets were used and RKO contract players employed. And since the films were slated for double bills, running time seldom exceeded 75 minutes. Given these conditions, along with studio-assigned, audience-tested titles, Lewton and his coworkers were generally free of front-office interference in the design and shooting of their films. Thus when faced with an assigned title like I Walked with a Zombie , they could essentially discard the original magazine piece on which the film was to be based and instead adapt Jane Eyre to a West Indies setting, or even create a thoughtful study of childhood anxiety and fantasy out of The Curse of the Cat People . That such creative developments were largely Lewton's own doing is attested to by his coworkers on the horror unit. Not only did he often initiate specific projects, but, as his secretary notes, for each screenplay "the last draft was always his."
What is probably most distinctive about the nine fantasy films and two melodramas Lewton produced between 1942 and 1946, though, is their visual style. While most horror films of the period, and especially the Universal series, emphasized horrific appearances —wolfmen and Frankenstein monsters in exotic locales—Lewton's productions capitalized on limitation by employing suggestion, leaving portions of every shot in shadow and inviting viewers to populate the screen with whatever terrors they might imagine. As he described his guiding strategy, "If you make the screen dark enough, the mind's eye will read anything into it you want! We're great ones for dark patches." Through the strategic placement of shadows and sharp editing, viewers could thus be primed to expect an attacking panther in Cat People , even though nothing more than a bus appears, or to interpret a tumbleweed as a leopard in The Leopard Man .
This emphasis on "dark patches" represents more than just a stylistic trait, though. It points to Lewton's consistent concern with how we see and understand the world around us. Throughout the Lewton films, after all, there are characters who suffer, or cause suffering for others, because they have such a narrow perspective, one determined by their rational biases or, as with Cat People 's protagonist, their superstitious beliefs—in effect, because of certain "dark patches" within their psyches. What Lewton apparently realized is that the greatest terrors are not necessarily in our environment, but in the mind, which in turn represses our fears or projects them onto others, thereby filling the surrounding world with horrors of our own devising. Thus the play of shadows, of light and dark in these films is not simply atmospheric. If monsters do show up in them, they take in their true shape from a basic human inability to dispel the darkness inside us, or from our failure to accept those ambiguities that characterize the human world. For this reason, the Lewton films often employ unlikely, even unconventional, threatening figures, such as an anthropologist in The Leopard Man and a doctor in The Body Snatcher . Such figures of authority gone mad underscore the very fragile nature of the world we construct for ourselves.
Removed from this fantasy formula and paired with less talented directors, Lewton was not as successful. After leaving RKO to work as an independent writer and producer, he turned out only three films, none of which earned the critical praise of his earlier movies. It is that early work, and particularly the fantasy films, that would influence filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, and would prompt James Agee to praise the "gentle, pleasing, resourceful kind of talent" that Lewton brought to the movie industry.
—J. P. Telotte