Val Lewton, Cat People, Martin Scorsesce

Written by Joe D on January 15th, 2008

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Martin Scorsesce produced and narrated a film about producer Val Lewton, Val Lewton: The Man In the Shadows. It’s very good and it’s great to see an under appreciated filmmaker get his due. TCM showed a lot of Lewton’s work, especially the RKO stuff, to complement the premier of this documentary, directed by Kent Jones by the way. So much has been written about Lewton’s films, I don’t want to repeat what’s already been said but let me throw my 2 cents in. His work especially with Touneur, wise and Robson was so subtle and atmospheric, so artfully made (Nicholas Musuraca is one of the all time masters of B&W cinematography, check out Out Of The Past and Albert S. D’Agostino , one of the greatest Production Designers ever to put a fountain on a set) There’s nothing today that compares with this quality filmmaking! Nothing!
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And here’s something I noticed in Cat People. There is a transitional device almost like a fade to black and back but it’s not, it’s an optical that mimics a shadow passing in front of the camera, like a black panther wiping the lens. I’ve never seen this technique used elsewhere and I’ve never heard mention of it made by anyone. It is very subtle and because it’s used to transition from one scene to another it’s accepted as a typical fade in/out yet it creates a sense of unease that sneaks up on you, just like the rest of the film. It slowly wraps you up in a fog of suspense so suddenly you realize you’re lost, in a dark place at night and something may be following you. The documentary also tells you how hard Lewton worked. He killed himself making these films for unappreciative assholes. It’s just not right. And then Mark Robson, the editor he promoted to director, at great personal cost, screws him out of a partnership with Robert Wise and himself! They don’t give the details in the documentary but it certainly makes Mr. Robson look like a scumbag. By the way this review is part of the Val Lewton Blogathon, hosted by The Evening Class.
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How could you do it, Mark Robson?

10 Comments so far ↓

  1. Jan
    15
    2:11
    PM
    Aaron

    I don’t know who had the worse fate — Lewton, for not making any more (significant) films, or Robson, who would go on to have a routine, mundane directorial career with very few highlights (and almost all of those highlights consisted of either actors he was working with — like Kirk Douglas in Champion — or other collaborators, and never Robson himself.)

    Anyway, I think the doc was a fascinating, melancholic portrait of Lewton. Really makes you feel for the guy. What a clever use of sound design over the doc, too, although I guess most of the cues were from the RKO cycle of films.

    I also had no idea that Lewton worked with Renoir on a project! I haven’t seen the film in question, but I’m now looking forward to it.

  2. Jan
    15
    3:31
    PM
    admin

    Did you see Ghost Ship? I saw it recently and thought it very good. I didn’t know about the Renoir film either. I want to see it, Renoir is a personal hero of mine.

  3. Jan
    15
    11:58
    PM
    Maya

    “…an optical that mimics a shadow passing in front of the camera, like a black panther wiping the lens.”

    What an evocative phrase! I love it. And after as many times as I have seen Cat People, I now feel compelled to watch it all over again to see it through your eyes!

    Thanks so much for contributing to the Val Lewton blogathon.

  4. Jan
    16
    12:40
    AM
    admin

    My pleasure, thanks for hosting this great tribute to an under appreciated, influential filmmaker.

  5. Jan
    16
    7:34
    PM
    Aaron

    I haven’t seen GHOST SHIP, and I have no excuses as I own that fabulous box-set of the Lewton horror films. I just watched CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE last night, and now absolutely adore it; it’s now gotta be one of my top five films that convey the feelings of childhood unadorned (THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, obviously, would be another, as would the original INVADERS FROM MARS!).

  6. Jan
    16
    8:07
    PM
    admin

    Curse of the Cat People is a magical film. That would make a great triple bill with your other two choices. Have you ever seen Spirit Of The Beehive? It’s a pretty cool film about a young girl and Frankenstein.

  7. Jan
    16
    10:36
    PM
    Aaron

    I’ve seen SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE, and that’s another wise choice to add to this hypothetical quartet of “children’s films”. I watched it a couple of years ago after a friend had recommended it to me (it having been his favourite film) — I really need to check out the Criterion though, as the VHS left something to be desired. I’ve read that it’s one of Monte Hellman’s personal faves.

  8. Jan
    18
    3:50
    AM
    Anonymous

    I saw Beehive years ago at a revival house and it was beautifully shot, a great looking film. Criterion is the way to go with this one. .

  9. May
    7
    2:05
    PM
    keith west

    Hi Finally I found a site the has some good information on masters of horror. I was searching around and found your post Val Lewton, Cat People, Martin Scorsesce, thanks for the good info..I\’ll be checkin back soon.

  10. May
    16
    3:13
    AM
    Nabin

    There is Martin Scorsesce produced and narrated a film about producer Val Lewton, Val Lewton: The Man In the Shadows.
    It’s very good and it’s great to see an under appreciated filmmaker get his owing.

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