Sunday, September 20, 2009

Manny Farber on Val Lewton

The death of Val (Vladimir) Lewton, Hollywood's top producer of B movies, occurred during the final voting on the year's outstanding film contributors. The proximity of these two events underlines the significant fact that Lewton's horror productions (Death Ship, The Body Snatchers, Isle of the Dead), which always conveyed a very visual, unorthodox artistry, were never recognized as "Oscar" worthy. On the other hand, in acclaiming people like Ferrer, Mankiewicz, and Holliday, the industry has indicated its esteem for bombshells who disorganize the proceedings on the screen with their flamboyant eccentricities and relegate the camera to the role of passive bit player.

Lewton always seemed a weirdly misplaced figure in Hollywood. He specialized in gentle, scholarly well-wrought productions that were as modest in their effects as his estimate of himself. Said he: “Years ago I wrote novels for a living, and when RKO was looking for a horror producer, someone told them I had written horrible novels. They misunderstood the word horrible for horror and I got the job." Having taken on the production of low-cost thrillers (budgeted under $500,000) about pretty girls who turn into man-eating cats or believe in zombies, Lewton started proving his odd idea, for a celluloid entertainer, that "a picture can never be too good for the public." This notion did not spring from a desire to turn out original, non­commercial films, for Lewton never possessed that kind of brilliance or ambition; it came instead from a pretty reasonable understanding of his own limitations. Unlike the majority of Hollywood craftsmen, he was so bad at supplying the kind of "punch" familiar to American films that the little mayhem he did manage was crude, poorly motivated, and as incredible as the Music Hall make-up on his Indians in Apache Drums -- the last and least of his works. He also seemed to have a psychological fear of creating expensive effects, so that his stock in trade became the imparting of much of the story through such low-cost suggestions as frightening shadows. His talents were those of a mild bibliophile whose idea of "good" cinema had too much to do with using quotes from Shakespeare or Donne, bridging scenes with a rare folk song, capturing climate with a description of a West Indian dish, and in the pensive sequences making sure a bit player wore a period mouth instead of a modern lipsticky one. Lewton's efforts not infrequently suggested a minor approximation of "Jane Eyre".

The critics who called Lewton the "Sultan of shudders" and "Chillmaster" missed the deliberate quality of his insipidly normal characters, who reminded one of the actors used in small-town movie ads for the local grocery or shoe store. Lewton and his script-writers collaborated on sincere, adult pulp stories which gave sound bits of knowledge on subjects like zoanthropia or early English asylums while steering almost clear of formula horror.

The Curse of the Cat People, for instance, was simply for the over-conscientious parent of a problem child. The film is about a child (Ann Carter) who worries or antagonizes the people around her with her daydreaming; the more they caution and reprimand, the more she withdraws to the people of her fantasies for "friends". When she finds an old photograph of her father's deceased, psychopathic first wife (Simone Simon, the cat woman of an earlier film), she sees her as one of her imagined playmates; the father fears his daughter has become mentally ill and is under a curse. His insistence that she stop daydreaming brings about the climax, and the film's conclusion is that he should have more trust and faith in his daughter and her visions. Innocuous plots such as these were fashioned with peculiar ingredients that gave them an air of genteel sensitivity and enchantment; there was the dry documenting of a bookworm, an almost delicate distrust of excitement, economical camera and sound effects, as well as fairy-tale titles and machinations. The chilling factor carne from the perverse process of injecting tepid thrills with an eyedropper into a respectable story, a technique Lewton and his favorite script-writer, Donald Henderson Clarke, picked up during long careers of writing sex shockers for drugstore book racks. While skittering daintily away from concrete evidences of cat women or brutality, they would concentrate with the fascination of a voyeur on unimportant bric-a-brac reflections, domestic animals, so that the camera would take on the faintly unhealthy eye of a fetishist. The morbidity carne from the obsessive preoccupation with which writers and cameramen brought out the voluptuous reality of things like a dangerously swinging ship's hook, which was inconspicuously knocking men overboard like tenpins.

The Body Snatchers

Lewton's most accomplished maneuver was making the audience think much more about his material than it warranted. Some of his devices were the usual ones of hiding leading information, having his people murdered offstage, or cutting into a murderous moment in a gloomy barn with a shot of a horse whinnying. He, however, hid much more of his story than any other film-maker, and forced his crew to create drama almost abstractly with symbolic sounds, textures, and the like that made the audience hyper-conscious of sensitive craftsmanship. He imperiled his characters in situations that didn't call for outsized melodrama and permitted the use of a journalistic camera -- for example, a sailor trying to make himself heard over the din of a heavy chain that is burying him inside a ship's locker. He would use a spray-shot technique that usually consisted of oozing suggestive shadows across a wall, or watching the heroine's terror on a lonely walk, and then add a homey wind-up of the cat woman trying to clean her conscience in a bathtub decorated with cat paws. This shorthand method allowed Lewton to ditch the laughable aspects of improbable events and give the remaining bits of material the strange authenticity of a daguerrotype.

Val Lewton with Boris Karloff on the set of Bedlam

Unfortunately, his directors (he discovered Robson and Wise in the cutting department) become so delirious about scenic camera work that they used little imagination on the acting. But the sterile performances were partly due to Lewton's unexciting idea that characters should always be sweet, "like the people who go to the movies" -- a notion that slightly improved such veteran creeps as Karloff, but stopped the more talented actors (Kent Smith, Daniell) dead in their tracks. Lewton's distinction always came from his sense of the soundly constructed novel; his $200,000 jobs are so skillfully engineered in pace, action, atmosphere that they have lost none of the haunting effect they had when released years ago.

--Manny Farber (April 14, 1951 / The Nation)

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