Val Lewton

Haunted by Shadows

by Graeme Hurry


It is well known that Val Lewton produced some impressive films which influenced directors for decades after. Much of the subtle horror films of the fifties and even those that appear today can be traced back to Lewton either directly, of via one of the directors he nurtured, Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson and Robert Wise. However it is less well known that Lewton put many of his own fears and personality into his work. Themes can be seen which stretch from some of his earliest writing to the famous RKO 'B' movies of the forties.




Vladimir Ivan Lewton was born on the 7th of May 1904, in Yalta in Russia. His mother was the sister of Alla Nazimova and she took him to New York when he was seven. He went to Columbia University, after which he took up journalism, and wrote stories and poetry while his mother worked as a writer and translator for MGM. He wrote the novel No Bed of Her Own and even one under the counter pornographic book (called Yasmine). In 1930 he had a short story published in Weird Tales. Called The Bagheeta, the story is set in his native Ukraine and contained ideas which were to form themes through many of Lewton’s later films as it deals with a woman who shape-shifts into a leopard.

He also wrote a history of the Cossacks which was noticed by David O. Selznick, who took him on as story editor when he was setting up his own production company SELZNICK INTERNATIONAL PICTURES. One of the first films Lewton was involved in was A Tale Of Two Cities which was directed by Jacques Tourneur who was to become his first director nine years later when he Started producing his own films at RKO.

Selznick's was also the movie house which gave the world Gone With The Wind. Lewton read Margaret Michell’s book when Selznick was thinking of filming it and described it as "ponderous trash". However Selznick was hooked and the film was made. Lewton also provided a buffer between the production company and the censorship agency headed by Joseph Breen.

Hichcock bought the film rights of The House Of Dr. Edwardes, a tale of insanity and murder which was later to be renamed Spellbound. When Lewton saw the early treatments of this story it reinforced his views of the director. He said in a memo once, "we need something better and more substantial than the old-fashioned chase pictures which he [Hichcock] turns out when left to his own devices". Spellbound proved a great success for Hichcock, even if the cescorship man Breen demanded a lot of sexual symbolism to be cut from the sets designed by Salvador Dali.




In the early 40s RKO was determined to stop Universal's dominance of the horror film market, and decided to set up a ‘B’ movie unit especially for such low budget horror films.Val Lewton was offered the role of producer of these RKO films at a dinner party. However he was not sure about taking up the offer and having to leave David Selznick. He was a very loyal man and even though he was given menial jobs and was seriously underpaid, the only thing that prompted him to move was his wife’s insistance. She knew that Val wanted, and needed, the freedom to create that RKO offered.

However the freedom he was to recieve was not limitless. He was to make ‘B’ movie horrors within very strict financial constraints and they had to be under 75 minutes long. The most limiting and bizarre of the studio’s stipulations was that the titles of the movies would be given to him to write stories around. These were market pre-tested for a positive response and the first such title he was given was CAT PEOPLE. Lewton got a writer he knew from his days with Swlznick, DeWitt Bodeen and discussed the project with him. He intially was to use Algerton Blackwood’s short story, ‘ANCIENT SORCERIES’ as the basis. This would have lent itself superbly to Cimematic interpretation and could easily be re-titled Cat People. However this would have necessitated a foreign setting and apart from possible extra expense, Lewton was convinced by his director, Tournier, that for an audience to experience terror, the setting would have to be contemporary - something they could easily idenify with. So with Bodeen, Lewton came up with the love triangle - created, and broken, by the wife’s belief that passion could turn her into a black panther. The film does not fully define whether this belief was a delusion or reality, and this makes the suspense all the greater.

Cat People was made for less than $135,000 but was an instant hit with audiences. The sexual nature of Simone’s problem could have been one reason, but it is fair to say that the effective tension building forboding atmosphere of the film was new to people brought up on Univeral’s ‘show the monster as much as possible’ policy. The one scene where a real panther is seen was included against Lewton’s wishes, at the instructions of the studio, afraid of such a radical way of working.

One of the possible reasons why the story was chosen over the Blackwood one is that Lewton’s own fears were expressed in the fears of the ‘cat woman’, Simone. All through his career, and presumably before, Lewton was loath to be touched. The cerimonial back-clapping and hugging which were, and still are, an undeniable part of the entertainment business (especially in Hollywood) were not for Lewton. In fact his aversion was so well known that his collegues played a rather elaborate trick on him after the completion of shooting of one of his last pictures. Some of the cast and crew persuaded JANE RUSSELL, who had been a sensation in The Outlaw in her Howard Hughes designed bra, to take part in the prank. When the party was in full swing Jane entered in a fittingly outlawish gown and slowly walked the length of the room as the participants in on the gag cleared a path between her and Lewton. She advanced seductively, with her arms clasped behind her back, right up to the puzzled producer, and murmered huskily "Look, no hands! No hands!".

Lewton also had a fear of cats which sometimes attacked him in his dreams. Once when working late at home the screech of a cat outside frightened him so much he had to rush to the bedroom, where his wife had already gone to bed, so that he did not have to suffer the fear alone.

In the film the famous panther shadow on the wall of the swimming pool which causes a shiver of fear through the audience was actually made by Robert Wise, the editor at the time, by moving his fist in front of the light. The film like all of Lewton’s had the philosophy that the less horror seen the more the audience imagine. In an interview Lewton said: "I’ll tell you a secret: If you make the screen dark enough, the mind’s eye will read anything into it... We’re great ones for dark patches... The horror addicts will populate the darkness with more horrors than all the horror writers in Hollywood could think of."

Lewton’s second film was another where he was given the title by the studio. And with a title like I Walked With a Zombie it is surprising that he could come up with a classic understated horror movie with more than its fair share of atmosphere and tension. The story is set on Haiti and mixes the sound of voodoo drums with tragic love when a nurse arrives on the island to look after plantation owner, Paul Holland’s, wife. Jacques Tourneurs direction is excellent building tension in just the right places and achieving a dreamy photography which makes you think you’re entering a surreal nightmare.

Ramsey Campbell has suggested that, apart from the fact that the atmospheric horror pictures are cheaper to make, Lewton was influenced by The Wolf Man. This film had a literate script from Curt Siodmak but the film was spoiled to a large extent by Lon Chaney’s unimagenative acting and the studio’s insistance on seeing the monster, when the script called for it only to be seen as a reflection in water. Later Lewton managed to get Siodmak to work with him on the script for I Walked With A Zombie.

Siodmak said of Lewton; "He seemed to be a lovely guy, very erudite, very interesting. But later I gave him Donovan’s Brain to read, and when I came back to him he said, "It’s not a good book." There was already a kind of friction between us, because he liked people he could dominate. He couldn’t do it with me, because I was independent." Siodmak wrote The Wolf Man and many other Universal horror and when he was asked to compare Lewton to the Universal Producers he said; ’Oh, he was brilliant, constructive and intelligent - much more interesting than any of those Universal guys. Producers at Universal were businessmen who would see that pictures came in on time and for the money. They never contributed anything of any literary value."

In 1943 Lewton produced The Leopard Man adapted from a story by Cornell Woolrich (called Black Alibi). This, like the first two Lewton films, were directed by Jacques Tourneur who went on to use Lewton skills in films like Night of the Demon. In all Lewton films the real horror occurs inside the viewers head as the film hints at the horror in subtle ways, and this film was no different. A girl is sent out of a house to get something from the shop for her mother, but she comes back too soon and the mother locks the door and tells her to do her chore. We know there is a murderer on the loose and when the hammering on the ouside of the door stops and a trickle of blood seeps under the door the audience’s imagination works overtime. After Tourneur left, Lewton replaced him with Mark Robson who had been the editor on the previous three films. Robson directed The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam - Lewton’s last RKO horror film.

The Seventh Victim is not one of Lewton’s best having a slow pace and laughable ending, but it does conjour up the old Lewton fears from minmulist sets. Mary, a school-girl, hires a private detective to find her sister, Jacquiline, as her tuition fees have not been paid for six months. The detective is killed so Mary goes herself, into a nest of satanists who’s secrecy is sacred and who are repaying Jaccqueline for telling of their group to her psychiatrist. Her room is furnished with one chair... and a noose hanging from the ceiling. The most effective scene in the film is where a prostitute neighbour passes Jacqueline’s dool and hears the noise of a chair falling - and pays this significant incedent no mind.

The Ghost Ship was an absorbing mood-piece which saw a young man sign on to a merchant ship run by a power-crazy captain who is obsessed with authority. The captain is also neurotically unable to admit any error in handling his crew and blames all his errors on his officer who is eventually knocked out and drugged by the captain after a crewman is killed. The ‘ghost’ in the title refers to the fact that the captain tells his men that the officer is dead when in fact he’s not. So there is no supernatural elements even though there are horrific moments like the death of a seaman trapped in a chain locker and killed by the anchor chain. There is more violence in this film than Lewton’s others especially when the mute Finn (who narrates the film) frees the officer.

The Isle of the Dead is an eerie horror tale about a group of people trapped on a Greek island when quarantined there during the War of 1912. The plague spreads among them and when a cataleptic woman apparently returns from the dead with murderous intent, the Boris Karloff character concludes that vampires are loose. The film was inspired by a painting by Bocklin and although it preaches a bit too much on the plague of war there are wonderful doom laden scenes throughout the film.

Another editor who was promoted to the rank of director was Robert Wise. Initially Curse of the Cat People was directed by Gunther V. Fritsch and Wise was editing. But when there was a decision made to remove Fritsch Lewton decided to let Wise have a bash at completing the directing of the picture. Wise made such as good job he returned to direct The Body Snatcher. Robert Wise went on to direct many SF, horror and mainstream movies. Two of his best horror works were The Haunting and Audrey Rose, and both of these use the Lewton techniques of atmosphere and suggested horror.

The Body Snatcher brings Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi together for a last time in one of Lewton’s best films. Like Burke and Hare, grave robbers in Edinburgh supply bodies to hard pressed University medical schools. But what happens when there are not enough bodies? One answer is to speed up the attritian rate themselves. There are supernatural scenes which set the pulse racing but the spite between the two grave robbers increases tension nicely. The photography, filmed in a Hollywood set, is wonderfully convincing.

"He was a cultured man," Wise says of Lewton, "well-read, a writer himself, a man of great imagination. He really was a creative producer. He was very involved in all aspects of the film, the look, the texture, the costumes, the sets, everything that went on. Yet he was fully supportive of me as the director at all times, and never wanted to second-guess me or make me feel that he was constantly looking over my shoulder. He was a director’s producer in every sense of the word, a marvelous man and a tremendous creator."

Bedlam Lewton’s last film for RKO had Boris Karloff as The Apothecary General running the madhouse, Bethleham Hospital (Bedlam), with a fist of iron. When Nell Bowen, who has been a friend to some of the illtreated inmates, becomes incarserated herself. The inmates stop Karloff having his evil pleasure with her by taking over the asylum. The film was inspired by an atmospheric Hogarth print which is seen in the Title screen of the film.

He was a genius but had difficulty dealing with authority. When he was angry or upset with someone he would not shout and make demands but wear a special disgusting tie. He told this to his accountant once, stating that if anyone had sense they would know he was out of sorts with them if he was to wear that hideous tie to a meeting with them. He must have forgotten he had told this secret because a few months later he turned up to a meeting with the accountant wearing THAT tie. The poor accountant tried in vain to remember what he had done to upset Lewton.



Lewton left RKO due to a number of broken promises which meant that he never graduated to the ‘A’ movies with bigger budgets (and presumably better titles). He moved to Paramount. This was a disaster. He wanted to bring many of his crew from RKO but the new studio but Paramount would not allow it. Even worse he spent his time waiting for projects and funding to appear, and for a man so used to planning new films while tackling filming problems of the present film, this waiting was torture. The waiting was also to have a finantial cost because a producers salary came out of the budget of the movies he made, drawing a salary while waiting for a project to come to fruition meant that the budget which could be used for the next film was reduced by that amount. He eventualy made a poor film called My Own True Love in 1948. He then went to MGM and made a Deborah Kerr movie called Please Believe Me in 1951. Most people believe this to be his worst film. Then eventually he went to Universal where he made the cowboy film Apache Drums in 1951. Here Lewton found his feet again, by getting back into the low budget films he did so well. He died shortly after signing a contract as a producer with Stanley Kramer in March 1951 at the age of 46.

References :

Val Lewton The Reality of Terror, Joel E Siegel (1972) Secker & Warburg Ltd.

The Aurum Film Encyclopedia - Horror, Edited by Phil Hardy

The World Encyclopedia of Film

Hichcock and Selznick, Leonard J. Leff

The Genius of the System, Thomas Schatz

Fangoria #44

Lawrence Tucker’s Internet Page




CAT PEOPLE (1942) 74 min.

Director : Jacques Tourneur

Script : DeWitt Bodeen

Camera : Nocholas Musuraca

Starring : Simone Simon, Tom Conway, Kent Smith, Jack Holt, Jane Randolph, Elizabeth



I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) 69 min.

Director : Jacques Tourneur

Script : Curt Siodmak, Ardel Wray

Camera : J.Roy Hunt

Starring : Frances Dee, Tom Conway, James Ellison, Christine Gordon, Edith Barrett, Sir

Lancelot, Darby Jones

THE LEOPARD MAN (1943) 66 min.

Director : Jacques Tourneur

Script : Ardel Wray

Camera : Robert de Grasse

Starring : Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, James Bell, Abner


THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943) 71 min.

Director : Mark Robson

Script : DeWitt Bodeen, Charles O’Neal

Camera : Nicholas Musuraca

Starring : Tom Conway, Kim Hunter, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Elizabeth Russell,

Evelyn Brent, Hugh Beaumont


THE GHOST SHIP (1943) 69 min.

Director : Mark Robson

Script : Donald Henderson Clarke

Camera : Nicholas Musuraca

Starring : Richard Dix, Russell Wade, Edith Barrett, Ben Bard, Edmund Glover, Shelton




Director : Robert Wise, Gunther V. Fritsch

Script : DeWitt Bodeen, (uncredited) Val Lewton

Camera : Nicholas Musuraca

Starring : Simone Simon, Ann Carter, Kent Smith, Elizabeth Russell, Julia Dean, Jane

Randolph, Sir Lancelot


THE ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945) 72 min.

Director : Mark Robson

Script : Ardel Wray, Josef Mischel

Camera : Jack MacKenzie

Starring : Boris Karlof, Ellen Drew, Marc Cramer, Katherine Emery, Helene Thimig, Alan

Napier, Jason Robards


THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) 78 min.

Director : Robert Wise

Script : Philip MacDonald, Carlos Keith (Val Lewton)

Camera : Robert De Grasse

Starring : Boris Karloff, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater, Russell Wade, Rita Corday, Bela



BEDLAM (1946) 58 min.

Director : Mark Robson

Script : Carlos Keith (Val Lewton), Mark Robson

Camera : Nicholas Musuraca

Starring : Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, Billy House, Richard Fraser, Glenn Vernon, Ian Wolfe,

Jason Robards


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