At a time when horror flicks are budgeted in the millions, it’s refreshing to take a look back at the career of Val Lewton, a producer who was able to make quality pictures with less than half the funds that his competitors had in hand. Relying only on intelligence and studio trickery, he helped rescue RKO pictures when the company was in financial disarray.
In this documentary we follow Lewton’s career from his early days as writer to his ascent into Hollywood as producer David O. Selznick’s assistant (he is credited for having created the famous depot scene in Gone With The Wind), which led to his contract with RKO in 1942.
Man in the Shadows predictably focuses on his fruitful work as head of the studio’s B-movie unit, beginning with the smash hit Cat People (1942), which went on to make more than $4 million in the box office. That “lucky little film,” as Lewton later wrote, gave him freedom with his productions, as the studio preferred to concentrate its attentions on their more expensive films.
Before Lewton’s untimely death at age 46, his team, which included directors Jacques Torneur and Robert Wise, went on to make a string of films, such as I Walked With A Zombie and The Leopard Man (both 1943), all produced quickly due to pressures from studio bosses. Nevertheless, those films were intelligently made, with poignant messages and very little blood. As Japanese director Kyoshi Kurosawa comments in Man in the Shadows, “as a filmmaker, to see how he was able to achieve that [with so little] — it just kills me.”