Russian-American film producer (1904-1951). He was born Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon in Yalta, Russia. His mother left his father when he was still a child and took the kids with her when she moved to Berlin. They moved to the United States in 1909 and settled in Port Chester, New York. He changed his name to Val Lewton and jumped into journalism as an early career, but lost a job as a society reporter with the Darien-Stamford Review when he was just 16 years old -- his bosses found out he'd made up a story about a truckload of chickens dying during a New York heat wave. Despite this setback, Lewton studied journalism at Columbia and began a writing career.

He worked for one of MGM's publicity offices in New York City. He wrote promotional and ad copy and put together novelizations of popular movies. He wrote 18 books, some fiction, some nonfiction, and some poetry. One of his books was a popular pulp novel called "No Bed of Her Own," which was adapted into a movie called "No Man of Her Own," starring Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. The book's success allowed him to quit his job at MGM, but his later books weren't as successful, so he moved to Hollywood to write screenplays for David O. Selznick, including parts of the scripts for "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Gone with the Wind."

In 1942, Charles Koerner, the head of RKO Pictures, put Lewton in charge of the studio's horror unit. He was given complete creative freedom, with three stipulations: 

  1. Each film would have to cost less than $150,000 to make.
  2. Each film would have to run less than 75 minutes long.
  3. Koerner would supply Lewton with the film titles he'd have to use to create the movies -- and Koerner's taste in horror film titles tended toward the lurid.

And the first title Lewton was given was the utterly ridiculous phrase "Cat People." 

Lewton wasn't interested in making crap B-movies. So he hired Jacques Tourneur, an excellent director who shared Lewton's artistic sensibilities, and they assembled a low-key supernatural film noir that emphasized characterization and mood while still managing to deliver effective scares. There wasn't a big budget for special effects, so they had to accomplish everything with shadows, suggestion, and subtlety. One of the most notable scares was a lengthy scene where the heroine is apparently being stalked by a were-panther. As the tension reaches a peak, she is startled by an angry, shrieking hiss -- of a braking bus. This technique of accelerating suspense that's broken by a mundane jump scare was one of the earliest examples of the so-called "Cat Scare" and became known in Hollywood for many years as a "Lewton Bus."

From then on, Lewton used every last bit of that creative control he'd been given. While he wasn't considered a heavy-handed producer, he did insist on reviewing and sometimes rewriting the final drafts of the scripts -- though he rarely took a writing credit for those drafts, and when he did, he used one of his old pseudonyms, Carlos Keith. He also gave his directors plenty of detailed notes about how he wanted scenes shot. 

"Cat People" was released in 1942 and was an unqualified success. Its budget was a very frugal $134,000, and it earned almost $4 million, which made it RKO's highest earning film of the year. Having earned the studio's trust, Lewton didn't have to worry about too much interference from the higher-ups. He followed up "Cat People" with a quartet of films in 1943: "I Walked with a Zombie" (basically "Jane Eyre" with a supernatural Caribbean setting and long considered one of the most beautiful and poetic horror films), "The Leopard Man" (a tense thriller about a serial killer and an escaped leopard), "The Seventh Victim" (one of the few Lewton films to suffer from interference from executives -- a number of scenes were cut post-production, making the narrative confusing. Nevertheless, this one is noted as having one of the darkest downer endings in film history), and "The Ghost Ship" (a thriller about a supposedly haunted ship -- while a box office success, it was pulled from theaters and unavailable for 50 years after Lewton was sued for plagiarism by a pair of playwrights who claimed it was based on a script they'd submitted to him). 

Tourneur was promoted to making A-list films after "The Leopard Man," and Lewton put young directors like Robert Wise and Mark Robson in charge of some of his films -- both Wise and Robson credited Lewton's influence with some of their future success. 

Lewton decided to make fewer horror films, so his three 1944 movies focused on other genres. "The Curse of the Cat People" was a domestic drama that used the actors and characters from "Cat People." "Mademoiselle Fifi" was a patriotic period piece based on the short stories of Guy de Maupassant. And "Youth Runs Wild" was a preachy film about juvenile delinquency.

The rest of Lewton's time at RKO was devoted to horror and thrillers, this time starring genre legend Boris Karloff, who was pleased to be making movies that didn't require him to put on Frankenstein makeup. Lewton made three movies with Karloff: "Isle of the Dead," "Bedlam," and "The Body Snatcher," based on the notorious Burke and Hare murders. 

Koerner died in 1946, and as often happens when there's a leadership transition at a film studio, a lot of projects and a lot of bigwigs get shuffled off the lot. In this case, Lewton was let go by the studio -- and not long after he'd suffered a minor heart attack. He still had plenty of connections around Hollywood, so he was still able to get work -- he wrote a script (which ended up not being used) for a biopic of Lucrezia Borgia and produced "My Own True Love," "Please Believe Me," and "Apache Drums." He tried to start a production company with Wise and Robson, but they had a falling out over what they wanted to produce. He was reportedly despondent at the direction his career had taken. 

Producer Stanley Kramer offered Lewton a job as an assistant for a series of films at Columbia, but after a pair of heart attacks, Lewton died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in 1951. He was just 46 years old. He left behind scores of fans, including luminaries like directors Martin Scorsese, Carol Reed, and Michael Powell, along with a legacy of quiet, shadowed horror that still has the power to seize the mind and the heart of viewers. 

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Bright Lights Film Journal

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