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02.06.08

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SPEEDY DELIVERY: Wannabe adoptive parents Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman audition knocked-up sasspot Ellen Page in 'Juno.'

Martin Scorsese Presents Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows

One Disc; Warner Home Video; $19.98

By Michael S. Gant


Producer Val Lewton's career was as indelible and compacted as Preston Sturges'. From 1942 to 1946, Lewton oversaw the creation of nine exceptional horror films (and two oddball dramas). Working on minimal budgets at RKO, which was fed up with the "boy genius" excesses of Orson Welles, Lewton scored a surprise success with Cat People, and followed up with luridly titled but subtle masterpieces of atmosphere and suggestion, most notably I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man, The Curse of the Cat People and Isle of the Dead. And then studio politics and declining health finished him off—Lewton died in 1951, age 45. This Turner Classic Movies documentary, narrated by Martin Scorsese, traces some of Lewton's recurring images to his family background as the son of Russian immigrants from Yalta by way of Berlin. There is a sense of troubling events taking place in pools of darkness just out of sight, a mood that would be magnified by the horrors unleashed during World War II. The documentary includes some fascinating tidbits—I didn't know, for instance, that Lewton was the nephew of silent-screen sensation Alla Nazimova and wrote pulp fiction before turning to filmmaking. He was also a driven, moody man who couldn't sleep nights, remembers his son in an interview. The best material comes from an interview with ex-pat French director Jacques Tourneur, who worked on Cat People, Leopard Man and Zombie. Tourneur, a down-to-earth type, reveals that Lewton gave him a taste for a dreamy, poetic film style that became something of his trademark. The result is seen here in a beautiful clip of the swimming-pool scene from Cat People, in which a woman is driven almost insane with fear from nothing more than a few ominous growls and the shadows of rippling water on the walls. The documentary can also be bought in the indispensable Val Lewton Horror Collection box from Warner, which bundles all nine of Lewton's classics.


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