Studied journalism at Columbia University.
He was a fertile writer, if slapdash. During the 1930s he published several novels, wrote news articles, and radio scripts. One of these novels, No Bed of Her Own, became the film No Man of Her Own (33, Wesley Ruggles). He worked for the MGM publicity department and from 1933-42 he was on David Selznick’s staff. That involved a variety of tasks: writing, directing some crowd scenes for A Tale of Two Cities with Tourneur, recommending Ingrid Bergman and Intermezzo to his boss, and dissuading Victor Fleming from shooting a dinner table sequence of Gone With the Wind.
He left Selznick to join RKO as a producer and from 1942-46 he fortified the studio, the horror movie, and the reputation of the B picture. It is clear, too, that he filmed no script unless he had reworked it to his own satisfaction: Cat People (42, Tourneur), with Simone Simon amid a screen dark with feline images; the masterly sixty-eight- minute I Walked With a Zombie (43. Tourneur); The Leopard Man (43. Tourneur), so overtly violent that producer and director apologized for its crudeness; marvelous amends made with The Seventh Victim (43, Mark Robson) about a devil cult, with Jean Brooks balefully beautiful as the member who kills herself; The Ghost Ship (43, Robson); The Curse of the Cat People (44, Robert Wise and Gunther von Fritsch)—a lovely rendering of child psychology; Youth Runs Wild (44, Robson), an adventurous departure in subject, about teenage reaction to the war; a Maupassant translation, Mademoiselle Fifi (44, Wise); Isle of the Dead (45, Robson), with Boris Karloft; The Body Snatcher (45, Wise), from Robert Louis Stevenson, with Karloff as Cabman Gray; and Bedlam (46, Robson) based on Hogarth’s Rake in the asylum. Most of these films were shot in four weeks with variable acting. They still intrigue and frighten, because of Lewton’s originality, directorial skill, and those RKO craftsmen: photographer Nicholas Musuraca, art director Albert D’Agostino, and set decorator Darrell Silvera.
Lewton went to Paramount for one bad movie—My Own True Love (48, Compton Bennett)—and to MGM for another, Please Believe Me (50, Norman Taurog). But at Universal he was responsible for one cheap, worthwhile Western, Apache Drums (51, Hugo Fregonese). He died on the point of taking up a job as associate producer with Stanley Kramer.
There was a time when James Agee, speaking to MGM executive Dore Schary, called Val Lewton one of the three most creative men in American films. That may have been too fanciful a claim to make Schary reappraise Lewton’s place at the studio. Equally, it would be a disservice to Lewton’s achievement to regard him as more than a maverick producer, eccentric if only because he was involved personally in several movies that restored the psychological basis of the horror genre, fust as it seems likely that he brought many ideas and a general theme of withheld horror to his films, it is unlikely that he possessed the concentrated artistic ambition or the studio stamina to direct or produce more penetrating films.
The good things in Lewton productions were unexpected and against the grain of B pictures. Their visual originality lay in the oppressive use of shadow to disguise cheap sets—a device that RKO may have learned from Citizen Kane. The brooding fascination with morbid subjects—which seems to have been Lewton’s own contribution— is beautifully realized by that concealing cloak, but it remains B-picture philosophy, justified by the more-or-less inventive handling of action devised by Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, and Robert Wise.