Sunday, April 14, 2013

Lazy Sunday # 268: The Lewton Unit


Like most people, my taste in movies formed long before I was ever exposed to Art House films, Cinematic Masterworks and the Criterion Films catalogue.

Nevertheless, I still managed to see a lot of movies now considered among the essentials in understanding and evaluating what makes a film of artistic importance.

Many of those were made on what became known as “Poverty Row”, a group of low budget studios in the decades before television responsible for serials, westerns shot in a week and most of the melodramas, comedies and gangster films that made up the bottom half of double bills.

Among these was RKO, which occasionally released an A-list film like “Citizen Kane” but mostly stuck to a cheap and repetitive formula for what it churned out.

Early in the 1940’s, RKO acquired the services of a part-time writer named Val Lewton. Lewton had knocked around Hollywood for years after arriving from his native Ukraine.

He had written a couple of pulp novels and some porn to pay the rent and then cadged a job writing second unit scenes for David O. Selznick, which included the famous sequence of Confederate wounded lying in the vast Atlanta railyard.

RKO offered him $250 a week to produce that kind of iconic imagery in their horror movies. But they had some rules.

Lewton’s “Unit” or crew could not exceed a budget of $150,000. They had to deliver a film of 70-75 minutes to fit the accepted bottom half running time of a double bill.

What’s more, all the films had to be shot in-studio using only the standing sets were available and the “Monster” in the story could never be seen because monsters cost too much to do well.

Perhaps most restrictive of all, the studio would supply a pre-tested title they were sure an audience would flock to see. No already written script. Just a title.

It was a prescription for a predictable and probably forgettable final product. But Lewton took the parameters not as a set of creative handcuffs but the opportunity to see how far the imaginations and skills of his stable of artists could stretch.

From 1942 – 1946, he produced 11 films for RKO that have become classics including “Cat People”, “I Walked With A Zombie” and “Bedlam”.

Boris Karloff, who starred in three Lewton Unit films credited the producer with “rescuing me from the living dead and restoring my soul” after the actor couldn’t buy work when the Frankenstein franchise ended.

A change in studio hierarchy eventually ended Lewton’s phenomenal run and a subsequent heart attack prevented him from being able to work full time at another studio. But his mark on film history had been made.

Recently, I took a course in the ways Hollywood has traditionally responded to technological change and a couple of the Lewton Unit films were used to exemplify how the studios learned to use and then embrace Sound to achieve its artistic goals.

One of these was a film I’d never seen, “The Ghost Ship”. And I was stunned at the power the Lewton Unit’s desire to overcome their restrictions had in creating both an overbearing sense of dread and a satisfying movie experience.

A lot of filmmakers today feel hamstrung by not only rapidly changing technologies but having to compete with movies made at budget levels they can never hope to have.

But what any good filmmaker has in abundance is imagination. And the power of imagination overcomes all obstacles.

Youtube offers “The Ghost Ship” in its entirety and you should watch it there in full screen mode to get the complete effect.

Continue to believe in creative solutions and - Enjoy Your Sunday.

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