Val Lewton: Producer as Artist?

What does a producer do?

More specifically, what did a producer do in the period of ‘Studio Hollywood’ in the 1940s?

Val Lewton was an unusual figure as a producer heading a unique ‘B’ film unit at RKO. The unit made just 11 films, several of which became surprise hits at the box office as well as garnering critical attention and going on to influence filmmakers for many years afterwards.

Three of these films are available to watch on BBC iPlayer: Cat People (1942) I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and Curse of the Cat People (1944).

Don’t be put off by the titles or the fact that these are short (70 mins) low-budget films. Lewton and his uni8 turn them into something very special as forms of the psychological thriller.

All three films have ‘female-focused’ narratives. I Walked With a Zombie is a re-imagined version of Jane Eyre set in the Caribbean and Curse of the Cat People is a completely different film to the one you might imagine from the title. All the titles were given to Lewton by RKO’s management as starting points, based on marketing ideas. Lewton simply ignored the implications of the titles and made what he considered were quality pictures.

We hope you will have time to watch all three films, but don’t worry if you only get chance to see one of them. The notes and presentation will explore Val Lewton’s approach and the ideas of the Unit’s team members, including directors Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, art director Albert D’Agostino and others. We’ll take examples from each of the three films to study and discuss.


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