Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Jeonju Film Festival II: Val Lewton

On the second day of the festival I saw the Kent Jones documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows along with the Lewton-produced The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson, 1943). Being in South Korea, I was unable to see the Lewton documentary when it aired on TCM. It is an intriguing piece of criticism in arguing for the producer as auteur, and performs this task quite well. The documentary was narrated and produced by Martin Scorsese, and on a meta-level it can be seen as a producer-authored work; it is hard not to see the film as part of Scorsese's history of cinema documentaries as well as being a work of criticism by Jones.

The one reservation I have about the film is that it leaves the debate around Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur hanging. Jones includes interview footage of Tourneur and clearly implies that they were both auteurs of Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and The Leopard Man (by comparison, Lewton is positioned as the author of the other RKO horror films to a much greater extent than directors Mark Robson and Robert Wise). It is disappointing that Jones did not bring this up and pursue the question more explicitly. It would have added a needed edge to a project that it useful enough but rarely as illuminating as one would have hoped for.

The Seventh Victim remains a very effective horror film, a work not as well known as Tourneur's films with Lewton because of the lack of a known director but just as unsettling. It is more lacking in story than either Cat People or I Walked With a Zombie, with the romance angle particularly sudden and disjointed, even by Hollywood conventions. But the main concern is with the same themes of those films: innocence/corruption, and even significantly rationality/the supernatural. It is remarkably sophisticated on these topics, which makes the sillier aspects of the story stand out even more. The ending remains one of the most shocking in Classic Hollywood (it seems unlikely it would have been approved with a larger budget). The film also gains in resonance with a knowledge of Lewton and the other RKO horror films.

I think The Seventh Victim also looks forward to many later psychological horror films, such as the work of Roman Polanski. As we were leaving the theater, my wife commented that it left her with a disquieting feeling reminiscent of Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968). In Korean, this feeling is called isanghae (이상해). Given the greater emotional and expressive range of the Korean language, this may be a better description of the Lewton effect than I can offer.

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