Born Vladimir Leventon on May 7, 1904 Russian
Died March 14, 1951 in Los Angeles, California - United States
Who was Val Lewton?
Lewton's fame in the 21st century rests upon his string of eleven films for RKO from 1942-1946, which is but a fraction of time out of his whole creative career. He also wrote (at least) nine novels, 5 non-fiction books, many novelizations for film magazines, short stories, poetry, radio-serial scripts, freelance and salaried work as a journalist in New York City, and later a story editor, and assistant to David O. Selznick in Hollywood (Lewton's first screen credit is on Selznick's film A Tale of Two Cities, 1935).
As Selznick's assistant, Lewton doctored scripts and acted as an all-purpose literary expert, especially regarding Russian literature. He was instrumental in most of Selznick's projects during his time there from 1934 - 1942. For example, Lewton contributed scenes to Selznick's most famous drama, Gone with the Wind - and like most of his work with Selznick, without screen credit. Other efforts by Lewton impacted Selznick's film company, for example Lewton first noticed Ingrid Bergman (in the stage play version of Intermezzo) and that led to Selznick bringing her under contract. Lewton also performed more mundane chores such as using a stop watch to test how long movie audiences spent in the bathroom during screenings of Selznick movies.
Lewton employed the young writer Peter Viertel (later novelist and screenwriter famous for the book and movie White Hunter, Black Heart) while at Selznick's and was friends with Peter's mother Salka, who along with Greta Garbo, was a nexus of the Russian and European actors and film-makers in Hollywood. Lewton also lived across the street from William Faulkner, who, according to legend, was rescued once by Lewton after drunkenly getting caught inside a chicken coop.
At RKO, Lewton films made good box office and subsequently he wanted to be promoted to "A" production films, something he was promised would eventually transpire, but instead Lewton's future projects all foundered following the death of RKO boss Charles Koerner in 1946. Turmoil embroiled the studio at this time, along with problems over foreign film distribution and other financial issues due to dropping audience counts in the years after the end of World War II. In November 1946, Lewton became ill, which was at first attributed to exhaustion, but then discovered to be the result of a heart attack.
Not long after a time away from RKO for recovery, Lewton decided to resign and to move to Paramount which had offered him an improved contract with "A" level film budgets. At Paramount, he wrote scripts, none of which were put into production with his writing, and then he produced one unsuccessful film (My Own True Love) which failed once it got to theatres. Lewton then moved to M-G-M, resulting in Please Believe Me, a film more successful than his Paramount movie, but not well received critically.
During his time at M-G-M, Lewton made agreements with two of the directors he had worked with at RKO: Mark Robson and Robert Wise. The three men discussed putting together an independent film studio to be called Aspen Productions. While Lewton was finishing his contract at M-G-M, the three mapped out a first film project based on a story centering on civil rights issues. Months passed with scripting work going back and forth, and then Robson and Wise (through an attorney) informed Lewton he was being ejected from Aspen in place of a different third party. (Since his time at RKO, Lewton had been subject to bouts of paranoia and frustration, both conditions well-founded upon facts according to interviews with Lewton associates that have appeared in the volumes on Lewton's career.)
After M-G-M, Lewton was offered a contract at Universal, where he did script work (again, not produced) but was attached to an adaptation of a Western novel ("Stand at Spanish Boot") to produce. The resulting film, Apache Drums, is considered the closest Lewton came in his later career to duplicating the quality of his films at RKO, and is reminiscent of the innovation and care from Lewton's earlier films.
Though pleased with his contract at Universal, Lewton decided to accept an offer from Stanley Kramer to come to his independent film company to help in producing a slate of six titles, with Lewton assuming control of three. Lewton took time off to rest before beginning the new venture, but bouts of gallstone attacks was followed by a second heart attack. Leaving him in a very weakened state, he experienced a third heart attack not long afterward and died in hospital.
About this web site
About this web site: in 1997 I began adding pages to geocities about Val Lewton and his films, only to discover that Ken Yousten had already got to the www first and was doing it so much better than I could. So I instead concentrated on the only Lewton film I had real repeat familiarity with (I Walked with A Zombie). Later, Yousten's resource-rich web site went offline with his death. I developed a more Lewton-centric site (called "lewtonsite.com") which was based off of my research hours at the manuscript division at the Library of Congress. That old site is now being transformed into the present version online - vallewton.org