When David O. Selznick needed someone to edit the meandering script of Gone With the Wind, he gave it to Val Lewton. And it was Lewton who added the now-famous long, wide shot of the Atlanta rail depot showing the casualty of war. And when Selznick needed someone to edit a script for a British director’s first American film, he tapped Lewton. That film, Rebecca, would earn Hitchcock his only Oscar nomination. To this day, when sound editors want to manufacture a scare on screen, they refer to the “Lewton bus.”
Yet, Val Lewton isn’t quite the household name he ought to be. A Russian emigre, he became a naturalized citizen in 1941, just before America entered World War II. RKO Studios had just released Citizen Kane, the most expensive flop in Hollywood history at the time. They needed popular, modestly-produced films to buoy the company’s finances. Lewton was hired on to create a catalog of horror films to compete with Universal’s recent hits. He had to keep each within a $150,000 budget, less than 80 minutes long and the studio got to name and market them however they wanted.
Today, Lewton’s films are seen as prime examples of low budget horror that rely on simple lighting and strong storytelling rather than special effects makeup or schlocky monsters.
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