Friday, August 26, 2011

Albert Lewin

Albert Lewin

Since there is no website devoted to the films of Albert Lewin, hopefully this page will aid those looking for basic information and introduce Lewin to those unfamiliar with him.


Albert Lewin (1894-1968) was a screenwriter and film producer who directed six films. Those six did not place Lewin in the top rank of directors. Instead, Lewin has even been sometimes called arty and pretentious. But Lewin's films do have their champions: Martin Scorsese arranged for a new print of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman to show at the 2008 New York Film Festival. Ultimately, though, the Lewin films are cult items. Even so, in a deeply-commercial Hollywood, in Lewin, it had a real art-lover and intellectual at the helm of both production and filmmaking.

Born in Brooklyn to poor Jewish parents, Lewin was a high school valedictorian, and through scholarships, went on to become a Phi Beta Kappa as an undergraduate, a Masters in English literature from Harvard, and a PhD candidate at Columbia University. There, he completed all his work except for writing the dissertation. He then spent a year teaching at the University of Missouri. Through friends, he obtained jobs in New York as both a film reviewer and a script reader. In 1923, he traveled to California for Samuel Goldwyn just as MGM was being founded. By 1927, Lewin was the head of MGM's script department, and by 1929, Lewin was a producer.

During the 1930s, Lewin produced Red-Headed Woman, China Seas, Mutiny on the Bounty, and The Good Earth. With the death of his mentor Irving Thalberg, Lewin quit MGM and moved briefly to Paramount before he started his own production company and produced So Ends Our Night and his first film as a director, The Moon and Sixpence.

During this time, he used his position as a film producer to meet and befriend many artists and authors and he used his earnings to build a vast art collection. He even commissioned a 6-bedroom house from architect Richard Neutra (two images of which are shown below). In 1959, Lewin suffered a heart attack that kept him from making films after which he moved from California to New York to live out his final decade.



So far, only two books have been written about Lewin: Albert Lewin by Patrick Brion, written in French, and Botticelli in Hollywood--The Films of Albert Lewin, by Susan Felleman, written in English:

The Moon and Sixpence

The Moon and Sixpence (1942) is based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, who in turn based his book on the life of Paul Gauguin. It's the story of a highly-mannered turn-of-the century London stockbroker who breaks with convention and becomes a painter. In the process he leaves his job and his wife, steals the wife of a friend but then leaves her too, and then he finally leaves civilization altogether to live in Polynesia. He paints only for himself, not for society, and he leaves instructions to his native wife to burn all of his works after he dies.

A low-budget film, the tale of this forceful, iconoclastic painter was a surprise financial and critical success (Lewin later wrote that he thought the film was going to be a flop). Audiences may have been intrigued by the story's sex and the main character's misogyny, and, perhaps, they saw something heroic in the main character's rebellious, anti-social life choices.

In any case, the film itself established certain basics that became staples of Lewin's cinema thereafter. The first basic is a concern about art and with painting in particular. All six of Lewin's films will make some reference to painting. Several will have a "Lewin painting" in them, one key work that is highlighted within the film. While The Moon and Sixpence was shot in black and white, the paintings in it are shown in color, a device that Lewin will use twice more when showing the "Lewin painting" in his two other black and white films.

A second basic concern, at least found in Lewin's first three films, is with the end of the 19th century. I'm not exactly sure what the fin-de-siecle means to Lewin but all six of his films, even those which take place in the modern era, are set outside of America. Perhaps Lewin's concern is not so much with this particular time period as it is with the past in general or with the exotic and fantastic which require Lewin to place his films at some distance from the modern America surrounding his audience.

A third concern that marks Lewin's first three films as a sort of trilogy is that each features a male character who is cynical, jaded, decadent, hedonist, misogynist, and amoral (I know, quite a combination). In all three cases, that dark character is portrayed by George Sanders, whose persona as a dominating elite figure adds to and is also further developed by the films.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield) as painted by Henrique Medina

Dorian Gray's corruption as painted by Ivan Albright

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) is set in London during the 1880s. The film is probably the best known of Lewin's six features and it's the quintessential Lewin film in that it takes in all of his concerns with art and moral decadence along with elements of horror and the supernatural.

According to Susan Felleman, the character of Dorian Gray discovers selfishness when he falls in love with his mirror image in a work of art. This sudden narcissism perverts his original good-guy altruism into hedonism and leads to his moral downfall. As much as Lewin himself loves art and fills his frames with pianos, paintings, statues, Art Nouveau prints, and even a Balinese dancer (of the Devi Dja troupe that also appears in The Moon and Sixpence), art, in this context, is presented in its shadowy, negative aspect as something which captivates, controls, and dooms while it holds out an unobtainable romantic ideal.

This message still doesn't invalidate Lewin's belief in the positive power of art (his film itself is positive art meant to remind people not to follow the same path as Dorian). The question raised is one of art's influence. Portrait paintings glorify the ego and may be seen as, at least in this context, as producing a negative effect.

Dorian's portrait also includes the rendering of the statuette of a cat. The extent of art's power over humanity is made explicit when George Sanders links the cat statuette with one the cat gods of ancient Egypt. Dorian takes both the cat statuette and the physical painting home with him. The film continues to reference the cat statuette. Shot compositions tend to include it and even place it in the foreground. Later, Dorian reads a quote about cats and one of the film's characters says it thought the statuette's eyes moved. The implication in all of this is that the source of the magic that allows Dorian to look young while his portrait becomes ravaged comes from within the statuette. Lewin will return to this idea of art possessing malevolent magical forces in his later films.

The cinema, as a two-dimensional medium, has always had a problem with depth and surface. One conventional way of communicating depth involves the audience "reading" and interpreting the facial gestures of the actors. But since Dorian Gray is a story about a deceptive surface, that is, about a pretty boy with a heart of evil, Dorian's interior emotions do not show on his face. Lewin gives us a fair number of close-ups of Dorian and Hurd Hatfield intentionally looks stiff and expressionless so we can read no emotion from him. His face becomes like a mask. To underline this point, actual masks can be seen as decor on the walls of the pubs Dorian frequents (the upper class walls of Dorian's home and those of the people he dines with feature mirrors and more portrait paintings which, too, might be seen as masks or frozen expressions). Additionally, all of Dorian's debaucheries are depicted off screen which is another way of saying you can't get the whole story from the surface.

Rather than read surfaces, Lewin suggests we read his images symbolically. Interestingly, the symbolism in the film is blatant and obvious as if Lewin is telling the audience that this is how they should approach watching the film. The masks are one symbol. The statuette of a knight on a horse is another. Dorian knocks it over on its side and leaves it in that position throughout the period of his debaucheries, but when he is determined to make up for his past sins, he picks the statuette up and rights its position.There is the butterfly that Sir Henry captures as he seduces Dorian with his ideas. It's a symbol of Dorian. But it's also a representation of the female genitalia. As Susan Felleman points out in her book, the series of dissolves between seeing the butterfly in the dish and seeing it mounted and propped up against a statuette suggest an androgyny that can be applied to Dorian as well. The figure of a noose is another symbol (it can be seen in the painter's studio, Dorian is "noosed" by a coachman's whip, Dorian's friend draws him with a noose twice, and Dorian's would-be assassin carries a small cord in the shape of a noose). Just like the clock that chimes (yet another symbol) when Dorian's fiance mentions happiness, the noose is a foreshadowing of the doom to come. When a bar-girl asks the assassin what would he would do if he found Dorian, the man doesn't answer verbally but tightens the noose he holds. Moments later the bar-girl announces verbally that the man is trying to kill Dorian. Lewin is saying that even the most low-life "lowbrow" can understand the reading of symbolic gestures and therefore any cinema audience should be able to read a film through such symbols as well.

The Private Affairs of Bel Ami

The "Lewin painting": Max Ernst's The Temptation of St. Anthony

The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947) is based on a novel by Guy de Maupassant and is set in Paris during the 1880s. It's basically the story of a man who uses women to advance himself. In the original novel, he succeeds at this triumphantly, but in Lewin's more Hollywood version, Bel-Ami must be punished for his moral transgressions. Before that happens, however, Lewin offers the audience an evil cad and dandy the equal of the decadent men of his previous two films. Although the decors are rich with art once more and although the film contains a "Lewin painting" shown in a color clip, the art is not as central to the story as it was in the previous films. Decor, lighting, and framing become the more significant tools through which Lewin communicates his themes. That said, the painting itself does seem to follow the lines of the other "Lewin paintings" in that it casts a spell over its owner and its depiction of a fallen Saint Anthony beset by demons speaks truth to Bel Ami when he sees it.

The film contains two moments that supersede the whole, one comic and the other downright chilling. The first moment is set up through a series of details. Bel-Ami writes a newspaper column. His friends feed Bel-Ami false information for him to publish that allows them to become rich. These friends neglected to let Bel-Ami in on their scheme and he doesn't profit from it though he certainly would like to. In a wonderful moment of the pot calling the kettle black, when he learns he's been excluded from their riches, he decries, "Those scoundrels!"

The chilling moment involves the deathbed scene of Bel-Ami's friend. The friend is dying surrounded by his wife and Bel-Ami. The man dies. And, in front of this corpse who isn't even cold yet, Bel-Ami and the newly-minted widow make plans for a tryst. Hollywood morality or not, Lewin somehow gets away with this moment of extremely dark sexuality.

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman

The Man Ray-designed chess set that Lewin borrowed for the film

The "Lewin painting" (in its second appearance) by Ferdie Bellan

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) is set in Spain in 1930 (as indicated on a banner at a racing car's speed test). It marks a departure from the Sanders trilogy in several ways. First, Pandora features an original script by Lewin rather than one which is a literary adaptation (Lewin's The Living Idol will also be a Lewin original). Second, it is set more or less in modern times. Third, the entire film is in color not just those brief moments where the paintings appear. Fourth, the main character is no longer a cynical, decadent male who uses sex for personal gain or pleasure but is a female seeking true love. In fact, Lewin's last three films, in color, featuring female protagonists, and each dealing with the supernatural, can be seen as their own trilogy, a sort of feminine inversion of the previous three Lewin films. Pandora specifically can be seen as a sort of anti-Dorian Gray in that when Pandora sees her mirror image in the "Lewin painting" it makes her lose her initial cruelty and selfishness and become aware of things far beyond herself. This is the power of art in its positive rather than negative aspect.

In Dorian Gray, Dorian attacks his portrait and as a result, it changes. Pandora, too, attacks her painting and as a result, it changes as well (though not as supernaturally). As in Dorian Gray, Pandora's portrait appears twice in two different forms (actually it appears a third time restored to its initial appearance, eternally recurring as it were), one as a likeness and the other as a more abstract image, reflecting Pandora's change from herself in her present life into a myth or an eternal spirit that can continually reincarnate.

Pandora has the choice of three men: a race car driver, a bullfighter, and a cultured painter. In Lewin's art-lover's world you can guess which one she ultimately falls in love with, the traditional he-men being unable to transport her to the ecstasies that an artist can (LOL). Of course, this extraordinary painter is also supernatural, being the legendary immortal Flying Dutchman. This links Pandora's search for love with the transcendent and eternal that are missing from "regular" men and the mundane modern world. Setting Pandora in modern times allows Lewin to contrast the modern with the past and he includes a highly-satiric episode where drunken revelers cavort amongst ancient ruins showing us that the modern simply cannot measure up.

But it's neither the modern nor the antiquated that Lewin is stalking here. In a phenomenal moment, the moment in the film when Pandora consummates her love, Lewin shows us the sands of an hourglass freeze and stop falling and then the hourglass itself cracking. Love and human sacrifice stop time and transcend both the modern and ancient altogether to reach the magical and heavenly. The mythological Pandora was responsible for bringing evil into the world, but through this Pandora, the negative power of art and the evil spirits that use art to enter the world (the basic premise of The Picture of Dorian Gray) are not released at all, quite the contrary (in the "Lewin painting" Pandora's box is held but is definitely closed). Given how dark the Sanders trilogy could become at times, Pandora, in contrast, is remarkably positive and spiritual.


Saadia (1954) is finally set in the present, though in French Morocco. Saadia and the Lewin film that follows it, The Living Idol, are less satisfactory films than Lewin's previous four. Lewin wrote a script based on the life of the painter Goya and another Pandora-like tale based on Faust but neither script was filmed. Although there is no way to tell, those films seem as though they might have been better productions than the two films Lewin completed. That said, both Saadia and The Living Idol deal with topics of interest to Lewin and are certainly related thematically to the rest of his work.

At first, Saadia appears to be a story about the conflict between science and superstition as a doctor tries to wrest a woman, Saadia, from the clutches of a sorceress named Fatima. The film also implies that Fatima's attachment to Saadia is possibly a lesbian one, and, throughout the film, Fatima is associated with images of fire relating to her jealousy and anger over losing Saadia to men (in one provocative image of Fatima before a campfire, her vagina seems to erupt into flame). Fatima magically invokes a plague that becomes the main concern of the film as Saadia risks her life to obtain the plague serum after it has been captured by bandits. But, as it turns out, the film's basic conflict isn't between science and superstition at all but between white and black magic. [White magic is defined as magic you use to help others while black magic is defined as magic you use against others for your own personal gain.] After the doctor's friend, the tribal leader, is wounded protecting Saadia from the bandits, it turns out that the doctor's scientific medicine simply cannot save him. It is only through the intervention of group prayer that he survives.

Although the film posits the supernatural over the rational and materialistic, it still seems to favor Western civilization over Oriental barbarism. Paintings figure in every Lewin film and here the tribal leader is a painter who also drives a modern convertible (unlike, as in Pandora, here, the modern is seen somewhat favorably against the traditional). The doctor is a European man of medicine who also plays the piano. The film's heroes are cultured men associated with the arts. The two men are also both interested in Saadia, but, being civilized, both are willing to give her up to the other man if need be without conflict. In contrast, the bandits' leader, Bou Rezza, is a mutton-eating lecher who forces himself on Saadia and is willing to let innocent people die of the plague. His bandit followers are no better. Bou Rezza is also associated with fire, a destructive force that ultimately consumes both him when his tent burns and later Fatima (though filmed, the scene of her burning at the stake was cut by MGM).

Fatima is also associated with art through the primitive voodoo-like doll and later a stolen sketch of the doctor that Fatima uses to cast spells. However, as the antagonist, Fatima is hardly modern, cultured, or civilized. Lewin suggests as he did in The Picture of Dorian Gray and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman that art has a magical power which can be used for good or evil.

Susan Felleman suggests that there is little difference between the tribal leader and Fatima in their obsession over art objects representing Saadia (his painting of her, her statuette) except that the tribal leader hasn't the primitive belief in magic that Fatima has and so his use of art to dominate Saadia is less powerful. If correct, then what Lewin is saying is that Western civilization may be "nicer" and more domesticated but it's also "weaker" than the primitive. This idea echoes Carl Jung who announced that the uncanny (basically magic) was banned from the rational, scientific world and therefore didn't "work" any longer. For Lewin, primitive magic does exist but that still doesn't mean he endorses the primitive. What he endorses is a return to white magic, a "civilized" magic as it were, where prayer and community defeat the darkness of Fatima's black magic.

The Living Idol

The Living Idol (1957) is set in Mexico. Juanita, an archaeologist's daughter, is frightened by seeing the idol statue of a jaguar. This is the first of several other incidents involving jaguar symbols or real jaguars. These events lead a colleague of the archaeologist, Dr. Stoner, to conclude that Juanita is being stalked by an ancient jaguar spirit possibly because she is the reincarnation of a woman who was once ritually sacrificed to the jaguar god and that the god wants a "sacrifice" once again. Dr. Stoner forces a confrontation with the jaguar spirit so that it may be defeated and leave Juanita alone to live out a normal life. However, while the jaguar spirit is after Juanita, it is also willing to take substitute sacrifices along the way and pursues more than Juanita alone. To clarify that point, in both the flashback to the ancient sacrifice and in the scene of the modern jaguar attack, both sacrificial victims are scratched on their left cheek by the jaguar's paw.

Lewin called The Living Idol a "high-brow horror film" but it's more high-brow than horror as the jaguar spirit is never really shown but only implied and talked about. This suggests that Lewin's inclusion of the "horrific" is less about the horror itself than it is a departure point for Lewin to discuss morality or the role that primitive beliefs, religion, and the supernatural still play in the modern world. In that sense, Lewin's films are more like lectures about art and philosophy topics that fascinate him (and betray his roots as an academic).

Along these lines, there is a sequence in the film where Dr. Stoner is shown lecturing to his students about the history of human sacrifice (mentioning the wicker man of the druids decades before it would become the focus of another high-brow horror film). Lewin directly addresses human sacrifice in his films but seems ambivalent about it. It's a key issue in Pandora, where the characters' willingness to sacrifice for each other is seen as a positive. In The Living Idol, however, it's viewed negatively and is precisely the event everyone is working to avoid.

The lecture sequence in The Living Idol includes the moment where the "Lewin painting" appears, in this case, in the lecture slide images painted by Carlos Merida specifically for the film. However, the main art-related topic of the film isn't painting this time. Nor is it the piano music that Juanita plays in one scene (echoing the doctor's civilized piano playing in Saadia), nor the poetry she writes (Lewin also wrote poetry when he was younger), nor modern architecture (as represented by exteriors of the University of Mexico City). Here, the main art concern, echoing the voodoo-doll like statuette in Saadia, is sculpture, or rather, "skullpture" as Dr. Stoner writes it on the blackboard during the lecture scene (stating that sacrificed human skulls served as the basis for early art busts). This directly relates art and primitive belief systems and places the film's jaguar statue in a similar position to the supernatural cat statuette from Dorian Gray.

And yet, even though Lewin is once again dealing with art's "supernatural" power over people in its negative aspect, I don't see Lewin, as a lover and collector of art, as someone who really endorses exorcising demons through idol smashing. The art work is only a symbol, the messenger or container of the spiritual force. In Saadia, Lewin has already said that protection from negative forces requires that one invoke positive forces.

Both Saadia and The Living Idol end in the same way, with a wedding, followed by a final shot of a statuette. In Saadia, that statuette is the doll that Fatima has used to cast spells over Saadia. In The Living Idol, it is a pre-Columbian statue of a jaguar. The implication of seeing the negative symbol again in both endings is this: white magic may have won a happy ending in the case of this individual story but the black magic is still out there waiting another opportunity to emerge so the struggle against it must continue.

The Unaltered Cat

After Lewin had a heart attack in 1959 and was ordered by his doctor to give up film production, Lewin worked on two film scripts and a stage play that were never produced. He did manage to complete and publish one last work, the novel The Unaltered Cat. The book is about a group of academics dealing with the deathbed confession of another academic who relates the story that his second wife was a were-cat.

Were-cats are typically the subject of horror tales but, as with his other works involving the supernatural, Lewin doesn't really treat the subject as a horror story. If anything, the story is an allegory about adultery and promiscuity (as the were-cat has kittens with the un-neutered house cat of the title) that links the book to the misogynist view of women in the first three Lewin films. Also, Lewin seems more interested in the lives of the academics than in creating any sort of chill up the spine. If there is any kind of horror story in there, it really doesn't matter that much. It's merely a hook that brings you into the company of these people and offers something a little less mundane to think about than the same book without it.

In her book on Albert Lewin, Susan Felleman dismisses The Unaltered Cat by saying it "reads like a dinner-table conversation at a faculty club--sometimes erudite, informative, and provocative, but too often tedious, didactic, and tendentious." And yet, it's that faculty club conversation aspect, with the characters delighting in using big words or creating puns and anagrams that, completely tangential to the story, is delightful. The book includes some wonderful observations and philosophical judgments about life and a section about the agony of being in a hospital that must have come from Lewin's own experiences of having a heart attack.

Lewin adds personal touches to his book. He has one of his characters mention reading Renoir, My Father by Jean Renoir. Renoir was a close friend who would return the favor by mentioning Lewin and The Unaltered Cat in his book, My Life and My Films. Lewin also returns to old themes and mentions the same myths and legends that are discussed in The Living Idol and, there again, he repeats a line about the cat gods of Egypt that The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Living Idol, and The Unaltered Cat all share. Art and painting are less important in this novel than they are in Lewin's films, but the book's cover offers an excuse to present one final "Lewin painting" by Lewin's old friend Man Ray.