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Scorsese chronicles classic horror film producer in new documentary

NEW YORK - 'Very often,' says Martin Scorsese, '(to) anybody who will listen to me, I'll start talking about a picture.'

The latest conversation piece for Scorsese is the low-budget, WWII-era horror film producer Val Lewton. Scorsese has produced the new documentary 'Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows,' which he also narrates.

Written and directed by film critic, archivist and festival programmer Kent Jones, the film premieres at 8 p.m. Monday on Turner Classic Movies and is followed by a marathon of Lewton's films.

The documentary came out of casual discussions between Scorsese and Jones, who have known each other since 1991 and have collaborated on other film projects. It's Jones' first film as the sole director, but one of many docs for Scorsese.

'We were talking about films and we said, 'You know, we should do something about that one day,' Scorsese says. 'We've done other things, too, to try to point the way to certain kinds of films that were made in the past to younger people.'

In the mold of legendary producer David O. Selznick (for whom he was an assistant), Lewton was so thoroughly involved in his films as to constitute a stamp of authorship - which is usually claimed by directors.

A Russian immigrant, Lewton worked his way up through Hollywood to eventually run a low-budget horror division of RKO, the studio that had previously released Orson Welles' films, most famously 'Citizen Kane.'

'Genius was out,' Scorsese narrates in the documentary.

But Lewton turned out to be an unusually brilliant filmmaker. Despite meager budgets and, as Scorsese says, 'terrible titles,' he churned out 11 films for RKO in the '40s, including the cult classics 'Cat People' (1942) and 'I Walked with a Zombie' (1943) - both directed by Jacques Tourneur.

Tourneur, whose film noir 'Out of the Past' (1947) is revered, was integral to establishing Lewton's simplistic style and melancholic, psychological tone.

'Lewton is really the force behind all of these films,' says Scorsese. 'But maybe the combination of (Lewton and Tourneur) brought out the best in each other in those two pictures.'

Though often classified as horror, Jones believes Lewton's dark films were less genre convention than a 'personal response to what was happening around him': WWII, the immigrant experience and the struggle for artistic success in Hollywood.

Scorsese recalls watching 1943's 'The Leopard Man' as an 11 or 12 year old at the St. Mark's Theater in New York.

'That was the only film where the psychological tension got so strong that I had to leave the theater,' says the director. A second trip elicited the same response, right around an especially eerie and moody scene in which a woman escapes a tomb. 'The murmurs were the thing,' he adds.

Scorsese says that while making his Academy Award-winning film 'The Departed,' he watched Lewton's films continuously and found inspiration, particularly for the police station scenes and those in which Matt Damon's character silently waits for response on a walkie-talkie.

Lewton and Tourneur's 'Cat People' is famous for creating fright and tension, often without showing the pursuing panther. One scene in which Simone Simon's character hears footsteps behind her on a dark, quiet street is especially renowned.

'What's happened is it's gone the other way in our society,' Scorsese says. 'We have to show everything and hear everything. Sometimes it works, but in the majority of cases, it's too noisy. ... The audience is becoming inured to everything - satiated.'