When I moved to New York in 1977 there were quite a few revival movie theaters with great repertory programming, including the Bleeker Street Cinema, Carnegie Hall Cinema, the Regency, Theatre 80 St. Marks (with its odd projection from behind the screen), and the Thalia in my neighborhood on the Upper West Side (and a few years later the grandly refurbished Metro at 99th and Broadway). These theaters are all gone now, but revivals are still alive in the city, thanks mainly to Film Forum, the Walter Reade Theater, the Museum of Modern Art, and also the Museum of the Moving Image and Anthology Film Archives. And there’s an ever expanding availability of old films via DVD, Blu-ray, Netflix and Amazon streaming, Turner Classic Movies, and more.
I probably spend as much time seeing old films as I do new ones. Here are my favorites from last year.
About Elly – Asghar Fahradi, 2009 (Iran). Last April the Walter Reade Theater showed Asghar Fahradi’s first four features, none of which are currently available on DVD, unfortunately. Fahradi is the director of A Separation (2011), which definitely deserved the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film it received last year. A Separation is a film that reveals more and more every time you see it. About Elly is nearly as strong, which is saying something. The set-up is fairly simple: a group of old college friends has gone to the seashore for a vacation. The only new member, Elly, was invited by another woman who wants to set Elly up with one of the men who is recently divorced. Tensions develop with an outsider on the scene, but then she disappears, vanishes completely. In the frantic efforts to find out what happened, things get increasingly out of control. About Elly is a real thriller, a mystery, and absolutely fascinating to watch. It’s a knock out.
All Quiet on the Western Front – Lewis Milestone, 1930. This is one of the great anti-war films, on par with Grand Illusion and Paths of Glory. I hadn’t seen it before, and it was quite a revelation. A key scene in the film is when Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres) returns home on leave from the front. Paul was an eager, gung-ho recruit when he enlisted, but is now totally disillusioned by what he has seen and experienced. He visits the classroom where we saw him at the beginning, and the professor who preaches the glories of war and dying for the fatherland to his young students. Paul lays it out for the students and the teacher, who practically hoot him out of the room. It’s a sobering scene, because not much has changed in the intervening eighty-two years. Everything Paul says is just as vital today as it was then.
Barry Lyndon – Stanley Kubrick, 1975. As close as he would get to realizing his Napoleon film project, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, which he wrote and produced as well as directed, is an amazing piece of work. His films tend to last, to grow in stature, and this one is no exception. Though I’ve seen Barry Lyndon many times over the years, the opportunity of seeing a digital restoration on the big screen at Walter Reade was too good to pass up. The following scene, a recital that devolves into a knock-down fight between Barry and his stepson, Lord Bullingdon, is a good example of Kubrick’s total control.
Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du paradis) – Marcel Carné (director); Jacques Prévert (writer), 1945 (France). If I had to come up with a list of the greatest films of all time, this would be on it. A monumental piece of work, even more impressive when you realize it was made during the German occupation of France. Over a period of ten years, Carné and Prévert made seven films together, including Port of Shadows (1938) and Le Jour se lève (1939). This film, set in the Parisian theatrical world of the 1820s and 30s, telling the story of a beautiful actress and the four men who love her, is their masterpiece.
Christmas Holiday – Robert Siodmak, 1944. This deceptively titled film is about as bleak an example of film noir as you can imagine. Not only that, it casts the great dancer Gene Kelly as a sociopathic liar and murderer. The director, Robert Siodmak, made films in his native Germany before the rise of Nazism drove him to Paris and then Hollywood. There he made twenty-three films starting in 1941 before returning to Europe in 1952, among them some of the greatest film noirs of the period, including The Killers (1946) and Criss Cross (1948), as well as this little gem, which I hadn’t seen before Film Forum’s expansive 100th anniversary Universal Pictures series last summer. Here’s the complete feature.
Grand Illusion – Jean Renoir, 1937. Along with Children of Paradise, this is one of the greatest films ever made. It was released last year in a stunning new restoration. Renoir was one of the great humanist filmmakers, and he really put it all into Grand Illusion. I get an incredible rush of feeling at the ending every time, on par with the door closing on John Wayne at the end of The Searchers or the Rosebud sled burning up at the end of Citizen Kane.
The Lady Vanishes – Alfred Hitchcock, 1938. Unbelievably, I hadn’t seen this before. Over a period of several months last year, the IFC Center downtown showed a wide range of Hitchcock films on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings. This was one of them. The Lady Vanishes is an incredibly entertaining film, from the long opening where a multitude of characters is introduced while waiting overnight for a snowbound train, through the complicated working out of the mystery, to the look of joy on Dame May Whitty’s face (Miss Froy, the lady of the title) as the camera rushes in on her to put an exclamation point to the ending. Here’s the complete feature.
Nothing But a Man – Michael Roemer, 1964. This is a film I’d heard of for years, but had not seen. Set in Alabama in the 1960s, Nothing But a Man tells the story of Duff Anderson (Ivan Dixon), a black railroad worker, and his relationship with Josie Dawson, a preacher’s daughter (singer Abbey Lincoln in her film debut). It’s really quite extraordinary, a universal study of the life and love of characters who just happen to be black.
On the Town – Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1949. This is one of my favorite movie musicals, probably second only to Singin’ in the Rain (1952). If you’ve never seen it, it’s the story of three sailors on a 24-hour pass in New York City and their tireless efforts to find girls and have fun. It’s great. It was also unusual at the time for shooting a number of sequences on location in the city, instead of the studio settings most often used in musicals. The exhilarating opening number illustrates this to great effect.
Port of Shadows (Le Quai des brumes) – Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert, 1938 (France). This is the second film on this list directed by Carné and written by Prévert. I saw it when it was shown as part of a Jean Gabin series at the Walter Reade Theater in 2002, but had forgotten much of it. Gabin was the Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable of French cinema. He’s in his prime in this film. Port of Shadows is poetic and fatalistic, a fine example of early noir.
Repulsion – Roman Polanski, 1965. A deeply unsettling film, and rather an act of bravery for Catherine Deneuve. At age 22, she had just appeared in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg the year before, and now was playing a sexually-repressed French woman named Carol living with her sister in a cramped apartment in London. Over the course of the film she has an escalating mental breakdown, seriously unraveling, and killing a few people in the process. This was Polanski’s first English-language film and he really went all the way with it. Polanski has a way of showing the ordinary and mundane in a very sinister light, much like David Cronenberg after him. He also portrays Carol’s breakdown in very concrete terms; when she imagines men’s arms emerging from the walls to grope at her as she walks down the apartment hallway, we see this as though it were actually happening, not an hallucination. Then there’s the skinned rabbit on a plate that sets out for days decomposing and attracting flies.
Rio Bravo – Howard Hawks, 1959. I’d seen this in ’59 while a freshman in high school and thought it was great. When I saw it some years ago there was a lot I didn’t like, such as static dialogue scenes and studio-bound settings. But I know it has a lot of champions, including Quentin Tarantino, so when the Museum of the Moving Image programmed it to play on their big screen, I decided to take another look. What I found was that almost none of the stuff that had bothered me before did this time around, or at least wasn’t important enough to matter. Sure, Walter Brennan’s character Stumpy is still pretty irritating, but the movie works. John Wayne plays the definitive John Wayne character, and Dean Martin’s performance as the town drunk given a chance to resurrect himself is quite something.
The Suspect – Robert Siodmak, 1944. This is the second of three films Siodmak made at Universal in 1944, the third being the dreadful, unwatchable Cobra Woman (though it seems I have watched it). I’d not seen The Suspect, and don’t think I’d even heard of it, which surprised me, since I love film noir. In this film, set in London in 1902, Charles Laughton plays Philip Marshall, a henpecked accountant who falls in love with a young stenographer and may or may not have caused the death of his wife Cora, who dies after falling down the stairs in their home. Laughton gives a really amazing performance in this role. The film is a tight 85 minutes, and very satisfying. (The poster at left seems to be the result of the marketing department trying to sell the film as something more lurid and modern than it actually is.)
The 39 Steps – Alfred Hitchcock, 1935. I’d seen this before, but seeing it again during the IFC Center Hitchcock series last year made me realize how great Hitchcock’s earlier films could be. Robert Donat’s character, Richard Hannay, is an innocent man on the run, forced to find out what’s behind what’s happening to him. This is a theme Hitchcock would return to over and over. The 39 Steps is immensely enjoyable and covers a lot of ground in only 86 minutes. Here are two beautiful posters for the film which have an almost painterly quality. The one on the left gives the film a romantic feel, while the one on the right emphasizes the thriller aspects.
The Wild Bunch – Sam Peckinpah, 1969. The Museum of the Moving Image was showing this film the same day I saw Rio Bravo. I hadn’t intended to stay, but then thought, my God, how could I not. The Wild Bunch was released in 1969 while I was with the Air Force at a base in northeast Thailand, the same year as the first moon landing, Woodstock and its evil twin, Altamont. I heard a lot about the film and was dying to see it, having really loved Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (still my favorite Peckinpah film). But it was a couple of years before I had the chance, which was at a 16mm screening on campus at the University of Iowa. Over the years I’ve seen it multiple times. The Wild Bunch may not as great as I once thought it was, but it still ranks very high in my book. It’s been hugely influential, and a lot of revisionist Westerns followed in its wake, for better or worse. Plus it has one of William Holden’s two greatest performance, the other being in Network (1976).
All of these films are available from Netflix and Amazon, with the exception of About Elly, Christmas Holiday, and The Suspect. – Ted Hicks