Twisted Hopes and Crooked Dreams: A Weekend at the Kit Noir Festival

Even people who couldn’t pick Barbara Stanwyck out of a police lineup might know noir when they see it.

Slanting shadows of Venetian blinds. Men in trench coats prowling rain-slicked streets after dark. Scheming dames with guns in their purses and murder on their minds.

Noir is surely the crossover superstar of the cinephile lexicon, with tropes and a visual style instantly recognizable in television, video games, and graphic novels, as well as films.

However, the actors, directors, and cinematographers who forged that style in the early 1940s didn’t call it film noir. Why? Because the term didn’t exist.

At Columbia University the inaugural Dr. Saul and Dorothy Kit Film Noir Festival (or Kit Noir for short) investigated the genesis of noir as a critical concept. The festival screened 8 films in total, 7 of them on 35mm. Whenever possible, the festival showed original trailers for the next film in the series, providing insight into how Hollywood sold the not-yet-labeled film noir to the public.

Noir enthusiast Gordon Kit established and funded this exploration of a “uniquely American genre” in honor of his parents. He hopes to differentiate the recurring event from other noir- or classic film-oriented festivals by focusing on critical noir studies. “I am fascinated by the historical and cultural context of films—what was happening in the world when the films were made, where did the inspiration for the films come from, and how the films reflected or impacted the culture of the times in which they were made,” Kit explains.

Within the scope of noir studies, the festival organizers decided to begin at the beginning. As MFA Film Program Administrator Soheil Rezayazdi told me, “our programmer Rob King wanted to start with the origins of the phrase itself. What were the films that inspired French critics in the mid-’40s to coin the label ‘film noir’? We settled on eight films to transport festival attendees back to that formative moment in film history, before these films of moral depravity, low-key lighting, and abject gloom had a name.”

King researched the American movies that screened in 1946 Paris, once the liberation opened the floodgates for films previously blocked by Vichy’s embargo. Enthralled by the moody, ambiguous crime dramas, French critics recognized the stirrings of something new in American cinema.

As Borde and Chaumeton wrote in their landmark study Panorama du film noir américain, “In the course of a few weeks, from mid-July to the end of August, five films followed one another on the cinema screens of Paris, films which had an unusual and cruel atmosphere in common, one tinted by a very particular eroticism.” Kit Noir screened 4 of those 5 films: The Maltese Falcon, Murder, My Sweet, Laura, and Double Indemnity.

Attending Kit Noir recreated that experience of dark discovery, the sense of an intricate web being woven before your eyes. Unlike the mid-century French critics, I’d already seen all but one of the films on the program. But, when you watch so many formative noirs in a compressed period, the connections simply refuse (like Phyllis Dietrichson’s anklet) to be ignored. The patterns—thematic, tonal, and visual—practically leap off the screen and offer you a drink.

Taken individually, they’re impressive movies. Altogether, they’re a cosmic tipping point, the event horizon of a black hole. Or maybe more like the all-consuming black pool that swallows up Philip Marlowe, so cleverly featured in the Kit Noir trailer below.


While the festival theme skewed the program towards noir’s greatest hits, some lesser-known gems crept into the mix. I was especially glad to see 2 period noirs, set amidst the artificial fog of backlot London. Although I’d heard raves about The Suspect for years, I’d never seen it until Kit Noir, since it’s difficult to get a hold of. And it was a perverse treat to bask in the extreme dread that John Brahm’s rarely shown thriller The Lodger can conjure up on a big screen.

Gordon Kit hopes that future festivals will delve more into the deep cuts of film noir. “We will undoubtedly show B films in subsequent years, but were limited to A films this year, as it was only A films that made it to Paris in 1946. As you know, some of the best noir films are B films!”

For next year’s festival theme, Kit Noir will explore Cornell Woolrich adaptations. (Although it’s early days for the schedule, I’m crossing my fingers that Deadline at Dawn, The Chase, and The Leopard Man will figure on the program.) Themes under consideration for future festivals include noir’s greatest femmes fatales, international noir (British or French), and films based on the work of Dorothy B. Hughes.

The festival has plenty of time to explore film noir’s dark corners. “The Kit Noir Festival is funded for a decade, so you can expect we’ll be back with a new slate of 35mm prints next year,” Rezayazdi says. Kit is even more optimistic: “We have a rough list of about 20 possible themes—including focusing on a noir cinematographer. Thus, we could easily run a festival beyond 10 years!”

Now that’s a trolley ride that this noir geek would like to take, straight down the line.

Some Ridiculously Long Meditations on the Films and the Program

A film noir marathon is like an exfoliant for the soul. You emerge slightly shaken, sensitive to light, and determined to stay on the straight-and-narrow, to morally detox. Maybe that’s why I rarely watch films noirs back to back!

Unfortunately, weather kept me from seeing the first Kit Noir screening (The Maltese Falcon) and travel prevented me from seeing the last (Scarlet Street). But I did attend 6 screenings out of 8 and sit in for the Q&A with Paul Schrader. I filled a whole notebook with scribbles during the screenings, so this is actually a condensed version…

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944): “I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”

I’d seen Wilder’s noir classic many times. (I’ve even GIF-ed Raymond Chandler’s cameo.) But I was unprepared for the impact of Barbara Stanwyck’s eyes on the big screen, glittering with greed, malice, and sadness. Her technique and John F. Seitz’s cinematography manage to cultivate sympathy for Phyllis largely through catch light. We never get Phyllis’s side of the story; we see her only as Walter sees her, first as a dangerous object of desire and increasingly as a nagging threat. Which is why those eyes are so important. The way they sparkle in the darkness of Walter’s kitchen tells us more about her bottled-up desperation, the bruised longing for independence that drives her to commit evil deeds, than words ever could.

On the big screen, Double Indemnity immerses you in the stark, impersonal reality of everyday life in a 1940s urban environment. Their trysts in a grocery store remind us that Walter and Phyllis’s world offers them all the romance of a bowl of cornflakes. The promise of money, with a little illicit passion on the side, must’ve seemed like paradise in that inferno of cardboard sameness. The exhilaration of Walter and Phyllis’s risky courtship throbs forth from one of the film’s most self-consciously beautiful shots—the trapezoid of light encasing Phyllis as she enters Walter’s apartment for the first time. Though she holds the promise of romance for lonely, average Walter, there’s nothing romantic about Phyllis. She’s comically pragmatic. What woman doesn’t know the name of her own perfume? What woman can’t identify the seductive pop tune she’s playing from the radio? A woman you can’t trust, that’s who.

Gallows humor is as much a part of noir as lipstick and gunsmoke. Seeing Double Indemnity with an audience made me realize just how funny it is, especially towards the beginning. Wilder charms you into thinking that everything might turn out okay, despite the inevitability of doom set up by the frame story. We’re lulled into Walter’s upbeat salesman mindset: jokey, overconfident, and unable to fathom what he’s walking into, until it’s too late.

The flashbacks gradually progress into darkness, from the filtered afternoon sunlight of Walter’s first visit to the consuming shadows of his final confrontation with Phyllis. If you compare the beginning to the end, the contrast is shocking. Thus Double Indemnity hints at the ease with which anybody can be drawn into an irreversible cycle of guilt. I knew that before, but the crushing heaviness of the final darkness spooked me in a way it never could on my television screen. That black night of regret seems to enfold you, the viewer, in Walter’s sins and warn you against any false step.

The implicit social criticism of Double Indemnity also hit home more powerfully on this viewing. In the first minutes of the film, the elderly elevator “boy” tells Walter about his inability to get insurance because of a bad heart. That’s not idle chatter. Similarly, we’re never rooting for Phyllis so hard as when she’s bawling out the Pacific All-Risk executive who’s trying to intimidate her out of her inheritance. Walter and Phyllis kill a man for his money. Yet, ironically, even they have more of a conscience than the ruthless system that they try to cheat.

The Lodger (John Brahm, 1944): “You wouldn’t think that anyone could hate a thing and love it too.”

With all due respect to Hitchcock, I find this adaptation of The Lodger infinitely scarier. In particular, the murder of Annie—as she shakes and gasps in panic, backing away from an unseen assailant represented by the juddering camera—feels 10 or 20 years ahead of its time. In a weekend full of dark movies, there was no grittier or more disturbing scene than this pitiful woman, who lives on scraps and rags, thrashing with terror in her last moments of life.

On a lighter note, character actress Sara Allgood impressed me with how much of the film she carries on her shoulders. Her conflicting motivations, intelligence, and courage drive the film forward. Given the preponderance of wicked matriarchs in noir,Allgood’s kindly, nuanced character brings a note of realism to the proceedings (after all, not everybody is evil). Her grounded, no-nonsense goodness counterbalances the violent, unhinged zealotry of the Bible-thumping killer, Slade.

Illuminated by gas lamps, fires, and candlelight, John Brahm’s bleak, expressionistic vision of Victorian London externalizes the morose, brooding mind of the eponymous character. For instance, in one suspenseful moment, flames from a stove flicker up surrounding Kitty Langley, foreshadowing the danger to her life and casting her as a burning sinner in Slade’s eyes. Brahm’s camera sometimes roves the winding cobblestone streets in eerie long takes. And sometimes it frames characters so tightly that they’re packed in like sardines. Overall, he paints a murky, confining environment where cozy parlors and fetid back alleys alike are pregnant with the possibility of unspeakable deeds.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film is the queerness of the Jack the Ripper figure. His rapturous description of his his dead, ruined brother’s beauty, and the feverish quality in the way Cregar speaks it, suggest repressed desire. Slade kills women, we understand, not only because they elicit his desire, but also because he seeks to punish the women like the one who destroyed the object of his first and deepest affection.

The contrast between Kitty’s two cheeky musical numbers exposes a certain fanatical and conflicted strain in the male gaze. As a music hall performer, Kitty displays herself for the pleasure of her audience, enjoys doing so, and profits by it. In this sense, she welcomes and owns the gaze and the desire of her male audience, rather than allowing it to own her. During the first dance sequence, a winking close up of Oberon over a parasol transmits her wry joy in her profession.

The second sequence takes on a much darker vibe, as Brahm cuts between Kitty’s routine and increasingly tight shots of Slade in the audience. As he sweats and watches agape, we can see horror and arousal in his face. His anger is not with her beauty, but with her mastery of the situation, the power she derives from performing and displaying her beauty. He hates her because other men desire her and apparently because he himself desires her.

Brahm thus probes the nature of the ripper’s violence as an attempt to destroy the power that women attain through open sexuality. At the risk of stretching this analysis too far, the flirty dance sequence, made sinister by a single spectator, links censorship to sick minds and violent perversions of desire. Brahm and just about every other director had to deal with the Production Code boys in some capacity. By wanting to eradicate a source of temptation, Brahm suggests, you reveal your own hypocrisy and frailty. Repression and fanaticism don’t lead to saintliness but to the direst cruelty.

Finally, I have to call attention to this shot from the closing chase sequence, as Slade scurries over a theater catwalk. Light shining through the slats transforms Laird Cregar’s face into an ever-changing grotesque, as though he’s morphing through a hundred different slavering manifestations of human barbarism.

Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944): “Forget the whole thing like a bad dream.”

Following on the heels of The Lodger’s Jack the Ripper, Lydecker’s not-so-repressed attraction to Macpherson and Shelby and his jealousy for Laura were all the more striking. In both films, the villains’ performances leave the viewer in doubt as to their motivations. Do they want to destroy Kitty and Laura because they desire those women… or because they desire the men that those women attract? Or perhaps both? Lydecker and Slade are tragic characters. I find it impossible to dislike them, despite the havoc they wreak on the lives of others. Lydecker wins us over with his wit and tightly-coiled, cobra-ready-to-strike energy. Slade’s aching, if off-putting, vulnerability make us feel sorry for him.

They’re also linked by similar horror movie-worthy reemergences at the ends of their respective films. Lydecker creeps like the bogeyman into Laura’s apartment from the side entrance. Slade’s arm reaches out from behind a screen to lock the door and trap Kitty unawares in her dressing room. In terms of tone, content, and even the speed of their ominous movements, these scenes seem to rhyme.

Most obviously, Lydecker’s and Slade’s painful, dramatic deaths puncture the imminent happy endings of the films’ heterosexual couples. Through heavy shadows and subtext, noir reminds us of those for whom there could be no openly happy ending back in 1944.

Laura is a movie about possessions, literal and metaphorical. “Laura loved all her things,” Ann Treadwell says wistfully in a rare non-catty moment. I’ve seen it 3 times on the big screen (once on nitrate!), and each time I pick up new details about the meticulously decorated apartments that the characters inhabit. This time I zeroed in on the homey floral pattern of the window seat cushions in Laura’s apartment, the spring-like framed flower arrangement over her mantle, and the desk chair with an elegant lyre-shaped back. We can see how dwelling in her space gives Macpherson insight into the person she is, her gentle yet refined tastes and intellect. Preminger crafts such believable rooms that we can almost smell the perfume of the “late” Laura Hunt.

I can’t believe I never noticed this before, but there’s an astonishing moment when Macpherson gratuitously opens Laura’s closet to look at her dresses, then shoves the door shut. He glares at his reflection in the closet mirror, disgusted with himself for seeking such embarrassing intimacy with a dead woman. It’s a wordless, uncomfortable moment, a few seconds that capture the tug-of-war between sensitivity and macho pride that Dana Andrews acts out so exquisitely.

As always, I appreciate how Laura’s return from the grave is pointedly un-dreamlike. The camera refuses to participate in Macpherson’s fantasy in the moment when he comes face to face with her. The scene is not a haunting resurrection. It’s not a bewitching phantom rising from the grave. It’s a worn-out woman coming home late at night in a rather unflattering rain hat and slicker… to find a strange man asleep in her living room. The film builds up Laura’s ethereal image, then introduces the more interesting real woman. This approach makes us realize how Lydecker tries to push his own narrative around her identity, reshaping her and altering her in a way she never wanted or encouraged.

In noir, the lighting design isn’t merely showing off. Light often serves a plot purpose, revealing or concealing. And Laura offers one of the best examples. The white-hot beam of the interrogation lamp washes out Gene Tierney’s delicate features and deepens Laura’s feeling of being exposed by Macpherson. That blazingly harsh light also parallels the unpleasant wake-up calls of her personal life. To move forward on her emotional journey, she has to face the ways men have disappointed her—men she loved and believed in—and shed some of her idealism. When Macpherson turns off the light, he reluctantly reveals his tenderness, dropping the awkward tough guy act. In the cool relief of that darkness, and you can really feel it in a theater, Laura and Macpherson drop their pretenses and move towards a foundation of trust. Sometimes the darkness reveals more than light ever could.

Conversation Between Paul Schrader and Columbia Professor Annette Insdorf

In 1972, future screenwriter and director Paul Schrader wrote “Notes on Film Noir,” one of the first and most influential studies of film noir in English. At the time, he emphasized style over theme and content in defining noir, partially, he says, because of a church background that privileged words over aesthetics. “I was just at that point when I was starting to realize that images could be ideas.” Now he recognizes more of a balance. “If you made a film noir in style without film noir content, I don’t think it would be recognized as film noir,” he notes.

However, don’t start throwing around the word noir around Paul Schrader, unless you’re ready to defend your terms. “I have a very rigid definition of film noir. It is a period of film history,” he said. “I believe that critical language should be precise as possible. Otherwise it has no meaning.”

Schrader and Insdorf dissected the many factors—from the influx of Jewish émigrés to American women’s forced return to domestic life after WWII—that combined to make noir a unique cultural moment. Even something as specific as the widespread use of psychoanalytic therapy in Hollywood’s wealthy and progressive community played a key role in shaping the noir canon. Schrader also pointed out the importance of technological advances: “The history of film is not the history of personalities or social movements. It’s the history of technology. As the technology evolves, the art evolves.” He highlighted the lightweight, portable cameras, used by the Five Came Back directors to film World War II, that enabled a new level of in-the-streets realism. “They were freed from the huge contraption of cinema in the studios.”

Nowadays you can be influenced by noir, but your film is not noir, as far as Schrader’s concerned. “Saying film noir in color for me is like saying an animated film with [live] actors.” (As a believer in the paradox of “film noir in color” myself, I’d love to hear him debate this with Martin Scorsese.)

And what of the apparent links between Schrader’s own work, particularly Taxi Driver, and noir? “I don’t think Taxi Driver is film noir,” he insisted, before recalling the inspiration for the famous script, as well as other key works in his career:

Taxi Driver comes from Pickpocket. I was a critic. I was living in a house with UCLA film students who were all making a film for Roger Corman. I just couldn’t get interested in what they they were doing. I thought it was such a trivial thing. Whereas I was part of the revolution. And then I went to see this film which was released in Los Angeles about 10 years after it was released in France. And I was just mad about it. I walked out and I said, ‘I could make a film like that. That’s just a guy who sits in his room and he writes, then he goes out and he does some stuff, then he comes back in his room and writes some more. Then he runs into to someone and he comes back in his room. I could do that film.’ And a year later I wrote Taxi Driver. And that has now morphed into 5 films about a man in his room, from Taxi Driver to American Gigolo to Light Sleeper to The Walker and now to First Reformed.”

As for modern noir homages, Schrader also gave us an amusing bit of a scoop: he’s trying to remake Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. “I wanted to make it with Justin Timberlake, but I lost him,” he lamented.

Asked to comment on the current state of filmmaking, Schrader confessed, “I have no idea what to call this period that we’re in.” He not only cited the lightning-fast technological evolutions—so that a film is out of date by the time it hits theaters—but also major shifts in how we conceive of style and continuity:

“One of the things that has changed, I think, is that directors no longer feel the need to have a consistent style. That’s a choice. So many things that we used to think of as rules we now think of as choices. Everything’s fungible. So, in the past if a character wore a red jacket and walked from the exterior into a room and you cut inside the room and he comes in wearing a green jacket, that used to be called a mistake. Now it’s called a creative choice. And audiences understand the creative choice.”

Murder, My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk, 1944): “A dirty, stupid little man in a dirty, stupid world. One spot of brightness on you, and you’d still be that.”

I tend to be a bit too hard on this film. Something about it doesn’t quite add up for me, between Marlowe’s drugged-up nightmare fantasia, the cutsey romance, and some talky scenes that try to iron out a plot that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense anyway. And yet, it was the screening I enjoyed the most, due to its reassuring screwball ending, absence of ruminative guilt, and off-kilter visuals. While Murder, My Sweet usually looks like noir, it doesn’t always feel like noir.

One notable exception is the foggy rendezvous where Marriott is killed. Lit from below with a face like a waxwork dummy, Marlowe drives through the rainy night. His voice-over reinforces a mood of eerie suspense: “I felt it in my stomach. I was a toad on a wet rock. A snake was looking at the back of my neck.”

Echoing Marlowe’s metaphor, the textures of what we’re seeing take on a slick, ghoulish, reptilian look. The humidity in the image is so strong, I was worried it was going to frizz out my hair. Moonbeams shoot through the rising mists. Marlowe, hapless toad he is, looks around bug-eyed into the dark. The unease condenses like moisture in the air. Again, this is a film I’ve seen many times. But believe me when I say I jumped out of my chair at the vicious snap of the blackjack against Marlowe’s skull.

Murder, My Sweet wants to bamboozle you. Like Marlowe, the audience is constantly confronted with multiple flashy distractions that pull us away from the big picture. Remember that blinking reflection of Mike Marzurki’s gloriously ugly mug in Marlowe’s window? We can also see Marlowe’s reflection, Marlowe’s body, and the street signs outside. Or let’s recall Helen Grayle’s entrance in Marlowe’s apartment. Again, we get Marlowe’s reflection, Marlowe’s body, but this time it’s Helen’s tiny, glittery figure shimmering in the mirror.

In Murder, My Sweet, the image is a puzzle. All the elements are there, but scrambled differently from the spatial relations or dramatic staging we’d expect. In my day job, we talk about “cognitive load,” the amount of information you have to digest, as something you want to minimize for a positive customer experience. Hollywood’s continuity system served a similar purpose as modern UX, that is, getting the audience from point A to point B as clearly and elegantly as possible. But film noir in general, and Murder, My Sweet in particular, wants to maximize the cognitive load and throw you off balance.

Claire Trevor’s larger-than-life acting style elicited some unwelcome chuckles from the Kit Noir audience, but I’d argue that she nails the part. Femmes fatales are theatrical. They’ve got places to go, and naturalism isn’t going to get them there. Like Brigid O’Shaunessy, Helen Grayle is most dangerous when she’s apparently dropping her act. Because that act has no beginning and no end; deception is sewn into the fabric of who she is, who she’s had to be to survive and thrive.

In one of my favorite shots from the film, we see only the back of Helen’s head, an elaborate 1940s updo, and her hand resting on Marlowe’s shoulder as the detective looks down at the ground. A wisp of smoke rises from her impeccably poised cigarette. By hiding Helen’s face here, Dmytryk deepens the enigma of the femme fatale. Do we trust the honeyed voice? Or the cold precision of her grip on that cigarette?

Feigned emotions and sincerity bleed into each other—a side effect of living in a world where the path of honesty is too often a one-way trip to the gutter. You can hear the scraping exhaustion in Helen’s voice as she drapes herself on Marlowe and cries, “I’m so close to peace.” Is she playing him? Is she telling the truth? Is she leveraging her emotional truth in order to play him? Who knows? That’s why she’s so tantalizing.

Bonus film geekery: Don’t you love it when studios recycle props?

The multi-armed statue from RKO’s Murder, My Sweet (top screenshot) made an appearance many years earlier with Myrna Loy in Thirteen Women (1932).

The Suspect (Robert Siodmak, 1944): “Shall we pool our loneliness?”

I used to think that Chris Cross in Scarlet Street was film noir’s most sympathetic killer. Now I’d pass the crown (of thorns?) to Charles Laughton as the lonely, lovelorn, henpecked wife-murderer in The Suspect, a martyr to his own decency. Robert Siodmak was on fire in the 1940s, producing a streak of noir classics that few directors could match, and he considered this slow-burning masterpiece of suspense to be his best film. It certainly left me shaken.

Philip Marshall (Laughton) has spent his whole life as a trusted employee by day and a dedicated husband to a complete harridan by night. After falling in love with Mary Gray, a beautiful chance acquaintance, Marshall kills his wife when she threatens to ruin Mary. And so begins Philip’s greatest bliss and his deepest sorrow, as he strives to build a life with Mary despite the intent pryings of Scotland Yard.

As in so many noirs, the police represent a hostile force, a threat to the anti-hero’s relatable, if crooked, dreams.The sneaky, smiling Inspector Huxley seems to be a borderline inhuman extension of Fate’s implacably churning mechanisms. Upon his first visit to Philip’s home, Huxley narrates the “hypothetical” murder scenario with what we assume is alarming accuracy. The camera creeps up the staircase, reenacting the murderer’s ascent, and the set darkens. It’s as though we’re watching the crime take place again, but performed by an unseen ghostly cast. All the trappings of this ordinary Edwardian home—the bannister, the old dresser, the torn rug—seem to exude the domestic misery they’ve absorbed over many years. It’s one of those uncanny noir scenes that slip into an uncanny space between internal and external reality.

Some of noir’s best nail-biting moments are startling in their simplicity. In Double Indemnity, a hallway, a door, and 3 people—one of whom shouldn’t be there—is enough to keep us on the edge of our seats. In The Suspect, it’s a divan, a body, and fluffy white kitten playing with the dead man’s watch fob. Underneath the mild smile on Laughton’s doughy, lovable face, a pretense worn for unexpected guests, we can perceive the sheer panic of a good man utterly out of his depth, the most reluctant of criminals. (I was keeping an eye out for this sequence after reading Self-Styled Siren’s great piece on Laughton years ago.)

It’s tough to hold a candle to Charles Laughton at his best, but Henry Daniell delivers what might be the culmination of a career spent playing loathsome men of all stripes and hues. As the drunken wife-beating n’er-do-well next door, Daniell perfectly captures the louche, self-pitying arrogance of a well-bred bully. “You see, your lot were created to make life easier for my sort. The meek shall inherit the earth… we inherit the meek,” he drawls to himself, smugly pursing his lips (or lack thereof) and quaffing what will prove to be his final whisky.

Without giving too much more away, I’ll say that The Suspect concludes with one of noir’s most sublime closing shots: Charles Laughton walking across cobblestones, his cane swinging with the precise rhythm of a metronome. We see him from high above, as though we the spectators were a choir of weeping angels, simultaneously mourning his fall and bitterly celebrating his redemption. Decency is the defining trait of Philip Marshall, and it’s that decency that dooms him in the end. The fact that a man merely walking down a street can break your heart and wring your emotions so effectively is a testament to Siodmak’s and Laughton’s artistry.

Bonus film geekery, part 2: At Universal, a good prop is worth repeating.

The skull abacus briefly seen in the tea house with Laughton and Raines has a considerably larger role in Wives Under Suspicion (1938).

Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944): “What a place. I can feel the rats in the wall.”

When we talk about noir archetypes, it’s easy to latch onto the femme fatale, but the films at Kit Noir indicate that good girls play just as important a role in the canon. In Phantom Lady, intrepid secretary Carol Richman prowls the night, but never belongs to it. Even isolated at the counter of a little dive bar, she glows with purpose, beatified by Elwood Bredell’s cinematography. He gilds every stray hair on her head with light. By the sheer force of her willpower, Carol writes a happy ending for herself out of the inky blackness all around her. Bred in the midwest, baptized by the New York’s dirty rain, and shaped by pioneering producer Joan Harrison, Carol Richman may be film noir’s ultimate good girl. But she’s far from the only one.

The Lodger, Laura, and Phantom Lady all validate the experience of nice career girls who are stalked, manipulated, and almost destroyed by obsessive and possessive men. Kitty, Laura, and Carol (a.k.a. Kansas) are intelligent, competent, and kind; we’re never made to feel that they brought their misfortunes on themselves. On the contrary, their goodness and politeness, misinterpreted by warped minds, make them prime targets. Think of Kitty gently humoring Slade’s unwelcome sermons, Laura trying to repay her perceived debt of gratitude to Lydecker, or detail-oriented Carol overlooking Marlow’s bouts of neurotic weirdness. (Um, red flag much, Carol?)

Noir amplifies and distorts the dangers faced by these working women into epic perils and challenges worthy of fairy tales. Yet, I recognize the same basic threats that make so many women, myself included, walk home with keys clenched between their knuckles. Being a woman in the noirverse means charming all manner of beasts while keeping your eye on the escape route. The Lodger, Laura, and Phantom Lady all culminate with practically the same scene: the heroine, trapped by a man who wants to murder her, using her wits and persuasive skills to buy time. Brahm’s variation is the tensest, but Siodmak’s is the creepiest.

The ominous quiet of the scene, a stillness on the edge of hysteria, verges on the paralysis of nightmares. It’s an intensely female cadence of fear, a slow awakening followed by the instinct to remain calm and avoid triggering a violent reaction from the man she fears. Carol doesn’t resist when Marlow slips her hand over his fevered brow. As Marlow reclines on the chaise longue, looking like Count Dracula about to rise for his nightly meal, Siodmak privileges Carol’s emotions. We get close-ups of her stifled panic and disbelief as she looks for a way out. Although we’ve known about Marlow for a while, Raines makes us share Carol’s sense of stupefying betrayal, as she processes the fact that someone she knows and trusts is planning to kill her.

Someday I’ll write an essay about the similarities between Phantom Lady and Kurosawa’s Stray Dog. In both films, the protagonists assume elaborate disguises that force them to face the might-have-beens of their own lives. They must risk everything—their identities as well as their personal safety—to restore the moral balance. In order to save her man, Carol must confront multiple phantoms of what she could become: the victim of a senseless accident, the tacky, gum-chewing thrill-seeker, the bone-tired shop drudge, and finally the bereft madwoman. Who is the titular phantom lady, really? The woman who disappeared… or shape-shifting, elusive Carol who roves Siodmak’s dark funhouse city as both predator and prey?

And it’s no accident that Carol physically resembles the woman she’s tracking, the mysterious dark-haired witness in a funny hat who vanished without a trace. If Carol meets defeat in her desperate race against time, she might devolve into another lost soul, clinging to mementos of her lost love. In 1944, Fay Helm’s grieving shut-in must’ve reminded audiences of the many inconsolable women widowed by World War II. As such, she’s the flip side of spunky, can-do Carol, an apt personification of America’s doggedly cheerful spirit during the war effort. Carol’s mission sobers but doesn’t destroy her. Knowing what she knows about despair and wickedness, her goodness and hope shine even brighter.

In case you couldn’t tell, I had a blast at Kit Noir. I hope I’ll be there next year. And maybe I’ll see you there too?

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The Plot Thickens: Angela Allen Remembers Beat the Devil (1953) at TCMFF

Once upon a time in Ravello, Italy, half a world away from Hollywood and tight studio control, John Huston arrived to shoot a thriller with a cast to die for. But Huston had a problem.

He didn’t like the script.

Fortunately, he had Truman Capote to write a new one, Peter Lorre and Robert Morley to embellish it, and script supervisor Angela Allen to keep track of it all.

“We had to shoot in order, because we didn’t know where the story was going!” Allen recalled with a laugh at the TCM Classic Film Festival. In conversation with film historian Cari Beauchamp, Allen discussed Beat the Devil, just one film in a career that included The Third Man, The African Queen, and The Dirty Dozen.

When I spoke briefly to Allen on the red carpet, I felt the humbling intensity of her laser-precise gaze, a real-life superpower sharpened by over 50 years of seizing on the smallest errors. She carries herself with a combination of affability and no-nonsense authority. You might assume that she was a career diplomat or businesswoman. And you wouldn’t be far off the mark. If she told you to do something, you’d better do it. (Even Katharine Hepburn found that out.)

During Hollywood’s Golden Age, women filled the role of script supervisor so predominantly that the terms “script girl” and “continuity girl” were the norm. Female professionals like Allen were vital guardians of continuity, the self-effacing, shot-to-shot illusion of a seamless cinematic universe. The stakes were high. A top-notch script supervisor helped create a film that audiences would accept as reality—and a bad one could torpedo that reality and sink the movie.

Before computers and instant photos, script girls documented each take and relied on their detailed notes, stopwatches, eyes, and memories to detect discrepancies. Was that cigarette lit before? Did he say a different word last time? Is there less food on the plate now? A script supervisor has to attend to a million details, editing the film in her mind and anticipating what will and won’t match up. From the sewers of Vienna to the waves of the Mediterranean to the jungles of Africa, Angela Allen did exactly that.

In addition to the pressure of overseeing continuity, Allen faced a problem that’s still far too common in the film industry: predatory men in power. Producer Sam Spiegel was a memorable example. “I was introduced to him by Guy Hamilton, who was an assistant director, then directed Bond films. And he was my protector at the interview, because Sam was quite a lecherous gentleman and I was very young and innocent. Sam said, ‘Take your coat off.’ And Guy said, ‘Don’t take your coat off!’ One said, ‘Sit.’ One said, ‘Stand.’” Allen chuckled at the memory, but I suspect that it would have been no laughing matter if Hamilton hadn’t been there at the time!

Her working relationship with John Huston, on the other hand, was built on respect and trust. “He never met me before I was sent to Africa on The African Queen,” she recalled. “He met me in the jungle. So it was a fait accompli as far as that job is concerned, but we obviously got on and he asked me on all the others.” Huston and Allen would work together on 14 films in total, many of them unpredictable location shoots and jewels of classic cinema.

Which brings us back to Italy and a caper film in search of a story. Through a production nearly as wild and zigzagging as its plot, Beat the Devil posed additional challenges for Allen.

Before shooting could start, Huston needed a script. He took advice from a big shot who happened to be around: David O. Selznick, accompanying Jennifer Jones on location. As Allen remembers, “Although he was not our producer in any shape or form, he recommended Truman Capote who had just written Stazione Termini [alternate title: Indiscretion of an American Wife] for him. So young Truman Capote arrived in Ravello, not knowing what he was going to enter into either.”

However, the film’s mixture of hardboiled dialogue and daffy comedy emerged not from Capote alone, but rather from what one might call a team effort. “He and John discussed something… [Capote] used to write the scenes,” Allen said, “then he’d give them to me in the morning. I’d take them onto the set, we’d change them all because Robert Morley and others were very good ad-libbers, and John would say, ‘Do what you want.’”

Morley and Lorre applied their theater backgrounds to amp up the film’s satirical comedy, resulting in an uproarious shoot. “We all used to laugh so much,” Allen recalled. “There’s a scene where they’re sitting and packing in the room with a suitcase. I must say, there was about 2 hours or more of rehearsal and it was so funny that everybody was on the ground afterward. They’d dream up something every minute. And eventually we sort of refined it to shoot it.”

Now, let’s pause and consider the difficulties of supervising a script that’s mutating before your very eyes. In addition to recording continuity minutia, Allen had to document unpredictable changes in a script with no definite conclusion. All while Lorre and Morley improvised line after side-splitting line. As Cari Beauchamp quipped, “This job brings a whole new definition to continuity, doesn’t it?”

After each day of shooting, Allen closed the loop between screenwriter and cast: “I’d take [Capote] back all the dialogue in the evening and say, ‘You’d better read what we’ve done today for whatever you’ve written for tomorrow, because, you know, it might not match up to what we’ve actually shot.’”

In other words, Allen went above and beyond the already demanding duties of a script supervisor. “Because I was on the set, and there were no computers in those days, I had my steady little portable typewriter—I think it was an Olympia—and I’d be battering out the lines for them once we’d sort of settled on what they were going to say and then they wanted to revise them,” Allen explained. “I’d be typing them out, which really wasn’t my job, but I did. And this was the way we used to go. If we didn’t, what were we going to do?”

One time, life imitated art a little too closely—and Allen stepped in when the cast and crew were quite literally getting lost at sea. “We did have a funny story one day when were were out at sea shooting. The cameraman was Ossie Morris…. We’d turned the boat around and around for the sun. But when we’d finished shooting he’d forgotten to tell the assistant to tell the captain. So we’re sailing and sailing.

“We’d sailed out of Sorrento. And my Italian was a bit better than some of the crew’s so I went and said, ‘How long before we get back to Sorrento?’ And the captain said, ‘Sorrento? We’re sailing to Morocco.’ And so we had to turn round and they’d put the search thing out for this boat, thinking we’d got lost at sea.”

Unsurprisingly, the movie took its good time to wrap up. “I think we were there probably 10 or 12 weeks,” Allen says. “In those days films took longer to shoot. They weren’t so fast. People like the director had a dinner date, so you normally finished by six or seven.”

The cast of characters careened through the production with plenty of funny business that no doubt contributed to the film’s askew humor. Gina Lollobrigida (who discussed Beat the Devil at last year’s TCMFF) had memorized an audition monologue in English. Huston hired her—not realizing that she hardly spoke the language.

La Lollo’s steep learning curve led to some moments of hilarity on the set, Allen remembers: “The English crew used to have rhyming slang in those days. And she had a line ‘tea and crumpets,’ but she didn’t know that crumpets had a double meaning. And everyone was falling about with laughter because she had no idea what they were laughing at. But also, you know, it wasn’t easy for her because she didn’t speak good English. She was learning.”

Lollobrigida claims that Selznick baulked at the prospect of a voluptuous Italian ingenue sharing the screen with Jennifer Jones. Angela Allen didn’t deny it, but said that she didn’t witness any hostilities between the film’s leading ladies. “Everybody got on with each other. There were no rows or anything else. Jennifer was a very nice person to everybody, actually.” That said, Jones seemed much “more relaxed” when Selznick wasn’t around, Allen reports.

And how did the unflappable Bogart, both acting and producing, put up with this screwball shooting experience? “Well, he was a bit, I think, irritated at times. But he was a great friend of John’s and they got on and he could always talk him ‘round. So Bogie was there as the actor, so he didn’t interfere in the production although it was his money that was helping us make the film.”

Finally, Allen told us about an unexpected guest on that cosmopolitan set: “Not only did I meet Truman Capote on that film, but a young man who came down with a friend of his whose father was a friend of Huston’s…. He didn’t always want to come out. He liked to tinkle away on the out-of-tune piano in the hotel. I said, ‘I think that young man is going to go a long way.’ And everyone told me how stupid I was.”

His name was Stephen Sondheim. Didn’t I tell you that Allen has superpowers?

So, the next time you watch a John Huston film, check the credits for the name Angela Allen. Every now and then, pry yourself away from the sweeping location scenery, the wry dialogue, and the absorbing performances. Take a moment to imagine an Englishwoman with a stopwatch, a marked-up script, and eyes that don’t miss a trick, standing calmly behind the camera. If you find it difficult to tear yourself away from the illusion, that’s a testament to Allen’s painstaking work. Cinema is an art of coordination and logistics, and she is a master.

 

Sinners and a Saint: My Moving (and Grooving) TCMFF Schedule Picks

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My cat Godfrey (named for a certain William Powell character) assists me in planning out my festival schedule.

“My hope is that we’ll be playing a lot of movies that will lead to people crying.” So said Charles Tabesh, TCM’s senior vice president of programming, about the upcoming TCM Classic Film Festival in a recent interview.

Judging by the TCMFF schedule, I think Tabesh wants to make us cry before we even get there. The conflicting choices have made me tear my hair in anguish.

A nice kind of anguish, though.

Speaking of things that hurt so good, this year’s festival focuses on “moving pictures,” films that trigger powerful emotional reactions.

So, join me as I wring my hands over the options and work out a tentative schedule, won’t you?

Note: My schedule is subject to change depending on whimsy, hunger, eyeliner mishaps, peer pressure, physical exhaustion, bad luck, and the fact that there’s a fabulous tea house temptingly close to the Chinese Multiplex.

Thursday, April 28

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6:30 p.m. – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Chinese Multiplex House #6 – DCP

For this first slot, I’m leaning towards 2 classics that—I blush to admit it—I haven’t yet seen: Dark Victory (1939) and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1941). Before you make me turn in my cinephile card, let me reframe my oversight as an opportunity: what better way to discover an acclaimed classic than on the big screen? Apparently my negligence in the weepie department has richly paid off.

I’m going with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, since former child actor Ted Donaldson will be there to introduce it.

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9:30 p.m. – Los Tallos Amergos (1956) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

I adore Brief Encounter. To give you an idea of just how much I adore it, whenever I get a mote of dust in my eye, I exclaim, “Where’s Trevor Howard?” But when David Lean’s tearjerking paean to buttoned-up English passion occupies the same slot as Los Tallos Amergos, a recently-restored, little-known noir gem from Argentina, I yield to the dark desire to explore uncharted territory.

Friday, April 29

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9:30 a.m. – Never Fear (1949) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

I wake up to a tough choice: should I go with feel-good #TCMParty favorite The More the Merrier (1943) at the Egyptian Theater (and on 35mm to boot!) OR celebrate the controversial brilliance of Ida Lupino with Never Fear, her first credited film as a director?

Never Fear wins the spot, since I relish the chance to feel the full impact of Lupino’s uncompromising vision on a big screen. That said, I might cave for a cute screwball comedy if I need respite from the festival’s intense program of heartbreakers. Don’t judge me. It’s a long haul!

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12:00 p.m. – Double Harness (1933) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

No contest on the next pick. Rare pre-Codes are my jam. Oh, Double Harness, you had me at Ann Harding… and then you go and throw in William Powell and a long-lost premarital sex scene? I’d better pack me some smelling salts.

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2:00 p.m. – Tea and Sympathy (1956) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

Here we arrive at the most difficult slot in the festival. I’m torn between not 2, not 3, but 5 glorious offerings that pique my interests:

  • The Conversation (1974) introduced by Francis Ford Coppola – DCP
  • Trapeze (1956) introduced by Gina Lollobrigida – 35mm
  • Amazing Film Discoveries, a presentation by Serge Bromberg – DCP
  • Tea and Sympathy (1956), followed by a discussion with former child actor Darryl Hickman – 35mm
  • When You’re in Love (1937), a rarely-screened Cary Grant film introduced by the star’s daughter, Jennifer Grant – DCP

Well, I believe in supporting movies condemned by the Legion of Decency, so I’ll probably head to Tea and Sympathy. I’m also curious to hear Darryl Hickman talk about the making of this controversial melodrama. But I’m still waffling. The good news is, no matter what I pick, it’s bound to be memorable!

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5:15 and 7:17 p.m. – Pleasure Cruise (1933) and 6 Hours to Live (1932) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – both on 35mm

Why sit through a single poignant movie when you can watch 2 bizarro gems from the heady days of Hays? I’m veering away from the well-promoted favorites in this slot, because—surprise, surprise—I can’t resist the gravitational pull of Chinese Multiplex #4.

I’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life on 35mm at a 1920s movie palace. At Christmas. Twice. So I’m afraid the chance to see Capra’s masterpiece at the TCL Chinese Theater doesn’t excite me.

While The Passion of Joan of Arc with a live choir score will undoubtedly give its audience chills, I don’t think I can bear to be bummed out, no matter how sublimely, on a Friday night in Hollywood. Besides, religious films, one of the festival’s themes this year, don’t exactly light my pyre—er, fire. And if you think I’m going to hell, I can live with that, provided I get there by partying with the bad boys and girls of the pre-1934 studio era.

I might even get an extra kick out of watching the pre-Codes knowing that I chose sinners over a saint!

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9:30 p.m. – The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – TCL Chinese Theater – DCP

Why, TCM, why did you program one of my favorite films noirs, Repeat Performance (1947), against my must-see, do-or-die interview of the festival? WHY? [Shakes fist at the heavens as the camera rises in an epic crane shot.]

The Manchurian Candidate wins my heart, because I’ve worshipped Angela Lansbury ever since 12-year-old me saw my first episode of Murder, She Wrote on VHS. I will not miss the chance to hear this living legend/diva/queen/beautiful human being talk about her deliciously wicked turn as the World’s Worst Mother.

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12:00 p.m. – Roar (1981) – Chinese Multiplex House #1 – DCP

The midnight screening of Boom at last year’s TCMFF was a major highlight for me, so I’ll fortify myself with caffeine to stay awake for this notoriously dangerous thrill ride featuring dozens of real wild animals. CGI is for wimps!

Does Roar sound ill-advised? Hell yeah. Entertaining? I’m betting away 2 hours of sleep that it will be. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Saturday, April 30

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9:00 a.m. – 90th Anniversary of Vitaphone – Egyptian Theater – 35mm

I love the smell of experimental talkies in the morning! Seriously, how often do you get to wake up and immerse yourself in short films from the dawn of sound—shown on film at such an epic venue?

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11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. – A House Divided (1931) and Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – both 35mm

Oh, boy. It’s the devil on my shoulder again. That lingerie-wearing, chain-smoking grayscale gun moll who calls the shots for me. And she tells me that I cannot sacrifice 2 movies from the early 1930s for a post-studio-era parody.

Even if that means passing up an opportunity to hear the riotous Carl Reiner discuss his noir homage Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1981). Or listen to Nancy Olsen recount her early days in Hollywood.

Yeah, this one stings.

But, hey, William Wyler’s second talkie? Oh, I am very there for that. And Ronald Colman’s moustache holds a deep claim on my loyalty.

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3:45 p.m. – The Yearling (1946) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

Another tricky slot. How do you expect me to choose between Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (introduced by Gina Lollobrigida), The Big Sleep, and The Yearling (followed by a discussion with child actor Claude Jarman Jr.)?

For the moment, The Yearling takes priority. But The Big Sleep—also on 35mm!—might woo me away. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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6:30 p.m. – The King and I (1956) – TCL Chinese Theater – DCP

I really need to see Rita Moreno talk about The King and I, because that movie traumatized me as a kid and I’m hoping that I can work through some of those issues. Nice cheery musical about imperialist white savior complexes and male entitlement and sex slavery and child mortality, Rogers and Hammerstein. At least there’s some pretty Cinemascope eye candy and 3 magnificent central performances.

Even though The King and I is not a favorite of mine, as you can probably tell, I look forward to hearing Moreno’s memories of making it.

I will, however, be crying inside that I’m missing the elegant Technicolor palettes of Borzage’s I’ve Always Loved You (1946), which is screening simultaneously on 35mm. Hm. I might drift on this one…

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9:15 p.m. – Band of Outsiders (1956) – Chinese Multiplex House #1 – DCP

This next slot is non-negotiable. Anna Karina is a goddess. I welcome the opportunity to bask in her presence.

Funnily enough, the only Godard films I’d happily volunteer to watch again are those starring Karina. Yes, I went there. Come at me, New Wave bros. Side note: If I ever meet JLG in person, I’m demanding an apology for Weekend and the migraine it gave me.

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12:00 a.m. – Gog (1954) – Chinese Multiplex House #1 – DCP

Sci-fi is more important than sleep, especially when we’re talking a sci-fi mystery unseen in its original 3D since 1954!

Sunday, May 1

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9:30 – The Fallen Idol (1948) – Chinese Multiplex House #6 – DCP

If you’d asked me about my must-see picks before TCM dropped its schedule, I would’ve mentioned Scent of Mystery, screened at the Cinerama Dome in—get this—Smell-O-Vision!

And then a little boy threw a wrench in the works.

Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol is one of those masterpieces that somehow doesn’t get the attention it deserves. In this tense noir, the spoiled but lonely son of a diplomat sees more than he should and becomes embroiled in an adult world of lies and guilty secrets. Making his screen debut, Bobby Henrey delivered a miraculous child performance—exasperating, melancholy, silly, sweet, clever, and hopelessly out of his depth.

So I did a double take when I saw that Henrey would be at TCMFF to talk about this astonishing film. Unmissable. Sorry, Smell-O-Vision. Smell ya later. Or not.

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12:15 p.m. – Law and Order (1932) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

Bagging out on Scent of Mystery offers a bonus: I’ll have time to catch another rarely-screened movie in my favorite venue. Gritty pre-Code proto-noir Western written by John Huston and starring Walter Huston? Uh, yes, please!

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2:30 p.m. – A Conversation with Gina Lollobrigida – Club TCM

Last year’s Club TCM interview with Shirley MacLaine left me flabbergasted by the amount of sassy revelations the star offered up. I’ve got my fingers crossed that Ms. Lollobrigida will prove as feisty and open to questions!

therussiansarecoming

4:15 p.m. – The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966) – Egyptian Theater – 35mm

Once upon a time I was reading my friends’ coverage of TCMFF and turning all unsightly shades of green over how they’d seen Eva Marie Saint in person. Now it’s my turn (serpentine waiting lines permitting)!

Eva Marie is the only Saint I want to see at the festival this year (sorry, Joan of Arc).

1953: Fred Astaire (1899 - 1987) and Cyd Charisse perform a dance number in 'Band Wagon', directed by Vincente Minnelli for MGM.

7:45 p.m. – The Band Wagon (1953) – Chinese Multiplex House #1 – DCP

This choice might well change, depending on the titles announced for the TBD slots. Still, The Band Wagon never fails to amaze me, so it’s not like I’d be “settling” for it. Cyd Charisse in that sizzling red dress and her slinky moves might just be the perfect finale to a show of moving pictures.

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My Photochemical Romance: The Nitrate Picture Show 2015

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“Love is a time machine up on the silver screen.”
—Noel Gallagher, “The Shock of the Lightning”

All the important things in life come down to questions of chemistry. 

What is love, in the end, but a felicitous cocktail of neurotransmitters? And what is classic cinema if not molecules rearranged by the kiss of light from bygone days—and conveyed on a strip of nitrocellulose, a substance so unstable and volatile that it can burn underwater? 

Our perceptions, no matter how lofty or spiritual, arise from chemical reactions, from formulae. The ethereal depends upon, and cannot be separated from, the material. There can be no mind without matter. Some people might recoil from that idea. Call it vulgar materialism if you’d like. Go right ahead. I call it transcendence. 

Last weekend, the inaugural Nitrate Picture Show stitched together dreams and reality, art and chemistry to produce a transcendent experience. Returned to the land of the living from their climate-controlled vaults, glorious 35mm nitrate prints, all struck between 1937 and 1949, conjured up the sights and sounds of classic films as audiences saw and heard them all those years ago.

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Unlike the dupes and digitizations of dupes that constitute just about everybody’s introduction to old movies, the cinema that blazed forth from the screen of the Dryden Theater returned to us in a startlingly undiluted form.

As my personal hero Kevin Brownlow pointed out, in studio-era Hollywood, “all those big cameramen had somebody in the lab who could do what they wanted… It’s very difficult for labs [today] to produce, even digitally, the effect of those original prints.” 

In other words, a nitrate original transmits the cinematographer’s vision—his actual intent—in a way that even an exquisite 35mm dupe or a pristine 8k restoration usually cannot replicate. Only a few venues in the world can project those visions caught on celluloid, and the Dryden Theater is one of them.

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“You’re going to have a unique experience,” Dr. Paolo Cherchi Usai, senior curator of motion pictures at the George Eastman House, told the intimate group of spectators. “You’re going to see very famous, iconic films in a way that most people in the world have never seen. And we hope that you will notice a difference, because there is a difference.”

Let me testify: yes, there is.

Imagine only ever seeing the sky filtered through sunglasses—then suddenly taking them off.

Movies I thought I knew, movies I’d seen dozens of times, appeared to me reborn, with fresh joys and terrors. And movies I’d never seen rushed at me with a force for which I was entirely unprepared. Nitrate is a fierce catalyst. Why, it can even turn back time. It can even raise the dead.

Nitrate Moments

They don’t make words vast enough to evoke nitrate black. There’s something eternal about it.

In Casablanca, Rick’s black bow-tie, gaping against the white of his crisp tropical tux, resembles a butterfly-shaped hole in his chest, a lyrical little void elegizing the man he once was, before his insides got kicked out. Similarly, as Ugarte begs him for help, a lattice of shadows crisscrosses the immaculate back of his dinner jacket—a detail that never caught my attention before—as though a net were holding him in the same trap as the sniveling parasite. 

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The surreal depth of nitrate noir chose some worthy objects of affection (worthy because I fancy them, too, that is). Pierre Fresnay’s sleek obsidian hair in The Man Who Knew Too Much crowns the secret agent with a dark halo as he wilts and gracefully expires on a dance floor, felled by a single bullet. In The Fallen Idol, Ralph Richardson’s onyx eyes glint with catch-light, sparkling like dying stars.

Movies invite viewers to collect moments and take souvenirs: an expression here, a movement there, a precious shot to hold on to like a rose pressed between book pages. The clarity of nitrate strengthened this mechanism of memory, searing certain images, certain touches of photogénie into my brain. The daisy in Rick’s buttonhole on that last day in Paris in Casablanca, the single man-tear of Wally’s that falls on Hazel’s hand in Nothing Sacred, or Ellen Berent’s cold teal eyes behind her tinted shades in Leave Her to Heaven. I’d never seen these things before, although they were there. Nitrate brought them out of hiding.

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Celluloid particularly seems to favor bodies of water, almost endowing them with personalities. The murky, acid-bath waves stretching for miles around a U-boat in Les Maudits churned and bubbled with malice. The dreamlike fishing spot that Sister Clodagh of Black Narcissus revisits in spirit blissfully glints—that’s Cardiff and the Archers reminding us, as they would do elsewhere, that heaven can be here on earth. 

The coppery sunset breakers, among which Norman Maine finds peace at last in A Star is Born, shimmered like the heat haze above a crucible. The crystalline surface of the lake at Back of the Moon in Leave Her to Heaven, a sunny witness to an unspeakable deed, sparkled like a sociopath’s smile.

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The Shock of the Lightning

At its best, cinema can fuse you into its fictions and unleash a torrent of emotions, so that you sit there in the dark and piously weep for strangers as you would for your own lost loves. Cinema can destroy you, as Portrait of Jennie destroyed me.

I cried three times, enough to erase my eyeliner and leave a permanent mark on my soul. Plenty of films have moved me to tears, but no movie has ever provoked the reaction Portrait did as I quietly sobbed in the third row of the Dryden Theater.

The silver nitrate hit me like Chartres blue, like Delacroix’s pigments, like the scent of apple blossoms in springtime. It affected me on a level beyond reason.

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As a matter of fact, in 1935, more than a decade before William Dieterle directed Jennie, he wrote, “What I have to say as a motion picture director, you can best read from the screen. There you find all that the subconscious force (the only real creator, in my opinion) has to tell.”

In the white-gloved hands of Herr Dieterle, fragile compounds formed into poetry. He tapped into that “subconscious force” as few others have. Dieterle inscribed a sense of melancholy and yearning into every shot of Jennie, whether she’s running out of the mist or skating towards the camera between silent sentinel skyscrapers or merely sitting curled up in Eben’s studio, her delicate features defined as a silhouette. 

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Even more impressive, during the film’s climactic tempest, the screen unfurled at both sides, widening into Magnascope. Toned an eerie shade of green, the silver-lined storm clouds suddenly swelled and expanded. The sky became a firmament. Images became incantations.

However, you have to open yourself up to a film before it opens up to you. The two young gentlemen (and I do use the term loosely) who sat a few seats down from me during Portrait of Jennie guffawed repeatedly. Sincerity spooks the insincere, I suppose, hence the nervous laughter. Like nonbelievers at a séance, they couldn’t feel the presence of the divine. They dammed themselves up against sentiment and, in so doing, perhaps damned themselves in another way. I pity them and were I the praying kind I’d pray for their enlightenment.

Many (most?) masterpieces flirt with silliness. Big ideas, artistic ambitions, and romantic gestures are all vaguely ridiculous. That absurdity is the price you pay for living in a world replete with marvels, not just snickering from the sidelines.

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David O. Selznick—no callow idealist by a long shot—prophetically gave himself over to sincerity and built a celluloid shrine to his future wife Jennifer Jones, keeping her forever young and enchanting as Jennie the struggling artist’s ghostly muse, forever vibrant and timeless as the Technicolor portrait that closes the film. The painter’s obsession parallels the producer’s adoration in a heady intermingling of art and life. 

Most of all, however, Portrait of Jennie is a ruminative, metaphysical valentine to cinema. Love and art alike can bestow immortality on mere mortals, but only film of all the arts sculpts time and space in their likeness. Only film preserves its beloved through what Bazin called “the mummification of change,” elevating certain chosen ones to surreal black-and-white demigods, photochemical archangels.

In the silvery shock of Jennie’s lightning, the triumphant power of the medium roars like thunder.

Time Without End

A book blocks the woman’s face.

Its title? Time Without End. Then she drops it, and the most beautiful creature in the world emerges from behind the drab book jacket. Her head droops onto her shoulder as the arid landscape continues to roll by outside the train compartment (which happens to be painted the exact same color as Gene Tierney’s eyes). 

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Like many apparently inconsequential details in Leave Her to Heaven, the book’s title subtly foreshadows the violent neurosis of the film’s protagonist. No boundaries, temporal or otherwise, exist for the morbidly jealous Ellen Berent. “I’ll never let you go, never, never, never,” she whispers from her deathbed. She wants to possess her beloved forever and fully expects to get whatever she wants.

However, as I sat in the Dryden, that title, Time Without End, took on another layer of significance. In a way, the nitrate had restored times past to those of us basking in its glow.

Reflecting on the festival, Dr. Cherchi Usai stressed the historical point of reference that nitrate brought to each screening. “I constantly had to remind myself: this is a nitrate print. This print has been screened many, many times since 1937, since 1945, and still is in such glorious shape.” 

So, when my eyes locked onto that screen, hungrily scrutinizing every frame of Leave Her to Heaven for the essence of nitrate, I saw what movie theater audiences saw in 1945—or as close as anyone will ever get to what they saw. I got to share the light, so to speak, that had washed over them.

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Every film viewing (or movie event, if I’m being pretentious) activates two levels of memory, one mechanical, one personal. First, even on a digital format, the “time machine” of cinema can transport us back to the era when a certain film was made. Second, each time I watch a movie, I watch with the memory of having watched it before; the effect is cumulative and subjective. The rhythm and flow of the film activates remembrance. It cannot be helped.

A vintage nitrate print, struck decades ago, endows the viewing experience with another stratum of time, a kind of phantom memory.

As I watch, I can say to myself, “I see now what they saw then.” That scratch, that hair, that grain. The original audiences must’ve seen it too. Some of them, at least. The print remembers.

Moreover, what they saw then harkened back to another then, both closer in relation to them (more recent) and just as faraway (fictional), a manipulated reality imprisoned on nitrate. Their then, what the film recorded, is years further from me than it was to them, yet it is paradoxically every bit as close: we are the same distance away from Gene Tierney, if you measure that distance by prints. 

All the thens stack up and overlap. Then is now, and now is then. The whole of time twists and coils upon itself, like a tangle of melting film stock.

Time without end indeed. 

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Flowers of Evil

On the final morning of the festival, Jared Case, head of motion picture collection information and access at the George Eastman House, remarked on an unintentional pattern in the programming. “There seems to be a theme throughout the weekend of twisted love,” he noted. “I don’t know what it says about us, hopefully nothing!” 

In particular, unhinged anti-heroines, from the eponymous temptress of Samson and Delilah to Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus to Mrs. Bains in The Fallen Idol, ruled the weekend. 

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The cataclysmic mix of rage and lust emanating from these she-devils hints at a quality inherent in the medium that conjured them. Danger and the thirst for danger. As Orson Welles once said, “Film has a personality, and that personality is self-destructive.”

On nitrate, cinema is a femme fatale. It is reality’s evil twin, beckoning to us with worldly beauty made otherworldly. It seduces us with lies and threatens to pull us into its self-destruction, its threatened immolation. It fools and taunts us with fragments of an exotic, unnatural past, a playlist of invented memories. It slays you. Gorgeously. 

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At the Nitrate Picture Show, Black Narcissus tormented me that way. I didn’t want it to end. Every cut, every dissolve filled me with despair. “Don’t take that shot away,” I wanted to cry out. “I wasn’t done looking at that!”

My mind tries in vain to recall the unholy intensity of the images, to summon the luminosity and saturation of the colors as I’d never seen them before. The giddy, vertiginous blues and greens of the cliff-sides. The countless shadings of Sister Clodagh’s habit. The enfolding darkness of the Christmas flashback. The baleful amber of Ruth’s jealousy. Her lipstick-daubed mouth, red as a raw nerve, confessing a lethal love.

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The Archers and Jack Cardiff managed to put Tantalus’s punishment on celluloid. Black Narcissus hurts even on DVD. On 35mm nitrate, it aches, it blisters, it writhes with light and shadow. It bleeds with hue.

The word “intoxicating” comes to mind, the root of course being “toxic.” Black Narcissus overwhelms me with a poisonous, venomous beauty. It allows the viewer to sympathize with the distraction of its characters, a distraction veering into madness. Who could bear such constant splendor? Who could endure a world so alive with pleasure and sensation and ephemeral joys and not lose her mind?

Dear reader, I came close.

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Coda: Diva Gone Nitrate

When I chose the name for this blog almost 3 years ago, I lighted upon “nitrate” because it held a faraway, almost mythic resonance for me. The very thought of the strange, combustible alchemy that once sustained motion pictures filled me with a sense of wonder.

Somehow it never occurred to me that I’d get to see a film projected from the storied substance. I didn’t think it was even done these days. 

I dreamt of nitrate. I wanted to fetishize and mystify it. In the end, however, the material truth, the photochemical reality turned out to be more mystical than anything I could have dreamed of.

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From Naples to Hollywood (and Back): At TCMFF, Sophia Loren Reflects on Her Vibrant Career

sophiamarriageIt’s hard to imagine a time when Sophia Loren wouldn’t have been considered a dazzling beauty. However, at the Montalban Theater in Hollywood for TCM Classic Film Festival, Loren harkened back to her early days as an actress—and her disastrous first screentest.

In an extended interview with her son, director Edoardo Ponti, Loren recalled, “They put a cigarette in my mouth, so I started to cough like hell.”

Looking at the test footage, the cameraman gave a grim appraisal of Loren’s future in films: “She has a long nose. She has a big mouth. And she doesn’t know how to act.”

Loren was ready to give up and go home, but her mentor and future husband, producer Carlo Ponti, convinced her to keep trying, for which we can all be grateful.

More than 20 years the starlet’s senior, Ponti brought hope and stability into her life after a bleak childhood. “He was a very sensitive person,” Loren said. “I think he had a nice smile. I found great comfort in him.” Even today, Loren feels that he remains with her in spirit. “Sometimes I don’t know what to do, sometimes I have problems. I think of him and I don’t feel alone.”

Contrary to popular belief, though, Ponti did not rechristen Sophia Scicolone as Sophia Loren. She set the record straight; it was another producer, Goffredo Lombardo, who came up with her screen name. “He was doing a picture, Africa Under the Sea, and he said, ‘Look, Sophia Cicolone I don’t like. We have to change the name, because I like you, you look good in a bathing suit…’”

Greeted by a chorus of laughter from the audience at the Montalban, Loren paused, shrugged, and acknowledged her deservedly lauded figure: “It helps.”

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Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

Flipping through a dictionary, Lombardo searched for words with a similar sound to the name of an actress he liked. Coren… Soren… Loren!

Her big break came with Aïda (1953), a lavish film adaptation of Verdi’s opera. The movie placed unusual demands on Loren, who more or less fell into the role to replace an American actress. Painted from head-to-toe to play an African princess, Loren acted in tune with a pre-recorded score—and had to put in extra practice to learn every beat of the music, including several famous arias.

She recalled, “For at least 2 months I was in a little room trying to sing the lipsynch of [the celebrated soprano] Renata Tebaldi, every day, all day, and then I did it.” Because the soundstages were cold in winter, crew members had to use hairdryers to eliminate the visible breath emanating from the star’s open mouth!

How did Loren feel about the results? “It’s great. It looks like I am singing!” At the Montalban, when Edoardo asked his mother, “Were you singing a little bit?” he got an incredulous response: “Ma tu sei pazzo?” Are you crazy?

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“Ma tu sei pazzo?” Sophia Loren and son Edoardo Ponti at the Montalban Theater. Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

The following year, in 1954, Loren began her collaboration with Vittorio De Sica, the director who would shape her greatest screen performances. She remembered her makeup man introducing her to De Sica at Cinecittà, warning, “She’s a wonderful girl. She’s very young, Vittorio. She’s very, very young.”

Thus reminded to remain a gentleman, De Sica suggested that Loren do a screentest for his next production, an episodic film set in Naples. Remembering her earlier experience, she baulked. “I started to take away the possibility of doing L’oro di Napoli, because I didn’t want to do a test,” Loren said.

Undeterred, De Sica invited Loren to visit his studio, where he discussed the role with her and decided to cast her without a test. “You leave tomorrow for Naples,” he told her.

A great actor as well as director, De Sica performed for his cast even when working behind the camera. Loren recalled, “Every director has a way of showing [what he wants] to an actor, with words sometimes, with gestures sometimes. For him, it was acting, from A to Z, little actors, big actors, a man, a woman… He would act the scene for everybody.”

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Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

Some actors would no doubt bristle at a director showing them how to play their part, but Loren appreciated seeing how De Sica would act out her character: “That’s the way he felt that he could give some truth to the scene. So I learned from him. I was always in a lesson with him.”

Loren found plenty in De Sica’s directorial acting to emulate and ultimately make her own. She confided, “I like to steal—Naples, you know—I like to steal good things, the kind of things that make you grow.”

When asked what she “stole” from De Sica, she replied with one word: “naturalezza” or naturalness.

Like many screen legends, Loren honed her craft as an actress as she climbed the ladder of stardom—without studying acting in a traditional sense. Edoardo wondered whether the lack of formal training ever undermined her confidence. “Well, I felt insecure because I didn’t go to the actors’ studio, but I see so many people that did go to the actors’ studio who are more insecure than I am! Now I don’t feel insecure, because I learned from life… I learned to read the minds of people, to read the mind of the character I am playing.”

In the mid-1950s, she found herself increasingly in demand. When Loren met Suso Checchi D’Amato, then working on a script called Too Bad She’s Bad, on a train, the screenwriter mentioned a perfect part for her: an alluring thief who falls in love with the taxi driver she cons.

toobadshesbadAlthough the 19-year-old Loren had fun “playing the star” and telling D’Amato to see if Ponti could “fit your project into my schedule,” the movie turned out to be a personal and professional milestone. “It was really my first film where I had to open up and really show to people the little things I was learning.”

Too Bad She’s Bad (1954) also paired Loren with Marcello Mastroianni for the first time. From the moment she met Mastroianni on the set they were immediately simpatico. “Since I saw him, it was like he was my old friend. He was a gentle person.”

Their friendship was based on two things, according to Loren: “sense of humor and food.” The latter sounds like Mastroianni’s favorite subject. “When he came on the set in the morning the first thing he said wasn’t, ‘Come stai, Sophia?’ No. ‘Cosa mangerai stasera?’ What are you going to eat tonight?”

At the TCL Chinese Theater, when Ben Mankiewicz asked Loren if she and Mastroianni worked on their onscreen chemistry, she replied, “I don’t think you can work on chemistry. There is or there isn’t. So, as soon as I saw Marcello, there is.”

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Audiences felt the rapport, too, and a new screen team was formed. “When the film came out it was so successful that other writers started writing other things for us both, always for comedies, though, in the beginning.”

After Loren’s string of Italian hits in the 1950s, Hollywood beckoned, and Ponti offered her the opportunity to break the language barrier and prepare to enchant new audiences. She shared an anecdote that revealed the producer’s determination. Loren received a telegram stating, “‘Tomorrow you start learning English.’” As she was mulling the idea over, she reported, “The door rang—that was my teacher!”

Loren’s first English-language film, The Pride and the Passion (1957), entailed a 6-month shoot in Spain and sparked the actress’s legendary romance with Cary Grant. However, they didn’t exactly start off on the right foot.

“Cary Grant was being very funny, because he mixed my name up with Gina Lollobrigida. So, I went to him and I said, ‘If you keep on doing that, I’m leaving.” While making his apology, “He looked into my eyes and he was stuck. That’s all.”

Listening to stories about his mother and Grant, Eduardo Ponti got one of the biggest laughs of the day: “I have a bittersweet feeling about Cary Grant: sweet, because he’s somebody who meant a lot to you, bitter because my birth was threatened.” You know, I can’t really blame him.

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Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

Who could turn down Cary Grant? Well, Loren explained that it wasn’t Grant so much as a break with her life in Italy that she was resisting: “I think that with Carlo [Ponti] I had found a kind of calm, a kind of tranquility. He came from Italy… I was afraid to change so quickly in my life and go to America.”

Knowing that her future as an artist, not merely a star, resided in her native country, Loren went home. Although she didn’t seem to find her English-language films particularly fulfilling, she confessed her fondness for a few: “I’ve done things that sometimes I thought were okay, like the picture I did with Cary, Houseboat, and then also a film I did, The Key with Carol Reed.”

twowomenIn 1960, Loren gave her most acclaimed performance in Two Women, as a mother struggling to help her daughter survive in wartorn Italy, again directed by De Sica. Initially slated to play the daughter, Loren ended up in the role of the mother after Anna Magnani turned it down—but suggested rewriting the script to feature Sophia as the older lead.

The artistic triumph emerged from a grueling production, leading up to the horrifying church rape scene. “I spent nights and nights and nights without sleep,” Loren said. “When the day came, we did a rehearsal and then we started shooting.

“On the first [take], De Sica said, “Print!” I said, ‘Don’t we do another one?’ He said, ‘No, we won’t do another one.’ All the scenes from that moment on until the end De Sica never did it twice.”

The one-take method made Loren nervous, “I was so preoccupied and I said, ‘My god, it will be terrible and and I will have to do the same thing [again]… he said, ‘No, you could never do it better. Shut up.’”

De Sica was right, as Loren learned on Oscar night when she became the first actor ever to win an Academy Award for a foreign-language performance.

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Ben Mankiewicz looks adorably starstruck in the presence of Sophia Loren before their interview at the TCL Chinese Theater. Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda

At the TCL Chinese Theater, the day after her interview at the Montalban, Loren recounted how she received the word of her victory. Seized by the jitters, Loren had decided not to attend the ceremony, thinking, “I will stay in Rome, because if I win, I’m going to faint. If I faint in my own house, then it’s fine. Nobody sees me. If I faint on the stage, it’s going to be a disaster.”

Instead, Loren and Ponti enjoyed a quiet night at home. The clock ticked by, past the time when the winner was supposed to have been announced. Assuming that no news was bad news, the couple headed up to bed.

“At that moment,” Loren told the packed crowd at the Chinese Theater, “the telephone rang. I said, ‘Hello? Pronto? Chi è?”

What she heard at the other end is probably the best thing anyone has ever heard in the history of phones: “It’s Cary Grant. You won!”

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Marriage Italian Style (1964) reunited Loren with De Sica and her frequent co-star Marcello Mastroianni. One of Loren’s favorites in her filmography, the bawdy, beloved dramedy allowed the actress to prove her talent to a surprising critic: her mother.

“Even though after a while I started to be in movies and they were giving me already good roles, one time we were looking at the television and there was a lady called Regina Bianchi, ah, mi ricordo… and she was doing Marriage Italian Style. My mother, because she was very natural, sometimes she could say things that could hurt you a lot.

“So, I said, ‘Maybe Carlo would like to do Marriage Italian Style.’ And she looked at the television and she said, ‘But you could never do it.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ ‘Because she’s so good.’”

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Perhaps Bianchi was good, but Loren is “a cinematic event” in Marriage Italian Style, to borrow Ben Mankiewicz’s description. Amazed by Loren’s walk in a certain iconic scene, Mankiewicz began, “When you walk, just walk in a movie—”

“I dance,” Loren aptly finished the sentence. “I walked like that because there was music underneath, so I had to do a double step, and I enjoyed it very much.”

Loren cherished the part of Filumena, a prostitute who longs for a loving marriage with her keeper of 20 years, for its range of emotion. “It’s a beautiful role for a woman. You can cry, you can laugh, but the tragedy of the woman at that time is always there.”

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Marriage Italian Style also captures the beauty and vitality of Loren’s heritage in Naples. “I think I owe everything to [being] Neapolitan,” She reflected. “Every kind of picture that I’ve done with De Sica, the source was always Naples in a way.”

What else is there to say? Grazie, Naples. E grazie, Sophia.

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Art Imitates Life: Shirley MacLaine Revisits The Apartment (1960) at TCMFF

maclaine“We didn’t know where it was going,” Shirley MacLaine recalled.

That “it” happened to be the plot of The Apartment, which remained up in the air as shooting for the film began. “Jack [Lemmon] and I both, we talked about it, we were given 29 pages of script.”

The actors just had to wait and see how it would crumble, cookie-wise.

At the TCM Classic Film Festival, MacLaine, exuberant as ever at age 80, regaled a packed audience in the TCL Chinese Theater with stories about the making of Billy Wilder’s enduringly powerful dramedy. 

I consider myself very fortunate to have been in that audience. After seeing MacLaine 4 times over the course of the festival, believe me, I could have listened to this fascinating and endlessly sassy woman for hours more!

In conversation with Leonard Maltin, MacLaine revealed how behind-the-scenes spontaneity helped to shape the masterpiece. Asked about the onscreen sparks between herself and Jack Lemmon, with whom she’d never worked before, she explained, “I think chemistry is good when you find yourself on a discovery mission.”

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MacLaine and Maltin at Club TCM. Photo credit: Tyler Golden.

In keeping with this atmosphere of “discovery,” writer-director Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond largely eschewed any preconceived story or characterizations. Instead, they tailored their script to fit the two leading actors’ growing friendship—with remarkable results.

According to MacLaine, Diamond and Wilder “watched the developing working relationship. They were so on cue, on key about every little movement, every little sigh and disappointment and joy and happiness, and they made little notes about what they saw. So, the love affair between Fran and [Baxter] became basically what they observed.” 

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Wilder and Diamond also mined MacLaine’s personal life for screenwriting material, finding inspiration for what would become a major motif in The Apartment: “I was hanging out with the Rat Pack a lot and a couple of gangsters were teaching me how to play gin rummy, teaching me how to cheat,” she remembered.

“When he would ask on the Monday mornings, ‘Well, what was it like for the weekend?’ I would tell Billy what I’d learned, and that’s why he put the gin game in the movie, because he was fascinated by who my compatriots were over the weekend.” 

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MacLaine also unwittingly supplied one of the film’s most memorable lines while having lunch with Wilder: “I was having a love affair that wasn’t working. I said, ‘Why do people have to be in love with people anyway? Why can’t we be in love with giraffes?’ or something like that. And he said, ‘That’s it, that’s it!’”

Knowing a good thing when he heard it, Wilder launched into action. “He ordered us to retake the whole scene, because that made sense to him and to Izzy Diamond,” MacLaine said. “See, that’s unusual, because it took a lot of expense, time, and so forth, but when he saw something that seemed, in his opinion, to make his stuff better, he went for it.” 

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Fans of the film will know that Fran Kubelik does closely echo MacLaine’s words. Sitting up in bed after her failed suicide attempt, she half-ignores Baxter’s sweetly clumsy attempt to distract her from her sorrows with a game of cards and asks, “Why do people have to love people anyway?” 

In contrast to Wilder’s human-centered approach to the script, he proved a steely, almost clinical taskmaster when it came to coaching performances. 

Wilder was “the most scientific of directors,” as MacLaine described him. “He would say to us, ‘Do the scene again and take out 12-and-a-half seconds.’ I don’t really know how that worked, but we did it.” 

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On the whole, with 55 years of perspective on The Apartment, MacLaine spoke of Wilder in fond and admiring terms: “As a person, I liked him a lot. He was very funny and very sensitive when it came to what he thought would be best for the screen.”

Day to day, however, Wilder often used his caustic wit to keep the actress in line and it hurt. “At times he was very brittle with women,” she observed, “but in the end you were better for it.”

vlcsnap-2015-04-06-20h44m38s155The next day at Club TCM, again in interview with Leonard Maltin, MacLaine elaborated on the pressures of being directed by Wilder. “He was very sarcastic. I see why Marilyn [Monroe] was afraid to come to work,” she said. “He scared the hell out of me. But he taught me how to be self-reliant and how to take criticism.” 

Fortunately for MacLaine, years as a dancer had taught her to deal with tough overseers. “Choreographers are made to make you miserable, so I was used to that… When this incredible Austrian [Wilder] came at me, I thought, ‘Okay, well, just show me the step.’” 

And what a dance it turned out to be!

vlcsnap-2015-04-06-20h44m30s80 As for her co-star Jack Lemmon, MacLaine had nothing but positive memories: “He was such a sweetheart. What a wonderful man.” On the set, she would watch Lemmon perform whenever possible: “He really could do anything. He was good, very, very, very good, until the sixth or seventh take. I mean, absolutely sterling.”

With his “scientific” approach to comedy, Wilder gave MacLaine plenty of opportunity to watch, as he put Lemmon through long series of takes, seemingly for the sake of experiment. “I think Billy wanted to see what the contrived actor in all of us could do if he asked him to do take 16,” she said. “He was seeing how far probably the best actor of drama and comedy… could go and still be honest to it.”

vlcsnap-2015-04-06-20h26m30s27MacLaine also mentioned an encouraging foible of Lemmon’s: “He would say, ‘Magic time!’ every time the camera rolled. And then we knew we’d better make some magic.”

Fred MacMurray didn’t get off so easily in MacLaine’s no-punches-pulled appraisal. “Fred never picked up the check at lunch,” she wryly commented, prompting gales of laughter at the Chinese Theater. The next day at Club TCM, the spirited actress couldn’t resist another jab at MacMurray’s parsimony: “His money blinked when he took it out of his pocket. It had never seen the sun.”

vlcsnap-2015-04-05-19h49m04s98While discussing the collaborative effort of making The Apartment, MacLaine emphasized a contributor who rarely gets the credit he deserves: Doane Harris. “He was Billy’s secret,” MacLaine insisted. This veteran editor worked on most of Wilder’s greatest films, including Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Ace in the Hole, and received credit as an associate producer on The Apartment.

After looking over the rushes in the cutting room, Harris would make his diagnosis to Wilder. As MacLaine recounted, “He would say, and I heard this because Billy didn’t mind if I heard… ‘Billy, you gotta shoot that whole day over. You did not break my heart today.’ And they would re-do it.”

“See, that’s where trust comes in,” she explained. “Billy didn’t even ask why. To save time, he just did it.” 

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On the subject of retakes, MacLaine told us about a scene where the dialogue posed a frustrating challenge for her: when Fran and Sheldrake meet in the Chinese restaurant after 6 weeks spend apart and rekindle their affair.

“My line was, ‘So you sit there and you make yourself a cup of instant coffee while he rushes out to catch the train.’ I, being half-Canadian, would say ‘oat’ [instead of ‘out’] all my life, and I was self-conscious about that.” 

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Trying to work around the offending “out,” MacLaine substituted “off” into the line and hoped that no one would notice her minor change. But there was no fooling Wilder, who insisted that she speak the dialogue exactly as written.

Whenever the director heard “off” where an “out” should be, “He would send the script girl down to basically beat the shit out of us.”

After a few takes, MacLaine’s nervousness about the line interfered with her ability to project Fran’s multitude of emotions in that scene, as she opens up about the shame of being the mistress of a married man.

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The young actress felt overwhelmed. “At the same time as Billy insisted on the intricacies of every word, in that particular scene I had to well up,” she recalled. “I couldn’t do it. It was hard.” 

Wilder expected better—and expressed his disappointment in MacLaine’s performance during the scene in no uncertain terms: “We went to the dailies the next day. And Billy stood up in front of everybody in the room and said, ‘Well, I tried.’”

(Ouch. Yeah, I can see why Marilyn was scared of Wilder, too.)

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Whereas other actresses might have buckled under the humiliation of being called out in front of her colleagues, MacLaine had a different reaction. 

“Now, let me tell you, this was wonderful for me,” she said, like a true pro. “When you hear someone be that sarcastic and that talented, you learn to take criticism, because his criticism was right.” 

The time came to reshoot the scene, but Wilder hadn’t suppressed his frustration yet. “We went back. Fred and I sat in the chairs. Billy said, ‘Action.’ And he left! He walked outside.”

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Without the director, MacLaine mustered her courage and gave the scene her all. She overcame her pesky linguistic hang-up and delivered as heartbreaking a line read as I’ve ever heard, the kind that gives you chills just thinking about it. 

And that’s the take they used… shot while Wilder presumably fulminated elsewhere.

“That’s the scene in the movie!” MacLaine proudly informed the audience. “And I’m here to tell you, that’s because I was brave.”

I’m darned grateful that she was, because the scene plays beautifully. It stands as a lesson to all of us. There’s a lot to be said for “Shut up and deal.”

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The Mind Reels: 10 Personal Highlights from TCMFF 2015

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You’d think I’d turn my pass to the right side for my photo op, but you’d be wrong.

4 days. 11 movies. 5 special presentations. 100+ buttons handed out to eager film fans. 20 hours of sleep, tops.

And I loved every minute of it.

This year, the TCM Classic Film Festival took “History According to Hollywood” as its theme. However, the history went deeper than the fancy costumes on the screens or the struggles of the past that drove the plots.

First off, TCM and TCMFF do so much to keep the history of motion pictures alive, enabling people of all ages to discover and appreciate our movie heritage. I mean, where else can you see a 1898 Méliès film from a hand-cranked projector one day and a Soderbergh hit from the 1990s the next?

More and more people of my generation (and I’m 24) are exploring Hollywood history, not just history according to Hollywood.

When Shirley MacLaine looked out at the standing-room-only crowd there to see her at Club TCM, she chuckled about the absence of white hair among the spectators.

Leonard Maltin explained, “TCM gets pigeonholed as a mature viewer network, and there’s a reason for that, because older people tend to like older movies, but that doesn’t mean that other people don’t like old movies, too, and it shows in the audience here.”

“Because they were better,” MacLaine chimed in, expressing what I suspect most of us were thinking.

TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL

Shirley MacLaine and Leonard Maltin at Club TCM. Photo credit: Tyler Golden.

That betterness is something that TCM brings into people’s homes, and I’m grateful for that. As Christopher Plummer remarked at the festival, “there can be no future without a past.”

Second, TCMFF gives attendees the chance to listen to people who are truly, to borrow an apt cliché, living history. Listening to their memories illuminates not only their lives as performers, but also the social climate from which their work emerged.

Finally, corny though it sounds, the festival connected the personal histories that many of us have with people we hardly know in the conventional sense, but with whom we share our deepest thoughts and passions on social media.

I recently learned that the Library of Congress is storing tweets, archiving them as part of our cultural history. I daresay mine don’t rate that, but the practice shows what I’d known for years: that our virtual existences do constitute a real part of our lives, our identities, our stories. Whatever tweets are made of, maybe friendships are made of the same stuff.

I feel tremendously privileged to have attended the 6th annual TCM Classic Film Festival. For the record (and maybe for posterity?), here are a few of the many, many highlights.

I’m working on more detailed posts about a number of these talks and movies, but I figured that I’d share some memories while they’re fresh. Ranking these by any criterion would be just too difficult, so I’ve put them in chronological order.

Seeing Captains Kirk and von Trapp together—I mean, William Shatner and Christopher Plummer along with Shirley MacLaine and Ben Mankiewicz at the handprint and footprint ceremony.

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Bravely snapped from the press box… on my iPhone.

It’s a miracle I didn’t faint, and heaven knows the blistering sun was no help, but there I was standing in the press box with the pros… juggling my basic point-and-shoot Cannon and my iPhone. Ever get the feeling you’ve brought a knife to a gunfight?

Well, this girl reporter’s nervousness melted right away when the guests arrived; I was there snapping away and recording with the rest of ’em. Hey, even Hildy Johnson had to start somewhere.

The ceremony featured amusing tributes from Shirley MacLaine, who credited Plummer with teaching her how to drink a whole bottle of wine, and William Shatner, who spoke of his long history of working with Plummer and following him to Canada, Stratford, and New York. “I followed you to Los Angeles, to Hollywood. That means I’d follow you anywhere!” Shatner joked.

In that sonorous baritone of his (which sounds even better in real life), man of the hour Christopher Plummer told spectators, “My mother once predicted that I would have to wait to be a very old man before receiving recognition in my profession. She was absolutely right, of course. But she never mentioned anything about being stuck in cement or allowing pedestrians to trample over me to their hearts’ content.”

2015 TCM Classic Film Festival - Christopher Plummer Hand and Footprint Ceremony

Christopher Plummer leaves his handprints in front of the TCL Chinese Theater. No, this one’s not mine. This is from one of the pros: Alberto E. Rodriguez/WireImage.

“I am immensely, immensely touched that I am part of this glorious history,” Plummer said, acknowledging all those who’d left their imprints before him. “To all my newfound brothers and sisters in arms, my talented dear neighbors in life after death, those wonderful artists whose grand achievements are forever carved into memory, I promise I won’t spoil the party.”

I took a lot of pictures, which I’ll treasure for occasions when I need a reminder of what pure class looks like.

Ann-Margret confessing to a very badass speeding violation.

While introducing a screening of The Cincinnati Kid (1965), the actress discussed her Swedish origins, her early roles, and her passion for motorcycles. When Ben Mankiewicz asked about the fastest she’d ever gone on one of her beloved bikes, her reply flabbergasted the audience: “120 at 2 a.m. on Mulholland… There was no traffic!”

TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL

The enchanting Ann-Margret. Photo credit: Tyler Golden.

About her Cincinnati Kid co-star Steve McQueen, Ann-Margret said, “Like me, he loved speed… I could identify with him, because I’m a bit of a daredevil.”

However, the studio informed both Ann-Margret and McQueen that they needed to stop riding their bikes to work. It was too dangerous for major stars.

Mankiewicz asked what McQueen advised her to do. Alas, that wasn’t the sort of thing you repeat to hundreds of people at the Egyptian Theater: “Well, I can’t really say everything… He said, ‘Let ’em stay nervous. That’s their job.’”

Ann-Margret also shared stories about her film debut, working with Bette Davis on Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles (1961): “She really took care of me. She watched what I did, and since I didn’t know the meaning of close-up, medium, long shots—as I said, I was just really happy to know my lines—and all of a sudden she comes up and says, ‘Stop!… Ann-Margret, this is your close-up and I want you to look the best that you can. Makeup and hair!’”

Discovering rare and racy pre-Code comedy Don’t Bet on Women (1931).

Since I’d watched Men on Call at Cinefest the week before, Don’t Bet on Women was the second pre-Code Fox feature released in 1931 starring Edmund Lowe that I’d seen in one week! That, folks, is how I roll.

This zestful comedy centers on Jeanne Drake (Jeanette MacDonald, in her only non-singing role), who finds herself the subject of a wager between her stuffy husband Herbert (Roland Young) and a suavely caddish acquaintance Roger Fallon (Edmund Lowe). Hubby bets that his wife will resist Fallon’s advances… then gets to sweat it out as she uses the wager to teach him some respect and spice up her life.

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Una Merkel steals the show as Jeanne’s dizzy, flirtatious relative from the South. Merkel’s Tallulah encourages her conflicted cousin to play both sides of the bet: “I’d let Herbert win the wager and then I’d let Mr. Fallon kiss me to bits. That way I’d help my husband and then I’d help myself.”

Former James Bond George Lazenby leaving Ben Mankiewicz and the audience slightly shaken (and stirred).

Before a screening of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), the Australian actor let loose with disarmingly unfiltered reminiscences of the movie and his wild behavior during the production.

“The last thing I ever thought of being was a film actor. Sounded like hard work,” he said, recounting how he bluffed his way into the role of 007 with no acting experience.

Mentioned for the role by a friend, Lazenby, a top male model of the 1960s, turned up at the casting office with a Connery haircut, a sharp suit, and a Rolex. When producer Harry Saltzman tried to schedule a screen test for the following day, Lazenby panicked.

“I was shitting myself and this was my way out,” he recalled. “I said ‘I can’t be here… I’m doing a film in France.’” There was no film in France, by the way. Our hero was BS-ing.

Saltzman asked how much he was getting paid. The made-up reply? “500 pounds a day, which was half a year’s wages in England at that time. I think, ‘That’ll get me out of here.’” Instead, the producer offered Lazenby that much just to show up—and so he became “the only actor who’s ever been paid for a callback.”

TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL

Lovable rogue George Lazenby. Photo credit: Tyler Golden.

Upon meeting director Peter Hunt, Lazenby came clean and admitted that he’d never acted before in his life. Hunt corrected him: “You’ve fooled two of the most ruthless guys I’ve ever met in my life! You’re an actor.”

Lazenby went through intensive training to play Bond, including elocution and deportment lessons: “They got me to walk like Prince Philip. I used to swagger like an Australian coming out of a pub on a Friday night.”

During shooting, he wooed Diana Rigg, but ultimately lost her when she caught him in an, ahem, compromising position with a receptionist in the stuntman’s tent. Hearing this ribald anecdote, Mankiewicz exclaimed, “You are James Bond!”

To make this moment even cooler, my mom (@MiddParent on Twitter) and I were sitting next to our longtime Twitter pal James David Patrick of #Bond_Age_, the James Bond Social Media Project.

Cackling deliriously at a midnight screening of Boom! (1968), the ne plus ultra of camp cinema.

boomI literally laughed my eyeliner off and resembled nothing so much as a raccoon when I staggered out of the Chinese Multiplex at 2 a.m. If you took ’shrooms and watched Joseph Losey’s The Servant, you might get something like the same director’s puzzlingly bad Boom!

Eccentric dowager Liz Taylor howls as she pushes an X-ray machine into the ocean and bloviates about the ephemerality of existence. Richard Burton pensively intones “Boom!” every chance he gets and swings a samurai sword about for no apparent reason. Pompous camera movements threaten to induce motion sickness. I can’t decide if Boom! is brilliantly atrocious or atrociously brilliant.

Interestingly enough, Boom! polarized those friends of mine who were brave enough to stay up for it. Joel Williams of #TCMParty enjoyed it as much as I did and Miguel Rodriguez of Horrible Imaginings Film Festival is thinking of how to work lines of the film’s ponderous dialogue into ringtones for his cell.

At the other end of the love-hate spectrum, Will McKinley of Cinematically Insane has vowed to destroy all surviving prints of the cult classic. So, quite a range of responses there.

Norman Lloyd reenacting his famous Hitchcock plunge from Saboteur (1942).

At age 100, Norman Lloyd gets my vote for the most charming man on the planet; he is the personification of joie de vivre. So, rather than simply telling his audience many of his engrossing tales, he acted them out.

While describing his memorable death as the nasty title character of Hitchcock’s thriller Saboteur (1942), Lloyd explained how John Fulton and company created the illusion of the villain’s fall from the Statue of Liberty.

“It started with a seat on a pole on a black drape on the floor… that would be painted in as what’s known as a matte shot, where they painted in New York bay.

“Now, above me… was a platform. The middle of it was cut open and on it was a camera, shooting down. On a cue, this camera would go up in the air to the ceiling of the stage as I performed various beautiful balletic movements.”

TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL

Norman Lloyd invites you to appreciate his awesomeness. Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda.

At this point, on the stage of the Montalban Theater, Lloyd recreated these “airborne” undulations of the arms and legs—albeit in a more comic vein. If he’s Fry in the film, he was Wry at that moment (and, if I may say so, rather Spry for his advanced years), and I will never, ever forget it.

“I didn’t fall at all,” Lloyd explained. “I just made these movements [more undulations] as the camera was going up. And they ran the camera at different speeds. They weren’t sure at what speed it would look best, so the speeds went from 18 [fps] to 22, I remember. I’m not sure what they printed at.”

Spending over 2 hours with Sophia Loren, listening to an astonishingly down-to-earth diva.

About halfway through the interview with his magnificent mother, Edoardo Ponti joked that we’d all have to come back the next morning for part two of the discussion since it could go on for hours more. No one in the audience seemed to object to the idea.

Loren immediately won us over (not that she needed to!) by telling us about her natural shyness: “It was very difficult for me to come out and meet you all, but now that I’m here with you, I consider you a member of my family.”

TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL

The luminous Sophia Loren in conversation at the Montalban Theater. Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda.

The idea of family wove through much of what she shared. For instance, Loren recounted how, with money from her aunt, she and her sister went to see Hollywood movies during World War II. Blood and Sand (1941) remained a vivid memory from those dark times, when bombardments regularly rocked Loren’s home and she had little to eat. “At my age, I was 8, 9 years old, to see these grand buildings and the clothes, the hair… the dance, the music… it took me to another world, so that for some minutes, for some instants, we were happy.”

Some of the most moving parts of the interview provided a glimpse into the close relationship between Sophia and Edoardo. When he asked her to talk about the costars she didn’t like, he got a slightly stern response: “Why do you ask me this question? We’re going to talk about this later!” The mother-son dynamic brought a sense of comfortable intimacy to the conversation that added poignancy to each answer.

Fighting sleep deprivation for hand-cranked movies, including a film unseen in full for 110 years.

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The dream machine, my picture

When you walk into a theater and they’re playing hits of the early 20th century on a 1908 Edison Phonograph, you know you’re in for something truly special. Indeed, at this presentation, Joe Rinaudo showed movies made between 1898 and 1913 from a 1909 Hand-Crank Model 6 Cameragraph Motion Picture Machine.

As I sat spellbound in the dark, my attention shifted from the flickering images on the screen to the lively shadows cast on the wall by the projectionist’s arm. The presentation brought us back to the hushed wonder of the first motion picture shows, emphasizing the material, mechanical basis of film in a time when that aspect of cinema is rapidly slipping out of the public consciousness.

The program of films ran the gamut from the somber, like A Corner in Wheat (1909), to the whimsical, like Four Troublesome Heads (1898), to the downright bizarre, like The Dancing Pig (1907), which can only be described as nightmare fuel.

Best of all, the presentation ended with a recently rediscovered Pathé serpentine dance, believed for many years to be partially lost, not projected in entirety for an audience for over a century. Foreshadowing Les Vampires and Dracula, a bat swoops into the frame before a hidden cut transforms it into a woman who artfully sways her veils, at times resembling an angel, a butterfly, or a bird. Fully restored, the exquisite rainbow of hand-tinted hues on her “wings” shined from the screen and nearly moved me to tears.

I can’t think of many more beautiful sights that have ever danced before my eyes.

Tapping my toes to “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” during The Smiling Lieutenant (1931).

smilinglieutenantI missed the chance to see this irresistibly saucy comedy when it first screened on Friday, but when it was selected to fill a “TBA” slot on Sunday, I decided that a touch of Lubitsch was just what I needed.

As Cari Beauchamp observed in her introduction, “If innuendos can fly, they do so in this film.”

Nobody ever made the unseen or the unsaid sexier than Lubitsch did. Seriously, how many movies pay a musical tribute to breakfast afterglow? When Chevalier croons to Claudette Colbert, “You put magic in the muffins,” you get the feeling he may not be talking about a nutritious morning meal.

Lest we forget, The Smiling Lieutenant includes perhaps the most pre-Code of all movie lines: “Let me see your underwear.” And, as if that weren’t cheeky enough, we can savor a whole song about the benefits of choosing your skivvies with panache.

Shown from a darn near immaculate 35mm print, courtesy of Universal, The Smiling Lieutenant pulled me out of the creeping fatigue that has been known to afflict those going on about 4 hours of sleep.

I tend to prioritize the stars at TCMFF. After all, who knows when/if I’ll get to see them again? This viewing choice, though, was motivated by pure movie love on my part. It left me with a slight knowing smile and a rosy complexion, as though I shared a naughty secret with the characters.

Shirley MacLaine dishing on pretty much everyone and everything that the Club TCM audience asked about!

MacLaine doesn’t shy away from speaking her mind (which is why I love her) and, for a magical hour at Club TCM, virtually no topic was off limits to the perennially sassy and enlightening star.

She mentioned Hitchcock’s confusing, oddball sense of humor, giving her direction in rhyming slang. If he wanted a pause, he’d instruct her, “Before you say that line, dog’s feet.” (Because paws = pause, get it?)

MacLaine noted that she got along fine with Hitch while making The Trouble with Harry (1955), because she wasn’t his ideal beauty. “I was his eating partner. I wasn’t tall and blonde and willowy and ethereal. I ate.”

TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL

The outspoken and awe-inspiring Shirley MacLaine at Club TCM. Photo credit: Tyler Golden

Commenting on the director’s callousness, she said, “He was doing all that he did maybe to deflect from his lack of what man heroes were, and that’s where the sarcasm came from. He was really adept at being cynically funny.”

When asked about the difficulty of getting Frank Sinatra to do more than one take of any scene, MacLaine exclaimed, “They had a hard time getting him to do anything! They had a hard time getting him to work. I think he suffered from the same thing that Ernie Kovacs suffered from, and that is, ‘If I really rehearse, if I look like I care and it doesn’t work, it’s my fault’… He loved the spontaneity of not knowing what he was going to do.”

MacLaine also offered a colorful anecdote about Jack Nicholson: “Once he came to the door in a robe, so you kinda wondered what was under there. Next time he came with his shorts. Next time he came with a hooker. And the fourth time with nothing.”

A voice from the audience rather indelicately asked, “What did it look like?” to which MacLaine cannily replied, “It’s too long a story.” An uproar ensued.

Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation, who briefly interviewed MacLaine before a screening of The Children’s Hour (1961), called her Club TCM conversation the best event he’d ever attended at TCMFF. I feel mighty lucky to have been there—and that goes for the festival as a whole.

I can hardly wait for next year. This one will be hard to top, but I have faith that TCM can do it.

Did you go to TCMFF? What were your highlights?