The Best Old Movies on a Big Screen This Week: NYC Repertory Cinema Picks, November 11-17

Courtesy of Film Forum
Joan Crawford in Nicholas Ray’s JOHNNY GUITAR (1954). Courtesy Film Forum. Playing November 13-19.

Johnny Guitar (1954)
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Johnny Guitar may not have the pedigree of The Searchers or the easy lovability of Rio Bravo, but it’s arguably twice as compelling as any classic western because it’s internally calibrated to a completely unique rhythm. Ray turned every genre into dance, sometimes a sensual ballet, sometimes a furious tango. Johnny Guitar is his paranoid waltz, with enough partner changes and tempo changes to make your head spin; only Ray knows the choreography, and he spins his characters and his audience around with abandon. A conspiratorial mob scene of Shakespearian allegiances (set largely in a womb-like gambling hall) slowly thaws revealing a tender respite before blood boils and spills all over the painted landscape. Once seen, never forgotten. Scout Tafoya (November 13-19 at Film Forum; showtimes daily)

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Living in Oblivion (1995)
Directed by Tom DiCillo
DiCillo’s ode to filmmaking plays like Fellini’s 8 1/2 re-imagined as a 90s music video. The film stock flip-flops between color and black and white and the plot stutter-steps through two extended dream sequences before reaching its delirious climax. A young Steve Buscemi shines as DiCillo’s surrogate, an indie director desperately trying to maintain his creative vision while confronting egomaniacal actors, on-set romances, and that carton of rotten milk at the craft service table. Peter Dinklage (making his film debut) steals the show as a disgruntled actor tired of the clichéd use of dwarves in dream sequences. A.J. Serrano (November 11, 6:45pm at Anthology Film Archives’s DiCillo series, with DiCillo and Steve Buscemi in person)

Moana being tattooed in Robert Flaherty’s MOANA WITH SOUND (1926/1980). Copyright 2014 The Robert and Frances Flaherty Study Center. Playing November 13-19.
Copyright 2014 The Robert and Frances Flaherty Study Center.

Moana (1926/1980)
Directed by Robert Flaherty
The measured pace and muted drama of this partly staged documentary mirror the rhythms of the lives it observes. In a probably somewhat idealized snapshot of an obsolete culture, co-directors (and husband-wife team) Robert and Frances Flaherty structured a loose story around the everyday activities of a few photogenic residents of a small Samoan island town. Depicting some recently abandoned customs and costumes as if they were still in use, the Flahertys and their Samoan collaborators capture in fascinating detail things like snaring a wild hog and creating a garment from a strip of mulberry bark. Dialogue and ambient sound recorded by the Flaherty’s daughter Monica on the island five decades later was seamlessly integrated into the originally silent film in this newly restored version, augmenting the vitality of the unshowily beautiful and enviably well-balanced way of life it depicts. Elise Nakhnikian (November 13-19 at Film Forum; showtimes daily)

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Tokyo Drifter (1966)
Directed by Seijun Suzuki
Released well after its maker had taken leave of such trivialities as narrative cohesion, this deconstructed gem functions more as a collection of tropes than a story: a hood trying to go straight, doomed molls, rival hitmen and blind, misplaced loyalty. Suzuki warps everything through a Pop Art prism to produce a mad jumble of hyperchromatic images of Day-Glo suns and blown-out black and white. Tasked by fed-up executives to keep the film simple and short, the director kept the running time by eliminating any footage that might have made any sense of what remains. Jake Cole (November 13, 3pm, 7pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Action and Anarchy: The Films of Seijun Suzuki”)

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The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
Directed by John Cassavetes
Cosmo Vitelli, an amiable and gracious man, owns The Crazy Horse West, a burlesque club where he acts as the director, arranger and choreographer for all performances—he is also a degenerate gambler who has just paid off a massive debt. Ben Gazzara seamlessly portrays Vitelli, a character he expanded from a persona he toyed around with for his friend director John Cassavetes. Vitelli is the culmination of this 1970s brand of character, and Gazzara glides through the film in an unfettered performance. Free of restraint, Vitelli and his “entourage of biscuits” attend an underground poker game held by gangsters, rack up twenty-three grand in new debts, and in due time Cosmo inadvertently signs a contract to kill off a “Chinese bookie” in order to settle the score. The uncharacteristic car chases and scenes of physical violence are fascinating here; Cassavetes juxtaposes Vitelli’s self-loathing with his undying urge to be gallant, all while he is committing petty crimes in order to save whatever peace of mind he has left. The narrative structure, looming on the actor’s spontaneity amid handheld shots and angled close-ups, provides a blueprint for all independent cinema. Samantha Vacca (November 14, 15, 11:15am at the Nitehawk)

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Nightmare Alley (1947)
Directed by Edmund Goulding
The essence of noir is more psychological than physical, such that noir films can take place in virtually any location. Many classical noirs turn from tales of urban crime into fractured road movies whose heroes flee for their lives and from themselves at the same time. The grim Nightmare Alley (based on William Lindsay Gresham’s even grimmer novel) works intriguingly in reverse. It opens at a traveling carnival to which con man Stanton Carlisle (an against-type Tyrone Power) has arrived fascinated by a geek’s looming shadow and eventually winds up in high-class sectors of Chicago, where “The Great Stanton” has settled down and tried to escape trouble with fairground-gained knowledge as a nightclub mentalist with wealthy targets. Along the way, he gets involved with three women: The older, code-bearing carnival mentalist Zeena (a haggard Joan Blondell), the younger, God-fearing performance aide Molly (a beautiful, perpetually broken-looking Coleen Gray), and the in-between haughty psychologist Lilith (a malevolent Helen Walker), who likes to hear confessions with a tape recorder running. Each forces Stanton to see himself in uncomfortable ways. As he moves from one woman to another, he discovers that all three can read his mind. Aaron Cutler (November 15, 2pm at the Museum of the Moving Image’s “Lonely Places: Film Noir and the American Landscape”)

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Je tu il elle (1976)
Directed by Chantal Akerman
Few filmmakers have been as formally inventive as Akerman. From feminist masterwork Jeanne Dielman (also at MoMA’s series) to her recently debuted swansong No Home Movie, she expanded the boundaries of cinema by creating a revolutionary symbiosis between content and structure. This innovation is on full display in I, You, He, She. The film follows Julie, portrayed by Akerman, as she grieves one relationship then embarks upon two new ones with a man and a woman, respectively, and is ostensibly simple in its aims. But the structure employed, that of a three-act play in which each segment is strictly delineated, is essential to understanding the character’s motivations and thought process. It’s the type of choice that perhaps only Akerman would have made, and it’s part of the reason the film resonates so powerfully with anyone who has been heartbroken and tried to pick up the pieces. John Oursler (November 15, 3:30pm; November 16, 4:15pm at “To Save and Project: The 13th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation“)

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Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
Directed by Roy William Neill
The problems with movies these days aren’t the reboots and sequels and shared universes; Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man proves those patterns were in motion long ago. No, the problem is a staggering lack of graverobbing. It’s the very act that makes possible Mary Shelley’s monster (here played with rare muteness by Bela Lugosi, who also coined the iconic outstretched arms) and, in this case, the rejuvenation of lycanthropic sadsack Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr., man of a thousand frowns). Though not the strongest of Universal’s monster hybrids, FMWM proves a textbook example of wartime Hollywood: Germany is replaced by the merry—but no less monster-infested—Visaria, and an obligatory musical number pads out the kiddie-matinee-ready spookshow by gaily reminding Talbot of his burdensome immortality. Also, graverobbing! Max Kyburz (November 15, 8:45pm at Anthology Film Archives’s “Jack Smith Selects (From the Grave)”)

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