The Best Old Movies on a Big Screen This Week: NYC Repertory Cinema Picks, November 3-December 6

repertory-mccabe McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Directed by Robert Altman
McCabe & Mrs. Miller, like so many Westerns, begins with a stranger riding into town under an opening-credits ballad: Leonard Cohen sings “The Stranger,” his light and unconsoling voice floating above spare guitar figures like someone looking for a place to be warm and not expecting to find it, as Warren Beatty, in a bearskin coat as wide as a doorway, approaches Presbyterian Church, a mountain-west settlement slapped up over the mud on wooden stilts.

This new digital restoration, the source for a new Criterion disc, arrives just as Leonard Cohen has died and Warren Beatty has crashed out on his victory lap. But the thing about McCabe & Mrs. Miller—the reason why it’s loved as personally as any film in the American canon—is that any real-world notes of regret or bitterness, no matter their tragic fullness, resonate primarily as echoes originating from the film itself. McCabe is a frontier Brigadoon, shot by Vilmos Zsigmond (who also died this year) in stuffy, soporific, luminous gold hues for the interiors and a palpable humid chill for the exteriors, as early-winter fog gives way to snow.

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McCabe’s ambition to open a saloon and brothel is fulfilled, despite his bluster, only thanks to the business sense of Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller; their partnership, a business arrangement even as a romance, allows Altman to mount perhaps the most comprehensive revisionist Western, and surely the most bittersweet: one with rough-grained frontier burlesque setpieces; a countercultural thesis about the free enterprise of the Wild West coopted by corporate bullies, in the form of the hired gunmen who come to push McCabe off his business; and pointless, sloppy, antiheroic violence—which nevertheless climaxes in an elegiac ending that aches more than any myth, and all the moreso for being nearly obscured by a swirling blizzard.

Edmund Naughton’s source novel McCabe is, like Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us, a plainspoken pulp novel from a forgotten-man author with poetry in him (the film’s most famous line originates from the book). The ending is the major masterstroke of the mainly faithful adaptation, which also arranges the book for Robert Altman and His Orchestra—both the dialogue tracks and camera zoom in and out on characters mid-mumble, picking out bits of improvised personality from an ensemble of scraggly beards and pocked skin—and changes the title to honor Christie’s Constance Miller. Beatty, a man with a great interest in vanity (see also: Ishtar), makes McCabe a gambler, a natural bluffer; Christie’s Mrs. Miller can’t help but be angelically beautiful, but her voice, sometimes bluntly throaty and sometimes hairpin-sharp, betrays her pragmatism—when she proclaims, “Look, McCabe, I’m a whore” you see an English slum child with all the sentiment of Victorian novels stripped away. When she recedes from McCabe and into the cozy oblivion of an opium haze, you empathize with her for finding a place away from the bone-deep cold. Mark Asch (November 30-December 6 at Film Forum; showtimes daily)

repertory-east-of-borneo East of Borneo (1931)
Directed by George Melford
Turns out Joseph Cornell was perfectly correct to make Rose Hobart the sole focus of his gaze when viewing Melford’s unexceptional white-woman-in-tropical-peril potboiler. (Cornell’s collage film plays with this, its source, at MoMA.) The pacing is sludgy, dialogue trite, and all the expected Orientalism is in offensive place. But at certain moments, limitations become primitive strengths: tracking shots through the California “jungle,” filmed in gleamingly underlit black-and-white on film that can barely capture anything, turn mysterious and moody, with a passing panther registering almost as if it were a moment out of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Vadim Rizov (November 30-December 2, 4pm; December 3, 4 7pm at MoMA with Rose Hobart)

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It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)
Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly
Donen’s last, unhappy collaboration with Kelly may be their best. It picks up where On the Town’s shore-leave rambunctiousness leaves off, with Army buddies Kelly, Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd celebrating the end of the war and vowing to meet again in exactly ten years—but their reunion sees “punk” Kelly, “snob” Dailey and “hick” Kidd projecting their self-loathing outwards with the bitterness of The Best Years of Our Lives, or even John O’Hara. Kelly and Donen sparred during the production and never worked together again (though Kelly later married Donen’s ex-wife), but at least in It’s Always Fair Weather the disappointments of aging and postwar life are eventually reconciled, in a live-TV melee that beats Frank Tashlin to its hard, glossy slapstick satire of a booming consumer and entertainment culture with broad Bakelite smiles. All this takes place up and down a backlot Third Avenue, complete with rickety Elevated—a Hopperesque street grid that really does feel like it’s a few blocks east of the Times Square of Guys and Dolls, MGM’s other great NYC musical of 1955. The camera takes in blocks at a time to keep up with Kelly’s highest degree-of-difficulty choreography: he tap-dances with his feet in trash can lids and roller skates, the latter in the incredible routine for Comden and Green’s sweet, clever “I Like Myself,” where he stops traffic and glides on air to thoughts of Cyd Charisse (whose own showcase, in a boxing gym with a sweaty harem of dese-dem-dose backup dancers, is limber, precise and hilarious). A major American film. Mark Asch (December 1, 4:30pm, 7pm, 9:15pm at BAM’s “That’s Entertainment!: The MGM Musical, Part II”)

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The Devil, Probably (1977)
Directed by Robert Bresson
Was the French New Wave murdered or was it suicide? Regardless, its ashes were scattered in the Seine with The Devil, Probably, the Apocalypse Now of French cinema, itself about the end of the road for a country’s national progress. Progressivism, like a moth, feels the punishing zap of nihilism. Godard is nowhere to be found. Truffaut has settled down. Paris is grey and quiet. “I proclaim destruction!” cries an organizer in the opening minutes of this paranoid, grotesque novella, followed by the death toll of the world’s animals thanks to pollution and deforestation. Humans are too wrapped up in their differences to begin tallying their own numbers. Bresson’s cinema of closed doors, vacant chairs and empty walkways, of hands clutching lone possessions, never felt more purposefully abandoned, more beautifully bleak. Destruction cannot be stopped, only reclaimed and repurposed, but who has the strength? The disaffected penitents of social revolution are Becketian ghosts in their waking life, with hardly the motivation to speak. Even the thrill of anarchy barely registers in their hollow eyes. The left can never get out of its own way, elbowing each other for ideological dominance while the earth gets smaller around them. Suicide almost seems like the only reasonable response. Scout Tafoya (December 2, 4pm, 8:30pm, 10:30pm at Metrograph’s Bresson series)

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Black Christmas (1974)
Directed by Bob Clark
This horror classic is, along with Halloween four years later, considered the godfather of the late-70s/early-80s slasher boom, forging many of the subgenre’s tropes: a holiday setting, nubile teenagers, creepy point-of-view shots filled with heavy breathing. But not even John Carpenter picked up on the feminist angle of Clark’s film. As hedonistic as many of the women in Pi Kappa Sig may be, Clark has no interest in the kind of male-gaze leering later slasher films would unashamedly invite (and that he himself would encourage with his 1981 sex comedy Porky’s). If anything, Black Christmas is about that kind of objectification, with the killer menacing his potential victims with obscene phone calls filled with derogatory sexual come-ons. It’s not only the killer himself who’s sexist, however. Final girl Jess’s (Olivia Hussey) boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) exudes male privilege in his disregard for his girlfriend’s desire to have an abortion, unable to comprehend her lack of interest in settling down just yet. Fitting, then, that he’s made out to be the main murder suspect—at least until its final two minutes throw a wrench in that conclusion and suggest something even more insidious: the terror of misogyny continuing to live on. Kenji Fujishima (December 2, 3, midnight at the Nitehawk)

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Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Almodóvar’s international breakthrough is a wild and colorful comedy of manners starring Almodovar regular Carmen Maura as Pepa, a television and voice-over actress who goes through an emotional crisis after ending an affair with her older and married fellow actor Iván (Fernando Guillén). The erratic plot centers on poor Pepa as she desperately seeks some sort of closure from an unresponsive Iván.  Almodovar frames his volatile characters as if they’re pieces of a pop collage made of saturated magazine ads. By using backdrops that resemble American television sound stages of the 1950s and 60s, Almodovar creates a world of eccentricity marked by charming and calculated artificiality. Almodovar also loves to dangle some of the ostentatious aesthetics of 80s Spain, a critical time of post-Franco counter-cultural and sexual revolution that Spaniards call the Movida Madrileña (where all that is Almodovar originated). Gazpacho spiked with sleeping pills, a mambo taxi driver, Shiite terrorists and a young lanky Antonio Banderas are all featured in this hilarious Spanish 80s classic. Alejandro Veciana (December 3, 3pm; December 15, 5:30pm at MoMA’s Almodóvar retrospective

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Man of the West (1958)
Directed by Anthony Mann
This elegiac but action-filled Western contrasts markedly with Mann’s other 1958 release, the Southern hothouse potboiler God’s Little Acre. His range extended beyond the noirs and Westerns for which he’s best known, but this, his penultimate Western, ranks with the best of his extensive, modernly neurotic work in the genre. Though Jimmy Stewart, Mann’s partner on five of those, wanted to star in Man of the West and would’ve been fine, it’s fortuitous that it wound up in Gary Cooper’s hands, since the latter is so moving in the role, one of his last. His Link Jones is a former robber and killer who has put that past behind him, until a train robbery leads to events that thrust him back in (he’s on the train for the all-too-wholesome task of seeking out a schoolteacher in Fort Worth to bring back to his underserved small town). Akin to The Shootist or Unforgiven, its “one last gunfight” trappings belie its resistance to nostalgia in the same way its violence, though exciting, denies escapist enjoyment; Link takes no pleasure in his begrudging slide back into criminality. The fistfights are long and almost comically drawn out, not snappy, and the shootouts (particularly the concluding one, which masterfully exploits deep focus) are as cleanly choreographed as ever in Mann, but hardly make you want to strap on a six-shooter.

Billie (Julie London) is the saloon singer Link meets before boarding the train to Fort Worth, and the two end up as train flotsam (along with Arthur O’Connell) after the robbery. Link leads them all to a sinister homestead, saying “I used to live here once.” “When you were a boy?” she asks. His reply (Reginald Rose scripted) is cryptic: “I don’t know what I was.” Camped inside is Link’s uncle Dock (Lee J. Cobb), who raised his nephew to kill (“Remember when we painted them walls with blood?”). Man of the West has been knocked for casting the ten-years-younger Cobb as Cooper’s mentor, but Cobb and his grizzled, born-old demeanor (and the makeup) make it work. Sprawling California locations and character actor faces like Royal Dano’s paint in the rest of the color. You can see the heart of the movie in Cooper’s agonized expression, his bald pate visible under wispy gray plugs, standing over the henchman he just knocked out. In Mann’s Westerns, his men may be brave, but are never happy. Justin Stewart (December 3, 6:45pm at the Metrograph, with Sony Pictures Classics Co-President Michael Barker and Jonathan Demme in person)

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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Hooper’s most personally impersonal film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is less a sequel than a complete inversion of his chilling 1974 landmark. He reached his hand into the guts of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and, like a grim cartoon, pulled its guts out through its mouth. That unsightly blemish left by capitalist greed is now a massive tumor. Those bruises and cuts left by a president’s illegal war, they’re now punctured, bleeding organs, leaking gallons of blood thanks to a carnival barker cannibal who looks just like that president. Texas Chainsaw 2 is a mega church of degradation and depravity, a fire sale of punishing, extremist values and tribalism, dogma unleashed. An industrial underworld given over to the lunacy of the powerful. You can scream and run, or you can fight. Choose wisely. Scout Tafoya (December 3, 9:30pm; December 6, 7pm; December 9, 7:15pm at Anthology Film Archives’s “Dark Hopper”)

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The Wanderers (1979)
Directed by Philip Kaufman
Set in The Bronx in 1963, The Wanderers focuses on the eponymous Italian-American street gang, whose members are vying with black, Chinese, and other white gangs but searching for something more as they strut, smoke, drink, fight, and grope their way through the neighborhood. The movie’s kinetic quality at times recalls Walter Hill’s memorable The Warriors, which appeared in the same year. But like George Lucas in American Graffiti, Kaufman aspires to more than a timelessly gritty fable. He is attuned to the epochal transition from the fifties to the sixties: late in the movie JFK’s assassination darkens the mood, and a Bob Dylan coffee-house gig jars the pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll score. Kaufman also hones his special talent for balancing parody and elegy, which peaked with The Right Stuff four years later. True to Richard Price’s source novel, and anticipating his subsequent prodigiousness as a chronicler of the culture of the American city, the script elevates the vulgarity of street life to sardonic urban poetry. When, in coercing the gang’s leader into marrying his pregnant daughter, the local wise-guy quips, “You should have given her an ankle bracelet and stuck to jerking off,” he is conveying sympathy as much as disdain. If The Wanderers now scans as a picaresque curiosity, it is a smart and knowing one. Jonathan Stevenson (December 4, 1:15pm; December 5, 8pm; December 19, 7:10pm at Film Forum; with various cast and crew members in person)

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Ashes and Embers (1982)
Directed by Haile Gerima
Overshadowed by Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, and Billy Woodberry—directors of the 1960s LA Rebellion movement (a name he has come to detest)—Haile Gerima deserves praise. Look no further than the Ethiopian-born, American-raised filmmaker’s Ashes and Embers, an astounding associative film about Ned Charles (John Anderson), a black Vietnam veteran struggling to make it as an actor in LA only to end up handcuffed by the police off the freeway. Non-linear and possessing an improvisational rhythm, moving between past and present, between newsreel and fictional footage, Ashes and Embers taps into Ned Charles’s angry, explosive, and highly unstable headspace as he makes the difficult transition from war to civilian life. This is a film that exteriorizes the heavy brooding, inner turmoil of a black man who fought in a white war and who must go back to an oppressive white society. Listening to his grandmother’s experiences with slavery is Ned Charles’s only solace. As Gerima has said in interviews, Ashes and Embers pinpoints the moment when one stops, takes charge, and learns from past generations. Tanner Tafelski (December 5, 7pm at MoMA with Gerima in person)

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