The Best Old Movies on a Big Screen This Week: NYC Repertory Cinema Picks, December 23-29

Written-on-the-Wind-Technicolor

Written on the Wind (1956)
Directed by Douglas Sirk
Forbidden romance, in all its color-coded meticulousness, propels Todd Haynes’s Carol, but it belongs to Sirk. Written on the Wind is, perhaps, the most realized execution of the once-lambasted weepie-monger’s flair. While laughably campy (especially in its archaic sexual subtext), the film circles the very fragility of artifice; everything perfectly arranged must crumble. Homes are wrecked, literally and figuratively, when the oil-rich Hadley compound—boozy Kyle (Robert Stack), his promiscuous, Iago-esque sister Marylee (Dorothy Malone), and life-long pal Mitch (Rock Hudson)—tangles into a soapy web of longing and jealousy after the silver tongued Lucy’s (Lauren Bacall) arrival. A debauched Technicolor feast with far better mis-en-scène than you’d expect. Max Kyburz (December 24, 6:30pm; December 25, 2pm; December 26, 9pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Sirk retrospective)

Howard Hawks’ BALL OF FIRE (1941). Courtesy Film Forum via Photofest. Playing December 25-31.
Courtesy Film Forum via Photofest.

Ball of Fire (1941)
Directed by Howard Hawks
Replace Snow White with a nightclub singer named Sugarpuss O’Shea and the Seven Dwarves with a kempt collection of owlish encyclopedists, and therein is the formula for this screwball comedy. Gary Cooper stars as Professor Bertram Potts, the leader of the academics who are working around the clock to develop a new dictionary that includes modern slang. Enter the temptress—Barbara Stanwyck’s glittering, silver-tongued moll—who has escaped from her handsy fiancee and boss to take refuge. The men take her in, and when her acerbic jive begins to fly (thanks to an astute screenplay from Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett), the gentlemen realize that they’ve found themselves knee-deep in a fruitful collaboration. Samantha Vacca (December 25-31 at Film Forum; showtimes daily)

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The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939)
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi
Historical grounding aside, it’s impossible to completely cast away pre-existing interpretive lenses when watching a film. Accordingly, myriad interpretations have arisen regarding Story of the Last Chrysanthemums’s lack of close-ups, its ending, and the semantic purpose of its melodrama. Are gender roles fulfilled and/or celebrated, or does the decentering of actors in favor of sets and spaces function as a Brechtian distancing technique, encouraging us to critique what is presented? Really, though, the deep space cinematography, elliptical narrative, and tight choreography challenge the audience to forge its own path through the film. It’s worth wondering how our canon might be modified had Mizoguchi’s film traveled abroad before Citizen Kane, as its innovations are no less revelatory and are equally inseparable from its thematic weight. Forrest Cardamenis (December 25-31 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center; showtimes daily)

sleep-my-love

Sleep, My Love (1948)
Directed by Douglas Sirk
“I’ve always been perfectly healthy and happy… in fact almost monotonously,” Claudette Colbert informs a psychiatrist. It’s a very Sirkian way of assuring him she’s just fine after recurring erratic behavior like awaking on a train with amnesia and a gun, with which she purportedly shot her husband (Don Ameche), in her purse. Neither Colbert’s character nor the film are as heartbreakingly poignant as Barbara Stanwyck’s in later Sirk masterpiece There’s Always Tomorrow, but he’s already very much the sensitive poet of repression with a natural mastery for emotional mise-en-scène and cinematography. That psychiatrist, played with menacing neurosis by the great George Coulouris, is a phony, a cog in a wife-murdering plot hatched by the gaslighting Ameche. The average thriller template is made excellent by clever supporting turns and Sirk’s unmistakable stamp. Justin Stewart (December 27, 2:45pm; December 28, 6:30pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Sirk retrospective)

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