The Best Old Movies on a Big Screen This Fortnight: NYC Repertory Cinema Picks, December 30-January 12

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All I Desire (1953)
Directed by Douglas Sirk
The characters in Sirk’s films are very often performing—both for themselves and for each other—as the people that they would like to be. Their ranks include Naomi Murdoch, the middle-aged vaudeville performer played by Barbara Stanwyck in one of two collaborations with the filmmaker (the other being 1956’s There’s Always Tomorrow). Naomi, who long ago left her school principal husband (played by Richard Carlson) and three children for private reasons, returns to their small Wisconsin town for the first time in several years on the impetus of daughter Lily’s request to watch her star in a high school play. The drama rises throughout Naomi’s encounters with her guarded and vulnerable ex-hubby, her dew-eyed thespian daughter (Lori Nelson), her older child still resenting abandonment (Marcia Henderson), her still-flame-nursing ex-lover (Lyle Bettger), and other figures for whom she continues to play a profoundly important role. She deliberates whether to stay or to go amidst a swirl of clashing people striving to cover with politeness their efforts to pull her close and push her away. At one point, she is asked to recite a poem, and delivers Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?” for her family in a way that leaves clear her own needs. Aaron Cutler (December 31, 2:30pm, 6:30pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Sirk retrospective)

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The First Legion (1951)
Directed by Douglas Sirk
A measured (sometimes measuring) reflection on faith and reason and the rippling impact an apparent miracle has on the vulnerable state of belief in a Jesuit seminary as well as outside its ordering doors, The First Legion explores a subtle chemistry. Faith alone is not enough for happiness (early on in the film a pair of priests plan to quit), but too much reason is enough to leave you soul-sick, as in the case of Lyle Bettger’s agnostic doctor. Sirk extends this balancing act with a subdued, deep-focus visual style and the embattled character of Charles Boyer’s lawyer turned Jesuit, whose skepticism threatens both the maybe-miracle and his role with the church. All this measurement concludes in an transcendent ending that Bosley Crowther deemed at the time to be “mentally disturbing,” but more persuasively seems to be Sirk’s marvelous reflexiveness coming on in the end, movingly acknowledging that equanimity can only get you so far. Jeremy Polacek (December 4, 7pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Sirk retrospective)

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Hell’s Hinges (1916)
Directed by William S. Hary and Charles Swickard
Hart wore a graven face throughout his silent-screen-era roles as a cowboy touched by God and by his fellow human beings alike into better living. The star (voted by exhibitors as America’s most popular screen idol in 1915 and 1916) assumed a look of concern and moral responsibility from the time that he first entered films in his mid-forties onwards. In Hell’s Hinges—which is both one of his darkest and among his most celebrated films—he plays Blaze Tracy, a badman key to the makeup of the titular outlaw-ruled remote Western town. Blaze is called in by an evil saloon owner (Alfred Hollingsworth) to drive out the newly arrived, weak-willed young Reverend Robert Henley (Jack Standing) and his eternally present stern-willed sister Faith (Clara Williams). The gunman finds himself falling in love with Faith and tries to alter his wicked path, after which other villains arise in his stead and the Reverend’s church goes up in flames. Blaze’s past is left to burn down with the town, and a new life—perhaps a better one—finds space to grow in its gloomy wake. Aaron Cutler (January 7, 22, 1:30pm at MoMA’s “Modern Matinees” spotlight on Hart)

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Gate of Hell (1953)
Directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa
Gate of Hell, Japan’s Leave Her to Heaven, is a curious fusion of modernism and expressionism, and certainly among the most beautiful films ever made. Colors have never looked so bright, so purposeful. Their radical nakedness befits a story so simple; all the better to simmer under the oppressive inevitability. We’re only introduced to the central conflict after the biggest action sequence has died down. A failed coup leaves a celebrated loyalist without anything to occupy his mind, so he fixates on the woman who brought him glory—the empress’s decoy, whom he protected believing her the genuine article. His obsession turns deadly, and Kinugasa makes the world fall quiet around him while he prepares to damn himself. A triumph of art direction, sound design, and psychological externalization, Gate of Hell is a magnificent waking dream, the promise of a visual medium fulfilled. Scout Tafoya (January 8, 7pm at Japan Society)

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