The Best Old Movies on a Big Screen This Week: NYC Repertory Cinema Picks, May 25-31

Bobby Henrey, Sonia Dresdel, and Ralph Richardson in Carol Reed’s THE FALLEN IDOL (1948). Courtesy Film Forum. Playing Friday, May 27 through Thursday, June 2. The Fallen Idol (1948)
Directed by Carol Reed
The Fallen Idol is the offspring of that exotic animal: a happy writer/director partnership. Graham Greene reworked his 1936 short story “The Basement Room” into a screenplay (with some additional dialogue by Lesley Storm and William Templeton); the following year, Greene & Reed would go on to make The Third Man. Cinematographer Georges Périnal is responsible for all those shots of a little blonde boy careening up, down, and through elaborate staircases, railings, palings, and bars. The boy is Phil (Bobby Henrey), the ambassador’s son. With his father gone from London to fetch his mother—a woman Phil barely remembers—from a long hospital stay, the boy is left in the care of the butler, Baines, & his wife. Baines (Ralph Richardson) is a dedicated professional, but an unwilling husband and occasional fibber: he tells Phil tall tales about Africa, and about the exact nature of his relationship with a sad young woman employed at the embassy (Michèle Morgan). Long at war with Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel), Baines comes to count on the boy’s diplomacy—but Phil’s not a professional, only a naïve and frightened child. Though his sympathies are entirely with the patriarchy, as more and more adult-level prevarications are demanded of him, he seeks maternal refuge in the lap of a friendly neighborhood prostitute (Dora Bryan). She’s used to it—she knows his dad. Elina Mishuris (May 27-June 2 at Film Forum, showtimes daily; with The Third Man and Odd Man Out as part of “Carol Reed’s Noir Trilogy” on May 29)

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Taller (1975)
Directed by Narcisa Hirsch
Hirsch and the late Marie Louise Alemann were two German émigrés who settled in Argentina, where in the 1960s they became part of a small Buenos Aires-based community of experimental filmmakers whose ranks came to include other great artists such as Claudio Caldini, Jorge Honik, and Horacio Vallereggio. Anthology will present two screenings (programmed by Federico Windhausen) of recent blow-ups and fine digital transfers of works directed by the two women. Taller (the Spanish-language word for “workshop”) unfolds as a register of a particular moment—an afternoon, captured in one shot, during which Hirsch tenderly describes her personal history by cataloguing objects that she has gathered over time. The filmmaker, speaking by telephone, says of her 16mm short (which will screen in its English-language version, one of two versions that Hirsch made) that, “I saw Wavelength in New York in the 1970s and was quite taken by the experience, after which someone told me that Michael Snow had made another film called A Casing Shelved in which he showed and described all of the items on his shelves. I wanted to do something similar, but a step further, in which I would speak and build a narrative only about the things that one could not see. So I affixed a camera to a wall in my studio, invited my friend Leopoldo Mahler over, and told him the story of the place. The film was made with only one single camera inhabiting a single fixed frame. The image doesn’t move, and nothing much seems to happen. All the movement is in the voice.”Aaron Cutler (May 28, 7:30pm at Anthology Film Archives as part of a program of shorts by Hirsch and Alemann)

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Still Life (2006)
Directed by Jia Zhangke
In retrospect, the Jia film to be singled out as the Chinese director’s masterpiece, as it now represents a meeting point in his filmography. The early documentary-inspired approach that earned him the accolades of critics appears in this film marred with the operatic and bombastic quality of his later films. The socially conscious plot (set around the Three Gorges Dam project), as well as the pans that define the film’s style, are elements that define Still Life as both a testament to and a prophecy of Jia’s body of work, as well as being his clearest expression of skepticism towards the project of globalization and capitalism that China had begun to carry out around the time he was an art student. Jaime Grijalba (May 28, 2pm; May 29, 4:45pm at Anthology Film Archives’s Jia series)

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Sicilia! (1998)
Directed by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet
Through their trademark displaced aesthetic, Straub-Huillet find a portrait of failed reconciliation in Sicilia!, the exclamation point almost certainly more than a little ironic. Neither celebration nor condemnation of the island is to be had in the film, but the duo allows for rumination on the dissolution of the distinct facets of one’s ingrained culture, as well as that culture’s role as a burden on someone’s personal history. The film dips between the ethnographic and the personal, within the framework of a man returning home to Sicily after a lifetime in America, and the Straubs’ convictions about pictorial austerity often liberate more than they constrict, allowing for a deceptively simple relationship between dialogue and image that brings out the interpersonal nature of the text they depict. The man has conversations with general civilians, as well as his mother, and subjects run the gamut from when breakfast should be eaten, to how workers should live, to a tragically ingrained misogyny present in rural mindsets. Long takes of close-ups are often given after a character’s monologue/dialogue, lending the specificity of how and where these treatises on what it means to live in Sicily (always delivered in highly stylized Sicilian accents) a bona fide weight. The relationship between location and discourse is one of the most integral features of Straub-Huillet’s cinema, and they make certain to display the Sicilian landscape so as to suggest the inextricability of one’s actions and their place, both in life and physical space. Eric Barroso (May 28, 4pm; May 30, 6:30pm at MoMA’s Straub-Huillet retrospective)

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The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933)
Directed by James Whale
This quick and quirky thriller opens like you’d expect from a movie sandwiched in its maker’s filmography between The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man—with portent: reflective pools and black cats. Murder follows. A husband shoots his wife (Titanic’s Gloria Stuart) in her lover’s bedroom. And his lawyer friend, played by Frank “Wizard of Oz” Morgan, agrees to defend him. Problem is, Morgan suspects his wife is cheating on him, too. Whale’s film, adapted from a play by Ladislas Fodor, has a risqué pre-Code subject—unfaithful women, aflame with physical desire—and an outré plot, clever and compelling: a lawyer’s plan to get one wife-killer off, then kill his own wife, as if Johnny Cochran heard the OJ verdict, turned around, and shot Sylvia. As such, it’s plainly regressive, justifying uxoricide as legally defensible because, um, hello, how else could a husband react to adultery? But it’s also a dark tale of consuming jealousy, shot with moody flair by the reliably sinister Karl Freund. Plus, you can’t let its femmicidal tendencies get you down for long, because it’s got classy, subversively feminist comic relief by Jean Dixon, Morgan’s spunky associate. “Why don’t you get married?” Morgan’s wife, Nancy Carroll, asks her. “Being single has its points,” Dixon says. “No one murders you.” Henry Stewart (May 28, 5pm, at MoMA’s “Universal Pictures: Restorations and Rediscoveries”)

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Notes Towards an African Orestes (1970)
Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini
Shortly after his screen adaptation of Euripides’s Medea, Pasolini had another batch of Greek material on his mind, specifically Aeschylus’s plays about Orestes, stories of vengeance, reason, and shifting politics. Pasolini, however, sought to tell the story in modern Africa, and his research that ensued culminated into the self-described “film notes for a film” that is Notes for an African Orestes. In a kind of what-if film essay, Pasolini traverses Uganda and Tanzania, concisely and vigorously narrating the affinities of these places and people, of the rapidly changing “modernization” of Africa, with the story of Orestes, a story wherein democracy is born. While certainly a visual feast, with interludes of screeching avant-garde jazz performances and archival footage of the brutal Biafran War, it becomes clear that there is discordance between Pasolini’s ideas of Greek justice and a developing continent shaped by European opportunism. While conversing with a group of African intellectuals in Rome, one student speaks of the film, “The idea could probably work but it would be something a little… imaginative. To make a reality of it would be quite difficult.” Considering the film was never made, perhaps Pasolini realized his “idea” of democracy, even as a concept, could not trump borders constructed by colonialists. Samuel T. Adams (May 29, 1:45pm at the Metrograph’s “Old and Improved,” in a new 35mm restoration from the Cineteca di Bologna)

MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME, Tina Turner, 1985, (c) Warner Brothers

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
Directed by George Miller and George Ogilvie
The black-sheep status of the third entry in Miller’s Mad Max series was only solidified by the near-unanimous rapture that greeted Mad Max: Fury Road last year. But if that and The Road Warrior (1981), the quartet’s most celebrated entries, are essentially feature-length chase films, its arid futuristic settings as rough-and-tumble as the elaborate action sequences, Beyond Thunderdome announces itself as something quite different from the beginning. There’s a greater sense of world-building in its richer variety of production design, more peaks and valleys in its plotting, a more exhilarating feeling of embarking on an epic journey in Maurice Jarre’s sweeping orchestral score and Dean Semler’s lustrous cinematographic canvases. In its no-holds-barred imaginative freedom, it is to the Mad Max franchise what the feverishly extravagant Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is to the Indiana Jones series—but instead of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’s sadism, Miller and Ogilvie instill a child-like measure of hope and the possibility of redemption to a dystopian environment previously bereft of it. Mad Max chronicled the death of Max Rockatansky’s (Mel Gibson) soul; Beyond Thunderdome dares to bring some of it back, with disarming sincerity. If such heart-on-sleeve innocence doesn’t do it for you, well, at least there’s Max’s battle with the Blaster in Thunderdome, still one of the all-time great action set pieces. Kenji Fujishima (May 29, 2pm at the Museum of the Moving Image’s Mad Max weekend)

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Mildred Pierce (1945)
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Working women of the world, unite––with James M. Cain’s titular heroine, that is. In an Expressionistic turn, Curtiz brings the gallant, afflicted Mildred Pierce to the screen, embodied by Joan Crawford in her only Oscar-winning role. Fresh on the lot for Warner Bros. after being deemed “box office poison,” and given Crawford’s alleged history with daughters in particular, her award was a justifiable merit. Playing a resilient mother who after leaving her husband takes advantage of her blue-collar upbringing to go quickly from a waitress to an expert restaurateur, Crawford and her foil, obnoxious, coquettish daughter Veda (Ann Blyth), create a perfectly executed melodrama. Amid a whodunit, the death of a young child and a philandering husband, Crawford’s Pierce encapsulates the timeless balance of perseverance and desperation that so harrowingly affects the division between classes—even today. Samantha Vacca (May 29, 8:45pm; May 30, 4:30pm at Metrograph as part of “James M. Cain Weekend”)

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