The Best Old Movies on a Big Screen This Week: NYC Repertory Cinema Picks, September 7-13

Dana Andrews in Otto Preminger’s LAURA (1944). Courtesy Film Forum. Playing Sunday, September 11 with LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN.

Laura (1944)
Directed by Otto Preminger
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Directed by John M. Stahl

Their surfaces couldn’t be more different: Laura a chilly black-and-white mystery noir, Leave Her to Heaven a lurid Technicolor domestic melodrama. And yet, place both these films next to each other, and some fascinating convergences emerge beyond featuring the same leading lady. In Preminger’s film, Gene Tierney plays the titular object of three different men’s obsessions: detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), and playboy Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). All fall for her and aim to possess her in their own ways, physically and/or psychologically—but Laura is a woman who refuses to be possessed, forever at the mercy of her shifting whims, ultimately impenetrable except as a reflection of what the men desire from her. Under Preminger’s cold, hard direction, however—with only David Raksin’s famously swooning score giving off any inkling of passion—there’s no easy moralizing toward this glamorously elusive figure. She is who she is, and perhaps knows not what she does to the men around her. The murder mystery might be solved at the end, but the mystery of Laura herself remains.

nyc repertory cinema-leave her to heaven

In Leave Her to Heaven, it’s Tierney herself who does the obsessing as central femme fatale Ellen Berent Harland—but that’s hardly Stahl’s only inversion of Preminger’s film. “Love is stronger than life,” opined Waldo at the end of Laura. That’s Ellen’s entire mantra in a nutshell in Leave Her to Heaven. She wants to possess more than just writer Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), but also Love itself in its most all-consuming form. It’s an obsession that has already cost her own father his life—but the film doesn’t explain the circumstances of her father’s death, just as it never fills in the details of what led her to become such a specimen of extreme clinginess. Ellen, in short, is as much a mystery as Laura is—but while Preminger delivered that mystery with precious little stylistic adornment, Stahl uses cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s voluptuous Technicolor palette and Alfred Newman’s operatic music to express its twisted main character’s impassioned psyche. If Leave Her to Heaven falls into the moralizing that Preminger unsettlingly refused in Laura, Stahl’s film at least still offers the chilling spectacle of the luminous Tierney hiding her steely gaze behind sunglasses as she heartlessly watches her husband’s beloved brother drown to his untimely death. Kenji Fujishima (September 11 at Film Forum’s “Return of the Double Feature,” with two-for-one admission throughout the day’s showtimes)

NYC repertory cinema-berlin alexanderplatz

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)
Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Fassbinder did so much in so short a time that fully keeping track of the strands of his stylistic evolution and how they intersect with his obsessions requires something like a serial killer’s obsessive dedication. RW was one of the few filmmakers who made sure that quality and quantity went hand in hand, not only in the sheer expanse of his output, but that when he decided to make the longest film in his career, a multi-part miniseries for TV, it was going to be his magnum opus. He may have made better films, but Berlin Alexanderplatz feels like the sum total of Fassbinder’s chief obsession: his own broken body and hungry but damaged mind, one that chased excesses it couldn’t control. The weight of life’s responsibility falls heavily around the shoulders of goodnatured fool Franz Biberkopf (a man half Gordon Comstock, half Lennie Small) trying simply to exist, and if so permitted, find happiness where none seems willing to find him. Fassbinder’s images have his late period luster, a tintype’s sheen, in order to overly romanticize the plight of the working-class doomed. All Franz wants is the feeling of reaching the perfect state of drunkenness, and to have someone with which to share that particular euphoria. Germany has other plans. Fassbinder and his character believed they could fool life’s miserable design, and they all suffer mightily for their hubris, no matter how innocent they remain. Berlin Alexanderplatz, like the structure that gives this intimate, earnest tragedy its name, is mighty, towering, but its pleasures and pains are always easily understood. This unmissable gentle giant gave us Fassbinder’s strengths and weaknesses in the most beautiful, heart-rending form they ever took. Scout Tafoya (Parts 1-13 and epilogue September 13-18 at MoMA, in a revival of the 2006 35mm restoration)

NYC repertory cinema-petrified forest-bogie

The Petrified Forest (1936)
Directed by Archie Mayo
Humphrey Bogart gets fifth billing in his breakout film, behind Genevieve Tobin and Dick Foran, but he’s the star by any measure but screen time, stealing every scene in which he even just glares at the main action. It’s a role he reprised from the original Broadway production, his last role on New York’s main stage before Hollywood snatched him up, and his performance, as a storied gangster holed up in a dusty service station until the rest of his gang arrives, is a battle between his lips and his eyes: his controlled rage and gloomy bitterness, cool but full of loathing, seem to say one thing; his lispy drawl, calm, bordering on kind, says another. But darker looks have never been cast on celluloid.

Bogart doesn’t show up until about three reels in, intruding upon a romance about as arid as its setting: worldly-wise tramp Leslie Howard meets-cute Bette Davis, an ambitious young woman stuck waitressing in the desert; they bond, and then they part, until the criminal element yanks them back together. The appealing actors carry it through. Howard is debonair and delicately Hiddlestonian, with that uniquely English way of being charmingly cynical, wittily world-weary; Davis is all eagerness and longing, younger in appearance than she is best known but also in spirit. None of them, however—not even Genevieve Tobin or Dick Foran—can hope to compete with Bogart for your attention; he never again felt his emotions onscreen so rawly. Henry Stewart (September 7, October 20, 1:30pm at MoMA’s Bogart matinees)

NYC Repertory Cinema-7 Brothers Meet Dracula poster

The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula (1974)
Directed by Roy Ward Baker and Chang Cheh
Baker had worked with Bettie Davies and Joan Crawford, Dirk Bogarde and Roger Moore before casting blood-sucking warriors with zombie-like features in The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula. Hammer gothic meets the martial artistry of the Shaw Studios in this enjoyably bizarre flick starring Peter Cushing as a teacher confiding to his skeptical students what is also the alternative title of this film, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. According to the legend, at the beginning of the 19th century a Chinese monk visiting the Romanian region of Transylvania is body-snatched by Count Dracula, or vice versa. As a result of this narrative crossover, seven vampires came back from the dead and have been running amok ever since. Our heroes’ task will be to weed out the titular sevens, improbable creatures born out of a genre mash-up not devoid of a certain charm. Giovanni Vimercati (September 8, 9:30pm at the Nitehawk)

NYC repertory cinema-pilots in pajamas

Pilots in Pajamas (1968)
Directed by Walter Heynowski and Gerhard Scheumann
UnionDocs will screen the first episode of this four-part series produced by two East German filmmakers that consists largely of interviews conducted with US soldiers during their time held in captivity in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. This particular episode, entitled “Yes, Sir,” shows ten imprisoned fighter pilots being startled into consciousness as they realize over the course of the interviews that they had never thought about who they were bombing until they had been grounded, and that they hadn’t considered anyone’s survival in wartime except their own. “My knowledge of Heynowski and Scheumann goes back to my time being mentored by the filmmaker Santiago Álvarez,” says filmmaker Travis Wilkerson (Machine Gun or Typewriter?), who will introduce the screening. “He talked about them a lot. I’d never been able to see a single film in the two decades afterwards—the films are more or less forbidden here. A year or two back, though, I noticed the people at the Austrian Filmmuseum had shown some of their films. I have a good relationship with that museum, so I sent their programming team an email and they replied with a bunch of discs, though not Pilots. I was pretty stunned by what I discovered, which had every bit the vitality of the greatest works of Third Cinema, but with a distinctly analytical approach. Something at once lyrical, eviscerating, and scathing.

“This led me finally to track down Pilots. It would be difficult to explain how powerfully the film hits. How disquieting, how uncomfortable, yet how revelatory it somehow feels. The filmmakers are asking questions that no one else has the audacity to ask. The suppression of the film more or less reveals itself. How on Earth have Americans refused to confront this film? How? I suppose that the answer lies in a country that still refuses to apologize even for inventing nuclear bombs, then dropping them on cities full of civilians. This country refuses to confront its past (or present) with any honesty, directness, humility, or truth. Pilots, though, forces the issue.” September 9, 7:30pm at UnionDocs with Wilkerson in person)

NYC repertory cinema-Summer-Holiday-1948

Summer Holiday (1948)
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian
The golden age of the MGM musical possessed a few key characteristics. Its films were inclusive and ensemble-based, even when focused on individual love stories, and dealt inevitably with people relying upon one another as they sought the safest possible ways to express their hopes. The action within their Academy frames were generally choreographed with greater creativity than the spaces of the widescreen musicals to come, such that talking and singing and walking and dancing all flowed into each other continuously. The often warmly colorful films treasured the naïve eras in which their stories took place while glancing past those times into the postwar future. The attitude that they inevitably expressed towards the world was fundamentally light, sad and sweet.

Summer Holiday is based on Eugene O’Neill’s 1933 play Ah, Wilderness! and evokes much of the mood of MGM’s 1944 success Meet Me in St. Louis. Its action is centered on small-town valedictorian Richard (played by Mickey Rooney) in the summer before he goes to Yale, in particular his efforts to court the fearful Muriel (Gloria DeHaven) with the aid of his gruff-but-gentle father (Walter Huston—who else?). Yet the most appealing persons in the picture are the fragile alcoholic Uncle Sid (Frank Morgan), who is taken in by the family after failed efforts to work outside town, and the aging spinster Cousin Lily (Agnes Moorehead), who forever awkwardly tries to shield how much she pines for him. A memorable scene shows her serving him corn muffins at the kitchen table, over and over; he takes each one in hand, uncertain of whether to commit to it, and then puts the muffin down. The two are eventually called back out to join the group, leaving us with a spirit of gentleness and with the knowledge—on our and on both of their parts—that their time will still eventually come. Aaron Cutler (September 13, 4:30pm, 7pm, 9:15pm at BAM’s “That’s Entertainment!: MGM Musicals Part 1”)

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