As the dearth of current film commentary here might suggest, the summer movie season has been largely ignorable; at least, I for one have largely ignored it. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t movies worth seeing and talking about. Nine of them are coming up on Wednesday evenings at Landmark’s Metro Cinemas in the U District—4500 Ninth Ave. N.E., to be precise—as the summer edition of the Metro’s ongoing “Movie Classics” repertory. The films are mostly first-rate. The only drawback is that none will be projected via 35mm prints; all presentations are digital. Tickets are $10.50 general, $8.25 for students with ID, $8 for children and senior citizens. (Landmark Discount Cards accepted.) Showtimes and information: (206) 781-5755 or www.LandmarkTheatres.com
The series kicks off with Rebecca (Aug. 3, 6:45 & 9:10 p.m.), the first Alfred Hitchcock film to be made in America—in 1940—and the only one to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Actually, the statuette went home with producer David O. Selznick (who’d claimed the same award the previous year for Gone With the Wind), and for better or worse, Selznick was an equal partner in the film’s creation. The production is lavish, more so than almost any other Hitchcock picture, with an all-star cast headed by Laurence Olivier as Maximilian de Winter, the master of Manderley, and Joan Fontaine as the lady’s-companion he takes as his second wife. She’s a shrinking violet so lacking in force of identity that, in both film and the Daphne du Maurier novel, she is given no name; whereas both novel and film bear the name of the first wife, deceased under mysterious circumstances, whose spirit remains strong as ever. Judith Anderson is chilling as Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper and chief acolyte of the dead woman, and George Sanders couldn’t be bettered as “cousin Jack” hovering on the periphery. Also, not to give the wrong impression, Fontaine is superb in limning the second Mrs. de Winter; she, too, should have been Oscared—and was, the following year, for her performance in another Hollywood-British Hitchcock movie, Suspicion.
The spirit of a beautiful woman dead under mysterious circumstances also haunts Laura (Aug. 10, 7 & 9 p.m.), the great 1944 mystery cum film noir cum perverse romance that haunted director Otto Preminger, too: it came early in his film career and conventional wisdom holds that he never topped it. Gene Tierney plays the title part (seen in flashbacks, up to a point…) and, as the police detective investigating the murder, Dana Andrews makes what could have been a conventional heroic role a study in nicely calibrated unpleasantness. Vincent Price and, again, Judith Anderson supply expert support as two of the people closest to Laura, but the movie belongs to Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker, the waspish Manhattan columnist who fancies himself the only person who really knew her. This was Webb’s belated movie debut (he’d been a dancer for decades), and it’s a tour de force. He and Preminger were Oscar-nominated, and Joseph LaShelle won for his Black-and-White Cinematography.
Gilda (Aug. 17, 7 & 9:10 p.m.) is Rita Hayworth’s most iconic movie, the one featuring her stripping off arm-length gloves as she musically assents to the putting of the blame on Mame. This—like another 1946 movie, Notorious—is a noir with a difference: the action is set principally in a South American city, where Hayworth is married to suave, dueling-scarred casino operator George Macready. Macready’s character (great name: Ballin Munsen) also has taken gambler Glenn Ford under his wing, unaware that Rita and Glenn were once an item. It’s a fine, silky intrigue, sleekly photographed by noir-director-to-be Rudolph Maté. Director here was Hungarian-born Charles Vidor (no relation to King), whose best picture may have been the 1941 Gothic number Ladies in Retirement.
No, not everything in the series is noirish. My Night at Maud’s (Aug. 24, 7 & 9:10 p.m.) was the international breakthrough effort of the late Eric Rohmer, albeit the fourth film in his cycle of “Six Moral Tales” (just before Claire’s Knee). Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as an earnest, just slightly complacent Catholic whose tidy purchase on all the essential aspects of his life and belief is profoundly shaken by his encounter with a free-spirited divorcée (Françoise Fabian). Marie-Christine Barrault co-stars.
Sullivan’s Travels (Aug. 31, 7 & 9 p.m.), written and directed by Preston Sturges, is one of Hollywood’s best films about Hollywood. It also shapes up as a classic screwball comedy which suddenly isn’t funny at all—and that, in this case, is quite a good and startling thing. Joel McCrea (a long-underrated actor who was in an amazing number of good-to-great movies) stars as a successful musical-comedy director who decides he has to make a Significant Statement, a post-Depression allegory entitled “O Brother Where Art Thou?” In preparation, he hits the open road as a hobo—with entourage. His traveling companion is played by Veronica Lake, who, with This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key in the offing, was having her best year. The nature of the film gives short shrift to Sturges’s glorious stock company of juicy character actors, but Robert Greig does get a chance to shine as Sullivan’s butler.
Rosemary’s Baby (Sept. 7, 6:45 & 9:15 p.m.), Roman Polanski’s first American film, kept the summer of 1968 chilly and still stands as a demonically effective thriller—and a brilliant social satire of the time. Based on the Ira Levin novel, the movie focuses on a newlywed couple—Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes—who luck into an apartment in a venerable building on the edge of Central Park (yep, The Dakota, home variously to Lauren Bacall and Lennon-Ono), then begin experiencing some very creepy goings-on. Polanski’s direction and Oscar-nominated script are spot-on, and the idea of casting such cozy old character-actor veterans as Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy, Sidney Blackmer, and Patsy Kelly in key roles was absolutely inspired. Among them, Ruth Gordon reigns in the role of a lifetime, which brought her both an Academy Award and a Saturday Night Live host gig.
The series winds up with three distinguished and challenging arthouse classics. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Véronique (Sept. 14, 7 & 9:10 p.m.) has Irène Jacob playing two young women who never meet—except for one near-mystical moment—yet just may share a soul. Best film of 1991 in my book. Céline and Julie Go Boating (Sept. 21, 7 p.m. only) is a three-hours-plus voyage into the imagination and the very nature of fiction, directed by Jacques Rivette and co-starring Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier. Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Sept. 28, 7 p.m. only) goes Céline and Julie eight minutes better and seems to abandon fiction altogether in meticulously recording the utterly mundane life of an almost defiantly dull Belgian woman, albeit one incarnated by the enchanting Delphine Seyrig. It’s maddening or mesmerizing, your call. But you’ve never seen anything like it.
Originally published in Straight Shooting, July 26, 2011