MoMA Mia: Scorsese Selects (Some Pretty Great Movies)

So far this summer I’ve waded through the ups and downs of Kodak’s game-changing Technicolor technology, and briefly dived into the melodramatic depths of Mexican noir. Closing out MoMA’s sterling summer lineup is a series (supposedly) curated personally by Martin Scorsese, to show off many of the films that have had an influence on his own remarkable career. Whether Scorsese really hand-picked every film in this series, or the MoMA staff simply sifted through the numerous interviews where Scorsese has talked about his cinephilic upbringing (has any other filmmaker been more openly obsessed with discussing and preserving his personal favorites?), we may never know. Regardless, it’s been a great chance to catch some cult classics and revisit other gems for the first time on the big screen. As it turns out, whatever you think of his own films, Martin Scorsese has some pretty good taste. Who knew?

Sunday, August 16, 2:30pm: “A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven)” (1946), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Compared to some of Powell and Pressburger’s epic collaborations (“The Red Shoes,” “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” “The Tales of Hoffmann”), “A Matter of Life and Death” (originally billed in the United States as “Stairway to Heaven,” after the film’s signature set-piece) is outwardly a downright modest affair: it clocks in at a perfectly average hour and forty five minutes, and for the majority of that running time centers around three or four characters. But really it’s one of the grandest works of original cinematic fantasy ever put on screen. The seamless integration of spectacular special effects and pseudo-scientific allegory into, at heart, an endearing romantic drama, must make Christopher Nolan sick with envy. I can hardly imagine, in 1946, convincing a producer to put so much cash and craft wizardry into a film without any established property or story as a foundation – but Powell and Pressburger did it, and all the better for us.

The setup is one that would’ve still been a raw subject for Britain in the days immediately following the war – David Niven plays a squadron leader who bails out of his burning bomber while returning from a bombing raid in early May of 1945 (mere days before victory in Europe). He has no parachute, and fully expects to die – but somehow, miraculously, he doesn’t, and washes up on English soil in a gorgeous sequence where Niven nails the quiet surrealism in a scene that otherwise shows a perfectly normal day at the beach. As it turns out, Niven was fated to die over the Channel, but the powers-that-be in “the Other World” (Powell and Pressburger leave their afterlife ambiguous regarding any division of heaven or hell) simply missed him in a batch of thick fog.

The depiction of the afterlife as just as stuffy and bureaucratic as our own is ingenious, and allows for delightful debates of the merits of human life and romance as Niven files a legal appeal to the higher authorities to be granted a reprieve from death (having, in his “borrowed” time, fallen in love with an American nurse). The visual and thematic contrasts (the “Other World” is filmed, counter-intuitively, in washed-out monochrome, while Earth gets the vibrant Technicolor treatment) are so simple, and yet you know no copycat could capture the same magic again; few filmmakers other than Powell and Pressburger could handle such grand material with such a light touch. A must-see and perfect entry into the Archers canon if the lengthy running time of “The Red Shoes” is (mistakenly) holding you back.

Saturday, August 22, 2:30pm: “Cat People” (1942), Jacques Tournear/ 5pm: “I Walked with a Zombie” (1943), Jacques Tournear

Val Lewton, RKO’s B-movie horror wunderkind, has pretty much completed the swing from forgotten studio stooge to cult-worshipped producer-auteur; thanks, in part, to the efforts of filmmakers like Scorsese and Tarantino who re-discovered and pushed Lewton’s films back into the cultural consciousness. It seemed only appropriate to finally catch up with Lewton’s two most famous works (both collaborations with the exceptional noir director Tournear) as a sort of double feature – spending the whole afternoon enveloped, as one might’ve at a summer matinee back in the 1940s, in Lewton’s shadows.

First, “Cat People.” You guys. Even several days later, I’m not sure I’m ready to properly describe how good this movie is. Working off his own 1930 short story (published with the less-ridiculous but also less-endearing title “The Bagheeta”), Lewton, along with Tournear and screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, takes an absurd little premise – Irena, a young Serbian woman living in America, fears she is descended from a race of witches who turned into panthers when aroused – and manufacture more tension and fear than a hundred jump-scares put together.

Part of it is the lighting, which deserves to be listed up there with the best of American noir. The film’s look probably emerged partly from simple business concerns – RKO was still reeling from the financial hits of Welles’ “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons,” and could only afford a handful of sets – but the shadows don’t just hide the low budget. They are perfect for this insidious tale of a lurking, engrained evil; Lewton and Tournear were savvy enough to know that the monster we can’t see is far more frightening than the one we can. There are two nightmarish sequences in particular – one in a swimming pool, one on an empty city street, both involving Alice, Irena’s romantic competition, being threatened by Irena’s “cat form” – that are master classes in suggested suspense. The film is made all the more discomforting by the lack of a clear-cut protagonist: Irena is both the film’s primary threat and its only sympathetic character, surrounded by a blandly naive husband and a predatory psychiatrist. French actress Simone Simon was probably cast for her unmistakably kitten-like presence, but she’s also very believable as a woman conflicted about her own desires and capabilities.

“I Walked with a Zombie” can’t live up to the same schlocky-title/genius-film ratio as “Cat People,” but really that says more about the latter. As B-movie horror ideas go, a voodoo take on Jane Eyre is also pretty fantastic. Lewton was clearly obsessed with the idea of inherited evil (the episode of Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This about Lewton is all-around fascinating, but particularly revealing in discussing Lewton’s lifelong interest in atavism), and the ancestral burden of slavery in the Caribbean is certainly a doozy – made all the more powerful here because Tournear, Lewton and writers Curt Siodmak (noir director Robert’s brother) and Ardel Wray keep that aspect of the white Holland family’s interaction with the black inhabitants of their island largely relegated to subtext (and one super-eerie figurehead of Saint Sebastian). “I Walked with a Zombie” is a very Victorian tale of passion-as-possession, and the supernatural, voodoo elements of the story reinforce that sense of human behavior controlled by seething, swirling forces beyond our control. There are fewer standout sequences than in “Cat People,” but a visit by the in-over-her-head Canadian nurse Betsy to a voodoo gathering is just as moody and uneasy as anything in the earlier film.

Did I mention both these films are barely more than an hour long? What else do you need to hear?

Tuesday, August 25, 7:30pm: “Gun Crazy” (1950), Joseph H. Lewis

Before there was Bonnie and Clyde, there was Bart and Laurie (on the silver screen, anyway). Arthur Penn’s classic 1967 film is generally credited for busting down Hollywood’s self-imposed barrier against explicit sex and violence, but after finally watching Joseph H. Lewis’ cult noir hit, it’s clear that “Bonnie and Clyde” owes “Gun Crazy” a major debt for unscrewing some of the hinges.

A pair of sideshow sharpshooters with no discernible skills or interests besides guns, Bart and Laurie are clearly destined for a life of crime, especially after Laurie makes her appetite for, um, luxury, known. “I want a lot of things – big things,” Laurie declares, in what will certainly not be the last of the film’s censor-dodging innuendo. Poor Bart, completely smitten (and with no other option besides the institutional repression of the army), will get her those big things, though his love of shooting comes with a crippling fear of actual killing – something that increasingly becomes a problem as their jobs get bigger and more dangerous. Everything that “Bonnie and Clyde” made explicit, “Gun Crazy” teases: the sexual, fetishistic link between the two lovers and violence, male shooting prowess as compensation for impotency, the inevitable and necessary doom of social misfits and deviants.

And, also like its sister film, “Gun Crazy” is a technical marvel: instead of Penn’s famed “dance of death,” there’s the extended one-take bank heist sequence, in which the camera never leaves the back of Bart and Laurie’s car as they drive through town, distract and knock out a security guard, and make their get-away. It’s riveting and immediate stuff, especially since we’re so used to car scenes from that period of filmmaking (including other shots in this same movie) being rear-projected. The claustrophobic, contained effect is consistent throughout the whole film: Lewis and cinematographer Russell Harlan often film the two leads in stark close-up, sweating and twitching as the authorities slowly gain on them.

If there’s a relative knock against “Gun Crazy,” it’s that its two leads are nowhere near the performers that Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are. John Dall and Peggy Cummins are serviceable no-names, but clearly never reached the A-list for a reason (Dall was much more engaging two years earlier as one of the prep-school murderers of Hitchcock’s “Rope”). But the script – co-written by a blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, working under the assumed name of Millard Kaufman – works with that, giving Bart and Laurie a broader appeal as symbols of social disturbance, rather than uniquely motivated individuals. It’s a fascinating hint of the transition from the post-war trauma of film noir to the discontent of the New Wave.

MoMA Mia: A River Runs Through Mexico

In which the popping, saturated hues of Technicolor start to give way to the shadows of film noir…

Wednesday, July 8, 7pm: “The River” (1951), Jean Renoir

Considering the greatest directors of all time often becomes an apples-and-oranges game of preference in nationalist tendencies – which do you like more, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Soviet spiritualism or Akira Kurosawa’s tradition-infused modernism? Herzog’s Romantic expressionism or Ford’s rugged individualism?

If Jean Renoir has an argument to get ahead of the pack, it’s perhaps that few other filmmakers (off the top of my head, anyway) have been so explicitly concerned with portraying a humanity that transcends social and national boundaries. “Grand Illusion” and “The Rules of the Game” are both masterworks, slicing through and illuminating the tangled web of class and nationalist divisions that plunged Europe into two brutal, bloody wars. “The River,” which came at the tail end of a largely unsuccessful stint by the director in Hollywood (having fled the Nazis in 1941), deserves to be in the same conversation, a delicate, unhurried and observational piece with a self-consciously international flair. A movie by a French filmmaker, regarding the life of a British family in India, wherein the central action is prompted by the arrival of a forlorn American soldier? One hardly knows what language I should be writing in.

Shot on location (with a young Satyajit Ray serving as an assistant director, speaking of great filmmakers), “The River” is one of the most genuinely respectful fictionalized depictions of Anglo colonialism I’ve ever encountered. There is a real sense, from the director, the writer (Rumer Godden, also of the novel Black Narcissus), and the white family at the heart of the story, that India and its culture may be encountered and experienced without possessiveness. The latent paternalism can’t be ignored (particularly in an early passage describing the father’s factory), but Renoir manages to establish the family’s separation from the Indian society around them while generally avoiding the trap of Otherness – this is the only life that our teenage heroine and narrator, Harriet, knows, and if she’s aware of the racist history that brought her there, she can only address it obliquely, as just another thread in the rich tapestry of life, love and death around her.

That’s not an exaggeration either: showing roughly a year in which Harriet encounters Captain John, the American cousin of a neighbor, and competes for his affection with her two closest friends, “The River” is one of those films that manages to be about both everything and nothing at all. There will be a long-awaited birth, and a sudden death, and joy, and sadness, and meanwhile the river keeps on flowing. Though his most famous films are associated with the World Wars, I honestly don’t believe Renoir was ever much interested in the melodrama of war and violence – except insofar as it affected the romance and simple ambition of people just trying to go about their lives.

There’s so much more to talk about with this film. I haven’t even mentioned possibly the most interesting character – Melanie, the mixed-race daughter of Harriet’s neighbor who also seems to harbor feelings for her American cousin. The actress Radha Burnier’s performance is a triumph of unprofessional understatement, and the fantasy sequence in which she, playing a reincarnation of Krishna’s wife, performs a wedding dance is indelible cinema. Suffice to say this is also the most exuberant use of Technicolor I’ve seen in this series, and it’s entrancing (though I hope, for your sake, that you watch it without a fellow audience member loudly chomping on an apple right behind you, as I did).

Sunday, July 12, 3:45pm: “Cobra Woman” (1944), Robert Siodmak

Like politics, the artistic spectrum is something of a circle, and you could make the argument that “The River,” somewhere towards the highest of the high art, is closer to “Cobra Woman,” the campiest of the camp art, than most would care to admit. Certainly, there’s that gorgeous Technicolor cinematography again – does it matter if those eye-popping reds and oranges come in the lights of Diwali or Maria Montez’s lips?

Unintentional delights abound in this cult classic, long forgotten by the mainstream: Montez’s atrocious acting, hilariously amplified by a double role as long-lost twin sisters; a homicidal chimpanzee; Sabu being Sabu; the most convoluted government ever devised by a cobra-obsessed tribal island; and, of course, the most phallic snake prop ever made (Harrison Ford, eat your heart out). Granted, that’s about all you’re going to get. The intended delights (I presume sumptuous production design, and, uh…that scene where Montez goes swimming?) don’t get you very far when saddled with an awful melodrama script and C-list on-screen talent (poor Lon Chaney, Jr. – how the mighty do fall).

Behind the screen is slightly a different story: cinematographer W. Howard Greene was no slouch (a seven-time Oscar nominee, in fact), and Robert Siodmak was about to quietly become one of the most important directors of American noir with a string of successes including “The Killers” (1946), “Cry of the City” (1948) and “Criss Cross” (1949). So “Cobra Woman” winds up being the kind of wonderful collision only the Hollywood studio system could provide, when overqualified filmmakers got stuck with an atrocious project and had no choice but to make the laughable, subversive best of it.

But speaking of noir…

Saturday, July 25, 7:30pm: “In the Palm of Your Hand” (1951), Roberto Galvaldón

And so here we sidetrack for a bit into a realm I didn’t even knew existed. No matter how well-trained the cinephile, you’re going to have your blind spots, but luckily people like MoMA’s film curators are on hand to let you know that yes, Mexican noir is a thing that happened. I confess even broader ignorance when it comes to Mexican cinema pre-Cuarón/Iñárritu/Del Toro, so I’m not going to be able to do much to place these films, or their makers, in any kind of cultural or historical context. What I can say is that I’ve definitely never seen any American or European noir film whose protagonist dressed at any point like a Vegas stage magician tried to do a subtle take on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper outfits.

That extraordinarily shiny number of a jacket is one of the wonderfully non-standard pieces of setup for what proves, a little disappointingly, to be a far more standard noir resolution in “In the Palm of Your Hand.” Replacing the protagonist’s usual private eye/gumshoe profession with that of a con-man psychic is a stroke of daffy genre genius. No, of course it isn’t subtle that the charlatan chiromancer can’t foresee his own impending doom, but if you want subtlety, go back and find another screening of “The River.” This isn’t the place for color anymore – this is noir, and everything down to the neon lights is going to be black and white as a zebra.

So our leading man (Arturo de Córdova, properly suave and with a penchant for perplexed fascination) must choose between his loyal, blonde, frequently dressed-in-white wife and the mysterious, veiled, “mourning” widow (a charmingly arch Leticia Palma) who happens to have suddenly and conveniently inherited her much older husband’s fortune. Dispensing with the widow’s other lover, desperately eluding the cops and driving the long-suffering wife to tragedy are all a matter of course – though the fortune-telling element adds a playful angle to that engrained sense of fate and inevitable violence. Combine that with some unexpected comedy setpieces (including a terrific bit of business with a dead man in the trunk of a car and a flat tire), and “In the Palm of Your Hand” has a sustained, quirky sense of humor that keeps it bouncing along through the more predictable genre beats. I wouldn’t call it a must-see, but as an introduction to a generally ignored slice of world film history, it’s intriguing. If Galvaldón was laughing even as he delivered the standard formula, how else might have Hollywood’s post-war visions been interpreted south of the border?

MoMA Mia: Blood and Ribbons

In which we continue to sift through Hollywood history through the good graces of the Museum of Modern Art…

Friday, July 3, 1:30pm: “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945), John M. Stahl

I barely squeeze into a sold-out matinee screening for Stahl’s oxymoronic Technicolor noir. One wouldn’t expect so many people to be interested in a fairly obscure Gene Tierney vehicle, even on July 4 weekend, but never underestimate the collective doddering whimsy of the MoMA membership.

In any case, I’m lucky to have made a spot, because “Leave Her to Heaven” is one of those gems of the studio era, the kind of sumptuous, melodramatic production that likely made quite a stir at the time but has been lost to the mainstream since (outside the occasional Scorsese shout-out of course). It’s one of those films that is difficult to talk about with simply listing the silly things that happen. Novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde, a poor man’s Farley Granger) falls in with a somewhat mysterious rich woman, Ellen, and her family, immediately falling for the socialite because how can you not fall for Gene Tierney? Ellen seems all too ready to ditch her fiancé (Vincent Price) in favor of Harland – does it have something to do with Richard’s, um, uncanny resemblance to her recently deceased father?

That’s not my speculation. Ellen’s massive Elektra complex is just one absurd half-baked plot point among many, which also includes Richard’s disabled (and disturbingly clingy) younger brother Danny, an intentional miscarriage, a love triangle with Ellen’s adopted sister, and a flight to Mexico. The shadows creep in as Tierney descends further into femme fatale territory, but the Technicolor palette just make Tierney’s lipstick pop even brighter. Perhaps it’s because I had “Magnificent Obsession” on the brain (see previous installment), but it was hard not to see some echoes (errr, pre-echoes?) of Sirk in Stahl’s film. Strip away the black-and-white aesthetic that we consider so critical to film noir, and what makes the genre, anyway? Sensational and homicidal explosions of emotion are equally welcome whether you’re watching Robert Siodmak or Frank Borzage. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that John M. Stahl, the director of noir-ish “Leave Her to Heaven,” also helmed the original 1935 adaptation of “Magnificent Obsession.”

Sunday, July 5, 6pm: “Blood and Sand” (1941), Rouben Mamoulian

Who else could hold down a melodramatic epic on the perils and pitfalls of fame but a guy named Power? That wasn’t even one of those fake, hand-crafted Hollywood names like “Marilyn Monroe” or “Cary Grant,” either – Tyrone Edmund Power, Jr. was one of the leading swashbucklers of his day after his roles in films like “The Mark of Zorro” and “The Black Swan,” up there with Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks.

“Blood and Sand” doesn’t have the derring-do action/adventure spirit of an “Adventures of Robin Hood,” but it makes good use of Power’s ability to exude confidence and fire as the brash young bullfighter Juan Gallardo. A headstrong boy (bull-headed, you might even say) determined to live up to his father’s reputation, Juan manages to win loyalty from his friends and respect from his critics on sheer force of personality – but what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable Rita Hayworth? This was just as Hayworth’s star was going supernova, and her entire role in the film is basically to ground everything to a halt while Power (and the audience, presumably) gaze at her longingly. As a plot device, Hayworth’s socialite is shallow stuff – it’s obvious from her first appearance that Juan will abandon his wife in order to chase Hayworth, and thereby his own doom – which might be more excusable if Linda Darnell (as Juan’s spurned wife) wasn’t also on hand to also provide shimmering, doe-eyed close-ups.

The romantic triangle of “Blood and Sand” is muted by familiarity, but thankfully the rest of the film cranks it up to 11 to compensate. This is probably the most flamboyant use of Technicolor I’ve seen yet in this series, and MoMA has a gorgeous print to show off the ravishing costumes and capes of Juan and his fellow toreadors. The Goya- and El Greco-inspired set backgrounds are also beautifully rendered and skirt unusually close to expressionism for a Hollywood production. Power, Darnell and Hayworth all more or less coast on their natural radiance, but the side players are all in: an unsettlingly young Anthony Quinn, as a rival bullfighter, glowers as only a man with such eyebrows can; Laird Cregar (best known as the charming Devil from Lubitsch’s “Heaven Can Wait”) literally devours every second of his screen time as a pompous newspaper critic; and John Carradine has a messianic deathbed scene that doubles as the greatest PSA for literacy that I’ve ever seen. As bloated morality tale, “Blood and Sand” is more ridiculous than credulous, but as showpiece for the lofty delights of Golden Age Hollywood, you can’t get much better.

Monday, July 6, 7pm: “The Battle of Midway” (1942) and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949), John Ford

The pairing of John Ford’s groundbreaking documentary/propaganda piece and the middle entry in his so-called “Cavalry Trilogy” seems more a convenience of time (20 min. short plus 100 min. feature equals nifty 2-hour program) than any particular aesthetic resonance. There is the combined rapturous glorification of the armed services (whether the “flying fortress” pilots of Midway or the bugling boys in blue of the Plains Cavalry) to unite the two films, but the violent, you-are-there realism in “The Battle of Midway” (Ford and his crew captured handheld, impromptu footage with 16mm cameras on Midway Island while bombs and planes fell around them; the director himself was wounded with a minor shrapnel injury) makes for a jarring transition into the neutered, manufactured danger of “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.”

Indeed, while “Midway” is a sloppy piece of filmmaking (abrupt transitions in narration and tone plague the footage before and after the battle), the all-too-real stakes make it easy to see why, even today, it remains a startling and surprising work. Almost the exact opposite is true for “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” a handsomely-photographed, technically flawless production that manages to conjure less drama than my average trip to the corner bodega. The film follows John Wayne’s Captain Nathan Brittles in the last week before his more-or-less forced retirement from the cavalry – nominally, he’s been tasked with delivering his commanding officer’s wife and niece to an eastbound stagecoach and curbing a Native American uprising in the wake of Little Big Horn, but the most concern Wayne manages to muster for these threats is a barely-perceivable frown. His plan to quell the rebellion, once put into motion, is hilariously abrupt, more worthy of the climax to a Marx Brothers parody than a classic Ford thriller. Brittles dedicates far more time to chastising his leading officers, who are stuck in a dull-as-dirt competition for the heart of the CO’s niece, Joanne Dru. There should be some hay to make here in the uneasy jealousy of two men fighting both for Dru’s affection and command of the troop, but neither character provides much of any reason to care for their fate – which might explain the film’s just-kidding last-minute turn to bring Wayne back.

There’s glimmers of excitement – Ben Johnson’s chief scout has a few flashes of heroism, including a daring horseback leap, that would suggest he could’ve made that love triangle far more interesting. And the cinematography certainly earned the Academy Award it won – Technicolor is extremely flattering to those eye-popping yellow and blue uniforms. But a curious lack of suspense (and an unnecessarily dragged-out “comedic” fight sequence involving Wayne’s drunkard First Sergeant) put this one pretty low on the John Ford Western totem pole.