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.

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