Film Noir Night at The Bowtie Cinema
It was a perfect night for foul play. A cold front hidden by a black slate cloak of persistent rain was moving stealthily up the Sound to settle over the New England countryside. Fog and mist swirled, playing tricks on drivers as their dimly lit lights slowly cut narrow ridges through the pea soup of an inclement April night.
Outside the great bay window, the driveway street lamp glass shook, scattering broken light from a slap of 20-knot wind that swooped and rose across the tops of the hemlocks and hickories. It was a night of dark intent.
I moved to the video library and selected the only logical entertainment for a spring evening that had lost its promise and descended into madness and mayhem. Like a cordon bleu chef’s menu, this visual meal must be a Hitchcock and not just any thriller but Olivier and Fontaine in the 1939 classic “Rebecca”. Supported by George Sanders, Nigel Bruce, Joan Fontaine and sinister Judith Anderson, this classic motion picture transformed my den into a spiral staircase of deceit, broken promises and murder.
I dimmed the lights, cocooning myself in a shaneel blanket as Leo, MGM’s ubiquitous lion, roared into motion the 60-year-old classic. My daughter opened the den door, peering into the darkness.
” Whatcha watchin’, Dad?”
I quickly perked up and enthusiastically described the film – which was my first mistake. ” Does anyone die?” She asked with sociopathic indifference. ” Well, yes, but that’s all part of the mystery.” “Sounds boring,” she said as she turned into the lit foyer moving off to find her Mac.
The boys were next to poke their heads into my cave upon hearing Joan Fontaine’s dramatic cry, “ don’t jump!”
” Guys, I’m watching a mystery movie where a lady dies and no one knows why. Come in and watch it with me.” They slowly fell into the darkness. My ten year old froze upon seeing the opening credits.
” Oh, wait. Is this black and white? Forget it. Those movies are so boring…” They fled the room as if I was suddenly offering free root canals. With my spouse preoccupied, I was alone again – an old soul in a darkened screening room. The door opened again – one final time and hope sprang eternal. The gentle patter of paws announced my inseparable canine shadow, Brody, who predictably settled at my feet – a musty tri-color blanket of unconditional love.
The film opened to Monaco’s Grand Massif as a solitary figure ponders suicide.
For a moment, we were peering across the sequined waters to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat with Brody looking for French poodles and I looking for a tuxedo shop so I might discretely shadow Olivier on his dark journey. The film concluded in a conflagration of epic proportions and I emerged from my pod of nostalgia exhausted and longing for the return of movies that used lighting, dialogue, innuendo and a star studded cast of supporting actors and actresses to help you forget about whatever troubles were swirling outside your windows.
Rebecca was filmed in 1939 during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Europe was embroiled in the first stages of the Phony War and the world was holding its breath. It was a time of terrible uncertainty in America. Radio, magazines and film were one’s primary lens to a combustible and foreign world. To hold a cinema ticket was to purchase a pass to exotic locales where men and women led noble, exciting and desperate lives.
Since that time, the movie theatre has been repeatedly administered last rites as home entertainment, DVDs and the digital age conspired to change the medium of film. However, the theatre and motion pictures survive and transcend the efforts of those who might condemn them to iPod screens the size of postage stamps. It would be, after all, a form of aesthetic sacrilege to attempt to watch Dr Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia or any other epic by Sir David Lean on an MP3 player.
My love of film started early and hit its peak in college, when I banded together with other celluloid loving film majors to drive an hour each weekend into Hollywood’s NuArt theatre to watch foreign films – – the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, Truffaut’s “Blow Up” or De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief”. The silver screen was the best place to appreciate the entire canvas that these ground breaking directors and cinematographers utilized to tell their stories. Just as Ansel Adams revealed the simple genius of black and white photography in Yosemite and The Range of Light, so the full power of black and white celluloid is only realized when presented in a cinema.
I am convinced that the best movies lie, gathering dust, abandoned on the Gramophone Video Store shelves, victims of a parochial prejudice against the absence of color and graphic violence.
As I watch the consequences of the recession settle on our small town, I see people creatively trying to reconstruct simpler routines and lives. What if we turned could convince Bowtie Cinema to dedicate one theatre one evening a week to a double bill featuring the great films of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s? Each Thursday, we could transform our town into a gilded family night at the movies. Perhaps we start with Academy Award candidates from 1939: Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka, Goodbye Mister Chips and of course, Gone With The Wind.
How about a month featuring the films of Hitchcock – Rear Window, Strangers on a Train, To Catch a Thief, Rebecca and The Man Who Knew Too Much.
If the kids want adventure, how about the original “The Four Feathers” with Ralph Richardson teamed up with “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”. February and Valentine’s Day could be Bette Davis month with All About Eve and The Little Foxes followed by musicals like “West Side Story,” “Paint Your Wagon”, “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” and “Top Hat” with Rogers and Astaire.
Who would not want a little film noir with a good Robert Mitchum or Dick Powell melodrama. You won’t be the same after watching a pathetic Erich Von Stroheim and bugged eyed, insane Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard: ” I am ready for my close up, Mr. Demille.” Give me Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun, Cary Grant and Sophia Loren in Houseboat or Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
On All Hallows eve, we could show “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “The Canterville Ghost” with Charles Laughton. For Thanksgiving, we feast on some fantasy with “ A Guy Named Joe”, and the little known “ Tales of Manhattan” about a custom made tuxedo with a curse. At Christmas, it’s Loretta Young, David Niven and Cary Grant in “The Bishop’s Wife” along with “It’s A Wonderful Life”. New Years concludes with William Wyler’s seven Oscar masterpiece of veterans returning home from WWII in “The Best Years of Our Lives?”
If we build it, they will come. I can see it all now – multiple generations from all over Fairfield County appearing once a week to fill a single theatre to see movies the way the director’s intended – on a big screen, alone yet together, bonded by a twitch of an eyebrow in Witness For The Prosecution, the utter abandonment of a blacklisted writer who writes the screenplay for a western called “High Noon”, or listening to the chaotic strings and the tilted mise en scene of post war Vienna in Orson Welles’ “The Third Man.
I can’t get my kids to watch these old movies at home. But just maybe, on a quiet weeknight, I could talk them into the last picture show at the Bowtie. For a single price of admission, I can treat them to a Jimmy Stewart double bill: leading off with “Harvey” and concluding with a civics lesson about a naïve first year Congressman almost destroyed by corruption in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
There is hope. I came home the other day and found my daughter and a friend watching a black and white movie. Disguising my utter joy, I casually queried,” so what’s on, guys?”
I smiled as I watched the corrupt, lifeless hand of Charles Foster Kane drop his dime store snow globe and whisper, “Rosebud!” – a relic of lost innocence and like the golden age of cinema, an echo of a simpler and magical time.