Movies have meant the world to me since earliest childhood, when they helped me make sense of the universe in which I lived. Well, Heaven help the kid who relies on cinema to tell him how the world works—films can be as unreliable, bigoted, lazy, crazy, gender-biased, politically cockeyed and boring as any parental role model, but they can also be charismatic, thrilling, oneiric and intoxicating, as addictive as a Jolly Rancher-Xanax blend—if such a hybrid exists!—and any normal kid could end up fiending on them, almost to the exclusion of living his or her own real life away from the screen.
My earliest kino highs, I realize in retrospect, have been further heightened by false memory. For example, I misremember a toddler-era TV viewing of Fourteen Hours, a 1951 picture featuring Richard Basehart out on a high-rise window ledge threatening suicide for its entire running time. That part I recollect correctly, but I remember Basehart’s mother being played by my own mother, and I remember the movie as a daily TV show. Every day the same suicidal man talked back into safety by my mother!
I misremember the lead role in Gilda (1946) being played not by Rita Hayworth, but by—Google image search helped me out here—Cobra Woman herself, Maria Montez! And the Glenn Ford character being played by Buddy Ebsen of the Beverly Hillbillies. And a teenage Sandra Dee shoved into the proceedings as a romantic rival for Montez. I’m not sure what film I really saw during that grindhouse Sunday matinee, but I guarantee it’s every bit as great as the real Gilda, which I’ve actually never seen.
Films are moving myths, I’ve concluded, chimerical and ever-mutating artifacts of intense delight and arousal, role modeling, cautionary warning, Utopian reverie and social wrath. For this carte blanche I’ve decided to sort through my most formative movie-viewing experiences, titles seen decades ago and not glimpsed since. They are an addled array of sensations that dripped a succession of intoxications into my soft and spongy brain. They won’t trigger the same responses in a 2016 audience, but if only I could measure, in a controlled experiment, how these powerful dream-inducers perform now! Pink Narcissus, which I saw in 2005, is the only film I’ve seen as recently as thirty-five years ago, but that roseate spectacular is maybe the most beautifully tripped-out viewing experience of all my chosen titles. I’m not even sure I saw it!!! – Guy Maddin, artist, writer, filmmaker and Visiting Lecturer in the Visual and Environmental Studies Department, Harvard. His latest feature, The Forbidden Room, screened at the HFA in December 2015.
Film descriptions by Guy Maddin.
Special thanks: Emilie Cauquy—Cinémathèque Française; Todd Wiener, Steven Hill—UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Directed by Jack Garfein. With Carroll Baker, Ralph Meeker, Mildred Dunnock
US 1961, 35mm, b/w, 112 min
Jack Garfein is a Holocaust survivor who was liberated by British soldiers from the Bergen-Belsen camp at war’s end. A longtime theater director and teacher at the Actors’ Studio, he made just two feature films, both startlingly modern and controversial for their era, and still startling to this day. The Strange One (1957), a story about sadistic hazing rituals and sexual bullying at a military academy, was cast and crewed entirely by Actors’ Studio members, most notably the young Ben Gazzara. Then came Something Wild, starring Garfein’s wife Carroll Baker as a rape survivor spiraling into depression. She accepts timely help from a mechanic (Meeker), only to find herself in a new species of nightmare. The candor and sensitivity with which Garfein and Baker tell this story had never been seen in American film before, while the psychology of Baker’s character is honest, uncomfortable—and controversial. Aaron Copland supplies the score, Saul Bass the opening credits—not bad for an indie filmmaker’s second outing! Final outing, it turns out: Garfein was considered meat too strong by the American film industry, and he returned to work in theater. At 85 years of age, he continues to teach acting at the Studio Jack Garfein in Paris. Print courtesy Park Circus.
Directed by Sergei Parajanov. With Ivan Mikolaitchouk, Larisa Kadochnikova, Tatyana Bestayeva
Soviet Union 1965, 35mm, color, 97 min. Ukrainian with English subtitles
Parajanov, the Georgian-born, ethnically Armenian filmmaker who shot film in the Ukraine, created extremely decorative, suspiciously queer, robustly mythic films so out of sync with Soviet realism that he found himself the target of almost-constant state persecution, resulting in frequent imprisonments and long periods of enforced inactivity. Nonetheless, he got enough pictures out against all this resistance to ensure a place for himself among the all-time great visionaries of cinema. This legendary tale of Carpathian romance and violent family feuds, shot using some strange, pulsing Soviet color stock with extremely unstable emulsions, feels like a story told in a passing parade of peeling gilt icons, but it’s so musically driven one also feels the whole thing to be an ancient song, or epic poem, intoned across countless Ukrainian Hutsul generations clinging to their fierce mountain lives. So much mad, unsanctioned energy in this film—enough to knit Leonid Brezhnev’s eyebrows into a tapestry!
Directed by Nicholas Ray. With Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan, Ward Bond
US 1952, 35mm, b/w, 82 min
I think this is the only noir set half in the familiar greasy, nocturnal cityscape and half in the broad daylight of a snowy countryside. The sudden departure from the precincts of the former produces a dreamy free-fall into the cool open breezes of the latter, and the film achieves an airborne exhilaration rarely produced by cop pictures—trust Nick Ray to pull off the one-time stunt! Starring Robert Ryan at his most tremulously contained borderline-psychopathic best, playing a cop with anger issues banished to the sticks till he calms down. There he teams up with the father of a just-murdered girl to chase down her killer. The father (Ward Bond), equipped in full Elmer Fudd hunting fatigues and shotgun, has an itchy trigger finger and understandable anger issues of his own. All this anger is madly driven by perhaps the best Bernard Herrmann score outside of Vertigo. Ida Lupino, herself a no-nonsense director of seven hardboiled features, here plays the blind woman at the tender center of this furious and sleety emotional maelstrom. Print courtesy Warner Bros.
Directed by Cy Endfield. With Stanley Baker, Herbert Lom, Peggy Cummins
UK 1957, 35mm, b/w, 91 min
This frenzied anti-capitalist lorry actioner is directed by American Cy Endfield, who spent the 50s working pseudonymously in the UK to circumvent his status on the McCarthy blacklist back home. The story involves truck drivers pitted by their boss against each other in furious, ultra-dangerous, high-speed races along perilously narrow roads to see who can deliver the most loads of ballast gravel per day. This was a breakout role for star Stanley Baker, who just four years later turned down the part of James Bond in the franchise’s first film, Dr. No, because he balked at signing a three-picture deal. Ironically, eventual Bond Sean Connery appears in this film as a backgrounded driver. Ever-seething, ever-wrathful Patrick McGoohan’s violent rival to Baker supplies the bile and dread that propel this insanely pumped-up picture, with Gun Crazy’s Peggy Cummins the vortex of a romantic clash fuel-injected into the combustible admixture of romance, sabotage and revenge. Seriously cranked up! Print courtesy Park Circus.
Directed by Victor Sjöström. With Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Montagu Love
US 1928, 35mm, b/w, silent, 70 min
The Wind strikes me as the perfect, if more dynamic and gusty, companion piece to Polanski’s Repulsion. Both films are bravura examples of interiority masterfully expressed in a film’s putative, and gorgeously realized, external world. In the case of Sjöström, the world is Sweetwater, a lonely outpost in the American West where the wind never stops blowing soil upon the spotless person and mind of perennially chaste Lillian Gish, whose virginal Letty from Virginia finds herself sexually vexed by the thoughts these filthy gales occasion. Once in a while, a cyclone arrives to interrupt the routine of the constant blasts, and a romance for terrified Letty is brutally etched out of the frank landscape, where settlers are put up to mating in much the same fashion as livestock, and where the housewives of Sweetwater handle the organ meats of their beef carcasses with grim, workaday dispatch. Sjöström’s visuals are, by turns, pitch-perfect gothic and stunningly, even hilariously, hyperbolic. The Wind is a singular psychosexual addition to the West’s big fat books of myths, and for once it is fear, not the Native American, that is fought while America defines itself. One of the last silent films made in Hollywood, and maybe the greatest. Print courtesy Warner Bros.
Directed by Frank Borzage. With Dane Clark, Gail Russell, Ethel Barrymore
US 1948, 35mm, b/w, 90 min
Borzage started helming pictures in Hollywood way back in 1912, so masterful Moonrise is definitely a third-act wonder from this legendary studio-system filmmaker. The studio in question on this project is Republic Pictures, always a budget-conscious concern, so the usually lush’n’luminous Borzage’s work here is much leaner than usual, almost noir-like in its economics of shadows—darkness is the cheapest of all set dressings!—and the leanness is matched by the dark intensity of the story and its leading man, brooding Dane Clark. Clark plays Danny Hawkins, a small-town hothead haunted since childhood by the hanging of his convicted-murderer father. Sullen young Hawkins’ worst fears are realized when he himself suddenly commits a murder. Tortured by fear and guilt, and obeying the nightmarish imperatives of noir romance, Hawkins attempts to develop a relationship with the girlfriend of his victim, but this movie is no mere crime film, no simple genre picture. Borzage, more concerned with the murderer’s heart and how it can be reconciled to its painful past, concocts a remarkable denouement that makes me wonder out loud: Hey, what if Robert Bresson were a script doctor over at Republic! 35mm preservation print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Directed by Frank Borzage. With Spencer Tracy, Loretta Young, Marjorie Rambeau
US 1933, 35mm, b/w, 75 min
Frank Borzage made a smooth transition from his late-20s run of mystically romantic silent masterpieces starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell—7th Heaven (1927); Street Angel (1928), Lucky Star (1929) —to this luminous Depression-era talkie, along with Moonrise, his most sophisticated narrative. Martin Scorsese has famously observed that Borzage’s films unfold in “lovers’ time,” a storytelling rhythm that gives two people together lots of space to do the little things that people falling for each other do, and this pre-code picture about a young homeless woman (Young) taken in by a lover (Tracy) unwilling to commit to her, even in the face of her pregnancy, examines at length the love-besotted couple in their shared Hooverville shanty during periods of playful tenderness, panicked possessiveness and bitter recrimination. Tracy is shown kidding and teasing his soulmate in ways one never sees in film, and the viewer feels with sinking heart his altered attitude toward her as power shifts between the two. It is one of the great portrayals of the human heart at war with itself. Print courtesy Swank Films.
Directed by Lupu Pick. With Eugen Klöpfer, Edith Posca, Frida Richard
Germany 1924, 35mm, b/w, silent, 66 min
This idiosyncratic rarity is the gem of the whole carte blanche as far as I’m concerned! A Kammerspiele, or middle-class chamber drama, Sylvester is the simple story—I think it’s a comedy, but who knows?—of a man beleaguered by tensions between his mother and his wife during the final hours of a single New Year’s Eve. The domestic action unfolds, elegantly eschewing intertitles, with an extremely mannered expressionism that bizarrely slows itself down to near tableau-like immobility at times. The performances, often brisk, can just as often be so slow, and the actors’ poses held so long, as to be exciting, electrifying even! The closer the three strange thespians come to stock-stillness, the more they somehow approach the uninhibited language of dance, and one doesn’t even care if the intended result is comedy or tragedy—it’s somehow both in this oddball ellipses-drunk film. Director Pick is a startling revelation, a true eccentric with a singular filmic voice. This forgotten actor/filmmaker, I aver, was as great as kino immortal F.W. Murnau, his comrade in virtuosic German camera movement, tonal innovation and untimely death—they died separately but four days apart in 1931. What couldn’t they have achieved if granted just another ten years each! Eugen Klöpfer essays the husband role wearing, it seems, the body of someone else, someone that doesn’t quite fit his skin or gait; he is the epitome of bodily and marital discomforts. Edith Posca, Pick’s wife and frequent collaborator, plays the young frau, while Frida Richard takes on the role of the most memorable mother-in-law in film history. Print courtesy Cinémathèque Française.
Directed by George Hill. With Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone
US 1930, 35mm, b/w, 87 min
This pre-code prison picture—I know, you feel like you’ve already seen every prison picture already, but this one is directed with so much visual assurance, charm and bracing characterization!—is fresh as the day it came out of the lab. The great Frances Marion, longtime writer for Mary Pickford, won the first of her two best-screenplay Oscars for this wonderfully plotted crime melodrama. Coen brothers fetish-object Wallace Beery nabbed the lead role of Butch when the already-signed Lon Chaney came down with his deadly throat cancer—and a loveable superstar was born! But the truly arresting performance of the movie belongs to Robert Montgomery as a cowardly young inmate who just can’t cut the prison code and turns instead to snitching. Montgomery possesses such a vast vocabulary of facial expressions for dread, shame, guilt, fear, skulking, sketchiness, horror and worthless pigeonheartedness that when I first saw The Big House I found myself standing up and pointing with horrified self-identification at this astonishing man’s mug! You’re watching the English language version here, but the film was simultaneously shot in German, French and Spanish versions as well; the German was directed by Pál Fejös and starred Gustav Diessl.
Directed by James Whale. With Edward Arnold, Robert Young, Constance Cummings
US 1935, 35mm, b/w, 81 min
Man, to be James Whale in the early 30s! Mise-en-scène monuments Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man! And, right after Bride of Frankenstein,Whale confected this sparkling, boozed-up whodunit with a question mark in the title! Adam Hobhouse’s novel The Hangover Murders told the story of partying prohibition-age bon vivants so sloshed none of them can remember anything of the night before, when one of their number was murdered. The Production Code forbade use of the word “hangover” in the title, but could not keep the yummy sea of Sidecars, Manhattans and Gimlets out of Whale’s picture. Nor could Hollywood keep the openly gay Whale in any closet. He had style by the platinum ton. And even though there are no gay characters in this ensemble picture, the decor, elegance and élan are pure pre-war queer fantasy, a highly polished world of oversized swinging doors in lacquer, joyously abused tuxedos, and balustrades hung with sozzled socialites half out of their slinky gowns. There is one sobering scene, involving a great American embarrassment, which one might need a few drinks to forget. I myself had forgotten it, I’m ashamed to say, until a Google image search proved its presence in this film beyond reasonable doubt. I hope it’s somehow historically instructive, and not just unpleasant or hurtful, to face what must not be forgotten. Print courtesy Universal Pictures.
Directed by Josef von Sternberg. With Marlene Dietrich, Victor McLaglen, Gustav von Seyffertitz
US 1931, 35mm, b/w, 91 min
The third picture in the most effulgent streak of brilliance in Hollywood history—seven features between 1930 and 1935 created by collaborators Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg—Dishonored is perhaps the best introduction to this mother lode running from Blue Angel to Devil is a Woman, packed as it is with the most beautiful painting-with-light b&w photography of the studio era, weirdo formally mannered performances cooked up between director and leading lady for their worlds, the unsuspected moral seriousness of their proto-kitschy projects, and novel end-around tonal tricks from a playbook more eccentric than any other in the business. Dietrich plays an Austrian prostitute recruited to use her body to spy for her country, all Mata Hari-like, and since it’s wartime, she does her dangerous duty courageously. But she’s human and falls for one of her enemy dupes, Victor McLaglen, the future star of John Ford’s The Informer. But this is not Ford country, and McLaglen, like everyone else in the film, from Warner Oland to Gustav von Seyffertitz, speaks in those Sternbergian cadences suggesting irony-laden freight trains slowly gathering steam. A wonder the director so confidently adopted such an aggressively strange dialogue style the instant that films learned to speak. The alchemically romantic admixture of Dietrich, Liszt, pussycat and firing squad at the end is an especial wonderment. See this and have fun trying to iron your gooseflesh flat afterward! Print courtesy Universal Pictures.
Directed by Marie Epstein and Jean Benoît-Lévy. With Madeleine Renaud, Alice Tissot, Paulette Élambert
France 1933, digital video, b/w, 83 min. French with English subtitles
After writing scripts for her brother Jean Epstein (Coeur fidèle, Le double amour, Six et demi onze),Marie Epstein launched into a sixteen-picture collaboration with Jean Benoît-Lévy, including the co-direction of this incredibly moving story of a destitute young woman working at a daycare in poverty-stricken Montmartre. Epstein worked in what might be called the style of poetic realism, with a concern for challenges faced by women in her contemporary France, but she often employed avant-garde micro-montage and multiple exposures to achieve emotional effects, an inspiring and liberating hybrid of approaches. The print I once saw of this film had English subtitles charmingly jammed into the frame where they would best suit the composition, sometimes above the characters, sometimes beside them, not just along the bottom. It seemed like Epstein had something to do with that odd graphic gesture, so assuredly did I feel her hand in the making of this little masterpiece.
Directed by Robert Florey. With Peter Lorre, Evelyn Keyes, Don Beddoe
US 1941, 35mm, b/w, 69 min
My favorite Peter Lorre movie, and that’s saying a lot. (And he’s the star too!) It’s brisk and unpredictable, always zigzagging from genre to genre. The tale starts out like Kafka’s Amerika, with a wide-eyed immigrant, our Lorre, on a liner cruising past the Statue of Liberty, on his way to unforeseeable opportunities in the west. Lorre plays the new American with a succession of acting styles that permute as rapidly as the film’s careening genres, which freely shift the storytelling cadences from coming-of-age narrative to crime film, romantic melodrama, fairytale and even revenge legend, all while defining a nation. It’s a B-movie wonder! Print courtesy Sony Pictures.
Directed by Felix E. Feist. With Michael O’Shea, Virginia Grey, Charles McGraw
US 1949, 16mm, b/w, 66 min
This noir is so hilariously mean, raw-boned and brawny it’s absolutely delightful. B-movie uber-alpha Charles McGraw is Kluger, a murderer who breaks outta Folsom Prison to keep his promise—the titular threat—to exact revenge on the detective and judge who put him behind bars. Within minutes (Kluger and this sixty-six-minute movie are in a hurry) both threatened men are kidnapped, as is Kluger’s snitch girlfriend, just for hat-trick fun. Kluger briskly embarks with his henchmen and hostages on some cockamamie scheme involving—I think?—a car hidden in a moving van, some ham radios and a peephole. Whatever! Frisky-for-payback Kluger is as ruthless as the brief running time needs him to be. How often is a movie character so clearly defined by budgetary tightness? So satisfying! McGraw burst into movies as one of the hitmen who snuff out Burt Lancaster in the opening minutes of The Killers, and he didn’t waste much time in the roles that followed, striding with purposeful dispatch across all sorts of bottom lines—The Narrow Margin, Armored Car Robbery, Spartacus and even The Birds. Watch what this gentleman does with a chair!
Directed by Tod Browning. With Lon Chaney, Owen Moore, Renée Adorée
US 1926, 35mm, b/w, silent, 86 min
It was with great glee that I took up Haden's invitation to curate this series. How to organize a bunch of movies around a curatorial theme when the only thing they had in common was my love for them—well, I figured out that I hadn't seen any of them for a long long time, and that because of this I was eager to see them again, and in every case on the big screen for the very first time. In many cases I realized I could remember very little of the pictures except the wondrous feelings that persisted long after specific detail faded from my memory. Often I had to go online to make sure I was even thinking of the right title when I picked it. I do remember well the greatness of Laugh Clown Laugh, and the tumescent thrills produced in me by the strange—singular even! —masochistic cruelty of Lon Chaney. Long ago I watch all f his movies I could lay mitts on. But I have to be honest, I can't remember for sure if I ever saw The Blackbird, tonight's emergency replacement. So that's taKING MY DREAMY AMNESIAS ONE STEP FURTHER—ONE STEP CLOSER TO PERFECTION, I SAY! There is no way this movie is not the quintessence of my twin obsessions with Lon Chaney and forgetfulness. This movie, just like my programming tonight, has achieved a purity of perfection. I only wish I could be with you to experience this once in a lifetime event. My own viewing perfection awaits some future night. Yours is now. Enjoy!
Directed by Russell Rouse. With Beverly Michaels, Richard Egan, Percy Helton
US 1953, 35mm, b/w, 77 min
The role for which B-movie actress and cheesecake model Beverly Michaels will be forever remembered. Her movie is as lurid and low budget as Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945) and the closest thing to a companion piece for that Poverty Row paragon, but with one difference: the protagonist here is a woman, and in the hands of director and soon-to-be-husband Russell Rouse, Michaels is a woman who does bad things, but does them for understandable reasons. She lives in a world of flophouse creeps and leering drunks, and makes a break for freedom from all this patriarchal crap the only way she knows how—and we find ourselves pulling for her. She’s an amazing presence, the towering Michaels, who contrived for this el cheapo movie miracle a gliding, super-sensual gait not unlike the scudding of a just-surfaced submarine. With Cary Grant having already copyrighted the deep chin dimple, leading man Richard Egan ingeniously moved his own skin divot to a place of prominence right between the eyes, and the gambit paid off in a handsome career closer to the margins of mainstream movies and television, where he worked for decades. Long-divorced from Michaels, director Rouse closed out his career helming his gloriously rancid The Oscar (1966)! Wicked! Print courtesy Park Circus.
Directed by James Bidgood. With Bobby Kendall, Charles Ludlam, Don Brooks
US 1971, 35mm, color, 71 min
Director Bidgood was a portrait photographer, window dresser, costume designer and drag queen living in New York when he shot, painstakingly, between 1963 and 1970, this handmade, riotously color-saturated fantasia on sets built in his tiny apartment. He picked up and made a star out of teenage runaway Bobby Kendall, the hunk o’ beefcake with whom he lived amid the ever-flowering profusion of lumber, tinsel, props, costumes and other magical matter of movie artifice in never-ending transformations of jerrybuilt enchantment that was their home. Inspired by MGM Technicolor musicals and their kitsch goddesses, Bidgood refashioned Kendall and the Narcissus myth to his own hue-addled homoerotic purposes in this dialogue-free, music-driven singularity. The early scenes, presumably shot first, deploy the discreet, underground queer film codes of the early 60s to trace across a fake empyrean only the slightest hint of a narrative trajectory for the film’s dreamboat protagonist. Subsequent scenes introduce slightly more sexual explicitness as the project progresses through the increasingly permissive decade. A description of Bidgood might remind one of the contemporaneous New York spell-caster and fellow Maria Montez-worshipper, Jack Smith, but where Smith’s legendary work glories in a shrieking, unfocused derangement, every one of Bidgood’s frames is drop-dead gorgeous, mythic, restrained! Bidgood removed his name from the credits in a disagreement with some moneymen who came late to the project, which was finally completed and released to indifference in 1971, just as Boys in the Sand launched the Golden Age of Mainstream Porn, pushing the sumptuous suggestiveness of Bidgood into the oblivion of forgotten boners. Bidgood’s masterpiece was finally rereleased in 2004. Print courtesy Strand Releasing.