by Ben Terrall
Let’s start with the obvious question. This film line-up—which is very impressive, by the way—seems to be a response to the times we live in…by any chance has this been building up inside you for awhile now?
Thanks for noticing that. Yes, I think it’s safe to say this series is a direct response not only to the times we live in, but more specifically to the mortifying reality that Donald Trump is now the president of our country. The program began to take shape in the early morning hours of November 9, 2016, but it took a while to hone it into something truly forceful and meaningful. It also helped that my good friend Don Malcolm of Midcentury Productions had similar programming inclinations and he helped pave the way for this series to happen at the Roxie — which, if you know the Roxie’s history as well as my own history there, is the perfect venue for this program.
In a number of these films, the stories are about media manipulation of public opinion. We’re living in an age where this seems to have metastasized before our very eyes. Was that part of the core thinking for selecting the films?
Media manipulation appears to have been on a lot of minds in Hollywood even as far back as the 30s, as evidenced by Black Legion and They Won’t Forget, two 1937 films in the series which seem to presage the dawn of media exploitation eighty years down the line.
These are terrifying films, made even more so by the fact that not much has changed for the better in all that time. And it carries through the ‘40s and ‘50s with films like Meet John Doe, Try and Get Me, The Lawless and A Face in the Crowd. So I guess the answer is yes, it certainly did play a part in the formation of this series.
Meet John Doe and A Face in the Crowd especially touch on the way in which demagogues can be created using mass media. Which one of these films seems to you to be the one that speaks most to what we’re experiencing now?
A Face in the Crowd would seem to be the obvious answer in that Lonesome Rhodes is about as close an approximation of our current presidential dilemma as one could possibly imagine. Lonesome’s crude, larcenous, and lecherous ways echo depressingly the behavior of the idiot in the White House, I think. This combined with his dubious manipulation of the media makes the film practically explode off the screen.
Meet John Doe is somewhat more devious in this respect given the more focused evil of D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold) who, unlike Trump, operates behind the scenes and is shown to be a sophisticated, calculating business genius (which Trump is clearly not). Both films function as brilliant cautionary tales for our ridiculous predicament.
The two Joseph Losey films, The Lawless and M, give us a look at a very interesting filmmaker in his earliest stages. Some think that he was oddly “helped” by being blacklisted, as his work evolved significantly afterward—films like Accident, The Servant, and Mr. Klein, just to name a few. But your pairing here would seem to validate and reclaim these early films made on the cheap and under duress—can you confirm that impression?
I can understand why some might feel that Losey’s blacklisting led to a more vibrant and satisfying career in Europe, but I think it’s also fair to say that if he’d had the opportunity to remain in this country and work, his name would be far better known to filmgoers today, especially given the unique power of these early American films.
Can you imagine a string of films like The Lawless, M, and The Prowler giving way to an American filmography anything less than incredible? Losey was primed for a great career here, and the fact that he was able to reclaim his life and career elsewhere in the aftermath of the blacklist doesn’t dispel the horrific injustice perpetuated on him.
Marked Woman and The Naked Kiss might be the most unusual “women’s film” pairing ever. What made you think of combining them?
Well, it is unusual given the span of twenty-seven years between them. But they’re matched perfectly because of the bold approach taken by the directors in portraying prostitutes as decent, hard-working people in a world populated by men who are vicious, corrupt and perverted. Bette Davis (Marked Woman) and Constance Towers (The Naked Kiss) leave lasting impressions because of the severity of their performances, sure, but it’s the subversive assault on men that unifies these two bombastic films.
How rare is it to find a film made in Hollywood/America during that time span — thirties to sixties — that actually shows women taking on misogyny and male repression? Do you think there are others that speak to the #metoo movement as well as these two?
I’d say extremely rare given the rigid constraints of the Production Code, which persisted until the ‘60s. And what better vessel than that of prostitution, generally a taboo subject matter during that time, and usually limited to moralizing platitudes aimed at women who clearly went wrong and are paying the price for their sins. But Marked Woman and The Naked Kiss take a much more progressive stance and the results are surprisingly stimulating. Of course Fuller’s film (The Naked Kiss) had the good fortune to have been made in the 1960s when censorship was beginning to relax, but Marked Woman is something a revelation in its remarkably frank and fresh take on the subject. Especially for a film that is now over eighty years old! For the uninitiated, this film will be the equivalent of a sharp blow to the stomach.
You close the series Monday night with a very different kind of John Garfield double bill. Do you think many people have any idea that he played a Cuban-American revolutionary (in We Were Strangers)?
I was struck by the contrast in acting styles Garfield employs in these films. We Were Strangers was made just a couple of years after Body and Soul, but he seems changed somehow—more tightly reined in, almost minimalist. It’s as if playing Joe Morse in Force of Evil opened up a new mode of acting for him.
We Were Strangers is an amazing film, and one of Don’s most invaluable contributions to the lineup. It’s a film I wasn’t familiar with and at Don’s urging I put it into the mix and I’m really glad I did. The film is pretty heated up and loaded with exactly the type of political rhetoric that got people blacklisted in those days; it’s pretty miraculous that John Huston, who directed the film, avoided this problem. But Garfield wasn’t so lucky. Although never formally blacklisted, he was nevertheless hounded mercilessly by HUAC to the point that shortly after they demanded he testify he was dead from a heart attack at age 39. Which may or may not explain the nature of his performance in the film; clearly he was drained of much of the creative energy that informed his earlier, more recognizable roles and facing a monumentally stressful road ahead. Unquestionably, Garfield remains one of the most tragic figures of the blacklist era.
“Elliot Lavine is to movies what a feng shui master is to furniture. The master doesn’t make the furniture but knows where to place it in considered relationship with the other pieces — and what the combinations will mean. This philosophical approach to film has always been part of who he is, even decades before he had a theatre to program. Born in Detroit, Lavine came to San Francisco in 1975 to study film at San Francisco State. For 15 years, while working odd jobs, he made independent shorts and tried to launch a directing career. It wasn’t until age 42 that he found his true calling. A friend who worked at the Roxie box office told him the theater’s owner, Bill Banning, was looking for someone to write blurbs about upcoming films for its calendar. ‘Elliot’s programming is adventurous and humane,’ says Anita Monga, artistic director of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. ‘He’s a born advocate for the neglected and underappreciated.’ ” Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle (Read the full story)