THE KILLERS (Robert Siodmak, 1946)
209 West Houston St.
Series runs July 19 - August 15
In 1950, Edmond O’Brien starred as auditor Frank Bigelow in Rudolph Maté’s classic noir D.O.A., a story told in flashback as Bigelow tries to figure out why someone has poisoned him. Four years earlier, O’Brien dealt with another kind of fatalism in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers, playing insurance agent Jim Reardon, who is investigating why a gas station attendant was brutally gunned down in his bed in suburban Brentwood, New Jersey. The film — which kicks off Film Forum’s four-week salute to Manhattan-born Hollywood star Burt Lancaster on July 19 — opens with cold-hearted contract killers Al (Charles McGraw) and Max (William Conrad) arriving in town, looking for the Swede (Lancaster), aka Pete Lund and Ole Andreson. They waltz into Henry’s Diner, giving orders and exchanging mean-spirited dialogue with no fears or worries. When Nick Adams (Phil Brown) warns the Swede that the men are coming to kill him, the former boxer knows there’s nothing he can do about it anymore; he’s tired of running, and he’s ready to meet his end.
It’s a shocking way to begin a movie; up to that point, it’s a faithful version of Ernest Hemingway’s short story, but the rest is the splendid invention of writers Richard Brooks, Anthony Veiller, and John Huston and producer Mark Hellinger. Reardon soon finds himself meeting with a series of gangsters as they relate, through flashbacks, a plot to rob a payroll, perpetrated by a motley crew that includes “Dum Dum” Clarke (Jack Lambert), “Blinky” Franklin (Jeff Corey), the Swede, and mastermind Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker), along with Big Jim’s gun moll, femme fatale extraordinaire Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). Reardon’s boss (Donald MacBride) wants him to forget about it, since it’s essentially about a meager $2,500 insurance claim, but Reardon is determined to find out what happened to a quarter million in cash, with the help of the Swede’s childhood friend, Lt. Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene).
The Killers is an intense, passionate heist flick, structured like Citizen Kane, starting with a death and then putting everything together via interviews and flashbacks. Lancaster and Gardner are magnetic, he in his screen debut, she in the film that made her a star. Siodmak (The Dark Mirror, The Spiral Staircase) masterfully navigates the noir tropes, from Miklós Rózsa’s jazzy score, which jumps out from the opening credits, and Woody Bredell’s oft-angled black-and-white cinematography that maintains an ominous, shadowy sensibility throughout to deft characterizations and surprising plot twists. As it makes its way through the seven deadly sins, The Killers lives up to its fab billing as a “Raw! Rugged! Ruthless drama of a man who gambled — his luck — his love — his life for the treachery of a girl’s lips.”
Nominated for four Oscars, for Best Director, Best Film Editing (Arthur Hilton), Best Music, and Best Adapted Screenplay, The Killers, which was also made into a 1958 student short by Andrei Tarkovsky and a 1964 crime drama by Don Siegel starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, Norman Fell, and Ronald Reagan, is screening July 19-25 at Film Forum; the Lancaster tribute continues through August 15 with such other Burt classics as Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success, Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity, and Louis Malle’s Atlantic City in addition to such lesser-known movies as John Cassavetes’s A Child Is Waiting, Sidney Pollack’s The Scalphunters, and Norman Foster’s Kiss the Blood Off My Hands.
THE KILLERS (Don Siegel, 1964)
209 West Houston St.
Saturday, July 20 – Monday, July 22
In conjunction with the screening of the 1946 version of The Killers kicking off Film Forum’s four-week Burt Lancaster festival, the downtown institution is also presenting Don Siegel’s 1964 remake July 20-22. Siegel, who at one point was supposed to direct the 1946 original, sets this adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story in a bright, candy-colored world that is a far cry from the intricate, shadowy darkness of Robert Siodmak’s earlier noir version; in fact, it’s so luminous that hitmen Charlie Strom (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager) are often wearing dark sunglasses (à la Jake and Ellwood Blues), and the film opens with them walking into a home for the blind, passing by two blind boys playing their own version of cops and robbers. The men are there to kill former race-car driver Johnny North (John Cassavetes), who is now a teacher. Despite being warned by an old man (longtime character actor Burt Mustin) that they are coming, Johnny waits for them, choosing not to run. His lack of a survival instinct confounds Charlie, who goes on a search to find out why Johnny didn’t fight for his life but instead essentially welcomed a brutal death.
Johnny’s sordid tale is related to Charlie and Lee in flashback as they meet up with his mechanic and best friend, Earl Sylvester (Claude Akins); Johnny’s lover, femme fatale Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson); Farr’s other lover, crime boss Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan); and Jack’s flunky, Mickey Farmer (Norman Fell), as they tell a story of racing, double crosses, and a million-dollar heist. Written by Gene L. Coon and initially intended as a television movie but deemed too violent in the wake of the assassination of JFK and released theatrically, The Killers features plenty of cheesy scenes and none-too-subtle melodrama, but it’s still loads of fun, with a campy sense of humor lurking behind all the blood and guts, with a Rat Packy feel. Reagan is fun to watch in his final movie role before turning to politics — and his first time playing a villain — while the glamorous Dickinson shows off some fine hairdos and couture. Siegel, who had previously directed Invasion of the Body Snatchers and would go on to make Dirty Harry, Madigan, and Escape from Alcatraz, never veers off track as he relies on the great Lee Marvin, in the midst of a terrific run that included The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Cat Ballou, The Dirty Dozen, and Point Blank, to drive the action. It might not be very Hemingway-esque, but who cares?
Summer Night, actor Joseph Cross’s directorial debut, offers a twist on the standard ensemble coming-of-age flick: Its protagonists are not a bunch of high school teens looking to get stoned and laid before leaving for college (or not) but a group of older twenty-somethings facing more serious choices about their future. The film, which opens this weekend at Cinema Village, still has to fight genre clichés and mundane digressions as it tells the stories of close-knit friends gathering at a music bar appropriately called the Alamo in their small-town American community on the last night of summer. Jameson (Ellar Coltrane) is the film’s centerpiece, an all-around-good dude with a sound perspective on life who surprises everyone that night by arriving at the show with the impossibly hot, black-leather-clad Harmony (Victoria Justice), who’s not the kind of woman he usually dates. The less-flashy Corin (Elena Kampouris), who is working the door at the Alamo, is more his speed, but as we will learn, most of the characters are deeper than the usual genre stereotypes.
Longtime couple Seth (Ian Nelson) and Mel (Analeigh Tipton) reach a crossroads when she tells him she is pregnant, while Jack “Rabbit” (Bill Milner) is shocked to learn his best friend, and possible true-love romantic partner, Lexi (Lana Condor), has lost her virginity to someone else. Rugged musician Taylor (Callan McAuliffe) unexpectedly meets up with the very sweet, younger Dana (Ella Hunt) after he is mugged in the woods. Bass player Caleb (Hayden Szeto) is a nice guy who just wants to have fun, Vanessa (Melina Vidler) has a thing for Taylor, and Andy (Justin Chatwin), the most outgoing and boisterous among them, secretly wonders whether his time has already passed. Meanwhile, older bar patron Luke (Khris Davis) represents potential stability, having settled down with a wife and kids.
Written by first-time screenwriter Jordan Jolliff, Summer Night takes a while to kick into gear as you figure out whether you want to spend any time with these characters, and there’s too much live music (featuring real bands Ruby the RabbitFoot, Roadkill Ghost Choir, and Deep State) — “Is this, like, all you guys do? Sit around and talk about bands nobody cares about?” Vanessa asks — but Cross, who played Tom the barista in Big Little Lies and Augusten Burroughs in Running with Scissors, eventually finds his groove. The relationship between Caleb and Dana is sweet, and Coltrane (Boyhood, Blood Money) stands out as the group’s conscience as the characters realize there are consequences to their actions, and inactions. The key line just may be when Mel says, “This is not the plan,” with some adapting better than others.
The immigration and refugee crisis is at the heart of husband-and-wife filmmaking team Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin’s The Sweet Requiem, opening July 12 at IFC. Unfortunately, the film gets bogged down in its agenda-driven narrative. Writer-director Sonam and producer-director Sarin, who were both born in India — Sonam’s parents were Tibetan refugees — have been outspoken regarding the treatment of Tibetans by the Chinese government, as depicted in such earlier works as 2007’s fictional Dreaming Lhasa and the 2010 documentary The Sun Behind the Clouds, but they tend to make their points with a heavy hand, often preaching to the choir. The Sweet Requiem follows that pattern.
The film travels back and forth between the present day, when a grown Dolkar (Tenzin Dolker) is shocked to see Gompo (Jampa Kalsang) at the Tibetan refugee settlement in North Delhi where she and other exiles live, and eighteen years in the past, when Gompo leads a small party, including the young Dolkar (Tenzin Dechen) and her father, Migmar (Rabyoung Thonden Gyahkhang), on a dangerous journey across a frigid, snow-filled landscape as they attempt to escape China and make it to the Indian border alive, knowing that the Chinese military is looking for them. Dolkar works in a threading salon but wants to go back to school, and she has a tight-knit group of friends, including Dorjee (Shavo Dorjee), who is attracted to her, but she is haunted by what happened on the journey, especially to her father and old man Ghen-la (Nyima Dhondup) and by her inability to contact her mother, Tsering (Tashi Choedon), and sister, Wangmo (Lobsang Dolkar), who stayed behind. Desperate to know what’s happening in the land she left, Dolkar watches as a stream of monks set themselves on fire as political statements.
The Sweet Requiem has a strong setup and it looks great, David McFarland’s (mostly) handheld camera moving from the pristinely white Himalayan mountains of the past to the refugee settlement of the present, with its dark and narrow winding corridors. Sonam and Sarin explore the connection between the refugees and the Tibetan culture; several characters wear pro-Tibet T-shirts, but they also attend dance-workout sessions that meld India with Tibet and other cultures. Sadly, such lines as “The spirit of the Tibetan people will never be broken” land like lead; subtlety is not the filmmakers’ forte. But Dechen, in her cinematic debut, gives a poignant performance, and the cinematography and Michael Montes’s score stand out. Opening weekend will feature several Q&As with Sonam and Sarin, joined by Tim McHenry on July 12 at 2:30, Beth Citron on July 13 at 2:30, John Halpern on July 13 at 7:40, and Scott Macaulay on July 14 at 2:30.
THE ATOMIC CAFE (Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader & Pierce Rafferty, 1982)
7 Ludlow St. between Canal & Hester Sts.
Saturday, July 13, 6:30
Series runs July 12-14
The time is ripe for a 4K restoration of the absurdist 1982 documentary The Atomic Cafe as President Trump deals with the nuclear capabilities and arsenals of Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader, and Pierce Rafferty were searching archives for propaganda films when they discovered a treasure trove of military and government shorts about the atomic and hydrogen bombs and how the American people should face any oncoming threats. The three filmmakers, who will be at Metrograph on July 13 at 6:30 to introduce a special screening of the 2018 restoration, weaved sensational footage together into an hour and a half of clips that range from the hysterically funny to the dangerously outrageous. Young students are taught to “duck and cover.” Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets Jr. describes how easy it was to fly over Hiroshima and drop the bomb but then admits his shock over the eventual destruction it wrought. Presidents Harry S Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower discuss the impact of the bombs. A radio duo makes jokes about the decimation. Scenes of the horrific damage to Japanese victims are shown in silence. Vice Admiral W. H. P. Blandy defends the Bikini Atoll test, where island residents are assured everything will be fine — as are soldiers who will be in the vicinity of various tests.
While Russia escalates the Cold War — yes, they were our avowed enemy for quite some time, although the film includes President Richard Nixon joking around with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev — and a battle between North and South Korea looms, Americans drink “Atomic” cocktails and dance to “Atomic” songs. The execution of Ethel Rosenberg is explained in disturbing detail. A military officer tells the troops, “Watched from a safe distance, this explosion is one of the most beautiful sights ever seen by man,” and in a training film a military chaplain says to a few soldiers, “You look up and you see the fireball as it ascends up into the heavens; it’s a wonderful sight to behold.” Loader and the Raffertys fill the film with a vast array of black-and-white and color footage of nuclear bombs exploding into immense mushroom clouds, accompanied by a wide range of mood-enhancing music. It would be easy to dismiss most of the archival material in the film as ridiculous, outdated propaganda from a bygone era, but in this age of fake news, social media, lies from the White House, a war on journalism, and a president cozying up to enemies and taking issue with longtime allies, it’s more than a little bit frightening too. The Atomic Cafe is screening in the three-day series “Secret Histories: The Films of Kevin Rafferty & Friends,” which runs July 12-14 and also includes 1991’s Blood in the Face, 1992’s Feed, 1999’s The Last Cigarette, and 2008’s Harvard Beats Yale 29-28, offering unique looks at parts of the American experience.
Who: Janet Biggs and Scott MacDonald
What: Panel discussion and book launch
Where: Cristin Tierney Gallery, 219 Bowery, second floor, 212-594-0550
When: Thursday, July 11, free with advance RSVP, 6:30
Why: In his new book, The Sublimity of Document: Cinema as Diorama (Oxford University Press, August 1, 2019, $125), author and film history professor Scott MacDonald writes of visual artist Janet Biggs, “I first became aware of Biggs when she visited Hamilton College in the spring of 2017 to present a talk about her work. As she showed stills and clips from recent videos, I was struck by the fact that Biggs had traveled to and filmed particular far-flung locations that I had been introduced to by other filmmakers. . . . I was interested not only that multiple artists would be drawn to these precise locations, but also that, in somewhat different ways, these locations can be dangerous to visit. As I became familiar with Biggs’s work, I came to wonder why an artist would go through the considerable difficulties of visiting distant, potentially dangerous locations, not in order to produce films that might have substantial audiences, but to offer relatively brief visual experiences to comparatively smaller audiences within gallery and museum spaces. I came to realize that my experiences with Biggs’s work offered an opportunity to explore, at least in a small way, the issue of installation cinema versus theatrical cinema.” The book continues with an interview between MacDonald and Biggs that was conducted online.
On July 11, MacDonald and Biggs will be together in person at the Cristin Tierney Gallery for a discussion on film and art in conjunction with the publication of The Sublimity of Document and Biggs’s most recent exhibition, “Overview Effect,” the second part of which, Seeing Constellations in the Darkness between Stars, continues at Cristin Tierney through August 2. MacDonald’s book features interviews with Biggs and more than two dozen other “avant-doc” filmmakers, including Ron Fricke, Laura Poitras, Frederick Wiseman, Bill Morrison, Abbas Kiarostami, and James Benning. Biggs has also contributed the article “Fragility Curve” to the current edition of the Brooklyn Rail, writing about her experiences making her latest films, which deal with Mars. “The earth will remake itself and survive the legacy of its human inhabitants, but will we?” she asks. The conversation with Biggs and MacDonald will be followed by a book signing; in addition, Biggs, who has participated in two twi-ny talks, will be presenting the multimedia performance piece How the Light Gets In July 18 at the New Museum.