Photographer Helen Levitt is the focus of this week’s Melbourne Cinematheque with two feature films and two shorts she worked on screening. Levitt, a staple of the New York arts scene from the 1940s to her death at 95 in 2009, has been noted for her ability to capture the everyday life and moments of joy and heartache in the working class lives of those in New York. She also transferred to colour prints quite early, experimenting with overexposure, saturation, and dyeing the image. After being introduced to Luis Bunuel she took an interest in film and worked for many years as a consultant and cinematographer on various low-budget and collective films.
The Quiet One (1948) is a semi-documentary directed by Sidney Meyers which follows the life of a ten-year-old African-America boy growing up in Harlem. Having never been shown kindness or compassion in his home or school life Donald Peters lashes out against society. Eventually he is sent to the Wiltwyck School for Boys which focuses on rehabilitation and reform where psychiatrists try to find out what is ‘wrong’ with him, never realising that it was societies neglect that meant that Donald never had a chance.
Following this feature is the short In the Street (1948) which Levitt worked on, showing life in Spanish Harlem.
The Savage Eye (1959) is an essayistic documentary, the product of a four-year long collaborative between various directors (Sidney Meyers, Ben Maddow, Joseph Strick) and cinematographers (Helen Levitt, Jack Couffer, Haskell Wexler). Barbara Baxley is recently divorced and looking for a fresh start in Los Angeles. The film takes the viewer to various instances in Barbara’s new life from car accidents, to religious fanatics, to burlesque shows- all beautifully shot.
Following is Emotions of Everyday Living: The Steps of Age (1950), a short directed by Ben Maddow and produced by Levitt that focuses on the retirement of a crane driver and the effect this has on the relationship he has with his wife.
Rebel Without A Cause (1955), the most well known and well played of Rays films, is up first in this week’s Cinematheque double feature which also marks the end of the Nicholas Ray retrospective. I must admit that I do feel a little foolish writing about such a seminal piece of cinematic history but I shall press on nonetheless. This inter-generational classic stars James Dean as Jim Stark who cannot relate to his peers and does not take well to the authority around him. At his new school he meets Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo) as well as the school gang which is headed by Buzz.
Ray manages to highlight the growing post-war economic prosperity, alongside the alienation that teenagers are experiences in a forever widening generational-gap. The epitome of sex, drugs, & rock ‘n’ roll is portrayed fabulously by the young cast.
To end the evening is Party Girl (1958) yet another film lauded by those of the nouvelle vague and known for Ray’s use of a strikingly rich colour-pallet. Set in Chicago in the 1920s the film stars Robert Taylor as mob lawyer Thomas Farrell. After meeting dancing girl Vicki Gaye (Cid Charisse) Farrell decides to leave the mob business yet mob boss Rico Angelo threatens to hurt Gaye, forcing Farrell to make some quick decisions and learning that drama can happen not just in the court room, but in real life as well.
And so ends Melbourne Cinematheque for July. After taking a brief hiatus to make room for the Melbourne International Film Festival (21 July- 7 August, which you should all be going to) it shall return August 17th with a three-week look at Masahiro Shinoda.
A Lonely Place
By Eleanor Colla
Nicholas Ray (1911-1979) was an American director who has been payed homage to within the works of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Win Wenders, Martin Scorsese, and numerous others. And now, cinematheque takes its turn.
Known for traversing numerous genres, styles, themes and narratives, Ray payed great attention to the social and sociological concerns of post-war America. He was particularly concerned with the challenges facing the post-war youth; the new-found freedom of a generation who had not experienced war is present in many of his films. To open the three week retrospective is a Humphrey Bogart ‘Hollywood valentine’ double feature: In A Lonely Place (1950) and Knock On Any Door (1949)
In A Lonely Place has Bogart playing Dixon Steele, a scriptwriter accused of murdering a girl he brought home with him one evening; with the honourable intention of getting her to explain the plot of a book he is too tired to read. Although he is cleared by his neighbour Laurel (Gloria Grahame) and the two begin a relationship Laurel’s suspicious begins to overtake her romantic feelings. Steele’s unknown past of violent outbursts begins to come between them; all while trying to avoid the policeman (Frank Lovejoy) who refuses to leave Steele alone. A true film noir that comments on the pitfalls of success and the pressure to do even better.
Knock on any door
Knock On Any Door is another noir and with Bogart playing Andrew Morton, a lawyer who has risen up from the slums. Against the advice of his colleagues Morton takes up the case of Nick Romano (newcomer John Derek) who has been accused of murdering a policeman and is facing execution. Morton takes the angle that due to both emotional distress and having grown up in the slums, Romano is not as responsible for his actions as he is merely a killer by circumstance, not by nature. Filled with flashbacks, witty dialogue and courtroom drama, Ray’s third feature highlights personal causes and conflicts when it comes to crime and court.