On Friday, the IFC Center in New York City kicked off a week-long festival of road movies selected by Walter Salles, director of the upcoming adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD. I saw three of the iconic films presented this weekend: John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS (1956); Michelangelo Antonioni’s THE PASSENGER (1975); and Edgar G. Ulmer’s DETOUR (1945).
First up was THE SEARCHERS (1956) on Saturday afternoon. Based on a novel by Alan Le May (adapted by Frank S. Nugent), this 1956 epic tells the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), an ornery Civil War veteran, who embarks on an obsessive quest when his niece (Natalie Wood) is captured by Comanche Indians. Ethan is accompanied by his adopted nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), himself part native American, and the troubled soldier’s prejudices eventually lead Martin – and the audience – to question Ethan’s motives.
THE SEARCHERS is considered by many to be the greatest Western of all time. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful, with stunning cinematography by Winston C. Hoch, a multiple Academy Award-winner – for JOAN OF ARC (1948), SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949), and THE QUIET MAN (1952) – and frequent Ford collaborator. Hoch was a physicist who joined the Technicolor Corporation in 1934 and was instrumentental in the refinement of three-strip dye-transfer process that helped to create some of the most memorably visual works of art in film history. While THE SEARCHERS was not a three-strip Technicolor production – it was shot on a single-strip negative VistaVision camera – the post-production lab work was done by Technicolor, and the film is renown for its use of color.
IFC screened THE SEARCHERS in a DCP digital print on a 4k projector and, I’m happy to report, it looked flawless. There’s been some chatter on-line recently about the recent HD transfer looking too yellow, and the ground of Monument Valley not red enough, but to my eyes, the color timing was perfect. The print maintained a nice amount of grain, and never appeared to have that over-scrubbed look that can sometimes make film look like video in DCP projection.
I’ve found that widescreen epics with brightly lit scenic vistas are typically good tests for DCP technology. SPARTACUS (1960) at the TCM Classic Film Festival in April, 2011 had a distracting amount of video “noise” that resembled the herringbone interference I used to get when I needed to adjust my rabbit ears. And a DCP screening of BEN-HUR at the New York Film Festival six months later gradually lost audio sync and had to be re-booted before the audience stormed the projection booth. For me, the jury was still out on DCP until a recent Fathom Events presentation of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) on a 4k projector at the AMC Loews Village 7 in New York. It was my best-ever experience with DCP – until THE SEARCHERS on Saturday at IFC.
Sunday afternoon’s screening of DETOUR (1945) presented the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum: a no-budget noir shot in black and white on small sets under-lit to mask their sparseness. Tom Neal stars as luckless loser Al Roberts, thumbing his way to Hollywood to reunite with a showgirl. After the gambler driving him dies mysteriously, Roberts assumes his identity (and wallet) until a devious dame (Ann Savage) he picks up on the highway to Hollywood threatens to blow his cover.
DETOUR is a study in claustrophobia. Much of the action takes place in a Lincoln Continental (owned by director Ulmer) filmed in front of a rear projection screen at Producer’s Releasing Corporation, a “Poverty Row” studio that would close its doors just two years later. Master materials are believed to have been lost as DETOUR passed first to Eagle Lion Films and then to United Artists, which assumed ownership in 1955. The film later fell into the public domain and has been widely available in poor quality versions on VHS, DVD and television. The transfer TCM aired recently was so murky I had to turn off all the lights in my apartment in order to discern what was happening on screen. IFC screened a 35 mm print from a private collector and, while the print was typically battered and choppy, it was the brightest and clearest I’ve seen.
Saturday night’s screening of THE PASSENGER (1975) was the perfect middle ground between the two: a ponderous treatise on the nature of identity from Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. In a surprisingly spare performance, Jack Nicholson plays an American reporter in North Africa who steals the identity of a deceased British war correspondent who also happens to be a gunrunner. In Barcelona he meets a sexy French girl (Maria Schneider) who becomes his accomplice, lover, and perhaps, betrayer. The film concludes with an unforgettable, seven-minute tracking shot that begins inside a hotel room, travels outside, and comes back in – all without a cut. That sequence alone makes this movie a must-see.
THE PASSENGER was screened in a pristine 35 mm print from the MGM vault, complete with a version of the MGM logo I’ve never seen before. The animation opens with type in the circle (where the lion would usually be) that reads, “Beginning Our Next 50 Years,” then the lion appears, flanked by “Golden” to the left and “Anniversary” to the right. According to the Closing Logos Group Wiki, this animation was used on prints released between May 23, 1974 and July 4, 1975. THE PASSENGER debuted in the United States on April 9, 1975.
How cool was my weekend? Going from a state-of-the-art digital rendering of a timeless Western, to an archival 35 mm print of an obscure art film clearly rooted in a moment in movie history, to an orphaned Poverty Row programmer rescued by film fans, I was struck by the ever-evolving nature of cinema. Regardless of how they’re produced, preserved, and presented, the movies will always be with us.
THE PASSENGER will screen again on Tuesday, December 18 at 9:00 PM, DETOUR returns on Wednesday, December 19 at 7:00 PM, and EASY RIDER closes out the series on Thursday, December 20 at 7:00 PM. For more info, click here.