The popularity of outdoor screenings has always baffled me: humidity; bugs; no seats; imperfect projection; ambient noise/light; shady bathrooms (if any); and throngs of annoying people chatting with annoying friends about their annoying lives during the film. Any one of these would be a deal breaker; together they’re like a conspiracy by people I don’t like to ruin something I do.
Technically precise presentation of a film is an art form, and that sort of thing is becoming rare today, even in movie theaters. So why would I choose to see a film in the one place that’s worse than a contemporary multiplex?
Because of a dame.
“Somebody on Facebook said they’re showing an old film noir in the park tonight,” my girlfriend said last Monday. “You wanna go?”
Much as I love Maggie, she doesn’t share my mania for old movies. So anytime she suggests we watch one together, it’s a game-changer. Plus, thanks to TCM’s Summer of Darkness series, I’ve watched more film noir in the last month than in the previous 540 (give or take). Peeking over my shoulder, avoiding dark alleys, and being prepared for random violence is part of my daily life as a New Yorker, so what better reason to rescind my No Outdoor Screenings policy than to see one of the most iconic noirs on a big screen in the middle of the Big Apple?
So, with my emotional baggage – and my own personal femme fatale – in tow, I attended a screening of Robert Siodmak’s THE KILLERS in Manhattan’s Bryant Park last week. The 1946 film was the second of ten screenings to be presented by HBO in the park this summer – and yes, despite the fact that I’ve lived in New York City since 1992, this is the first time I’ve gone to the Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in its 23 years of existence.
Because when I don’t like something, I don’t like something.
The show is advertised as beginning at dusk, so we arrived shortly before 9 p.m and found the football field-sized Bryant Park green patch-worked to capacity with blankets and towels. While chairs aren’t allowed on the green, there were plenty of them scattered along the perimeter on three sides along with small, round, folding tables and a few fixed benches.
After a bag check by a staffer who copped a half-hearted feel of just one of the dozens of pockets in my backpack, we grabbed a bench corner and sat down. (I guess I don’t look suspicious enough, which is definitely something I need to work on if I want to build my noir bona fides.)
First impression: the crowd was delightfully diverse, with New Yorkers of all ages and ethnicities caring enough about a black-and-white film to show up, and show up early. This was a nice change from the typical repertory cinema crowd, which is almost entirely white, middle-aged or older, and flying solo (and yes, I’m usually all of the above).
Like with the Old Movie Weirdos who bring all manner of outside edibles to rep screenings, food is a key component of the outdoor film experience. But unlike the rep crowd, the park audience didn’t crinkle their plastic bags throughout the film, nor did they stink up the joint with homemade liverwurst sandwiches they’d been carrying in their pockets. Pizza was a popular choice at Bryant Park, perhaps because a single item will serve a group without the need for cutlery or Biblical miracles. Wine also flowed copiously, furthering the Scriptural vibe.
The sun finally dipped behind the Time Square skyscrapers and the show began with a series of trailers for upcoming theatrical releases, including one for PIXELS, a Columbia film. This was a welcome surprise, considering that sponsor HBO is a corporate cousin of Warner Bros. Then the lights were dimmed and a cheer rose from the assemblage as Bugs Bunny appeared on screen.
Here’s a tip: if you’re trying to win me over, show me a Bugs Bunny cartoon, particularly LITTLE RED RIDING RABBIT, a 1946 short from director Friz Freleng. This was one of my favorite Looney Tunes (actually, Merrie Melodies) shorts when I was a kid, and I can still quote it verbatim. There’s nothing better than watching Bugs Bunny entertain a crowd of thousands of people of all ages, and as I watched kids around me laughing at the same jokes that cracked me up 40 years ago, I felt warmth in that frozen chamber that used to house my heart.
And then I snapped out of it.
“But why are there kids at a 1946 film noir?” I asked my girlfriend.
“Because it’s a nice night,” Maggie answered. “And it’s free.”
“Well, they probably won’t like it,” I complained.
“Be quiet, Grampa. The movie is starting.”
And then the film began, preceded by the circa 1983 HBO intro that still gets me excited 3o-plus years later. As the title characters (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) enter a small town diner searching for The Swede (Burt Lancaster), police cars sped down Sixth Avenue, sirens squealing. The crowd laughed in unison, as New York City played an unplanned role in the film and the audience’s experience of it.
The deliberate pacing of THE KILLERS and the back-and-forth flashback structure makes it not the best choice for a venue with a built-in distraction factor. And there was a certain amount of attrition among the attendees, especially those with kids, as we approached 11 p.m. on a week night. But, the vast majority of the audience stayed in place and was remarkably attentive throughout the film’s 97-minute running time. I guess it doesn’t hurt when you have Lancaster and Ava Gardner on screen to hold your attention.
People were also surprisingly well-behaved, considering that attendance was pretty much open to anyone. The park’s tree-lined borders did a good job of blocking ambient light, and the projected image on the screen looked remarkably sharp and appropriately shadowy. (I’m not sure of screening format, but it wasn’t 35 mm.) Sound was crisp as well, with the dialogue (and Miklos Rozsa’s rousing score) as audible near the back of the greeen as it was in the front.
Look, I’m not going to jog down the streets of New York City like George Bailey proclaiming my love for outdoor movies. I’m always going to choose the comfortable theater, with the expensive projector and a toilet that’s not housed in a plastic box. But anything that gets new eyes on classic film is okay in my book.
After the film, as Maggie and I were headed toward the subway, I noticed a tween and and his father chatting.
“…and CHINATOWN is playing in August, so we should definitely see that,” the kid said, as they headed west on 40th Street.
Maybe that kid was the rare pre-teen classic film fan. Or maybe he, and a few others, learned on that summer night that old movies aren’t just for Old Movie Weirdos.
The HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival continues on Monday, July 13 with I’M NO ANGEL (1933) starring Mae West and Cary Grant. For more information, visit the website.