For the past 20 years, I have mourned the passage of revival theaters in New York City. I spent most of the Eighties earning what was, in effect, a self-taught major in classic films. I hunted down these old films wherever I could: Theater 80 St. Marks, The Thalia, The Regency, The Biograph (and even unconventional venues: the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, with its mighty organ, was a memorable site for Lon Chaney’s silent The Phantom of the Opera). The VCR radically reduced the number of these temples of cinema, from a dozen to only about six today in the Big Apple. (I’m sorry: for all the care that host Robert Osborne and others at Turner Classic Movies lavish on vintage films, these are meant, as far as I’m concerned, to be viewed as originally intended: on big screens, with audiences sharing the experience in common.)
The way I figure it, if you don’t want to bemoan the closing of independent bookstores and other embattled cultural touchstones, you ought to go out and patronize them. And so, when I saw, in a mid-July article in my region’s major daily, The Bergen Record, that New Jersey had its first repertory theater in who-knows-when, I resolved to see it on the double.
If you don’t know it already, I’m not going to tell you the origin of the title of this cinematic outpost in the suburbs, The Rosebud Theater, in Westwood. Instead, I take pity on you and urge you to start seeing classic cinema, including a certain one about an early 20th-century press titan that I hope will show up soon here.
As I discovered from reading several articles online (including this one from the Record), Rosebud owner Ray Walsh has a background almost as interesting as his intriguing film lineup. A retired New York Giants football scout, he had operated another revival theater (also named the Rosebud) in Ridgewood for a few years in the 1980s (though that was only half the size of this one). After finding a location on Kinderkamack Road in Westwood that he deemed favorable, he was briefly blocked by the Westwood Theater until a settlement was worked out. Part of the agreement is that the Rosebud must run films at least 10 years old.
Well, the Westwood Theater can have the new films, as far as I’m concerned. They just keep making them dumb and dumber these days. In contrast, the films made in Hollywood’s Golden Age of the studio system weren’t made by film-school grads but by men whose first concern was story. They were creating the language of cinema as they went along, so their style has a freshness impossible to find nowadays.
So far, the accent at the Rosebud has been on largely on films that remain enduringly popular, despite (maybe even because of) repeated showings on TV: West Side Story, Casablanca, Top Hat, and Double Indemnity. But Walsh has promised to have at least one movie off the beaten track every month or so. Earlier this year, The Usual Suspects and The Earrings of Madame de... would qualify.
But what drew me to the theater finally last weekend was Alias Nick Beal, a 1949 movie directed by John Farrow (yes, that’s Mia’s dad—and Maureen O’Sullivan’s husband). I thought I had seen it 40 years ago on TV, but the details were so indistinct in my memory that I might as well have seen it for the first time. I was not disappointed. This overlooked Faustian tale in the film noir genre deserves to be far better known.
Paramount Pictures teamed Farrow once again with several collaborators from a far better-known film noir from the year before, The Big Clock: star Ray Milland, supporting player George Macready, and screenwriter Jonathan Latimer. Milland, a few years past his Oscar-winning role as an alcoholic in The Lost Weekend, was now taking on darker-shaded roles, with his first films—largely comedies that relied on his easy charm—increasingly a thing of the past.
“Nick Beal” is, in fact, as dark as he could possibly get—a being who, after materializing at a seedy waterfront dive, appears and disappears virtually at will, always with a sinister proposition for a listener.
Farrow makes effective use of the moody cinematography as his Satan slips in and out of the shadows, especially when he comes in sight of what would be one of his greatest prizes: an honest, hard-charging D.A., frustrated in bringing down a political boss, who lets slip out that he would “give my soul if I could nail him.” No sooner said than done. The process of seduction of the D.A.-turned-politician (played, with his usual mastery, by the nonpareil character actor Thomas Mitchell, best known as Scarlett O'Hara's father in Gone With the Wind) is subtle and step-by-step.
Walsh tries, in a sense, to replicate the experience of early filmgoing by preceding his main feature with a cartoon or short. He did an neat bit of programming by pairing Alias Nick Beal with They’re Always Caught, an entry in MGM’s 1930s “Crime Doesn’t Pay” series of short films. This one, focusing on the power of the then-relatively new forensic science, deals with political corruption—the same subject as Alias Nick Beal. (One character—a crusading district attorney with political ambitions and a moustache—reminded me of Thomas E. Dewey, then much in the news for taking on the mob.)
I’m sure the other film aficionados felt as comfortable in their seats as I did in mine. We should have—Walsh had salvaged the seats from the old Giants Stadium, just before they were ready to be discarded.
The Rosebud will have one screening of a feature film Wednesday and Thursday evenings and two shows for Friday and Saturday nights. If the programming matches what I saw last week, I’m sure I’ll echo a famous statement by a certain heavily-accented action hero: “I’ll be back.”