Angles in America

Nick Pinkerton on “Black & White ’Scope: American Cinema” at BAMcinématek

Woody Allen, Manhattan, 1979, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 96 minutes. Mary and Isaac (Diane Keaton and Woody Allen).

BLACK-AND-WHITE CINEMASCOPE is alluring precisely because it doesn’t add up: It’s penthouse and pavement, tuxedo and work boots. ’Scope, at least when it first appeared in 1953, had a lavish connotation; black-and-white was stark, austere, increasingly associated with film’s musty history rather than its bright, varicolored future. The introduction and promotion of the CinemaScope process, which involved the use of anamorphic lenses to shoot and project movies in a new widescreen format that was nearly twice as broad as the Academy ratio that had up until then been the standard, was in part a pushback against television, which had been making inroads with the movie audience. CinemaScope was a “Size Matters” means of reestablishing the encompassing, engrossing bigness of cinema. It was meant to be ravishing, and as such it was naturally to be paired with color photography, which spoke of budget and offered, again, something that television at the moment mostly could not.

BAMcinématek, in a two-part series, offers a chance to explore the particular contradiction that is black-and-white ’Scope. The first half consists of twenty-one American films—one imagines the second, international half will lean heavily on the Japanese industry, where the format was embraced, perhaps because its rectangular shape was familiar from classical screen painting, and where every studio soon had a ’Scope knock-off of their own (TohoScope, ToeiScope, Daeiscope, Nikkatsu Scope…).

Some filmmakers gave the new CinemaScope dimensions a chilly reception—see the old “snakes and funerals” crack by Fritz Lang in Godard’s Contempt (1963), since repeated ad infinitum—while others took to it straightaway. Among the latter was Otto Preminger, who’d always favored long-take sequence shots, a slower editing tempo, and distanced, proscenium compositions—all to which ’Scope was suited. Preminger first experimented with CinemaScope on the 1954 Western River of No Return, and used some variation of the widescreen format on the majority of his subsequent work. BAM has two Preminger films: Advise & Consent, his 1962 film of Beltway duplicity, whose vitrine-like compositions supplied the visual template for Netflix’s House of Cards, and Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), a London-set psychological thriller which contrasts decadent Anglos (including Noël Coward as a droll collector of BDSM paraphernalia) to Americans abroad whose fresh-faced innocence disguises a more sinister sickness. The latter is some kind of apotheosis of classical mise-en-scene, and gets off a nice broadside at the expense of television, limiting an appearance by The Zombies to a tiny pub TV. (Sadly, even the cinemas aren’t safe today—though a goodly portion of the series will be playing on 35 mm, Bunny Lake and five other films will be shown on DCP, a format favored for rep screenings only by infidels.)

Samuel Fuller was another early CinemaScope adopter, starting with the 1954 Richard Widmark submarine-adventure film Hell and High Water. (For whatever reason, with this and the same year’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, there was an early association between ’Scope and submersibles.) BAMcinématek has Fuller’s Indochina War–set China Gate (1957), which anticipates the American adventure in Vietnam and, from later in the same year, Forty Guns, a Western starring Barbara Stanwyck as a pistol-packing cattle baron, which employs the full-widescreen eyeline shot which Sergio Leone would later make his trademark.

Otto Preminger, Advise & Consent, 1962, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 139 minutes. Senator Brigham Anderson (Don Murray).

20th Century Fox, for whom Fuller made these ’Scope films, reserved the CinemaScope name for their A projects, while their B-budget widescreen movies were announced as having been shot in “RegalScope.” In fact, the processes were the same in all but a few minor points, though the idea was not to taint the CinemaScope brand through association with downmarket fare. This leads us to the emerging schism in the nature of black-and-white ’Scope productions: On one side, there were those films whose black-and-white photography was an indicator of poverty; on the other, there were those for whom black-and-white indicated class, prestige, and seriousness of purpose, as it did with black-and-white “art” photography. (Until the institutional legitimization of William Eggleston’s work by MoMA’s John Szarkowski in the early 1970s, practically no other kind was acknowledged.)

The prestige fare is better represented in BAMcinématek’s program, which is light on genre work—those of us who’ve been waiting in vain for a public screening of Hubert Cornfield’s The 3rd Voice (1960) will just have to keep hoping against hope. More typical of the program is The Three Faces of Eve (1957), a signature instance of what we would come to call “Oscar bait,” with Based on a True Story bona fides and an Academy Award–winning performance of disability. Not to say that the term should necessarily be a pejorative—David Lynch’s 1980 The Elephant Man, playing BAM, might also be painted with that brush, but it is sublime Oscar bait, and I defy anyone to hear John Hurt’s “I’m not used to being treated so well by a beautiful woman...” without feeling something tear loose within.

The Elephant Man is one of two films in the series that haven’t quite reached middle-age yet, along with Woody Allen’s 1979 Manhattan, shot by the great Gordon Willis, whose memorial series at the Museum of the Moving Image is presently winding down. (From the film’s luxuriant prologue: “…for him, this was still a town that existed in black-and-white…”) Willis is one of the legitimate star cinematographers of the program, along with Elephant Man’s Freddie Francis and James Wong Howe, whose career spanned from the Silents to the rise of verite handheld camerawork, at which he acquitted himself marvelously. Howe is represented here by Hud (1963) and The Outrage (1964), two of the films he shot for Martin Ritt, whose 1957 No Down Payment also screens, making “Black & White ’Scope” the closest thing that New York City has had in many moons to a showcase for this too-little-celebrated director. Billy Wilder, who was never so starved for attention, is represented by The Apartment (1960) and One, Two, Three (1961), a punishingly manic Cold War comedy with James Cagney as the dervish dynamo at its center. (Among Wilder’s black-and-white ’Scope films, I confess to a preference for one that’s even more caustic and unrelenting, Kiss Me, Stupid [1964]—not playing BAM, but newly released to Blu-ray by Olive Films.)

Elsewhere, we find various examples of the sorts of Quality Properties that were offered to the midcentury viewer in the years between the foundering of the studios and the rise of New Hollywood, so-called. There are two three-hour World War II epics (The Longest Day [1962] and The Victors [1963]), as well as adaptations from Capote (In Cold Blood [1967]) and Melville (Billy Budd [1962]). I’d trade the lot for Douglas Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels (1957), the one film in the series to be fervently recommended above all others. Technically a Faulkner adaptation, though based on the not-particularly-well-regarded-or-even-remembered Pylon of 1935, about an itinerant group of barnstorming pilots, it’s full of career-high performances from actors with whom Sirk had worked in the past—Dorothy Malone, Robert Stack, and particularly Rock Hudson, playing a mealy-mouthed and rather seedy journalist. If any American film fulfilled black-and-white ’Scope’s particular ability to be simultaneously posh and déclassé, it is this, in which high ideals and base desires are cheek-and-jowl.

“Black & White ’Scope: American Cinema” runs through March 19, 2015 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.