Friday at the PFA

Friday night, I finally got around to visiting the Pacific Film Archive‘s new theater in downtown Berkeley. I’ve been busy.

The theater is lovely, with the raised seats common in new multiplexes. The screen, I would guess, about the same size as in the previous theater.

The acoustics sounded very good, but since the first film was a silent with non-amplified piano accompaniment, and the second was in mono, I didn’t really get a chance to experience the new Meyer Sound system at its best.

Now, onto the movies:

Le lion des Mogols

This was the last screening in a series on the films of Jean Epstein. I’m not familiar with his work, and Le lion des Mogols only impressed me occasionally.

This 1924 French silent starts like an exotic epic, in the visual style of Douglas Fairbanks’ Thief of Bagdad (also from 1924). An intertitle tells us we’re in Tibet, but it looks like an Art Director’s fever dream of the exotic East around 1000 AD.

The heroic prince (Ivan Mozzhukhin) saves a virgin about to be deflowered by the evil Grand Khan, and then has to run for his life. I wasn’t quite sure if this early part was meant to be funny.

Our hero has to run for his life, and he runs right into the 20th century and a romance with a movie star.

As you can probably guess, the story is a real mess–a melodrama that sometimes feels like a comedy, that gets most of its laughs at moments that I wasn’t sure were intentional.

But the movie had moments of brilliance and daring in the camera work and editing. Its best moment happens in a scene where the hero drinks in excess in a nightclub. In one shot, half the screen was in focus and other half wasn’t. suggesting hero was too drunk to focus his eyes properly.

But a few good scenes, one great scene, and a lot of bad scenes don’t completely add up. I give it a C+.

The archival 35mm print looked a bit washed out and showed nitrate decomposition. Without a very expensive digital restoration, I doubt it will ever look better than this. The print had French intertitles, and the PFA digitally projected English subtitles below them.

Judith Rosenberg did her usual excellent job on the piano.

Our Man in Havana

This was a popular film, and the theater was nearly full.

There’s a good reason. Our Man in Havana is one of the best espionage comedies to come out of the cold war.

Like Ninochka, this 1960 movie was out of date before it was released. An opening title card tells us that it’s set in the recent past, “before the recent revolution.”

Alec Guinness stars as Wormold (no one calls him by his first name), an English shopkeeper in Havana, trying desperately to make ends meet–a difficult task with his shopaholic teenage daughter. When he’s offered a very lucrative job by British secret intelligence, he takes it strictly for the money.

He’s supposed to recruit and oversee a team of spies, but he has no idea how to do it. He joins a country club and tries to make contact with possible recruits, but his attempts come off as homosexual advances. Then, on the advice of his best friend (Burl Ives), he starts making things up. He creates a fictitious team and starts reporting bogus information.

Of course his bosses back in London (led by a very funny Ralph Richardson) believe everything he reports. They’re all idiots.

The film was shot in that very short period between Castro’s revolution and Cuba’s isolation from the West. The new rulers must have approved of Graham Greene’s script (based on his novel). It shows the previous government as cruel, corrupt, and evil. The great TV comedian Ernie Kovacs plays a high-ranking police officer known to torture people in between attempts to woo Wormold’s daughter.

Looking at it today, Our Man in Havana seems to predict the Cuban missile crisis. Wormold’s biggest lie involves alleged secret weapons in the Cuban hills, spotted by an airplane pilot.

The movie isn’t all laughs. The serious moments include the death of a major character. But it’s usually funny and always a good story. I give it a B+.

Our Man in Havana, made by Columbia Pictures, was shot in Cinemascope, at a time when every studio except Twentieth Century-Fox was switching over the Panavision. Sony has just restored the film in 4K. The PFA screened it off a DCP, and it looked and sounded terrific.

2 thoughts on “Friday at the PFA

  1. Just checked, and, yes, that was Noel Coward, doing a very funny cameo (that was him in the men’s room, as I remember); probably one of his last film roles. Worth seeing it again just for that, but the full cast is nothing less than stellar. Just added it to my Netflix cue.

Comments are closed.