Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the time or revisited after many years. This month: Hitchcock, Truffaut, and Visconti at the Aero, Tsai Ming-Liang at home.
The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcok, 1935)
Nothing if not a string of wild, glorious implausibilities. But find it in a theater, and any logic-obsessed spoilsport will get drowned out by laughter and gasps. If you want to understand the trick, it’s there in the framing device: we open on an audience handing in their tickets for a show, and close on a line of chorus girls photobombing the secret everyone’s been after. A tribute to escapism in jittery times, as smart and pure as anything in cinema.
Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock, 1964)
Hitchcock’s divisive “sex mystery”. The final psychoanalysis has aged so much that it can be easy to shortchange the thoughtful touches along the way, and if the classical Hollywood style looked old even in the 1960s, it also shows us what we lost. But seeing his most argued-about movie for the first time in its natural habitat (dark room, big screen, full audience), I emerged more conflicted than ever. Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery are mishandled; they’re fine as figurines, but spotty as complex humans, and the sticking point remains that the film sees a need to “cure” her but not him. Still, watching it with a crowd, which laughed at the initial Hitchcock banter and then got stifled after that scene, makes the divisive nature clear. It aims to be a crowdpleaser and an open sewer of its creator’s sexual impulses at the same time.
Mississippi Mermaid (Francois Truffaut, 1969)
When I was 19, I found Truffaut’s own “sex mystery” boring and silly whenever it strayed from its thriller hook. Now, having caught a 35mm print, I think it’s among Truffaut’s richest romances. Is it just a matter of refining taste, of 10-plus years in the dark with Truffaut’s influences? Or does something happen between 19 and 31 to make its arc of intimacy—dangerous, sexy, funny, sad, reflective, sincere, complex—resonate enough to overwhelm any concerns about plot?
Sandra (Luchino Visconti, 1965)
Where is that piano music coming from? Is it just the soundtrack? Is it in its heroine’s head? Or is it coming through the wall, somewhere inside the most secret-filled mansion this side of a horror film? Here, Visconti’s taste for drawing-room melodrama finds one of its most loaded contexts and darkly mesmerizing styles: a family scandal played off Europe’s own sordid history, with old piety and new money built on top of it, and America floating at the edge.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2003)
If you’re satisfied by Tsai’s melancholic arthouse reverie—and you should be—it means that nothing gets cinephiles off quite like movies about how cinema is dying. At an undetermined time of night, in a theater showing a martial arts classic to an audience that’s mysteriously vanishing, the desires of different characters criss-cross. A handicapped ticket-taker tends the eternal flame, a young gay man cruises for sex, the projectionist goes missing, and the aging stars watch themselves. Key line: “This theater is haunted.” What good one isn’t?