Great news that I ought to have blogged about earlier: the visionary theater manager Nelson Page and his sound and vision ace Pete Apruzzese are, after a brief hiatus, back in charge at Suffern, N.Y.'s Lafayette Theater, a beautiful old-time movie palace built in the late '20s and maintained in palatial splendor, complete with a fully-functioning and truly mighty Wurlitzer organ. Which means, among other things, that the Saturday morning special screenings of classic films—Big Screen Classics, as the series (which operates at three theaters, in fact) is called, is also back. I revisited the site yesterday, Holy Saturday to us Catholics, for a particularly apropos screening: Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 rethink of his silent 1923 The Ten Commandments.
More about the movie in a moment. First, I want to rhapsodize a bit about the house itself, which I wrote about for the first time here. It's one of the few movie emporiums wherein one feels thrilled to be just sitting there before the lights go down. Look in front of you, and there's the gorgeous curtain. Look behind you and there's the lovely chandelier. It's just a spectacular atmosphere. And when the Wurlitzer's really going—you can see its percussion array in a nook stage left—the atmosphere is like nothing else out there. Just transportive.
I also hugely admire Nelson's attention to detail. During the actual screenings, he has the sound from the movies piped into the rest rooms, so incontinent viewers can somewhat follow what's going on. I haven't been in a theater that sported such a feature since the old Palace in Dumont, New Jersey in the mid-'60s, and even now I think I might be mixing that house up with a long-gone theater in Fort Lee. With typical wit, Nelson doesn't just pipe the audio into the men's room—he's got the speaker secreted in the body of an old-school radio, a nice touch.
In short, it feels like a privilege to watch a film at the Lafayette, and I implore those of a similar bent to mine to make an effort to check it out, even for a showing of the new Clash of The Titans, which is the theater's first-run feature at the moment.
But it was a special treat to see Commandments there. The critic J. Hoberman once pronounced, "Bluntly put, to not get Bresson is to not get the idea of motion pictures," and while I thoroughly agree with that notion, I also think it applies equally to DeMille, who some might conceive as Bresson's directly opposite number. DeMille's is a cinema of utmost and utter spectacle (something Bresson actually had an appreciation of, as witness his admiration for Goldfinger), and what's interesting to note when watching this VistaVision-shot film, in glorious color and such, is how very much it resembles a silent picture. DeMille stages a number of sequences practically as tableaux, having some characters hold poses when not in action (I was particularly struck by the frozen mournful attitude of Nina Foch's Bithiah, Moses' adoptive mother, as the Pharaoh Seti (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) pronounces the banishment of Moses). The cutting is not fast. The camera doesn't move a whole lot, and when it does, the director makes you feel it; as, for instance the way the camera backs up as the mist of pestilence creeps into the labyrinthian dwelling place of the Hebrew slaves, while John Derek's Joshua make his way to the house of Moses.
All pretty great stuff, I think. And as screened at the Lafayette, pretty wide:
Yep, that's a 2.20 aspect ratio, wider than VistaVision's 1.85. This version is the full "roadshow" length, but the print was a "Super VistaVision" version created for a revival of the film in 1989. The studio transferred the picture to 70mm, and cropped the image for a wider frame. (This creates some issues with the title crawl at the beginning, which projectionist Pete Apruzzese had to re-rack throughout so folks could actually read the whole thing.) After the screening, Pete came out with my old friend Joseph Failla and I for a brief repast, and I asked Pete why he and Nelson had chosen to screen this particular version. He answered that it wasn't a choice. Rather, this was the only print Paramount had for theatrical screenings. An odd state of affairs, particularly given that in 1999 the picture was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress—you'd think a studio might be proud of this fact and, you know, do part of its part. Well, now that Paramount seems to be taking a slightly more active interest in preservation and restoration (see its really terrific new DVD and Blu-ray disc of The African Queen, which Dave Kehr wrote evocatively about a few weeks ago), perhaps we shall see some positive action on the Commandments front. In the meantime, a few weeks hence the Lafayette will be screening that newly restored print of Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes that I'm sure many of you have heard about. I'm sure to be there. And I'm tempted to see Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much there in about two weeks. Heck, if Suffern weren't such a challenging trek from Brooklyn, I'd be there every Saturday this season.
BTW, the title of this post is, of course, a reference to the famous line that Edward G. Robinson, in fact, never actually says in the film. The word his treacherous character Dathan (and every other character in the film) uses is "deliverer." Which isn't as catchy as "messiah," is it.