Tough, Uncompromising, Nasty Little Films: A Conversation with Elliot Lavine

A conversation with the programmer Elliot Lavine.
Max Goldberg

Above: Publicity still from John Parker's Dementia (1955).

Rep houses in San Francisco, like those in most American cities, are struggling to stay open. But for something like thirty nights a year, the clouds lift and big crowds materialize for films of the past: call it the noir exception. To be sure, one needn’t actually attend the Film Noir Foundation’s annual Noir City festival at the Castro or Elliot Lavine’s grittier programs at the Roxie to know that the generic fantasy of film noir (style, sex and violence washed together) still holds powerful allure. You could hardly miss the bus stop advert for Rockstar Games’ latest blockbuster, L.A. Noire, outside the Roxie during Lavine’s latest marathon, “I Wake Up Dreaming: The Legendary and the Lost”. For those of us still invested in the non-interactive cinema experience, however, the popularity of these series is a remarkable if curious thing. 

Of course one welcomes the chance to see sterling prints in an energized setting, and the enlightened appreciation of screenwriters, actors and technicians is undoubtedly to the good. More generally, the programs rally a broader audience against complacent assumptions of availability (“Not available on DVD!” is a badge of honor in the program guides). And yet one wonders whether the “noir” label itself can become a kind of millstone. Last summer, Lavine staged a brilliant series tracking noir pathologies across such varied American frames as The Face Behind the Mask (1941), Day of the Outlaw (1959), Mickey One (1965), Blue Collar (1978), the Jim McBride Breathless (1983), Bad Lieutenant (1992), and so on. Perhaps calling it “Not Necessarily Noir” was the problem. For whatever reason, the audience didn’t show.  

Lavine, who began programming at the Roxie in the early 1990s and returned in 2009 after several years away, kept to the classic noir era for “I Wake Up Dreaming” and was rewarded with good to great turnouts. Not that he was playing it safe: many of the selections flaunted conventional definitions of noir (Lavine is happily non-dogmatic in these matters), and many more were genuine B-pictures (which, among other things, set up Kiss Me Deadly as the exclamation mark it truly is). While Noir City is rightly trumpeted for Eddie Muller’s showmanship and the Film Noir Foundation’s vital restoration partnership with the UCLA Film Archive, the success of a no-frills program like “I Wake Up Dreaming” is in some ways even more astonishing. There were no special guests (well, aside from Edgar Ulmer’s grandson), hardly any obvious pairings (Lavine winces when I ask him about the Edmond O’Brien double feature of 711 Ocean Drive and The Web), and a slew of titles without bankable auteurs. And then there’s the Roxie itself, which in spite of getting an impressive technical overhaul since going nonprofit is still the kind of theater where you hear the kitchen going next door. 

If the Noir City programs aim for entertainment and legacy, Lavine’s leave you with the surrealist tang that so appealed to the French in the first place (one thinks of Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton’s appreciation of “the disappearance of psychological bearings or guideposts” in their book A Panorama of American Film Noir, a quality provoked not only by the films themselves but also by their presentation). As he put it to Michael Guillén last year, “Genre is key to our enjoyment of movies because they take us to the id and leave us there, abandon us there. It's all this raw shit, like Sam Fuller movies. You're thinking, ‘I'm supposed to be watching a cowboy movie but now I'm thinking about my third-grade teacher in weird ways.’" Lavine’s programs aggressively court this kind of psychological slippage. You can see him playfully at work in his I Wake Up Dreaming book, a collaged TV Guide facsimile that pieces together the fatalistic poetry of late-night movie listings into a private panorama of the noir epidemic. Lavine describes it to me as his “autobiography as a programmer,” and he means it somewhat literally. As a kid he marked up his family’s TV Guides; he’s not sure why, only that he got bit by the bug early.

Lavine is earnest about the challenges of programming lesser known movies, but his overriding faith in the intrinsic value of leanness in movies steels him for print problems and audience expectations. Even though he had only just come off hosting fourteen consecutive double bills when we met to discuss his his “I Wake Up Dreaming” selections, Lavine’s enthusiasm for the films remained undiminished and completely infectious. 


NOTEBOOK: The night before you closed with Kiss Me Deadly (1955), you screened Robert Aldrich’s previous film, World for Ransom (1954). It has a lot of similar visual touches and a comparable loathing of the central character, so why is that film so hard to come by?

ELLIOT LAVINE: It’s a public domain thing. Ownership rights have been capriciously ignored, and nobody seems to have the elements for a 35mm print. In fact, the digital version we used was taken from a pristine 16mm print. We had the make the transfer of it because [the owner] was just too nervous playing the print—understandably so. The film didn’t suffer too much, but the big drawback was that a 35mm print would have been in the correct 1.66 aspect ratio. When you’ve seen Kiss Me Deadly in 1.66, it’s just so dynamic. It comes as a shock after all the 1.33 movies. That film and Cell 2455, Death Row (1955) were the only ones in widescreen. 

NOTEBOOK: That movie really took me by surprise. 

LAVINE: Nobody talks about the director, Fred Sears. Whenever his name does come up, people tend to mention Rock Around the Clock (1956). It’s sort of the story of genre filmmakers in general. Unless you’re someone really out of the ordinary and your talent exploded—like Aldrich—nobody’s going to pay attention. Sears made a zillion movies, and he probably had a very exciting career. I think Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) is one of the best science fiction movies of the 50s. It’s so dark and weird. Sure, it’s subject to all the problems you find with these low budget sci-fi movies, but the overall feeling is grim. I showed it to my 8-year old nephew, and it freaked him out. It’s nice to know that pulp sensibility is still effective. 

NOTEBOOK: There were a couple of pantheon titles in this series, but they were few and far between. How do you arrive at the confidence to show so many outré films?

LAVINE: Not having the problem of filling up a 1200 seat theater relieves you of that stress. If I were doing this at the Castro, I probably wouldn’t have played a lot of these films, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to play the 16mm prints. In the bigger setting you’d really have to think about whether you’re going to show something like Dementia (1955), though I don’t think there’s a noir that better expresses insanity. It’s pure cinema in that Hitchcockian, Godardian kind of way, even being so audacious as to omit dialog. The fact that we had a huge turnout for that told me that the crowd was going to go for the whole program. For a long time people thought Dementia was campy because they knew it as Daughter of Horror, which is the title that was given to the re-edited version. They chopped five minutes of dicier material and added this preposterous Ed McMahon voice-over narration. The Dementia version we ran plays seriously, unencumbered with anything extraneous. I had always dreamed about pairing it with Phantom Lady (1944). Usually there’s one combination that sets the whole program in motion, and that was it. Phantom Lady is well known, but I generally wanted to go after things that are off the beaten path. I figured they might not all be well liked, but at least people will get the idea that we’re trying to do something different. So then you go to a movie like Guilty Bystander (1950), which is a movie everyone who’s really deep into the noir mythology has heard of but very few have seen.

NOTEBOOK: Where did the print come from? 

LAVINE: That and C-Man (1949) came from our friend Paul, a local guy who has a huge collection of 16mm prints. Last year, another friend called to tell me that he had a print of Guilty Bystander but that it was really kind of ratty...

NOTEBOOK: It’s such a raw film anyway.

LAVINE: Exactly. The physical properties have to be as good as they can be, or else there’s just too much space to get lost. So after watching fifteen minutes of the print, I told him I couldn’t do it—it was just too rough. Paul tracked down a nice print on eBay this year, though, and there ended up being a lot of good chatter about it from people who were there for the show. That was one of four programs I was really nervous about heading into the series. Dementia was another because even if you just had ten assholes laughing, the picture would have been ruined. Then there was Dangerous Blondes (1943), the comedy. I’m not even sure why I felt so compelled to play it. I guess I have a perverse streak, but I figured, you know, people are getting killed, it’s a mystery, and it’s really well photographed…

NOTEBOOK: It’s definitely unusual having William Demarest show up in two films [the other being 1948’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes] in a noir series!

LAVINE: Who would have thought? When I watched Dangerous Blondes with a dozen people at the press screening, nobody was laughing. I worried ceaselessly about that, but then people were hysterical right out of the gate at the show. After about ten minutes, I knew I was home free. The last program that kept me up at night was the Lenny Bruce-Edward D. Wood double bill [Dance Hall Racket (1953) and The Violent Years (1956)]. You never know how those types of programs are going to turn out, but it was a packed house. The fact that we could show them in 35mm prints justified the show. I felt I had an obligation to some higher power to do it. So they all worked out. With the exception of the “Not Necessarily Noir” show last summer, I think this is the best one I’ve done. 

NOTEBOOK: I wanted to ask you about this series in relation to “Not Necessarily Noir.” I really enjoyed that program, but it seemed like a large segment of your regular audience wasn’t there. That struck me. It seems like you have quite a bit of latitude as long as you’re sticking to the acceptable 1941-1958 era, but then if you show something in color and from the “wrong” era, even something deeply noir like Cutter’s Way (1981) or Rolling Thunder (1977), a lot of people just aren’t going to have it. 

LAVINE: I had a lot of resistance to that series. It was meant to defy expectations, but I still though it would be successful. We had a ton of great press, and so I was crestfallen that the response ended up being so timid. A lot of the old-timers who come on a regular basis weren’t there, and the younger, hipper crowd just didn’t make it…But then, you can’t be right all the time. So much of this is intuitive.

NOTEBOOK: You did keep pushing through with The Woman Chaser (1999), though, which you brought back to the Roxie for a full week in its original cut. What was the back story there?

LAVINE: The [Charles] Willeford book was a particular favorite of mine, and I saw the film at Sundance in its uncut form. Everybody was talking about it—for good reason. It’s an in-your-face kind of film. A lot of politically correct people balked, especially with the scene where the pregnant woman gets punched. Anyway, we chased those guys all over Sundance. We knew we wouldn’t be able to get the distribution rights because too many people were interested, but we wanted to at least put in our bid to play the film. Then Landmark cut them a deal that they would play it across their whole chain with the proviso that they cut the offending punch, and the guys made an executive decision to make that deal. I think Landmark ended up opening it at six or eight theaters, and then they pulled the plug. When I was putting together the “Not Necessarily Noir” show, I knew I wanted to play The Woman Chaser. I emailed Joe McSpadden, the producer, and he sent me two prints, both uncut. He didn’t even charge us rental, he’s such a sterling guy. And The Woman Chaser-Mickey One double bill was actually the best attended program of that series. I wrote Joe and told him the response was awesome, and after thinking about it I proposed going for a premiere revival in February. It wound up being a great event at the theater, and now they want us to do a kind of sub-distribution thing with the film. 

NOTEBOOK: The print of Ride the Pink Horse (1947) looked especially fresh. You had been trying to land that film for quite some time, right? 

LAVINE: That’s one of these films that’s famous by reputation, but it’s never been released on video or DVD. It was only a few years ago that I saw it all the way through myself, thanks to Turner Classic Movies. Year after year, I would request it from Universal, and they would say, “Sorry, no prints.” But I remained curious, and so when I was putting together my list of Universal titles for this show, I wrote it in with Phantom Lady and Night Has a Thousand Eyes. I got a reply that they had prints on everything I’d asked for, and there it was. Watching that print…it was just shimmering on screen. There’s a lot of high profile Universal noirs that have never been on DVD. They kind of stopped with Black Angel (1946) and Criss Cross (1949). The Blue Dahlia’s (1946) not even on DVD, and that’s an interesting movie if for no other reason than because Raymond Chandler wrote it. Everything I’ve read about the making of that film, it sounds like it really got compromised by the director who kept improvising dialog on the set. You can’t do that with Chandler. You should go to prison for something like that! That’s why I don’t like Billy Wilder—he fucked with Chandler. 

NOTEBOOK: I didn’t even realize Billy Wilder’s brother was in the same business until seeing a couple of his films in your programs.

LAVINE: W. Lee? Yeah, he has such a disreputable history. People hate his films for no particular reason, but they’re always referencing these awful science fiction movies he did. No one talks about The Glass Alibi (1946), The Pretender (1947), or Once a Thief (1950). For me, those are three of the best Poverty Row noirs ever made. The Pretender is a really potent film. It’s like 68 minutes, Albert Dekker is in it, John Alton shot it...If a 35mm print emerged, people would really pay attention. I like W. Lee better than Billy. Even the films of Billy’s that I kind of like, I don’t feel good about liking them. There’s a smugness that’s really irritating to me.

NOTEBOOK: I’m curious to hear what you think it is about these films that are in the neighborhood of 60-75 minutes that can be so potent, to use that word again. They seem to play by a completely different set of narrative rules. 

LAVINE: They get away with more. A lot of people are leery of them because they think that since it’s only sixty minutes, they must be sacrificing something. They have this need to feel like they’ve seen something important, with production values, plot development and all those other things that clog up a film. So you end up with the characters sitting around talking about what’s already happened in the story, and suddenly the movie is two hours. Why is Double Indemnity (1944) 106 minutes? It takes fifty minutes to read it and almost two hours to watch it—it doesn’t make sense.  I think it’s obvious why Godard freaked out for these little Monogram B-pictures. I read somewhere that the Lawrence Tierney Dillinger (1945) really influenced Breathless (1960). That thing is about 70 minutes, and there’s not a piece of fat on the bone. The scenes go like lightning. You could take the sound off and follow that picture completely. But audiences are still saddled with this pretentious way of looking at movies where, you know, the acting has to be serious and all this. If all you can tell me about a movie is how great the acting is, I don’t want to see that movie. We should all be living in a world where movies are no longer than 75 minutes. 

NOTEBOOK: Something like The Spiritualist (1948).

LAVINE: 78 minutes!

NOTEBOOK: And it’s almost like two movies: the slightly creaky story of the doomed love affairs and then whatever John Alton is doing with it. 

LAVINE: Going beyond cinematic concerns, there’s something poignant about the relationship between the two sisters—but it’s mainly because of the way they’re photographed. The moment when you see the twinkle in her eye, Alton must have really struggled to get that right. You can feel her swooning. It’s so visual. 

NOTEBOOK: There are some bizarre touches too, like the shot from the perspective of the sink. 

LAVINE: Isn’t that great? If that turned up in a different film it would seem weirdly out of place, but not there. 

NOTEBOOK: I was surprised to find similarly stylish touches in Cell 2455, Death Row, which is ostensibly a true crime film. You end up with this strange mix of pseudo-documentary and dreamlike expressionism, like when Chessman goes to his mother’s funeral and we get these intense close-ups of his face. 

LAVINE: I really think it’s because you have a director like Fred Sears with a pulp sensibility. It could have easily turned into a long message movie, but he keeps it so energetic.

NOTEBOOK: A lot of the early scenes make it feel like an exploitation film. 

LAVINE: That’s its saving grace. 

NOTEBOOK: Can you talk a little bit more as to how hitting the target with a comedy Dangerous Blondes might shift your programming focus?

LAVINE: It maybe tells me I can open up a little more and drift away from the purist noir thing. I don’t like to play by the rules. I want to push it as far as I can. I’m not really interested in any conventional definitions of film noir. Why would you be? I used to get a lot more emails along the lines of, “What were you thinking? Why would you play that?” Now I get, “Thank you for playing that.” I think people are beginning to loosen up with the parameters, and that’s reassuring to me. 

NOTEBOOK: I wonder if it’s because people are more secure in the classics—that they can revisit them on DVD whenever they want. 

LAVINE: But then we play something classic, and it gets such a big response. When that happens I think that maybe what we’re doing is helping people appreciate that the fact that there’s still a world of difference between going to the theater and watching something by yourself at home—which sucks, I don’t care how great the movie is. I’ve seen Kiss Me Deadly a hundred times, and there’s a real tendency to drift off at home. When you’re watching it with 250 people on a big screen, every moment of that movie is critical.

NOTEBOOK: The noir programs are bucking the trend of waning reparatory audiences. Are there any lessons from these successes that you think can be applied beyond the noir banner?

LAVINE: I want to try to apply the same technique to a lengthy series of pre-Code Hollywood films, but that will be tough. I used to get huge crowds for pre-Code films in the 90s, but it was an older crowd. I’m not sure I still have that crowd to the same extent, and I know it’s a lot of work to get an under-thirty crowd to see a 1933 movie. It has to have something about it that’s enormously alluring, but I’m determined to make that happen. Even a film like Scarface (1932)…It’s readily available, but it’s one of those dynamic experiences that can transform your whole perception of movies. 

NOTEBOOK: It has for plenty of people. 

LAVINE: It did for de Palma! So I’m trying to carve out a series that would either take the place of the “Not Necessarily Noir” show or exist as something beyond it. It depends on what space I can make for contemporary noir or contemporary crime films. I don’t accept the term “neo-noir”— it’s a catchphrase, and I feel stupid even saying it. But there’s a lot to be said for these later films, and I’m a struggling for a way of presenting it so that the greatest number of people come out. I really do want to rectify the “Not Necessarily Noir” program and get people to see that a movie can be from 1977 and still have the same emotional surge and visual excitement as one from 1947. There are a whole lot of pre-Codes that operate on that level too—tough, uncompromising, nasty little films. Maybe I’ll integrate some post-Code films, like Café Hostess (1940) which we showed in this series. Ann Dvorak is in that, and she also made a tremendous pre-Code film called Three on a Match (1932). She plays an unrepentant drug addict—she flies out of a window, man! It’s something like 62 minutes, and it’s a great fucking movie. 

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