josef von sternbergUCLA opens its archives this week, with a super-rare Sternberg screening on Saturday night. Thunderbolt (1929) is an extremely early talkie, widely regarded as the first film successfully to tackle the new medium. It will be interesting to judge. Sternberg made truly marvelous silents, but seemed to go off the boil with talkies, as speech allowed his narratives to became more opaque, his camerawork less functional but more baroque and more poetic (as such they are always worth watching). If Thunderbolt is anything like as good a gangster movie as his silent Underworld (1927), it will be excellent. It’s preceded by An American Tragedy (1932), which also enjoys a fine reputation. I do not care for George Stevens’ 1951 soapy-hysterical handling of the Dreiser novel (as A Place In The Sun) but something tells me Sternbergian cynicism will out.

This great double is followed on Saturday night by two rare films from two rock solid B director’s, Andre de Toth and Budd Boetticher. The former’s Ramrod (1947) is a so-called “noir western” with Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake (to whom de Toth was married for a while). It will be tough yet morally complex, like most of his movies, and I for one can’t wait.

Boetticher is best known for his series of westerns with Randolph Scott (and quite marvellous they are too) but they were yet to come when he made The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951). He had spent some time in the corrida himself, and so was well set to put Robert Stack through his paces, learning the art of bull-fighting. Stack is always good value, and the print screening is a complete one – producer John Wayne had had John Ford hack half an hour out of it originally, but Stack kept hold of his own full-length version.

Another of those great American mid-century artists working with little fanfare throughout the 1950s was Nicholas Ray. The Aero has a treat in the form of his Born To Be Bad (1950) on Friday night. Joan Fontaine for once gets to play other than drippy, for it is to her that the title refers, as an amoral and devious young socialite. Robert Ryan (one of the greats), Zachary Scott (always so louche!) and handsome Mel Ferrer are the men hovering around her. Minor Ray is still better than most.

brief encounter tvln 04-28-08The American CinemathÚque honors David Lean’s centenary this week, if you care. Personally I find him overrated and (most often) over blown. But his Brief Encounter (1945) at the Aero on Wednesday 7th is fairly irresistible in its tale of buttoned up English suffering and storming passions in a railway tea-room. Even if you can’t handle the cut-glass accents and terribly proper manners, its terrific romantic tragedy will still get you. This is coupled with Great Expectations (1946) which features some remarkable camerawork, chiaroscuro verging on noir, an alluring 17 year-old Jean Simmons and a splendid Miss Haversham exit, but remains as stodgy as one would expect from a combination of Lean and Dickens.

Over at the Egyptian, Saturday night is given over to one big Lean love-fest in the main theatre, but it may be preferable to choose instead the intimacy of the Spielberg theatre where a short season of Polish documentaries is playing Friday through Saturday as part of the ninth annual Polish Film Festival. Kieslowski may be the most famous Polish documentarian, but it has been a grand national tradition, and the Egyptian’s programme features works by twelve different film-makers, covering subjects from snack addicts in Warsaw to application to the St Petersburg State Ballet Academy.

Bette Davis centenary celebrations continue at LACMA with Jezebel (1938) and The Old Maid (1939) on Friday, both southern-set melodramas with the latter having the edge in the tragic-love stakes. Saturday they screen All About Eve (1950) and Of Human Bondage (1934). I was a bit harsh on the former the last time I mentioned it; it is smug and self-satisfied in it’s scab-picking look at the movie industry, but it is full of incidental pleasures (Bette not least of all) and doesn’t pull its punches. Of Human Bondage, on the other hand, is totally missable, with Leslie Howard mooning around with a club-foot and the only spark of life provided by – you guessed it – a scrubby cockney tea waitress with familiar-looking goggle-eyes..

The Silent Movie Theatre has a couple of classics programmed this week: M*A*S*H* (1969) is always worth seeing again, even if you’re no fan of Altman; and Double Indemnity (1944) is one of those classics where everyone involved was on top of their game, from James Cain’s novella, through Wilder’s direction and screenplay, with dialogue double hardboiled by Raymond Chandler, Barbara Stanwyck at her red-hot / ice-cold best, resplendent in unsettling blonde wig, Fred MacMurray playing against type, and stalwart support from Edward G.

The New Beverly has a couple of classics of its own on Friday and Saturday with a cracking Brando double bill. Streetcar (1951) is as perfect an adaptation of the play as one could hope for, with Brando still breathtaking in his white vest, and Vivian Leigh beautiful and crazy. This is paired with Last Tango In Paris (1972) which is so much more than its sex-pic reputation suggests; intense and unblinking, its dissection of middle-aged ennui (not to say existential crisis) gives Brando one of his finest roles, and his monologues prove beyond a doubt that his talent had much more staying power than the captivating Adonis beauty of his youth.

And finally, a dip into United Artists vaults takes place in celebration of their 90th birthday, at The Nuart this weekend: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) is not just one of the best spaghetti westerns ever, but one of the best films ever, period, and completely unmissable, particularly on the big screen for the fantastic photography and epic scope; The Great Escape (1962) and West-Side Story (1961) are both unassailable classics, and with good reason (briefly: Steve McQueen, and awesome songs); Annie Hall (1977) remains Woody Allen’s finest hour and The Appartment (1960) is highly recommended, even for those who prefer their movies without either Jack Lemmon or Shirley Maclaine.

Archive preserved films at The Hammer:
The Aero:
Polish documentaries at The Egyptian:
Bette Davis at LACMA:
The New Beverly:
Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre:
UA 90th Anniversary at The Nuart

Sternberg and Brief Encounter courtesy of Wikipedia