Criticism — From the June 2015 issue

Legends of the Lost

The discreet charm of movies we cannot see

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You can only watch one picture at a time,” my mother would tell me. “Be patient.”

She was right, but I was never satisfied. It was 1950, and we had walked up to the Regal or the Astoria in our South London suburb to see something. Let’s say it was Burt Lancaster in The Flame and the Arrow, and my mother was trying to be as eager as I was. But here came the trailer for Richard Widmark in Night and the City! “Look, it’s London,” said Mum, as Widmark ran through bomb sites in the dark. I was nine, old enough to absorb the excess of the ad lines slashing the screen. The anticipation of Lancaster’s grin (two minutes away) yielded to Widmark’s craven sneer, and I wanted it to be next week already. “You said the same thing last week,” she reminded me. That’s when the trailer for The Flame and the Arrow had seemed more vital than Jimmy Stewart in Winchester ’73.

Photographs of film strips from The Magnificent Ambersons by Alexander Perrelli

Photograph of film strips from The Magnificent Ambersons by Alexander Perrelli

The dynamic of moviegoing was clear: you could see only one picture at a time, no matter how tantalizing you found the coming attractions. I knew the pattern of distribution. A film opened in the West End of London, then seeped out to the suburbs: first the north and then the gray infinity of the south. We had the picture for a week. And then it was gone. I can still remember missing Alan Ladd in Branded (it may have come during that holiday on the Isle of Wight). Kids teased me rotten over that hole in my life. They said it was likely the best film ever made.

When I discovered Red River, it was rapture to sit there on its bank and watch. The film was a river as much as a story, and forced you to stay with it. With a book, you could pause before the denouement and have a nap. The book would wait patiently. The music you liked was on a record; you could go back and revisit its immediacy until you knew it by heart. But a movie was wild and it went away — which meant that old movies were like stale newspapers. For a few hours, watching them was as urgent as knowing the score in today’s Chelsea–Arsenal game. But the teams would play again soon. Who wanted to see old news? Who bothered to be sure the old stuff was safe in some vault?

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is the author of more than twenty books, including Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles (Knopf) and Why Acting Matters (Yale).

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