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The World’s Greatest Sinner

One of the screen’s most eccentric, impassioned actors, Timothy Carey, produced this strange, underground classic with a little help from a young Frank Zappa, who wrote the score. After years of small but noticeable parts in films like The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957), Carey decided to put his own vision of life on screen by producing, writing, directing, distributing and starring in this social satire about a failed salesman who becomes a culture hero when he changes his name to God, learns to play rockabilly music and dons a fake goatee. He becomes so famous that he decides to mount an independent campaign for the presidency, just when fame makes him increasingly corrupt. Carey shot the film over the course of four years, eventually renting a theater in 1962 for its premiere. He continued adding to the film for the rest of his life (he died in 1994), though the picture’s best-known version is the cut he finished in 1965. Although the film barely had a theatrical release, it attracted a devoted cult following, including Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes, who compared Carey to Sergei Eisenstein. (d. Timothy Carey, 82m, Digital)

The World of Suzie Wong

With Hong Kong as its glittering setting, this picture marked the film debuts for producer Ray Stark and leading lady Nancy Kwan. Stark, a former agent, had bought the rights to Richard Mason’s novel while it was still in galley form, then co-produced a Broadway adaptation of the story of a young artist who finds his muse in a Hong Kong prostitute. France Nuyen had starred in the stage version (opposite William Shatner) and was cast in the film, but after five weeks of location shooting in Hong Kong she developed health problems. That opened the door for the 20-year-old Kwan, who had played the role on tour. Stark then fired original director Jean Negulesco, replacing him with Richard Quine, and sent the company back to Hong Kong for another five weeks of location shooting. The film was met with mixed reviews, partly because 42-year-old William Holden, a former Stark client, seemed too old for the role of a struggling artist. Critics later complained about racial stereotyping and the romantic view of prostitution. Yet Kwan’s innocence and Geoffrey Unsworth’s location photography help turn the potentially sordid story into a fairy tale about the power of true love. (d. Richard Quine, 126m, Digital)

Woman of the Year

The third time Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy tried to work together was the charm. She had wanted him as the reporter in The Philadelphia Story (1940), but he wasn’t free. He wanted her to play both female roles in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1940), but nobody agreed with him. However, when Hepburn collaborated on the script for this tale of opposites attracting, she insisted it would only work with Tracy co-starring as the sports columnist who surprises himself by falling for a political commentator (Hepburn). With Tracy on board, their on-screen chemistry was electric though biographers now suggest the romance didn’t start until their second of nine films together, Keeper of the Flame (1943). It was this film — with a story by Garson Kanin and an Oscar-winning screenplay by his brother Michael and Ring Lardner, Jr. — that set the pattern for their best pairing. Kate buzzes around Spence, alternately irritating and charming him with her eccentric, often snooty ways, until he gruffly herds her into becoming his wife. The coupling was a big hit with wartime audiences, who loved seeing the cultivated Hepburn knocked off of her pedestal. It has continued to be one of their most popular films, inspiring a TV movie remake and a Broadway musical. (d. George Stevens, 114m, Digital)

Witness for the Prosecution

Agatha Christie only liked two screen adaptations of her work, Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and this courtroom thriller, now celebrating its 60th anniversary. Adapted from her short story “Traitor Hands” and the hit play it inspired, the film version allowed for more action in the story of a murder suspect (Tyrone Power) whose crafty lawyer (Charles Laughton) locks horns with the man’s wife (Marlene Dietrich). Writer-director Billy Wilder and co-writer Harry Kurnitz also added a new character, a nurse (Elsa Lanchester) whose comic scenes with Laughton (her off-screen husband) are a highlight of the film. The centerpiece of the action, however, remains the murder trial shot in a painstaking re-creation of London’s Old Bailey. There Wilder stages a series of spirited duels between Laughton, the prosecution (Torin Thatcher) and the Crown’s witnesses. The film’s producers were adamant about keeping the ending secret. Wilder only gave cast members the final script pages just before they were to be shot, while preview audiences, including the British royal family, had to sign an agreement not to reveal the ending. That secrecy may have cost Dietrich a well-deserved Oscar nomination. (d. Billy Wilder, 116m, 35mm)

Windjammer: The Voyage of Christian Radich

Sixty years ago, Cinerama—the widescreen process requiring three cameras to film and three projectors to present—had a rival with the premiere of this thrilling documentary presented in Cinemiracle. Although a superior system, using mirrors in the shooting and projection to eliminate Cinerama’s sometimes jarring joins between filmstrips, the process was only used for one film, with Cinemiracle eventually being bought out by Cinerama. The one film it produced, however, was a stunner. Cameras follow the voyage of the Christian Radich, a three-masted sailing ship, from Oslo to the Caribbean to New York City and Portsmouth, NH, then back to Norway. The voyage took 239 days and covered 17,500 miles, with stops at various ports of call to capture the local culture, a submarine training mission and concert performances by Pablo Casals and the Boston Pops Orchestra. Producer Louis De Rochemont III was a pioneering documentarian who had helped create The March of Time, a series of short films compiling newsreel footage, expert commentary and dramatizations from 1935 to 1951. When he moved into feature films, he specialized in films that adapted true stories shot in documentary fashion like The House on 92nd Street (1945) and Boomerang! (1947). After collaborating on Cinerama Holiday (1955), he set out to bring the new Cinemiracle system to the screen and continued producing short documentaries until the late ‘60s. (d. Bill Colleran and Louis De Rochemont III, 142m, Digital Cinerama)

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

After Twentieth Century-Fox bought and then rewrote his hit play The Seven Year Itch (1955), George Axelrod retaliated with a play about a writer selling his soul to the devil for Hollywood success. Despite its comic Faustian plot, however, the hit of the play was Jayne Mansfield as Rita Marlowe, a big-screen love goddess modeled on Marilyn Monroe. Her success in the play prompted Fox to sign her, and to get her out of her stage contract, they bought the play as well. They then handed it to writer-director Frank Tashlin with instructions to throw out everything except Mansfield. The result is a satire of the worlds of television and advertising. To land movie-star Mansfield’s endorsement for a lipstick, ad man Tony Randall has to pretend to be her new boyfriend, setting the stage for a series of misunderstandings and comic zingers at the infantilization of the American public. At the center of it all is Mansfield, in a witty and intelligent send up of Hollywood success. Tashlin, who used to make Warner Bros. cartoons, directs her like a cartoon character, but with a mind. Her good spirited satire of all things show biz, including herself, made this her signature film. (d. Frank Tashlin, 93m, Digital)

Wife vs. Secretary

During Hollywood’s Golden Age, the studios were always on the lookout for stories that could showcase their stars. Faith Baldwin was one of their most reliable sources, selling stories and novels to Hollywood that would become vehicles for Carole Lombard, Margaret Sullavan, Henry Fonda and others. One of her best was the story “Wife Versus Secretary,” published in Cosmopolitan magazine. MGM saw the tale of a hard-working publisher whose wife suspects his devotion to work is really a growing romance with his secretary as a perfect vehicle for Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow, respectively. The role of the secretary’s boyfriend provided an early showcase for newcomer James Stewart. For Harlow, the film was the change of pace she had been fighting for, helping her shake her blonde bombshell image with the role of a working woman succeeding by her wits rather than her sex appeal. She even got to darken her hair from its usual platinum hue. Three of the studio’s best writers — Norman Krasna, John Lee Mahin and Alice Duer Miller — tailored the material to the stars’ strengths, resulting in a big box-office winner for the studio. (d. Clarence Brown, 88m, 35mm)

Where the Boys Are

Throughout his career, producer Joe Pasternak was an expert at developing young talent like Deanna Durbin and Jane Powell. So when he came across Glendon Swarthout’s novel about teens on spring break in Fort Lauderdale, he snapped it up while it was still a galley. He even convinced Swarthout to change the book’s title from Unholy Spring to a more marketable title. His goal was to showcase MGM’s young talent, so he cast George Hamilton, Yvette Mimieux and Paula Prentiss (in her movie debut). He even got teen sensation Connie Francis under contract for her first big-screen acting role and agreed with her suggestion to have Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield write the title song. It peaked at number four on the charts and became her signature song. Pasternak originally wanted the film to star Natalie Wood to provide box office insurance. When she wasn’t available, he gave the role of smart girl Merritt, who lectures the others on the importance of sex before marriage, to two-time Elvis Presley co-star (and future nun) Dolores Hart. Though lighthearted and comedic, it also has a serious side, including a surprisingly intense reference to rape. Nevertheless, the film was a big hit and inspired a string of beach movies that would start with Beach Party (1963). (d. Henry Levin, 99m, Digital)

When You Read This Letter

Jean-Pierre Melville, one of the inspirations behind the French New Wave movement, dismissed his fourth feature—made 65 years ago—as a commercial exercise that was only important because it made him enough money to open his own studio. There is more to it than just commercial success, however. The film is a deeply subversive combination of romantic melodrama and film noir, starting with the casting of sensual singer Juliette Gréco as Thérèse Voise, a woman studying for the sisterhood. When her parents die in an accident, she leaves the convent to care for her younger sister, whose burgeoning sexuality is a mystery to her. When the sister is raped by a young gigolo (matinée idol and Gréco’s first husband, Philippe Lemaire), Thérèse blackmails him into proposing to the girl only to find the man coming on to her. Melville plays with genre by making this a film noir with an “homme fatale” rather than a femme, and frequently feminizes the chauvinistic Lemaire by shooting him as lovingly as a Hollywood beauty queen. Melville’s depiction of the criminal underworld in Cannes prefigure his later noirs like Bob la Flambeur (1956) and Le Samouraï (1967). Films like these would become a major influence on directors like John Woo and Quentin Tarantino.  Restoration by Gaumont.  (d. Jean-Pierre Melville, 104m, Digital)

Tunes of Glory

It’s rare for a first-time novelist to get the chance to adapt his or her work to the screen, but that’s exactly what happened with James Kennaway, who scored his biggest success with his 1956 novel set in the peacetime headquarters of an unnamed Scottish military regiment. He turned in an Oscar-nominated adaptation that proved a career highlight for its two stars, Alec Guinness and John Mills. Guinness plays an up-from-the-ranks officer who assumed command during wartime action. In peace, the high command wants a more patrician leader, so they replace him with Mills, who spent the war in a Japanese POW camp. Their clashing styles provide the drama, heightened by Mills’ continuing trauma after having been tortured by the enemy. Ronald Neame shot most of the film at Shepperton Studios after being denied the use of Stirling Castle in Scotland when the commanding officer was offended by the paperback cover of Kennaway’s novel. They were only allowed a few long shots at the beginning and end of the film, but that hardly got in the way of the drama. Both stars were nominated for a BAFTA Award and Mills was named Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival. (d. Ronald Neame, 107m, Digital)

**This screening is the world restoration premiere.  Restored by the Academy Film Archive and The Film Foundation in collaboration with Janus Films and The Museum of Modern Art. Restoration funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation.

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