BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE PROJECTIONIST

By • Apr 9th, 2002 •

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(Image Entertainment) 1971
85 minutes / B&W and Color / DVD aspect ratio 1.85:1

I tried to whip up a commentary track for this one after I found out Image was about to release it, but I was too late. A shame, since THE PROJECTIONIST is an important footnote in film history. But thankfully that’s the only shame about this film’s DVD release.

A Walter Mitty story in terms of the media, THE PROJECTIONIST explores a day in the empty life of Chuck, a Times Square projectionist. Unstructured though his real life may be, Chuck’s fantasy life up in the booth has a beginning, middle and end, a heroic-comedic bent, a lovely damsel in distress, and Hollywood superstar visitations from Karloff to Bogart to Welles to the Busby Berkeley girls. The film’s narrative is further fragmented to include a fictitious story about a girl he claims to have picked up that he earnestly relates to a friendly usher who visits his booth, and various coming attractions and commercials he experiences, almost like errant LSD hallucinations – whenever he is confronted with either a moral dilemma or a compelling bit of news on the radio he has with him in the booth. All of these divergent elements cut back and forth with escalating intensity, and by the time the film enters its third act, Chuck’s grip on reality has become a narrow window, while his fantasies engulf him, and us, like a hungry cinemoeba. There is no ‘The End’ title on the film, there’s just the projectionist, a prisoner in his booth, changing projectors for the next feature…and suddenly whatever was next in the theater would have come on: THE PROJECTIONIST would never end.

very low budget affair, shot for fifty thousand, with another hundred and ten thousand raised a year and a half later to get the bills paid and strike the release prints. Victor Petrashevic, our colorful Russian DP, often cobbled together the shooting negative from stray ends from other shoots (not only his own, so who knows how long they’d been sitting around) and the quality varied greatly from scene to scene, and sometimes from shot to shot. It wasn’t a good-looking film so much as a unique, reverent overview of what the visual media had done to the American mind, and it was a minor cult sensation when it debuted…which we soon took to be a euphemism for financial failure.

But this transfer, done inhouse by Image, is spectacular. The contrasts are not as harsh, and many times shots that were too dark have been brought up as much as possible without sacrificing grain. It now looks the way we wished it had looked in ‘71. The DVD release rescues us from some of the terrible low budget constrictions under which we were working.

Robert A. Harris called to tell me he’d seen the DVD and that the cropping of the B&W pre-’54, 1.33:1 film clips felt wrong. And it’s certainly dicey, mastering them that way.

The experimental feature was a I wonder who Image took their cue from. Personally I would have gone for 1.66:1 as a compromise; after all, even the ‘Adventures of Captain Flash’ sequences were envisioned as a silent serial, and would have been full frame as well. However, that questionable decision aside, the film never looked better, neither in its generous sixty thousand dollar Museum of Modern Art preservation a few years back, nor even in its original release at the now-defunct 5th Avenue Cinema thirty-one years ago.

There never was a screenplay for THE PROJECTIONIST, just a treatment. Harry Hurwitz, the film’s writer/director/editor, was greatly influenced by Chaplin’s work, and wanted it to be as ‘silent’ as possible. There was less than twenty minutes of dialogue by the time it was cut, and both the B&W ‘Adventures of Captain Flash’ and the color real life footage was predominantly visual storytelling. This made it much easier to shoot than if we’d had to record sound on all twenty-six days of our production schedule. Whole locations flew by with no sound at all. We were experiencing the thrill of pure, fast-moving creativity, the way Chaplin and Keaton might have felt back in the 10’s and 20’s. And being silent made it easier to edit, too, which Harry did mainly at home on a rented 35mm Moviola over a period of about a year.

Rodney Dangerfield was a great find. A theater manager at the Mamaroneck Playhouse in Westchester recommended him when we asked him to think of someone who could play a manager the way they were in the old days, almost like drill sergeants. Dangerfield had just adopted his famous moniker, and was testing out material at the Improvisation on 44th Street in New York City. He agreed to do the film, and was a delight on the set, always trying out new material on the cast and crew. During the filming of the candy counter scene, he improvised the lines “What is this, the Red Cross? Is there a flood here…? People get free candy here, free lemon drops?” The entire crew was in quiet hysterics. Later he approached Harry and asked if he could get screenwriting credit for having contributed the three lines. But Rodney knew nothing about film, and was easily forgiven for such foolishness.

Chuck McCann was a handful. I spent much of my Assistant Directorial time placating him. But he, too, was extravagantly entertaining when he was up, keeping spirits going hours and hours past the normal workday.

And Ina Balin, she who had been groomed to be the ‘new Sophia Loren’, whose career never took off in that way, thought THE PROJECTIONIST was the best film she’d done. She did express a bit of concern at not having one line of dialogue, but Harry put her mind at rest by convincing her that this made her ‘universal.’ She was a bright woman, but somehow she bought it. I remember at one of the screenings of a rough cut at the Rizzoli Screening Room on 56th Street, as we were waiting for a prior screening to get out, she talked to me about working with Elvis Presley, who she had urged to demand additional takes for himself if he felt his performance wasn’t up to snuff (something he was loath to do on his own, but he followed her advice this once), and with John Wayne on the THE COMMANCHEROS, who she reviled for his abusive treatment of director Michael Curtiz, who was dying at the time.

Harry and I did four films together; two he directed, one we co-directed, and one I helmed. Then we went our own ways. I will eventually write a book about these difficult, magical days, culled from over a hundred hours of interviews I recorded during the making of those first films in my career.

In the decades since, Harry has passed away, and Ina too. THE PROJECTIONIST, shown every year at the Museum of Modern Art (which considered it one of the three best films of 1971 along with McCABE AND MRS MILLER and DEATH IN VENICE), has been otherwise nearly impossible to find. I’ve never seen it on TV, and when Vestron Video went belly-up it passed into VHS obscurity. And so Image’s release restores it to the public eye, and it is a must for collectors, as it is a film lovers’ film if ever there was one.

The perfect double bill would be THE PROJECTIONIST and Buster Keaton’s SHERLOCK JR., which can be found on the Kino Video DVD including OUR HOSPITALITY. SHERLOCK JR. was clearly the inspiration for THE PROJECTIONIST, but we never felt we were ripping it off since, in 1924, its subtextural commentary on the pervasive effects of the media was merely a reflection of the cinema of the time; with the advent of TV and commercials, the Powers That Be had a far more sophisticated reach into our conscious and unconscious minds, and an updated retelling was clearly in order.


Credits:
Writer/Producer/Director/Editor: Harry Hurwitz.
Assistant Director/Associate Producer: Roy Frumkes.
Associate Producer: David Wolfson.
Executive Producer: Nick Chinn.
Cinematography: Victor Petrashevic.
Music: RKO Library, Maurice Jarre, Ernest Gold, etc., from the library of Igo Kantor.
Production Consultant: Bud Stone.

Cast:
Chuck McCann,
Rodney Dangerfield,
Ina Balin,
Jara Kohout,
Harry Hurwitz,
Robert Staats,
Morrocco.

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