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Rob Edelman: London Movie-Going, British Noir

Whenever I’m in London-- and that is as often as possible-- one of my favorite haunts is BFI Southbank, formerly known as the National Film Theatre. One of the highlights of my most recent trip: Attending a screening of Orson Welles’ CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, also known as FALSTAFF, which dates from 1966. Before the screening, Simon Callow, actor/director/Welles scholar extraordinaire, was on hand to discuss Welles’ career in the theater. Callow did not so much lecture as perform, and it was a special treat to listen to this witty, articulate man and soak in his vast knowledge of Orson Welles. In addition, Keith Baxter, one of the surviving cast members, was there to introduce the film and take post-screening questions and answers.

These days, movie lovers increasingly are preferring to savor their films in the quietude of their personal space. They can purchase DVDs or Blu-rays, or rent them from Netflix, or stream them from a host of sources. They can view them at three in the afternoon or three in the morning. If they miss a bit of dialogue or wish to re-see a sequence, they effortlessly can do so. And most significantly, in our short-attention-span era, they do not have to fret over the possibility of having to put up with the guy sitting next to them who is too busy texting to appreciate what is unfolding onscreen. They will not have to contend with the couple sitting behind them who are more concerned with making their dinner plans than with watching and enjoying what is onscreen.

However, seeing movies on a wide screen and in the company of audiences who are collectively immersed in what is happening on that screen still is a treat. This is why the screening rooms at BFI Southbank and other, similar venues will remain vital to the movie-going experience. And as an added bonus, it is a pleasure to see a film in the company of one of its stars or be privy to the expertise of someone like Simon Callow, who really knows his film scholarship.

Still, DVDs, Blu-rays, and the like do have their place. For one thing, they make films that otherwise would be hard to track down readily accessible. If for example you are unable to visit London and attend screenings at BFI Southbank and you are curious about exploring some lesser-known British films, you might want to check out a newly-released five-film DVD set marketed by KINO Classics under the title “British Noir.”

Here, you can discover a little-known World War II-era espionage tale, titled THEY MET IN THE DARK and featuring a very young James Mason, years before he established himself in the U.S. in such classics as ODD MAN OUT, A STAR IS BORN, and NORTH BY NORTHWEST. And you can discover a solid little thriller titled THE OCTOBER MAN, which dates from 1947. Here, John Mills plays a nice guy who emerges from a bus crash with a severe head injury that has left him psychologically scarred and suicidal. He settles in a small village where he hopes to resume his life, but is suspected of committing murder when a woman he casually knows turns up dead. Beyond its thriller aspect, THE OCTOBER MAN works as a pointed expose of small town small-mindedness, as well as the importance of finding a life partner who will help you and support you when all else seems doomed.

These days, it is stylish-- as well as a marketing tool-- to label any 1940s or 50s thriller “film noir.” And if you go through the titles in the KINO Classics package, you’ll see that a number of them do not fit this designation. However, if you really want to delve into true film noir, you can check out such classics as DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, or MURDER, MY SWEET. It would be great to see and share them amid the appreciative throngs at BFI Southbank. But still, they are available to savor on home entertainment.

Rob Edelman has written several books on film, television, and baseball, and was a longtime Contributing Editor of Leonard Maltin’s annual Movie Guide. He teaches film history at the University at Albany.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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