The Older, The Better

Edinburgh retrospectives are festival hi

Movie premieres and visits by Hollywood stars are the twin backbones of any festival, but a world-class event isn’t complete without a solid retrospective. Film fans at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival are spoilt for choice, with two well-chosen retros running right through the 14-day programme. Both celebrate different ‘golden ages’ of American cinema – the glittering studio-system heyday of the 1930s and the gritty creative explosion of the 1970s. The former focuses on the neglected work of journeyman director Mitchell Leisen; the latter, subtitled ‘They Might Be Giants’, ranges across “other voices from the New American Cinema” such as Arthur Penn, Monte Hellman, Hal Ashby and Walter Hill.

Personally, the Leisen retro has been something of a revelation. Like most of the critical world, I had dismissed his work behind the camera in favour of the heavyweights behind the scripts – Preston Sturges on Easy Living and Remember The Night, Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett on Midnight, Arise My Love and Hold Back The Dawn. Watched individually as rare television screenings, those films’ famous names might indeed push Leisen’s work into the shadows. But seen on a daily basis back to back, the essence of his style becomes apparent. Leisen had a wonderful touch for screwball sophistication and, later in his career, when World War II darkened the mood of his movies, he facilitated the scripts’ changes of tone with a graceful hand. In a Leisen movie the costumes sparkle, the photography glows and the actors are at their career best. If a telly near you is showing Claudette Colbert as a sparky foreign correspondent in Arise My Love or Charles Boyer as a gigolo with a conscience in Hold Back The Dawn, jump at the chance.

The Hollywood 1970s retrospective contains some more familiar names, both in terms of the movies themselves and the people who made them. It’s a favourite period for the majority of clued-up fans, but Edinburgh is avoiding the obvious – no Altman or Coppola, no Deer Hunter or Taxi Driver. Instead, the retrospective digs deeper into the texture of the industry, as reproduced in muck-raking tome Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, to uncover one of the most exciting, innovative, challenging and, yes, entertaining periods of sustained filmmaking in the history of English-language cinema. Filling daily programme slots at 5pm and 9.30pm, the 24-strong selection contains some works easily available on DVD (The Driver, The Last Detail, Dark Star, The Hired Hand) but also some genuine rarities (The Spook Who Sat By The Door, Little Murders, Busting, Electra Glide in Blue). Hopes had been high that EIFF would have been able to screen the uncertificated Cockfighter on Tuesday night but, alas, laws on animal cruelty meant that it had to be replaced by Two-Lane Blacktop by the same director, Monte Hellman (I had resisted the ‘Cocks Out In Edinburgh’ headline for this piece… until now). But that disappointment is only a small detail because as a whole this retrospective has broadened the reference points for anyone who considers themselves a cineaste simply because they namecheck The Godfather and Means Streets among their all-time favourites.

The best of the Leisen movies have screened already, but there are plenty of unsung classics still to come in the 1970s line-up. Thursday evening boasts the to-die-for triple bill of Night Moves, a live Arthur Penn audience Q&A and Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To. At times like these, you can keep your red carpet premieres – this is what festivals are all about.
Alan Morrison