From the Archives: Double-Bills

Two For the Road: Reinventing the Double-Bill

By Phil Dellio 

Inside every rock critic, there’s supposedly a frustrated musician. Those who can, do, and those who can’t, write about it. This commonly held view is buoyed by the number of critics who made the transition from writing to performing: Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, Ira Kaplan, Neil Tennant, etc. Greil Marcus once addressed the issue by pointing out that far from wanting to be a musician, his own secret ambition was to be a DJ. What Marcus was saying, I think, was that given the choice, he would rather test his ideas and his tastes by choosing and organizing music made by others–setting up juxtapositions that would highlight surface connections and, the real attraction, uncover hidden ones–than by trying to create his own.

Speaking as someone who used to host an all-night radio show on the University of Toronto station, it is a rush when you discover one of those perfect matches, even if accidentally. I remember a show where, in the midst of counting down my favourite 100 songs, the lingering last note of Frank Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year” gave way to Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” then still new and climbing the charts. Their proximity wasn’t planned, but as one blended into the other, it immediately occurred to me that they were essentially the same song separated by 20 years. Thinking about that segue 15 years later, I now realize that their singers, in some rather unattractive ways, were also essentially the same person.

There’s an obvious parallel that can be drawn between rock critic-turned-musician and film critic-turned-filmmaker, again supported by a number of real-life examples who travelled in the same direction (most prominently from various French and British film journals of the late ’50s: Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Anderson, Reisz, etc). And again, an intermediate alternative presents itself, one that affords almost as much room for self-expression and mischief-making as filmmaking itself: programming a repertory cinema.

The independent repertory house, whether a neighborhood theatre running a Pam Grier festival or a museum-sponsored program resurrecting forgotten Soviet films from the early ’60s, is the last outpost for that long-ago saviour of the film industry, the double-bill. A product of the depression (“It was the Depression-era moviegoer who first insisted on a complete three-hour plus program for his or her money,” according to Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn’s Kings of the Bs), by 1935 double-bills were the standard at 85% of America’s motion picture houses. For the next decade-plus, until television and anti-trust legislation killed them, double-bills were paired according to a strict economic hierarchy: an “A” movie at the top of the bill, bearing the imprimatur of a major studio and featuring name stars, and a cheaply produced genre picture to fill out the program. Unlike the main feature, where box-office receipts were split between the distributor and the theatre, “B”s were rented out at a fixed rate; this built-in ceiling on profits kept the majors away and left production of “B”‘s to such “Poverty Row” studios as Monogram and Republic. In retrospect, many of those “B” space-fillers were later reevaluated by auteur-leaning critics as being superior to their “A” counterparts, but at the time, putting a double-bill together was simply a matter of cut-and-paste overseen by management. Freed from any obligations beyond the simple fact of availability, however, programming a double-bill can be an exercise in film criticism in and of itself–a chance, as with the creative DJ, to construct a dialogue between films, genres, and eras. But any good repertory programmer needs to be able to answer one basic question–What makes a good double-bill?–and answer it in a variety of different ways.

Far and away the most common pairings favored by today’s rep houses are those chosen according to director or leading player (often, as with the collaborations of Ford/Wayne or Wilder/Lemmon, both). Raging Bull and Taxi DriverPsycho and The BirdsThe 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player–such double-bills are staples of repertory houses, and for good reason. It would be welcome if a little more attention were paid to second-echelon stars and role players: a night of Patricia Neal (A Face in the Crowd and Hud), Piper Laurie (The Hustler and Carrie), Murray Hamilton (The Graduate and Jaws), or even John McGiver (approximately three unforgettable minutes in each of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Midnight Cowboy) would be a welcome departure from the standard Brando/Dean/Eastwood fare. My favourite bit of acting lore is Anthony Hopkins’ claim that he based the cadences of Hannibal Lecter’s voice on Katherine Hepburn, intriguing rationale for a Silence of the Lambs/Hepburn double-bill. Happily, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner“‘s clunky mediocrity excuses it from consideration.

The other most common programming strategy is genre, and again, such double-bills require little explanation: The Big Sleep and Double IndemnityCasualties of War and Full Metal JacketRock ‘n’ Roll High School and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Genre pairings generally bring together films of comparable vintage, with a window of ten years or so. My own ideal rep theatre would loosen the parameters of chronology. Sexy Beast looks well past Reservoir Dogs for its antecedents to various heist films of the ’50s (The Asphalt JungleThe Killing), while every metaphorical death-of-the-western of the post-Wild Bunch era, from the elegiac (The Shootist) to the murky (McCabe & Mrs. Miller) to the perverse (Dead Man), makes a good match for the much earlier stirrings of genre self-consciousness found in The GunfighterHigh Noon, and Shane. (Just as Red River‘s stirring cattle drive–“Take ’em to Missouri, Matt”–has its nightmarish companion 15 years later in Hud‘s wholesale cattle massacre.) A programmer can do almost anything within the realm of genre, especially subvert it altogether. David Cronenberg’s The Brood finds its ideal complement a quarter-century earlier in Forbidden Planet, but only within the boundaries of horror/sci-fi; as Cronenberg himself has pointed out, however, The Brood was really his version of Kramer vs. Kramer, a fascinating contrast in the mechanics of domestic disintegration.

Moving beyond director/performer/genre, unexpected points of narrative intersection make for some offbeat pairings. Bergman’s Wild Strawberries is an obvious partner for either Harry and Tonto or The Straight Story, but when Victor Sjostrom and his entourage give a bickering middle-aged couple a lift, one is immediately reminded of Helena Kallianiotes (“I’ve seen filth that you wouldn’t believe“) and Toni Basil in Five Easy Pieces–taken together, a cautionary double-bill about why it’s not a good idea to give rides to strangers. (Or, to take the point even further, a double-bill of Wild Strawberries and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.) Pairing an art-house favourite with its low-rent shadow is almost invariably a good idea waiting to happen. Besides Wild StrawberriesThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre also matches up well with either Godard’s Weekend or Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain: to paraphrase Barbara Streisand, people who get eaten by people are the unluckiest people in the world. And instead of The Seventh Seal alongside a Bresson or Dreyer, why not Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, in which Candace Hilligoss is stalked by a grinning, malevolent spectre not unlike Bergman’s corporeal Death figure? All that’s missing from Harvey’s ultra-creepy shocker are the chess boards.

Bob Rafelson’s lesbian hitchhikers in Five Easy Pieces were likely an explicit homage to Bergman, another illuminating means of pairing films that cut across time and geography. When Gene Hackman observes in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves that the Eric Rohmer film he once saw “was like watching paint dry,” an opening is created for a double-bill with My Night at Maud’s. Likewise Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, wherein Richard Edson assures John Lurie that Ozu’s Tokyo Story is a “good one” (improbably so–Edson’s character was born to do little more than read “Archie” comic books). In the case of On the WaterfrontRaging Bull, and Boogie Nights, homage is passed from one film to another like a relay baton: first Scorsese has De Niro recite Brando’s famous could-have-been-a-contender soliloquy, then Paul Thomas Anderson pays tribute to Scorsese by having Mark Wahlberg reenact De Niro’s recitation. So Raging Bull works well with either film; the more esoteric approach would be to take Scorsese out of the equation altogether.

Boogie Nights is also a natural partner for Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba, thanks to Anderson’s meticulous recreation of the latter’s elaborate poolside tracking shot; Kalatozov looked to Lenin for inspiration, Anderson found his in Eric Burdon. A few other double-bills suggested by the duplication of specific shots or images: Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye finishes with a variation on The Third Man‘s final shot; Warren Beatty’s dreamy, snow-entombed death in McCabe & Mrs. Miller echoes Charles Anzavour’s similar end in Shoot the Piano Player; there’s a strong evocation of Jules and Jim in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes when the three principals go bike-riding; both The Shining and Barton Fink (maybe even Michael Snow’s Wavelength) pair well with Polanski’s Repulsion, all of them ending on a slow zoom into a photograph or painting; and Spielberg clearly had Vertigo in mind when devising his spectacular zoom-in/track-out on Roy Scheider during the second shark attack in JawsVertigo also makes an excellent match for Michael Powell’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, where the casting of Deborah Kerr in three different roles–an elusive image of beauty that haunts the film’s two principals though three wars–anticipates Hitchcock’s use of Kim Novak 15 years later.

Sometimes points of overlap that are almost certainly accidental open up other affinities between two films. In Wilder’s Fedora (at first glance, an obvious partner for either his own Sunset Boulevard or Fassbinder’s Veronika Voss), pages and pages of manuscript are discovered on which the putative title character has written “I am Fedora” over and over again. It’s an image that had me automatically thinking ahead to Nicholson’s “All work and no play” breakdown in The Shining, at which point the way that both films play around with notions of identity, isolation, and madness came into focus. Kubrick, working from Stephen King’s novel, may not have been thinking of Fedora when he had Shelly Duvall discover Nicholson’s demented handiwork, but the scene serves as a gateway into a meaningful double-bill.

Not surprisingly, remakes and sequels are routinely paired together at rep houses. There are also films that match up so well they function as de facto remakes in disguise. The Sweet Smell of Success, Alexander Mackendrick and screenwriter Clifford Odets’ corrosive expose of Walter Winchell, has its perfect companion in Wall Street, Oliver Stone’s liveliest and least heavy-handed film. Each is anchored by its era’s iconic symbol of greed, ruthlessness, and the rot of power (Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker, Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko); both tyrants have lapdog apprentices in tow (Tony Curtis and Charlie Sheen) who eventually become dismayed enough to strike back at their masters; and both films waver between fetishizing and shrinking back in revulsion from the material trappings of success within their respective worlds (a table at 21 in Success, overpriced art and a DIY blood-pressure gadget in Wall Street). There’s a temptation to want to pair Success with Diner, in which a zombie-like teenager recites Lancaster and Curtis’s climactic showdown word-for-word, but Levinson’s mild nostalgia piece would evaporate alongside Mackendrick and Odets’s bile. Allowing for a few nuances of language, however, Hunsecker (“I want that boy taken apart”) and Gekko (“Ollie, I want every orifice in his fucking body flowin’ red”) were made for each other.

Trying to find the ultimate pair of movie villains is subject enough to keep any rep theatre going for a year. My own pick would be a double-bill of Marathon Man and Blue Velvet. Much was made last year of Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast, especially the way his entrance was preceded by a grand build-up like the one given Hopkins’ first appearance in The Silence of the Lambs. The unannounced arrivals of Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man and Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet are much more disturbing, however–Olivier and Hopper take over the proceedings so suddenly and inexplicably, their first scenes leave you numb and disoriented. Each character even comes equipped with his own unfathomable mantra: Olivier’s “Is it safe?”, Hopper’s “Don’t you fuckin’ look at me.”

George C. Scott would be on my short-list of greatest movie villains for his work in The Hustler, which has, besides a few surface similarities to Raging Bull, a more esoteric link to Scorsese’s film: the real Jake La Motta has a 15-second cameo (and one line: “Check”) in The Hustler as a bartender. Any Sam Peckinpah film makes a good double-bill with the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which the then-obscure director appears briefly as a meter reader. And Joe Dante’s Matinee, a fictionalized account of gimmicky shock-director William Castle, would play well with Rosemary’s Baby: besides producing Polanski’s film, Castle has a cameo as the man outside the telephone booth whom Mia Farrow initially mistakes for Ralph Bellamy, one of the film’s tensest moments.

I’d also pay close attention as a programmer to the much harder-to-quantify subject of mood. Within a few years, Wes Anderson’s Rushmore will probably become a staple of rep houses, invariably finding itself double-billed with The Graduate. A sensible match–there are numerous points of intersection between them narratively, visually, and musically–but Rushmore takes even more in terms of its wistful ambience from some lesser-known films of the same vintage: The Sterile CuckooGoodbye, ColumbusThe Heartbreak Kid. A program of Anderson’s film and The Sterile Cuckoo would capture the lingering influence of a side of ’60s American cinema existing far outside the Bonnie and Clyde/Scorsese/Tarantino lineage. American Beauty and The Piano, which both won major awards while simultaneously becoming targets of critical backlash, would make an odd but compelling double-bill. Seemingly worlds apart, the two films converge in the mysticism of voice-over soliloquies by Kevin Spacey and Holly Hunter in their final scenes, impressionistic reveries on beauty, acceptance, and the great beyond (from where Spacey is definitely speaking; there’s some ambiguity whether Hunter is alive or dead). Ambiguity itself is a mood that suggests certain pairings. With both Last Year at Marienbad and In the Mood for Love, I found myself completely mystified as to whether the principals had an affair or not–if you’re someone who likes to leave a theatre befuddled, such a double-bill would be nirvana. (I think it was Richard C. Walls who once observed in Creem that “ambiguous,” “delirious,” and “claustrophobic” were the highest forms of praise from an auteur critic, and that the ideal auteurist film would be the story of a schizophrenic miner told from an uncertain point of view.)

I’d like to see a double-bill of Joseph Losey’s Eve and either Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street or Kubrick’s The Killing–Stanley Baker’s abject subservience to Jeanne Moreau in Eve puts him very much in the tradition of such hopeless pushovers as Scarlet Street‘s Edward G. Robinson and The Killing‘s Elisha Cook Jr. (Losey also makes expressive use of Billie Holiday’s music in a manner that anticipates the post-Scorsese soundtrack, marking it as a good match for Sidney J. Furie’s workmanlike Holiday biography Lady Sings the Blues.) In Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate, a few seconds of chaotic footage inside a daycare centre, shot and rejected for a political ad, is played for laughs; Frederick Wiseman’s riveting (and at times blackly humourous) three-hour documentary Welfare would pair well with Ritchie’s film. I mentioned The Straight Story earlier in connection to Wild Strawberries; Lynch’s film has another logical partner in Ichikawa’s Alone on the Pacific, two versions of improbable journeys undertaken by obsessive, troubled outsiders. Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard belongs with Max Ophuls’ Caught, a noirish treatment of a millionaire recluse modeled after Howard Hughes, while Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Darling mirror each other uncannily, right down to their la dolce vita parties and the appearance in each of Jose Luis de Villalonga as the epitome of diplomatic elegance. Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, which appeared within two years of each other, would make an instructive pairing. Matters of budget notwithstanding, I’ve never been able to figure out why Malick’s film was (and remains) widely admired, whereas Heaven’s Gate led to Cimino being virtually run out of the industry–they’re basically the same big, empty pretty picture of obscure corners of American history 20 years removed from each other. Finally, some double-bills should almost defy explanation. I’d love to program Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich with the aforementioned Fedora, a bizarre house of mirrors that could be subtitled Being Michael York. You’ll just have to see the Wilder film yourself to understand why.

My own nomination for the ideal double-bill goes to a couple of personal favourites that dovetail perfectly on a number of levels: Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. First off, they’re two of the most unjustly overlooked films of their eras. Spy appeared in 1965, a time when the influence of Andrew Sarris’s auteurist writings was starting to take hold; Sarris had already relegated Ritt to the lower reaches of his hierarchy (inexplicably so, on the basis of Hud alone), and although Ritt developed a critical champion in Pauline Kael, he never had anything close to the cachet of such ’60s auteurist favourites as Sergio Leone or John Boorman. Nineteen Eighty-Four had the unfortunate burden of its gimmicky release date, and it was also a second attempt (following a by-then-unavailable 1956 adaptation starring Edmond O’Brien) to film a novel that many critics considered unfilmmable in the first place. Ritt’s and Radford’s films did garner good reviews upon release, but they’ve since been shunted to the margins of official film history.

Although Spy is in black-and-white and Nineteen Eighty-Four in colour, they aspire to and achieve a common texture–visually, they’re among the bleakest films ever made. Ritt’s director of photography, Oswald Morris, captured perfectly the dreary Cold War landscape of John Le Carre’s novel, a clandestine commute between London and Berlin navigated by aging, shabby, worn-out spies, while Roger Deakins (later to become the Coen brothers’ favourite cinematographer) brought to George Orwell’s vision of post-war London a blanched, bombed-out decay redolent of privation and hopelessness. The look of each film is eloquent expression of their shared descent into worlds ruled by faceless tyranny: in Nineteen Eighty-Four, of course, in the guise of Big Brother (ubiquitous throughout as a fixed, oversized visage staring out from whatever monitor happens to be nearby), and in Spy represented by the duplicitous loyalties and meaningless allegiances of mid-level espionage flunkies doing the bidding for higher-ups well out of view (a shadowy arrangement that must have had special resonance for Ritt, who spent part of his career on Hollywood’s blacklist). Indeed, as the many about-faces of Spy‘s labyrinth narrative start to accumulate, one is reminded of Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s darkly comical “We have always been at war with Eurasia” bromide. There’s even a kind of parallelism between the Berlin Wall in Spy and Room 101 in Nineteen Eighty-Four, implacable symbols of oppression and control, where Agent Leamas (literally) and Winston Smith (spiritually) are ultimately killed.

There are other points of similarity–a doomed love affair, the numbing routine of nine-to-five drudgework, the presence of Cyril Cusack–but above all else there is Richard Burton, cast as Leamas in Spy and O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-FourSpy catches Burton entering mid-career at the peak of his talents–a year before Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf would elevate him to a new level of public visibility, but well after he first established himself in 1959 with Look Back in Anger–while Nineteen Eighty-Four was his final film, a grace note on the heels of an alcoholic wilderness marked by such lowlights as The Medusa Touch and Circle of Two. Burton already had the disgust of middle-age attached to him playing young Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, and in Leamas and O’Brien he gives that side of himself (was there any other with Burton?) full rein. The two characters supposedly carry out their maneuvers at opposite ends of the moral spectrum–Leamas fighting the good fight, O’Brien the bureaucratic arm of totalitarianism–but Burton so naturally exudes resignation and self-loathing in any context, both convey the same message in the end: “This is all a corrupt, meaningless charade, but it is what it is and I’ll play out my part till the sorry conclusion.” (The O’Brien of Orwell’s novel comes across as more of a true believer than in Burton’s shaded portrayal.) The subtlety and authority of both performances are astonishing. Screened together, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Nineteen Eighty-Four serve as bookends to a career that, although largely squandered, had moments of brilliance on par with the best work of Olivier or Brando.

The multiplicity of connections between The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Nineteen Eighty-Four would be my ideal as a repertory programmer, a seamless blend of the visual, the thematic, and the art of performance. Every dedicated filmgoer finds his or her thoughts overtaken on occasion by the backlog of fragments and half-formulated theories one accumulates from a lifetime of watching movies. It’s like carrying a rep theatre around in your head, just waiting for someone to give you the go-ahead and make it real.

[Originally published in Cinema Scope and reprinted in, 2002]


5 thoughts on “From the Archives: Double-Bills

  1. Maybe all the links are down for this post or ? Anyway, love what Phil does with the double-bills fantasy.


  2. Hey Jack, nice to hear from you. I’m not sure if I know precisely what you’re referring to — if it’s the links that were on the sidebar to the archives… I’ve now removed them because I no longer have access to the server they were on. Which is why I’ve revived re-posting older pieces, one by one. It’s all ridiculously complicated and headache-inducing. But here we are. (I’m barely even READING what I re-post, never mind cleaning anything up.)

  3. And I seem to have semi-accidentally removed all the sidebar links too, though the plan for year 2024 was to update them as probably 3/4 of those links were dead. I don’t know if I’ve deleted them entirely or just hidden them. Think I’ll just start fresh one day.

  4. It is my sad duty to report that a theater in San Francisco once ran a double bill of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and A Farewell To Arms.* \

    I doubt that there was any cinematic justification for this, though I’ve seen neither film (and neither Farewell) so I can’t say for sure. I’m not conjuring up any great affinities between Polstergeist and either Gilda or The Mortal Storm (those constituting the entirety of my Hooper-C. Vidor-Borzage viewing), but it’s been a while.

    As you might imagine, my attempts to create a genius playlist segue between Sevyn Streeter’s “Before I Do” and Eric Church’s “Before She Does” were not successful.

    Double bills I’d program: New York, New York and Eclipse for using similar montages of disconnection as their endings (and to see if there are other similarities); All The President’s Men and Moneyball (former way better than the latter, but where the latter is great – the segment in the Cleveland Indians’ office – it shares the President’s sense of “paranoid architecture”**/uneasy office space); The Kremlin Letter and any other Richard Boone performance (movie or TV episode) that Phil thinks would pair well with it (barely know Boone; like him a lot in The Tall T but it’s a character going in a different direction from the one in Kremlin, and I want to preserve Tall T for a bill with Mr. Majestyk as the two movies that successfully embody an Elmore Leonard universe); Lonesome Cowboys and Beware Of A Holy Whore.

    *Okay, this was before I lived there and I haven’t fact-checked the claim. But the person who said so was saying it as if it actually truly happened and even pointed out the theater to me: not a rep theater but a cheapy likely to show Texas Chainsaw type stuff.

    **Think it was Sarris who used the phrase in regard to the District Of Columbia in All The President’s Men.

  5. Good to hear from you, Jack and Frank…The idea of double-bills was pretty much antiquated when I wrote this in the late ’90s; it’s science-fiction now. The one that comes to me immediately involving a film after I wrote it would be Zodiac with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where someone tries to convince everyone that this thing he’s obsessing over is important, that it means something.

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