Big Screen Berkeley: Metflopolis

Lino Ventura (center right, in overcoat) in Illustrious Corpses

By the time this is published, the 15th San Francisco Silent Film Festival will have concluded. So consider this a warning for next year: if you plan on taking public transportation to the Castro Theatre for an evening show, don’t bother going. Last Friday night’s screening of the (almost) fully restored print of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis began at least an hour after it was scheduled to start, and rather than spend a rough night on the streets of San Francisco, I threw in the towel and headed for BART and the comforts of home.

I don’t know what caused the delay (no announcements were made to the hundreds who waited in line in the cold for as long as two hours), but Festival organizers and/or Castro staff need to develop a better ground game. The Castro’s website encourages patrons to take public transportation to the Theatre. That’s a sensible and socially responsible suggestion, but it’s maddening when the schedule is pushed back to the point where patrons need to weigh the desire to see the final reel with that of making the final train.

Meanwhile, back on the side of the Bay where things tend to run on time, Pacific Film Archive has a couple of treats in store this coming week. First up, at 7:00pm on Friday July 23, is the inaugural feature in the Archive’s Criminal Minds series, 1955’s Cell 2455 Death Row.

Based on real-life convict Caryl Chessman’s prison-penned autobiography, the film features kiss-curled William Campbell as fictional Whit Whittier, whose childhood of poverty leads to a life of misdemeanor and felony convictions, including kidnapping and rape charges that carry the death penalty. Beginning and ending in San Quentin while Whit awaits his final date with Ol’ Sparky, the bulk of the film consists of flashbacks detailing his life of crime.

While Cell 2455 Death Row is no classic — it was, after all, directed by journeyman Fred F. Sears (Teen-Age Crime Wave, Don’t Knock the Rock) — it’s far better than your average programmer, and an unusually sympathetic portrayal of a not very nice person. With PFA screening a newly restored print, this is a great opportunity to see this rare title, unavailable on home video.

For those who enjoyed Il caso Mattei (reviewed here two weeks ago), director Francesco Rosi’s Illustrious Corpses (Cadaveri eccellenti) — screening at 8:40pm on Saturday July 24 — scratches a similar itch. It’s also a political thriller, albeit one with more traditional suspense elements than Mattei, and features the great Lino Ventura as a police inspector assigned to investigate the assassination of four Italian judges. The film also features outstanding widescreen cinematography from Pasqualino De Santis, whose work on Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet earned him an Academy Award in 1969.

Though produced in 1976, Illustrious Corpses didn’t earn a theatrical release in the United States until 1981, and hasn’t been seen on these shores since. Though not as exciting a rediscovery as an Argentinian print of Metropolis, it’s still an excellent film –a nd  you’ll be home at a reasonable hour, too.

John Seal has lived in Oakland since 1981 and has been writing for Berkeleyside since 2009. He spends his spare time watching and reading about movies.