NYC Repertory: Dig into the work of Roman Polanski and Alec Guinness

 

Roman Polanski dolls himself up in his 1976 film "The Tenant." Credit: Paramount Pictures
Roman Polanski dolls himself up in his 1976 film “The Tenant.”
Credit: Paramount Pictures

‘The Fearless Roman Polanski’
June 13 — June 19
IFC Center

The career (and, to say the least, life) of Roman Polanski has been bumpy, with inspired patches peppered with inspired lows, even a few bits of dispiriting mediocrity. But he’s on a roll right now, which started with his sleek, crackerjack thriller “The Ghost Writer” and has continued with the sprightly stage adaptations “Carnage” and “Venus in Fur,” which opens in NYC next weekend.

The latter two — which cram a limited number of characters in rooms to argue and power-play — may be reflections of his current troubles, which have seen him under house arrest and afraid to travel outside of France. Anxiety has always fueled his work, though, and his films are eternally suspicious of humankind. Some are funnier about it than others: “The Fearless Vampire Killers,” his handsome 1967 horror-comedy, giggles as evil contaminates the world, while “Rosemary’s Baby” sees one woman’s life turned upside down by old New York weirdos like Ruth Gordon.

Then again, “Rosemary’s Baby” is enormously sympathetic towards its protagonist (Mia Farrow), whose troubles comment on the dehumanizing that comes through pregnancy. One of his rare huge hits, it’s one of several films that portrays sensitive women preyed upon, which also includes “Repulsion,” arguably his masterwork, and a skin-crawling portrait of mental collapse, with Catherine Deneuve so traumatized that she can’t get into bed without imagining a predator has slipped in with her.

His 1971 film of “Macbeth,” co-produced by Playboy — whose presence probably doesn’t explain Lady Macbeth’s nude sleepwalking scene — is a direct pipeline into the mind of a man whose wife and unborn child were murdered by the Manson family. He drains all of the hope out of one of Shakespeare’s darkest plays, setting it amongst arid wastelands and suggesting that man will always repeat its anti-hero’s follies.

The series is a near-complete retro; among the missing are “Carnage,” “The Ninth Gate” and two of his biggest bombs: “Pirates” and 1972’s “What?”, both comedies, the latter a European sex one filmed in producer Carlo Ponti’s sunny Italian villa that desperately tries to balance its maker’s sympathy and lust for gorgeous women (in this case Sydne Rome). These may be for completists only, but one can still revisit his less storied ’80s-’90s period, including the delightfully pervy “Bitter Moon.” Also note that the following will be on 35mm: “Knife in the Water,” “Cul-de-sac,” “Macbeth,” “The Tenant,” “Frantic,” “Death and the Maiden” and “Oliver Twist.”

Alec Guinness plays a thief and murderer in the 1955 dark comedy "The Ladykillers." Credit: Film Forum
Alec Guinness plays a thief and murderer in the 1955 dark comedy “The Ladykillers.”
Credit: Film Forum

Alec Guinness 100
June 13 — July 3
Film Forum

Speaking of “Oliver Twist,” Alec Guinness delivered one of his most distinctive performances as Fagin in David Lean’s handsome, spirited take on Dickens’ oft-adapted novel. It’s one of many in Film Forum’s centenary tribute to the actor. By now hopefully it isn’t a surprise that Alec Guinness was more than Obi-Wan Kenobi and was, in fact, one of England’s greatest comic actors (and also a charming memoirist).

His legendary run of Ealing Studio comedies, most of them very dark, aren’t the only draw, but they’re some of the biggies, including “The Ladykillers” — which fits him with never-not-funny false teeth — and “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” in which a man tries to murder nine diverse family members, all played by Guinness (including a fiery suffragette). Though not an Ealing, “The Horse’s Mouth,” from 1958 and written by its star (from a Joyce Cary novel), lets Guinness loose as an eccentric painter who makes life miserable for all. He’s one of the great jerk movie heroes.

Guinness’ reputation for comedy is so high among aficionados that, oddly, one can neglect the gravitas and taste he brought to serious roles. David Lean remained one of his great collaborators, and Guinness saw him through the end — from his lighter earlier work through the heavy and expensive epics, like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago.” “The Bridge on the River Kwai” belongs to both worlds, with Guinness’ imprisoned Lieutenant Colonel bringing personality to a behemoth that never quite loses it. He brought similar humanity to Anthony Mann’s outsized (and very underrated) “The Fall of the Roman Empire.” And let’s not forget that Guinness owns “Star Wars.”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge



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