Since 2000, Film Comment Selects has provided sneak peeks of upcoming releases, showcased eclectic international and avant-garde films, and given retrospectives to rare and overlooked directors, either as part of an annual series or in one-off screenings. This year, the magazine's programming has expanded to include a monthly double feature series. FILM COMMENT's digital editor Violet Lucca spoke with editor and senior programmer Gavin Smith about the November 19 screening, which pairs Brian G. Hutton's Where Eagles Dare with X, Y, and Zee.
Why did you decide to expand Film Comment Selects to this monthly series?
The Film Comment Double Feature is a spin-off from Film Comment Selects and from the magazine’s Encore department. We’ve always shown older movies in the annual series, often taking their cue from something one of our contributors has written about in the Encore section, and they generally do well, and so the idea of regularly showing one-off older movies originated there. I think our screening of Play It As It Lays was when we realized the possibilities. The motivation was to try to honor the old tradition of repertory theaters in New York and all over the world showing double features. When I first moved to the city in the summer of 1986, there were five or six revival houses where you could go see two films for the price of one, such as Cinema Village, The Thalia, The Biograph on 57th Street, which I think now is a Hard Rock Café... Film Forum is the last bastion of this tradition in New York.
The first double feature I went to when I moved to New York was at the Regency Theatre on Broadway, a few blocks up Broadway from Lincoln Center. It was Where’s Poppa? and Harold and Maude, as part of their series “66 Years of American Film Comedy, 1918-1984 — From Buster Keaton to Lily Tomlin.” That tradition has died out, probably for economic reasons with the rise of home video. I think that those kind of theaters just weren’t cutting it financially. They all started to really drop off in the late Eighties and early Nineties. So I want to revive the revival tradition, if only for one day every month, 12 times a year.
What things do you take into account when you program these double features? Is it different from other types of programming that you do?
I’m thinking about films that haven’t screened in the city for a long time, films that maybe aren’t on DVD. Films that probably aren’t going to get screened again very easily, because often the sources for 35mm prints are archival collectors who collect the prints. I will prioritize films that I can get in 35mm over films that I can’t. When I introduce these films, I always point out they’re in 35mm. There’s always about a dozen people in the audience who clap, but presumably there’s a portion of the audience that has no idea what I’m talking about. Often we’re showing films that are scratched or faded, that are not necessarily the greatest quality, but you’re getting the real rep experience in that way. I won’t show a film that’s completely faded to red or that’s falling apart, though. But some people actually like scratched and choppy prints, especially if there’s a grindhouse angle to the film.
I also like the idea of programming in pairs. There are a lot of films I’m interested in showing, but I’m often looking for something to pair it with, so that the films maybe talk to each other in a certain way, or maybe they show different facets of something. And I think the most obvious and simple way to do that is two films by the same director, or two films featuring the same actor. That’s probably how I approach it usually, although I try to be more ambitious by pairing them off in thematic ways when I can.
Where did the idea to pair Where Eagles Dare with X, Y, and Zee come from?
About a year and a half ago, for some reason I started thinking about all the films that have been adapted from novels from Alistair MacLean, an author of best-selling thrillers in the Sixties and Seventies. He was the equivalent of John Grisham or Robert Ludlum. My mum used to read them. I was actually trying to get one of our English contributors to write something about the many films they spawned. I remember seeing Caravan to Vaccarès, a 1974 film that involved a couple on the run and Gypsies and drug smuggling, in my high school film club. It was very memorable because there was a brief full-frontal nude shot of Charlotte Rampling—at least I think there was! So Caravan to Vaccarès stuck in my mind. Where Eagles Dare is probably the biggest movie adaption of a MacLean novel after The Guns of Navarone, which was a hugely successful, big-budget production in the early Sixties with an A-list cast. I saw that again last year at Film Forum, and it actually seemed a lot better than I remembered it.
The original idea was to combine Where Eagles Dare, which is a World War II commando adventure set in the Alps, with John Sturges’s Ice Station Zebra, a Cold War thriller about Russian and American submarines in a race to get to the North Pole to recover a downed satellite. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a print of Ice Station Zebra—I searched high and low. So the idea of doing an Alistair MacLean double feature went out the window. I guess I could have tried some of the other films based on his novels, but they aren’t very good. Plus I had a November booking for the archival print and didn’t want that to slip away.
The obvious thing was to look at the actors: Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. So my next idea was to find Hang ’Em High , a little-remembered Eastwood Western he did right after he did the spaghetti Westerns. We couldn’t find a print of that, either. So I looked at the filmography of Brian G. Hutton, the director of Where Eagles Dare, and there were a couple of interesting films. But the no-brainer was X, Y, and Zee , which features Elizabeth Taylor. This is a director that directed both Burton and Taylor, but never together. X, Y, and Zee also stars Michael Caine and Susannah York, and is a bit of a cult movie—there’s a poster of it in the Marbles’ house in Pink Flamingos.
Can you talk more about where the actors were in their careers when these films were made?
They were both coming off Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966. Burton was certainly, artistically, fairly well placed, and he did a lot of interesting but mostly unconventional roles in interesting, mostly unconventional movies. They did a bunch of films together like Losey’s Boom! . But none of these films were commercial, so Where Eagles Dare was a calculated attempt to do something mainstream. The film was a completely concocted package, in fact—the novel it was based on hadn’t even been written when the project was being developed. Producer Elliot Kastner wanted to do an Alistair MacLean adaptation in 1967 and convinced him, with his checkbook I imagine, to draft a 12-page treatment, made to measure. MacLean wrote the novel, the book became a best-seller, and—presto—a year later Kastner had his movie. Eastwood and Burton surely viewed it as a sound commercial proposition and little more: it was an expensive, elaborate production with lots of action and stunts. Someone once claimed that more Nazis get mowed down in this film than any other movie.
Even Inglourious Basterds?
Maybe Inglourious Basterds tops it, we’ll see. I think it was good for Eastwood and Burton. I think it was good for the director. Clearly it was good for Eastwood, because immediately afterward he and Brian G. Hutton made Kelly’s Heroes . I could have easily done that as a double feature, but Kelly’s Heroes is not that hard to see. I’ve seen it a number of times. It’s kind of a tongue-in-cheek war movie, not really like Where Eagles Dare. Donald Sutherland plays sort of a proto-hippie tank commander with long hair who smokes pot, I think. It’s funny and even features Don Rickles briefly, and it was a hit for Hutton, so Where Eagles Dare laid the groundwork for that.
I like the idea of the symmetry of a Burton film with a Taylor film, particularly since it’s the same director. The films couldn’t be more different. Hutton directed Taylor twice, and we could have gone with the other film, Night Watch , a Rear Window kind of thing in which Taylor plays a woman who’s recovering from a nervous breakdown and thinks she has witnessed a murder. Happily we found an archival print of X, Y, and Zee at the studio.
Do you have a sense that audiences, either inside or outside of the New York repertory scene, are responding to your selections?
No idea. Every double feature is an experiment in finding out what I can I get away with. One of the lessons I learned is that if I do anything after the mid-Eighties, the attendance plummets. I did a double feature of Ruthless People  and BASEketball . That didn’t really play well.
I think people are a little afraid of Bette Midler. Also, even though BASEketball is a cult film, you can see it anywhere. If it was 1980 and you showed a film with that big of a cult audience, it’d be different.
You’re right, rarity is a factor. You can show newer movies if they’re not available on video or not available in this country. I did a double feature of two recent French films by Benoît Jacquot, neither of which had U.S. distribution, and both of them had shown already in Rendez-Vous with French Cinema not that long before, but it was a total sellout. It helped that Isabelle Huppert was in one of them, but that was a great night. It was expensive to bring those prints in from France, but we sold it out.
Have you locked in next month’s double feature?
Ted Post, the director of Hang ’Em High, died back in August when I was trying to figure out something for the November double screening, and [programmer] Jake Perlin called me up and said, “Let’s do a Ted Post thing!” I told him that I didn’t really want to do a whole series of Ted Post films because he was kind of a hack. But he did make some good movies, including the first Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force, and the first Planet of the Apes sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes. So he was good at sequels, I guess. Jake turned me on to The Baby, a truly weird exploitation artifact that’s become a cult film. It’s about the confrontation between a dysfunctional family’s matriarch and a female social worker who tries to help the family’s mentally arrested son, who’s 21 but has the mental age of an infant.