Posted by Richard Harland Smith on July 17, 2007
My two month-old son is not yet sleeping through the night and I get up to give him a bottle at some point between 11:00 pm and 4:00 am. I’ve got it down to a science. When my wife and I turn in between 10:30 and 11:00, I leave a big pillow on the couch, my eyeglasses ready to be slipped on, the TV remote at hand and our cable box tuned to Turner Classic Movies, volume low. (I don’t mean to shamelessly plug my home station or anything, it’s just my go-to place, my first stop.) I like this time of night. It’s dark, quiet, calm. While my wife and daughter are safe and sleeping in their beds, Little Victor Smith and I man the night watch.
The other night we caught a little of Henry Hathaway’s Johnny Apollo (1940), with that gorgeous black-and-white photography by Arthur C. Miller, who later shot The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). From Frame One (where Power meets cabaret singer Dorothy Lamour outside the office of mob lawyer Charlie Grapewin) I was hooked. Vic drank his bottle dry and I went back to bed reluctantly – I wanted to see how it ended. (Don’t tell me!) Not so long ago TCM ran an evening of Val Lewton movies and we watched The Leopard Man (1943) from the cemetery murder to the end. It’s not considered one of the better Lewtons but I have a soft spot for it. When you’re half awake, those desert vistas have a mesmeric quality, as if you could walk right into them and feel the hot sand on your bare feet. You couldn’t ask for a better late night companion than Val Lewton.
Some nights I’m more tired than others and our entertainment passes in the fragmentary fashion of a dream. We caught some of Easy Rider (1969) like that last night… no narrative, just shots of American roadsides and an even trippier cemetery sequence near the end (“We’re all aglow!”). I’ve “seen” dozens of movies in this way recently and gotten up the next day with only the vaguest recollection of them, moments studded in my waking consciousness like burs picked up after a walk in the woods. I’m remembering back when I first started staying up late to watch movies, when I was 12 or 13. I saw all the classic Universal monster movies back then: Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), all their sequels, The Black Cat (1934), The Raven (1935) and borderline horror stuff like Black Friday (1940), The Cat Creeps (1946) and The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (1934). I kept awake for most of these but occasionally I’d nod off and the veil between real life and reel life would split, making my dreams a two-way street in which I walked with those ghoulies and ghosties and haunted their castles and dungeons and badly landscaped graveyards. When I was a kid I imagined that movies played out differently after you’d fallen asleep… King Kong lived, Rick and Isla flew away together, and James Whitmore got out of the sewer alive. You can never see these versions… you just have to have faith that they exist while you sleep.
I wonder what Little Victor Smith will remember of these late nights bathed in that monochrome wash of classic cinema. Probably nothing… but maybe he’ll retain an image or two that will haunt him, like shadows on the wall that catch your eye and then are gone. Some day he'll understand the particular magic of cinema, that some moves you watch… and some movies watch you.
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