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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Films With Movie Theater Scenes (originally published 8/97)

Despite the fact that I write a video column, my heart still belongs to movies as God and C. B. DeMille intended them to be seen. I'll watch movies on video, and I'll be properly grateful for the access to obscure old titles that video has provided, but if I have a choice I'll take the projected image and the dark womb of the theater every time. It is a measure of my devotion to movie theaters that I continue to line up for tickets in spite of poorly focused pictures, filthy seats, and incredibly rude fellow patrons who converse nonstop through every show.

Filmmakers, on the other hand, show their devotion to the temple of their art by occasionally using a movie theater as the setting for one or more scenes of their movie. On one level I suppose it could be considered the worst sort of navel gazing to show a scene set in a theater to an audience sitting in a real theater. Even so, the undeniable affection that underlies such a gesture is irresistibly endearing, especially to those, like me, who share that affection. When I saw the movie theater scene in "Conspiracy Theory," therefore, it set me to reminiscing about other movies that incorporate theater scenes into their storyline. If you too are a moviehouse lover, look for these titles on video.

"Sherlock, Jr." (1924). Silent comic Buster Keaton plays a movie projectionist. In a virtuoso sequence, he falls asleep during a show and dreams that he becomes part of the movie. In his dream, we watch him walk down the aisle of the theater, climb up on the stage, and jump right into the screen. This idea was recycled years later by Woody Allen in "The Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985) and by Arnold Schwarzenegger in "The Last Action Hero" (1993).

"Sabotage" (1936). In this early Alfred Hitchcock film, Oscar Homolka plays an enemy agent operating in London. Using a movie theater as a front, he plans and implements acts of sabotage. Since the saboteur's residence adjoins the movie theater that he operates, Hitchock frequently punctuates scenes with the offscreen laughter of audiences enjoying the show at the theater. Late in the film, the saboteur's wife learns that his actions have caused the death of her beloved younger brother. Wandering into the theater in her grief, she sees part of a Disney cartoon called "Who Killed Cock Robin?" The cartoon provokes her into mirthless, hysterical laughter with its trivialization of death.

"The Tingler" (1959). Master showman and all-around B-movie schlockmeister William Castle came up with another of his trademark gimmicks for this Vincent Price horror picture. Price's character has discovered the tingler, a creature that attaches itself to the human spinal cord at moments of extreme fear. The only way to dispatch the tingler is by screaming. The crafty Castle included a sequence in which a tingler gets loose in a movie theater. Then he wired selected seats in actual theaters showing the film to provide a mild electric shock. The objective, of course, was to generate real screams in the real theater to echo the screams in the theater on the screen. Happily, the scene remains entertaining even without the benefit of a voltage-induced hotseat.

"Targets" (1968). While we're paying tribute to movie showplaces, we shouldn't forget that vanishing dinosaur, the drive-in. Peter Bogdanovich, in his first directorial outing, turns a sniper loose in a drive-in theater to take potshots from the screen tower. The drive-in is showing a B-picture featuring a fading horror star, played by Boris Karloff, who is making a personal appearance at the venue. In a memorable scene, Karloff's character confronts the sniper, who finds himself caught between a giant Karloff on the screen and the genuine article right in front of him. Later, of course, Bogdanovich would incorporate a somewhat more dignified tribute to movie exhibition into his elegiac adaptation of Larry McMurtry's "The Last Picture Show" (1971).

"Cinema Paradiso" (1988). Being a sucker for any film that pays tribute to movie houses, this nostalgic tribute to a childhood spent basking in the benevolence of a kindly old projectionist had me wrapped around its celluloid finger from beginning to end. Like all of the films cited here, and more besides, I scarcely know or care whether they are great cinema. I only know that I love them.

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