Nights at the Movies

I spent years as a complete and ultra-nerdy movie buff. In the 70s, in London, where I went to university, you could still catch showings of 30s and 40s Hollywood classics, whether at the National Film Theatre or at various independent (i.e. eccentric) cinemas of varying degrees of seediness. The Electric Cinema in the Portobello Road was a mecca for people like me… it was also a total fleapit, with entire rows of seats that tipped alarmingly if you rested your feet too hard on the row in front, as you had to if you were there the entire night. The Gate, as in Notting Hill Gate, also did all-night programs of classic horror with the added bonus of second-hand wacky baccy. I still remember quite vividly the anticipation of pulling an all-nighter, going into the cinema when you’d normally be going to bed, and the more than slightly spaced-out feeling the following morning when you emerged blinking into the daylight (not always due to the smoke hanging in the air).
I also blagged a press pass from the university newspaper on the pretext of writing movie reviews, so spent many a morning in Soho preview screenings (no, not THAT sort of Soho establishment!) where there was often free food and drink, something no college student would ever turn down.
It probably goes without saying that I was a noir fan; I also loved Universal’s classic horror, the Marx Brothers, musicals, westerns, Warner Bros’ gangster flicks, screwball comedy. Small drama, all of it, not much on the spectacle. But I also got to see films that were banned for many years, like Todd Browning’s Freaks; rarities like Peter Lorre’s only film as director, the bleak and masterful Die Verlorene; a print of Casablanca with bits cut out of the original cinematic release restored. You’ll also notice that all of these were shot in black and white, still the best medium for subtlety of tone and shadows. I had a whole other kind of affection for old color movies, especially the gorgeous early Technicolor of The Adventures of Robin Hood.
At the time I was supposed to be studying law, but I spent more time staring at the silver screen. If I’d been studying movies, I would’ve come away with a first-class degree, but unfortunately they didn’t do film studies back then, so I came out with a less-than stellar one in law. But at least I got to see those movies the way they were meant to be seen, in a smoky old fleapit with no humunguous tubs of popcorn in sight and the sound at a bearable level, among a bunch of people like me.


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