A couple of years back, the Lucas Theatre for the Arts finally started to hit its stride as far as specialty film screenings go.
After several years of either playing host to the now-defunct Reel Savannah Film Group's occasional, one-show-only engagements of first-run foreign and indie features or booking its own blink-and-you'd-miss-them, single-show runs of acclaimed, slightly fringe-y fare under the (now seemingly retired) Savannah Film Society moniker, the Lucas' staff, led by managing director Meaghan Walsh Gerard, began to regularly celebrate beloved actors and directors through two- and sometimes three-film blocks of their best-known works. Usually laid out as two-day events spread over a Friday and Saturday, these thematically linked mini-retrospectives were tailor-made for cinema enthusiasts without a ton of money (or time, for that matter) to spend on a standard-length film festival. They were also easily accessible and affordable to tourists, who might appreciate a break from wondrous architectural gems, droning tour guides or shockingly overpriced mac-and-cheese.
Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant and Paul Newman have all received this "weekend retrospective" treatment from the Lucas of late, and so it's no surprise that the latest such offering pays tribute to the late, great James "Jimmy" Stewart, who died in 1997, after carving out one of the most esteemed careers in Hollywood history.
Perhaps best known for his convincing portrayals of a variety of characters which might all be termed varying faces of the quintessential American "everyman," Stewart (who also served valiantly in the Armed Forces during both WWII and the Vietnam War, attaining the rank of Brigadier General in the United States Air Force Reserve) was up for the Oscar five times, taking home one in competition and receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award.
His seven-decade tenure in the film business found him starring in scores of features, including such classics and box-office hits as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "The Philadelphia Story," "It's a Wonderful Life," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "Shenandoah," "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and "Vertigo."
A constant presence in cinematic "best of" lists, he's widely considered one of the most "natural" cinematic thespians our country has ever produced, and no less a director than Frank Capra ("It Happened One Night," "Lost Horizon") once said of Stewart, "I think he's probably the best actor who's ever hit the screen."
The Lucas will salute Stewart with one screening each of two of his classic films, starting with 1950's "Harvey" on Jan. 24.
Based on the play of the same name, it's the lighthearted tale of a middle-aged, possibly alcoholic eccentric (played by Stewart) who is convinced he has an invisible, 6-foot-tall rabbit named Harvey for a best friend - much to the chagrin of his friends and family. A gem of a motion picture filled with delightful banter and character interaction, the American Film Institute named it the seventh best fantasy film ever made. The play has been adapted several times since for television (including a little-known 1972 remake which also starred Stewart); however, this feature film version is widely considered to be the finest of the lot by a wide margin.
Cult film fans take note: "Harvey" is widely seen as a key influence on the 2001 time travel sleeper "Donnie Darko."
The weekend concludes Jan. 25 with a special showing of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece of suspense and misdirection "Rear Window." Released in 1954 and co-starring Grace Kelly ("High Noon," "To Catch a Thief") and the always phenomenal Raymond Burr ("A Place in the Sun," TV's "Perry Mason" and "Ironside"), it's the engrossing tale of a photographer (Stewart) who's temporarily confined to a wheelchair after breaking his leg, and passes time in his Greenwich Village apartment by watching the activities of his neighbors through his window. After witnessing a number of suspicious (but ambiguous) incidents which hint at criminal activity, he finds himself and his socialite girlfriend (Kelly) drawn into an extremely dangerous situation.
Filled with unexpected plot twists and intricate set pieces, this expertly made thriller is widely considered one of the finest films of its kind ever made, and holds an incredibly rare 100 percent positive rating on the movie review website www.rottentomatoes.com.
While it has become so ubiquitous that it's been parodied and referenced in all manner of media for decades, it's entirely possible some folks out there may have never seen the original film - or perhaps not in all its big-screen glory. If you fall into that category, or if it has been ages since you saw "Rear Window," I heartily encourage you to take advantage of this great opportunity to view a legitimately landmark and influential mystery movie as it was originally intended to be seen.
Showtime for both Stewart films is 7 p.m., and admission is $8 each for the general public or $5 for students and seniors with proper ID.
On Jan. 29 at the Sentient Bean, the Psychotronic Film Society offers a tribute night of its own, when it salutes actor Scott Glenn on his 73rd birthday. Glenn, who's known for playing U.S. astronaut Alan Shepard in the 1983 docudrama "The Right Stuff," FBI agent (and Jodie Foster's boss) Jack Crawford in 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs," Emmett in 1985's "Silverado," and Wes Hightower in the 1980 John Travolta/Debra Winger vehicle "Urban Cowboy," Glenn has starred in more than 60 film and television projects. Known for his imposing presence and subtle dramatic technique, he's surprisingly underrated for his level of public visibility.
As is the PFS' wont, the title of this "Mystery Screening" (which does not mean the movie is "a mystery") will not be announced publicly before showtime. What can be revealed is that despite boasting an A-list director and a star-studded cast, it's one of the most controversial and little-known films in the actor's oeuvre, having never been released on DVD anywhere in the world.
Fans of either Glenn's work or of strange and challenging cinema are advised to take a chance and get a ticket, knowing only they're in for a wild ride. Showtime is 8 p.m., with $7 admission.
That's it till next week. See you at the movies, and don't forget to turn off that cell phone. We all know what that can lead to.
Jim Reed directs the Psychotronic Film Society of Savannah. Read more at www.filmsavannah.com.