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Cult Movie Picks - May 2013
Remind Me
,The Projectionist

The Projectionist

Captured with a hand-held camera and old school guerilla filmmaking savvy, footage of actor Chuck McCann prowling the crowded streets of midtown Manhattan in 1968 from Harry Hurwitz's The Projectionist (1971) has an edgy vibe of lumpen verité that echoes the lonely peregrinations of the hitman antihero of Allen Baron's Blast of Silence (1961) while anticipating the existential mono-travelogues of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) . It was fitting that both the obscure, all-but-forgotten Hurwitz film and Scorsese's Academy Award-nominated, Golden Palm winner were included in the 2009 Newport International Film Festival's program "Archival Gotham: NYC on Film," as both works speak to the cold heart of urban alienation and the anesthetic property of fantasy. The Projectionist was made at a time in American history when long-dead and near-dead figures from Hollywood's Golden Age - Humphrey Bogart, W. C. Fields, Marilyn Monroe - were being revived and repurposed by a disillusioned popular culture. The film sprang from the same wounded romantic mindset of John Schlesinger's Billy Liar (1963) and the Woody Allen-scripted Play It Again, Sam (1972), variations both on James Thurber's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Published in The New Yorker in 1939 and adapted for the screen in 1947, Thurber's short story diagnosed the divided modern American mind and its propensity to ascend, Quasimodo-like in the postwar rush of national acquisitiveness and mental restlessness, to the sanctuary of make-believe.

The Projectionist was born from the dissatisfaction of writer-director Hurwitz, who had at the time quit his job as a professor of first year film production at New York University. The New York City native had already shot a 20-minute, 16mm version of his scenario, entitled Penny Arcade, and enlisted a former student to help him finance a feature-length remake. The grandson of a Vaudeville booking agent whose client list included Harry Houdini, Roy Frumkes proved instrumental in raising $50,000 for principal photography and accompanied Hurwitz on junkets to the major studios to license the film clips necessary to etch The Projectionist's flights of cinematic fancy. Only Universal held out, fearing Hurwitz's film too closely resembled Bob Rafelson's Head (1968); other studios waived licensing fees for a 1% cut of the film's projected profits. Hurwitz and Frumkes spent seven months screening clips before the screenplay for The Projectionist could be completed, selecting key scenes from The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Dante's Inferno (1924), Flash Gordon (1936), Gunga Din (1939), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Citizen Kane (1941), The Devil Commands (1941), Sergeant York (1941), Casablanca (1942) and It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) . This level of studio cooperation was as astonishing as it was short-lived; within a few years, many of the major studios had been sold off and restructured and their film vaults locked tight by parent companies unable to appreciate the value of their assets.

The title role of The Projectionist was offered originally to Huntz Hall, a surviving member of the Dead End Kids/Bowery Boys. When Hall's health precluded his traveling from Los Angeles, a young Canadian actor named David Steinberg auditioned for the part. (Now a veteran film and TV director, Steinberg would play a cinema owner in the romantic comedy Something Short of Paradise in 1979.) A year into preproduction, Hurwitz offered the role to Chuck McCann. The son of a bandleader and music arranger for CBS, McCann had as a precocious 12 year-old cold-called Stan Laurel in retirement in California and remained a personal friend of the aging silent film comedian until Laurel's death in 1965. By then, McCann was a star in his own right as a children's TV show host, a semi-regular on The Steve Allen Show and a busy commercial actor and voiceover artist. McCann's devotion to silent film comedians (he had played Oliver Hardy to Dick Van Dyke's Laurel in a sketch on The Garry Moore Show in 1958) and a talent for mimicry made him a perfect fit for The Projectionist but Hurwitz's one-page pitch nearly went into the ash can; had his New York agent not been obliged by law to show him the offer, McCann never would have known about the project. Another casting coup was comic Rodney Dangerfield, who had just changed his stage name from Jack Roy; Dangerfield's fame grew immeasurably during production of The Projectionist, giving the finished film added clout with potential distributors.

Principal photography for The Projectionist lasted twenty-five days, with Hurwitz's camera operated by Victor Petrashevic, a 250 lb. Russian émigré whose background in ballet allowed him to navigate a crowded midtown without attracting undue attention. The film's main setting, a once-lush Times Square movie house, was composited with the façade of an Upper West Side cinema and the projection booth of an Asbury Park theater donated by the Walter Reade Organization in return for the courtesy of a first look. (An early scene in the cinema interior was filmed in the screening room of a midtown film laboratory.) While shooting exteriors, Hurwitz and his crew lucked upon the New York premiere of Blake Edwards Star! (1968) and returned to Times Square a year later to grab shots of the premiere of Bernard Kowalski's Krakatoa, East of Java (1969), feathering the footage for a fantasy sequence in which McCann's character imagines himself a Hollywood player.

With $110,000 in finishing funds donated by a cineaste who had inherited a large sum of money, Hurwitz shopped the completed film to the major studios, all of whom passed despite initial encouragement from United Artists. (UA CEO David Picker later produced the similar Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid [1982] as a vehicle for Steve Martin.) After its October 1970 premiere at the Rochester Film Festival, The Projectionist opened in January 1971 to praise from critics and film scholars but proved a box office non-starter. The film's noble failure helped urge distributor Maron Films, which also handled the posthumous Edie Sedgwick vehicle Ciao, Manhattan! (1973) and the import of Luis Buñuel's Tristana (1970), to file for bankruptcy the following year.

An accomplished painter and printmaker whose works reside in the permanent collections of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York University, the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Harry Hurwitz went on to an intermittent Hollywood career that found him doing duty as one of many writers credited for the screenplay of the Chevy Chase misfire Under the Rainbow (1981) and directing a number of low budget films under the alias Harry Tampa (whom Hurwitz described with self-deprecating levity as "a legend in his own slime"). Hurwitz reunited with many of his The Projectionist players for The Comeback Trail (1982), which boasts one of the last performances by former serial star Buster Crabbe, and his film industry spoof That's Adequate (1989), which was nominated for a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival. More of a reference than a memory for many movie-lovers under the age of fifty, The Projectionist nonetheless has remained a critical darling for forty years; critic turned filmmaker Joe Dante once told Hurwitz that there was a little of The Projectionist in every film he ever made. The Projectionist was honored by the Museum of Modern Art as one of the most important films of 1971, putting it in the esteemed company of Luchino Visconti'sDeath in Venice and Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

Producer: Harry Hurwitz
Director: Harry Hurwitz
Screenplay: Harry Hurwitz
Cinematography: Victor Petrashevic
Music: Igo Kantor, Erma E. Levin
Film Editing: Harry Hurwitz
Cast: Chuck McCann (Projectionist / Captain Flash), Ina Balin (The Girl), Rodney Dangerfield (Renaldi / The Bat), Jára Kohout (Candy Man / Scientist), Harry Hurwitz (Friendly Usher), Michael Gentry (Usher / Henchman), Lucky Kargo (Usher / Henchman), David Holliday (Fat Man / Bat's Henchman), Sam Stewart (Usher/Henchman), Alex Stevens (Usher/Henchman).

by Richard Harland Smith

Chuck McCann interview by Steve Fritz, 2006
Chuck McCann interview by Billy Ingram, 2007
Harry Hurwitz interview by Michael Singer, A Cut Above: 50 Film Directors Talk About Their Craft.
Harry Hurwitz obituary, The New York Times, October 11, 1995
Roy Frumkes interview, National Board of Review
Telephone conversation with Roy Frumkes, January 8, 2011


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