The Projectionist (1971) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG for nudity, sexuality, disturbing images and mild violence (most likely an R, if released today)
Running Time: 85 min.
Cast: Chuck McCann, Rodney Dangerfield, Ina Balin, Jara Kohout,
Director: Harry Hurwitz
Screenplay: Harry Hurwitz
A minor hidden gem collecting dust on the shelf at your video store, if it even carries it, The Projectionist is, based solely on outside appearances, a silly comedy featuring two comedians that usually "get no respect" from cinephiles, Chuck McCann (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Aristocrats) and Rodney Dangerfield (Caddyshack, Back to School), here in his debut big screen role. As you would a book, never judge a film by its cover, as this is more a serious, introspective, independent art film than it is a comedy, virtually a precursor to Terry Gilliam's Brazil in some ways.
McCann plays the titular projectionist, working at an old style theater run by the strict theater owner, Renaldi (Dangerfield). His days and nights are filled with nothingness, except to escape into his own thoughts, imagining himself, Walter Mitty-style, as a character in one of the old movies he projects. His most common alter ego is that of Captain Flash, a superhero that lives to save the beautiful damsel in distress from the evil clutches of the bad guy known as The Bat. He also envisions being in some of his favorite movies, most notably as a patron in Rick's club in Casablanca -- anything to escape from the humdrum existence of his daily life, as well as the ugliness of the real world outside the theater doors.
Do not even think of renting The Projectionist because you like the comedy of Rodney Dangerfield, as he plays his role completely straight, and quite convincingly at that. Although there are comical moments interspersed throughout the film, underneath the fanciful imagery is a serious movie about a lonely man whose head is filled with longing for another life and despair for not being able to escape. The sadness and anguish permeate many of the projectionist's daydreams, which also encapsulates some of his nightmares and visions of tyranny, including Hitler's rise, lynch mobs, presidential assassinations, and religious persecution. All of these thoughts weave in and out of his consciousness as he works through the evening, wanting to be like Captain Flash and take charge of his life, doing away with all of the bad things that he is having trouble coping with.
Of course, as Chuck states in the movie, the theater is the place where one can always leave their troubles at the door, which is probably why he clings to his job as if no other occupation could ever satisfy him. His friends are only those which appear to him every day on the big screen, although his fantasies are constantly encroached upon by subconscious feelings he has suppressed from his more conscious moments. His retreat into his thoughts become so complete that when he looks to the screen, he sees himself on it, completely absorbed by his fantasies of escaping to a world much more preferable than the one he currently lives in, a Hollywood fantasy where glamour, courage, honor, and the good guy always wins.
Surprisingly, although it was first released back in the early 1970s and currently exists on DVD, The Projectionist remains mostly unknown to the general public, including many of the film buffs and art-house sophisticates that would without question enjoy this underground cult film. Suitably, it has been restored by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, not only because of its artistic merit (they chose it as one of the three best films of 1971), but also for the vivid on-location shots of the hustle and bustle of downtown New York City of 1969. The tone is offbeat and the delivery somewhat esoteric, so you have to be in tune with the style and themes of the film to earn a proper appreciation for it.
Despite being his first feature, writer-director Harry Hurwitz shows a strong knowledge of cinematics, employing techniques from the days of silent films, serials, old trailers, and the classics of Hollywood in the World War II era. If, like Hurwitz, you too long for the days of American cinema's yesteryear, The Projectionist may find a welcome reception with you, as you escape into the world of a man that can find no escape, except that which is allowed in his mind whenever he watches a movie.
©2006 Vince Leo