Capital Celluloid 2023 — Day 345: Tue Dec 12

20,000 Years in Sing Sing (Curtiz, 1932) & Manhattan Melodrama (WS Dyke, 1934):
ICA Cinema, 6.45pm

This is the second night in the exciting 'Last Movies' season at the ICA Cinema. Full details of all the screenings in the five-month long repertoire can be found here.

Last Movies remaps the first century of cinema according to what a selection of its key cultural icons saw just before dying. Conceived and created by Stanley Schtinter to enable an audience ‘to see what those who see no longer saw last,’ the ICA hosts a five-month programme to coincide with the publication of his book of the same title, described by Alan Moore as ‘Profound and riveting . . . a remarkable achievement,’ and by Laura Mulvey as ‘deeply thought-provoking.’

According to Erika Balsom, Last Movies ‘abandons all those calcified criteria most frequently used to organise cinema programmes ... period, nation, genre, director, star, theme: nothing internal to these films motivates their inclusion, their ‘quality’ least of all ... Last Movies embraces chance.’

In this second event in the series, Schtinter is joined in conversation by filmmaker and novelist Chris Petit to discuss the themes of liberty and decline, following a double-bill screening of the pre-Code Hollywood films, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing and Manhattan Melodrama.

American career-criminal John Dillinger was murdered in a panic of police bullets as he left the Biograph Theater in Chicago, having just watched his favourite actor Clark Gable (Fassbinder’s favourite actor too), in Manhattan Melodrama. Fassbinder was found lifeless by his editor Juliane Lorenz, having just watched 20,000 Years in Sing Sing in bed. Though officially unconnected, both films celebrate protagonists bound by the same fate: the electric chair at Sing Sing prison.

Time Out review of 20,000 Years in Sing Sing:
James Cagney was Warners' first choice for Tommy Connors, the 'tough bird' who eventually goes to the electric chair with a touch of cool resignation. Spencer Tracy, however, is suitably gritty in this taut but somewhat implausible moral drama which puts its protagonist through riots, solitary confinement and an escape before he realises that the warden (Arthur Byron) is a 'swell guy' deserving his trust. Connors' girl Bette Davis rather overdoes the acid tongue, but the quasi-documentary scenes of prison life are compelling. Based on a book by Sing Sing's liberal warden Lewis E Lawes who believed in rewarding good behaviour and facilitated location shooting inside the walls of the New York prison.
Trevor Johnston

Time Out review of Manhattan Melodrama:
The last movie John Dillinger ever saw (he was fingered by the lady in red and shot as he left the cinema), this is an archetypal gangster movie of the period, a product of the moral backlash instigated by Hoover and the Hays Office in response to the dangerous ambivalence of Little Caesar and its ilk. Clark Gable (who was said to resemble Dillinger) is a thoroughly affable kind of gangster - not averse to a little wager, but essentially a good type who stumbled on to the wrong track when he was a lad (played by Mickey Rooney). William Powell is his old pal from those bygone days, now a district attorney. Clark doesn't think twice about putting his life on the line if it will help Bill get elected governor. This Oscar-winning scenario inspired a hail of imitators over the next five years, and was thoughtfully resurrected by John Gregory Dunne in his novel True Confessions.
Tom Charity

Here (and above) is the trailer for 20,000 Years in Sing Sing.

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