Saturday, October 17, 2009


I haven’t blogged in a long time, but tonight merits an exception. Yes, I know: I say that every time I write something after a long hiatus. Believe me. This time it’s true. Keep reading.

La fête continue ! After seeing Du Rififi chez les Hommes Wednesday evening at the start of the first edition of the Lyon film festival “Lumière 2009”, my father-in-law and I decided to return tonight to see another in the same genre. We were undecided between The Big Steal, a 1949 picture starring Robert Mitchum, and The Lineup, a 1958 film that could have been inspired by an item in a local newspaper’s “From the police blotter” page. Both were directed by Don Siegel, one of the directors showcased in the festival, as are Sergio Leone, director of a slew of spaghetti Westerns and actor-director Clint Eastwood.

I had never heard of The Lineup, but as it was playing in the spacious, comfortable movie theatre in the Institut Lumière (the birthplace of modern film!), we decided to go there. On Wednesday, in the same theater, the screening was preceded by a presentation given by Thierry Frémaux, President of the Institut Lumière and Artistic Director of the Cannes Film Festival, Robert Guédiguian, a French director with a heavy Marseille accent, and Nicolas Seydoux, Chairman of Gaumont. The same evening Claudia Cardinale was presenting another film. But I digress. That was Wednesday. Today was Friday.

I thought vaguely about bringing my camera with me. Who knows who might present tonight’s film. I did say “vaguely”, didn’t I? I would soon regret that my thought was not less vague.

The ticket purchasing system is complicated, which discouraged us from buying tickets in advance. According to the festival program, a certain number of tickets are held for sale just before each screening. Besides, we wanted to preserve the spontaneity of it. So we arrived at the theater early, only to find a long line of people who apparently had reasoned as we did. Or so we thought.

There were about 40 people ahead of us with a half-hour to go until show time. For the next 20 minutes a steady stream of people came in with tickets in hand and were ushered into the theater. Gradually, we understood that the screening was sold out, but there might be some unclaimed reservations. But what about the tickets held for sale just before the screening, as explained in the festival program, we asked. It’s more complicated than that, we were politely told. Suddenly Gérard Collomb, mayor of Lyon, appeared in the aforementioned stream, and greeted us and the other people waiting in line as he walked past. Also walking past our line of hopefuls were individuals without tickets but with bulky camera equipment.

Finally, the red cinema ropes were clicked open and we were allowed to proceed in single file to the counter to buy tickets. My father-in-law went through, and the rope was returned to its post right in front of me! We’re together, we explained, and the rope lowered once again. We claimed our tickets, paid €10 (that’s right, €5 each!) and entered the room.

People everywhere. Cameras, cables. Cell phones at the ready. Lots of people with red-and-white-tape necklaces with cards attached to the end. There are no more seats; you’ll have to sit on the steps over to the left, the usher informed us. We did, but then, there are always single seats available. Seek and ye shall find. Which we did. After a quick exchange with a person attending on her own, we had two center section seats together.

Minutes passed. The screening was supposed to start at 8:30 pm, and it was already later than that, with no sign the lights would soon go down. Thierry Frémaux climbed onto the stage again and announced that a rumor seemed to have circulated. He didn’t know how, because it was only decided a few minutes earlier. In any event, he added, the rumor is true. Then he said the Institut Lumière had the immense pleasure to welcome .. no, first he explained that the festival’s guest of honor wanted to pay homage to Don Siegel, with whom he had worked as an actor in several films, and who consequently wanted to be there to introduce the film. And then he introduced Clint Eastwood!!

Clint Eastwood ambled his way down the aisle, ever-so-slightly frail and hesitating, wearing a brown brushed-cotton sports jacket over a patterned,open shirt, while an excited, shutter-happy, but disciplined audience of less than 300 people stood, cheered and applauded, ultimately consolidating their acclamations into rhythmic clapping. Then Clint said a few words in French and stopped. He explained that his French-speaking friends took advantage of him when he was learning French, so the only other thing he knew how to say in French was “Et mon cul, c’est du poulet”. What do you think? Should we believe him?

He continued in English, with Thierry Frémaux doing an excellent job of consecutive interpreting. With a slight twang in his voice, Clint Eastwood spoke of the films he and Don Siegel had shot together, including Coogan’s Bluff, Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz. He said that The Lineup, in which he did not star, deserved to be better known than it was. Clint and Thierry then bantered about this and that for a few more minutes, until the guest of honor said we should let the people watch the film. Then the former mayor of Carmel-by-the-sea was off, with the same simplicity and elderly elegance he had brought in, to have dinner with the mayor of Lyon.

The film itself was quite good, with a generous dose of tension and suspense, culminating in a low-tech but highly realistic car chase in the San Francisco area. The films of today have nothing over it. It hasn’t aged a bit.

The festival continues two more days until the closing ceremony on Sunday, where Clint Eastwood is scheduled to appear. I’m sure it will be a thrill for the people lucky enough to attend that event, but there’s something magical about an unscheduled visit. Reminds me of a line Paul Newman had in The Color of Money: “Money won is twice as sweet as money earned.”