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May Films: Wojciech Has, ‘The Saragossa Manuscript,’ Jean-Pierre Melville, and Larry Cohen

The underappreciated Polish director Wojciech Has (1925–2000) is having a moment, thanks to a new study by film historian Annette Insdorf. Nearly as forceful a visual stylist as his contemporary Andrzej Wajda, Has was even more inclined to adapt the work of leading Polish authors. Has’s impressive first feature Noose (1958), from a short story by Poland’s one-man Beat generation Marek Hłasko, is a harrowing account of an alcoholic’s last day, with a tour-de-force performance by Gustav Holoubek. It’s getting a week-long run at the Museum of Modern Art (April 27-May 3), along with How to Be Loved (1963), a lesser but none the less affecting tragicomedy of Polish actors surviving the German occupation that was written by Kazimierz Brandys and features Poland’s great method actor Zbigniew Cybulski.

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A new DCP of Has’s best-known work, The Saragossa Manuscript (1965), adapted from Jan Potocki’s episodic early-nineteenth-century novel, is screening April 30 at the Museum of the Moving Image. This three-hour super-production is a convoluted succession of stories-within-stories-within-stories, with Cybulski playing a Spanish officer lost in the Sierra Moreno and mixing it up with all manner of apparitions. The movie first blew minds at the 1966 San Francisco Film Festival and garnered a cult following six years later with a brief, post-El Topo midnight run at the old Elgin theater.

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Other directors recognized this month include the nouvelle vague godfather Jean-Pierre Melville and the creative genre auteur Larry Cohen. Film Forum is saluting Melville with a centennial retrospective (April 28-May 11) that in addition to his classic crime films (Le Doulos, Le Samurai, et al.) and occupation dramas (the great Army of Shadows) includes such rarities as his 1959 Two Men in Manhattan (shot in Manhattan) and a 1953 vehicle for Juliette Greco, When You Read This Letter. Cohen is getting an intensive two-day eight-feature spritz at the newly refurbished Quad Theater (May 6-7), focusing on his New York films. The wonderfully titled God Told Me To (1976), a sui generis supernatural policier, which Cohen will introduce, may be the strongest film in the series but Q (1982), Cohen’s bizarre riff on King Kong in which the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl roosts atop the Chrysler Building, and his 1973 Blaxploitation film Black Caesar, scored by James Brown, are degenerate violent fun.

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A smaller, less aggressive New York film, Hermia and Helena, by the Argentine writer-director Matías Piñeiro, is scheduled for a week-long run at the Metrograph (May 26-June 1). The movie, shown at the last New York Film Festival, is as clever and erudite as Piñeiro’s previous Shakespeare-inflected comedies—small films with elements of Rohmer, Rivette, and Borges.

Category: Film