Those wonderful people out there in the dark

Dispatches from the 10th annual TCM Classic Film Festival

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A still from 'Open Secret'
Harry Brandt Productions

Open Secret — a nearly forgotten and difficult-to-find B-programmer from 1948 — ought to be seen by everybody. In it, newlyweds John Ireland and Jane Randolph go calling on Ireland’s old army buddy, only to become entangled in subterranean hell, where anti-Semitism is alive and well, despite the war Ireland and his buddy just fought and won.

It’s a chilling piece of work, particularly the transference of hatred from one generation to the next. In one scene, Randolph opens a stack of photos the developer accidentally mixed in with hers and finds one with a group of kids posing next to a smashed-in storefront with the word “Jew” scrawled across the broken windows. It’s an image you associate with Berlin, 1939, but this is not Germany; it’s New York City, 1948. The Nazis may have lost, but Nazism is alive and well. 

As the saying goes: History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. But in the case of Open Secret and many other films that played at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival April 11-14 in Hollywood, history isn’t so much a rhyme as it is a continuation.

Many more carried similar themes. It Happened Here, an independent 1964 British drama, envisions an alternative present, one where the Nazis successfully invaded and occupied England. The Robe, the 1953 biblical epic starring Richard Burton and Jean Simmons, recounts the crucifixion of Christ from the occupying Roman army’s point of view. Cold Turkey, a practically forgotten satire from comic genius Norman Lear, humorously explores how crass consumerism, cynical marketing and greed all give way to totalitarianism.

For devoted watchers of the cable channel Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which celebrated its silver anniversary on April 14, these movies are more than a simple interest in nostalgia, though that does play a role. The people who filled the theater twice for Open Secret weren’t there out of familiarity but discovery. Same for It Happened Here, Cold Turkey, Merrily We Go to Hell, Winchester ’73 and the 70-plus other movies that unspooled once more in Hollywood’s movie palaces of yore.

This interest in the past, and how it relates to the present, is nothing new for moviegoers in Boulder County. With three year-round repertory theaters and an annual silent film series every summer, the barriers between what is new and what is old are crumbling. Cable channels like TCM, streaming services like Kanopy and DVD manufacturers like Criterion and Kino Lorber continue to stoke this curiosity while making the act of discovery easier.

In a world of mechanical reproduction, there’s no such thing as an old movie or a new one; there’s just movies you have seen and those you haven’t. And though many have been forgotten, they will always be waiting in the shadows for their time to come. In 2009, a movie like Open Secret might have been viewed as a curiosity, a forgotten gem from the post-war period. But in 2019, it’s a chilling reminder: To ignore the past because it’s passed only builds the present on a foundation of sand.