Hitch’s 1935 love-on-the-run spy story stands the test of time

The ever-resourceful Hannay (Robert Donat) manages to dodge the police repeatedly.

The 39 Steps/1935/Gaumont British Picture Corp./86 min.

This month’s reader giveaway is the Criterion rerelease of “The 39 Steps.” Michael Wilmington reviews.

Movie thrillers come and go, but, after more than three quarters of a century, Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” still reigns supreme. And not only for the breathless excitement of the story, the seamless construction, the chilling, beautifully realized atmosphere and the startling stream of plot twists. Nor for its historical importance, though almost every chase and spy thriller since 1935 copies it.

Nor for its actors – despite a truly excellent ensemble: Madeleine Carroll as Pamela, the cool Hitchcockian blond; Lucie Mannheim as a seductive lady of mystery; Godfrey Tearle as an urbane master criminal; Peggy Ashcroft and John Laurie as a moody farming couple on the barren Scottish moors; Wylie Watson as that Proustian prodigy, Mr. Memory; and, at the center of the action, Robert Donat as the endlessly suave and resilient Richard Hannay, a fugitive who keeps his quiet wit and brilliant resources, no matter what dangerous curve Fate (and Hitchcock) manage to throw him.

After spending the night at his London flat, the mysterious spy (Lucie Mannheim) warns Hannay that the criminal mastermind whom she betrayed is missing part of a finger.

More than anything else, the film keeps its preeminent place because this is the movie in which Hitchcock became “Hitchcock,” earning the reputation he never relinquished as “The Master of Suspense.”

Well into the 1960s, “The 39 Steps” was still commonly called his best movie. André Bazin: “It remains indubitably his masterpiece and a model for detective comedies.” And Pauline Kael: “This suave, amusing spy melodrama is . . . charged with wit; it’s one of the three or four best things Hitchcock ever did.”

Hitchcock had major successes before, but “The 39 Steps” was the first with major international impact. No previous Hitchcock so gripped, amused or thrilled audiences from Europe to America, Australia to Asia. More than any of his previous 19 British films, or the five that followed, “The 39 Steps” was responsible for his emigration to America as a first-rank filmmaker.

Madeleine Carroll as Pamela is just as appealing today as she was 75 years ago. She makes a point of being stroppy with Hannay while slyly flirting with him.

The Hitchcock of 1935 was no neophyte. He was a director of a decade’s experience, the master of his craft, adapting a novel by one of his favorite authors, John Buchan.

And Hitchcock was telling a story of strong personal appeal – so strong that he used bits and pieces of it throughout his career.

In “Young and Innocent” (1937), “Foreign Correspondent” (1940), “Saboteur” (1942), “To Catch a Thief” (1955), “North by Northwest” (1959), “Torn Curtain” (1966) and “Frenzy” (1972), we get part of the basic situation. The “wrong man,” accused of a crime he did not commit, flees through dangerous or colorful locales – sometimes engages in erotic sparring with a woman – and tries desperately to find the evil doppelganger who has committed the sin.

In discussing the film with François Truffaut, Hitchcock said: “What I like best about ‘The 39 Steps’ are the swift transitions.” The lightning transitions and ingenious editing keep the film fresh and bewitching. The landlady’s scream, on discovering a corpse in Hannay’s flat, becomes the shriek of the train whistle as Hannay escapes. We race at breakneck speed from London’s Portland Place to the forbidding Scottish moors, under eternal, glowering skies, and back to London, where another performance at the Palladium completes the circle.

Pamela and Hannay on the run in Scotland.

But the swift transitions are more than geographic. Hitchcock, as he would many times again, offers a dizzying set of moral alterations: a world where love and death, fear and desire are in constant, nerve-wracking and sometimes acidly humorous juxtaposition.

Hannay begins his perilous odyssey with what seems an innocuous peccadillo: meeting and taking home a woman who calls herself “Mrs. Smith.”

“Romance” leads to danger. The woman is not a pickup; she is a hunted spy, fearful for her life. The next morning, after she is murdered by the spies on her trail, Hannay escapes from his London flat by pretending to a milkman that he is a philanderer ducking a vengeful husband – something he nearly becomes when, still dodging the police, he stays a night with a dour Scottish farmer and his much younger wife.

The innkeeper mistakes Pamela and Hannay for a couple madly in love.

Earlier, fleeing the London murder scene by train, he tries to elude the police by embracing a total stranger (to her fury).

He winds up manacled to that same stranger, Pamela, taking refuge at an inn where the beaming landlady, impressed at their constant togetherness, exclaims: “They’re so terribly in love with each other!” Love and death, sex and slaughter – these are the poles of the universe so playfully presented here: reversing and replacing each other, becoming a shadowy, disturbing double mirror.

“The 39 Steps” is that rarity: a cinematic masterpiece that has stood the test of time, a great work that is also a great crowd-pleaser. Hitchcock liked to remark, with what may have been a sly touch of self-deprecation: “Most films are slices of life. Mine are slices of cake.” This particular cake is one of his most luscious: dark, savory, a richly compulsive treat.

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Btw, do see ‘Vera Stark’ and ‘Diana Vreeland’

Amanda Detmer and Sanaa Lathan in the West Coast premiere of Lynn Nottage’s “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” directed by Jo Bonney at the Geffen Playhouse. Michael Lamont photo.

A b&w movie inspired Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage to write her latest work, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.” Making its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, the play runs through Oct. 28.

Says Nottage: “I was watching television late one night when I came across a 1930s film called ‘Babyface,’ which featured a very charming and talented young African-American actress named Theresa Harris. When the film ended, I immediately began roaming the Internet in search of more information. …

“I was struck by my own ignorance, not only about Theresa’s prodigious and eclectic career, but also about a whole generation of African-American screen actors who plied their trade in relative obscurity. My unmitigated curiosity … led me to the actress Vera Stark. Indeed, ‘By the Way, Meet Vera Stark’ pays homage to Theresa Harris and other African-American performers who for decades were relegated to the margins of the frame.”

I saw the play on opening night. Though I thought it faltered a bit in the second act, “Vera Stark” is insightful, witty and visually delightful. Sanaa Lathan leads the excellent cast. You can read the LA Times review here.

And a must-see movie: “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel.” I saw this last year at the Chicago Film Festival and Vreeland is a fascinating subject, no matter how you feel about fashion.

I will be posting a longer piece based on my interview with Lisa Immordino Vreeland (Diana’s granddaughter-in-law) but wanted to at least note that it is open in some U.S. cities with more to follow. Why don’t you?

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Hitchcock blends noir, Americana in ‘Shadow of a Doubt’

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

A guide to classic film noir and neo-noir on cable TV. All the movies below are from the current schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Shadow of a Doubt” (1943, Alfred Hitchcock). Thursday, Oct. 4, 3:15 a.m. (12:15 a.m.)

A bright and beautiful small town girl named Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) is bored, bored with her well-ordered home in her pretty Norman Rockwellish little city of Santa Rosa, Calif., – where trees line the sunlit streets, everyone goes to church on Sunday, and lots of them read murder mysteries at night. Charlie has more exotic dreams. She adores her globe-trotting, urbane Uncle Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) – for whom she was nicknamed – and is deliriously happy when he shows up in Santa Rosa for a visit.

Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright play kindred spirits, sort of, in “Shadow.”

But Uncle Charlie has some secrets that no one in his circle would guess – not Uncle Charlie’s adoring sister (Patricia Collinge), nor his good-hearted brother-in-law (Henry Travers), nor their mystery-loving neighbor Herbie (Hume Cronyn), nor Charlie herself. Uncle Charlie, who conceals a darker personality and profession beneath his charming persona, is on the run, pursued by a dogged police detective (Macdonald Carey), who suspects him of being a notorious serial killer who seduces rich old widows and kills them for their money. As handsome, cold-blooded Uncle Charlie, Cotten, who also called “Shadow” his personal favorite film, is, with Robert Walker and Anthony Perkins, one of the three great Hitchcockian psychopaths.

“Shadow of a Doubt,” released in 1943, was Hitchcock’s sixth American movie and the one he often described as his favorite. As he explained to François Truffaut, this was because he felt that his critical enemies, the “plausibles,” could have nothing to quibble about with “Shadow.” It was written by two superb chroniclers of Americana, Thornton Wilder (“Our Town”) and Sally Benson (“Meet Me in St. Louis”), along with Hitch’s constant collaborator, wife Alma Reville. The result is one of the supreme examples of Hitchcockian counterpoint: with a sunny, beguiling background against which dark terror erupts.

Saturday, Sept. 29

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Fallen Idol” (1948, Carol Reed). In 1948, a year before they made the nonpareil thriller “The Third Man,” director Carol Reed and screenwriter Graham Greene collaborated on another tilted-camera film-noir classic: this mesmerizing story of a little French boy (Bobby Henrey), a French diplomat’s son, who hero-worships the embassy butler (Ralph Richardson), but mistakenly comes to believe his idol has murdered his wife, and keeps unintentionally incriminating him. With Michele Morgan, Jack Hawkins and Bernard Lee – and stunning cinematography by Georges Perinal.

Sunday, Sept. 30

12 p.m. (9 a.m.): “Carmen Jones” (1954, Otto Preminger). From Georges Bizet’s great, tuneful, massively popular opera, based on Prosper Merimee’s novel about a lusty cigarette girl and the soldier who is obsessed with her, unwisely: A compelling noir musical, with an African-American cast (headed by Dorothy Dandridge as femme fatale Carmen and Harry Belafonte as soldier Joe), lyrics and libretto by Oscar Hammerstein II, and direction by Otto Preminger. The rest of the cast includes Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll and Brock Peters.

Monday, Oct. 1

2 p.m. (11 a. m.): “The Fortune Cookie” (1966, Billy Wilder). Billy Wilder, mastermind of that quintessential film noir “Double Indemnity,” comes up with another ingenious insurance swindle in this dark, very funny comedy noir. Jack Lemmon is Harry Hinkle, a likable pro- football TV cameraman who is run down before millions of spectators on a punt return. Walter Matthau won the Oscar playing Harry’s brother-in-law, a sneaky, cynical, loot-smelling lawyer.

Thursday, Oct. 4

1:30 a.m. (10:30 p.m.): “Marked Woman” (1937, Lloyd Bacon). Bette Davis plays a feisty “hostess” and Humphrey Bogart plays a crusading D. A. Together with Bette’s pals, other “hostesses” (aka ladies of the evening), they go up against the mob, in this feminist pre-noir crime classic, co-scripted by Robert Rossen. Based on a famous real-life New York City prostitution case. The Bogart and Eduardo Ciannelli characters are modeled on Thomas Dewey and Lucky Luciano. With Lola Lane, Allen Jenkins and Mayo Methot (Mrs. Bogart).

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Free ‘Champagne’ from Alfred Hitchcock …

Alfred Hitchcock’s newly restored silent comedy classic, “Champagne,” will be streamed live at the British Film Institute and online at The Space on Thursday, Sept. 27, at 7:30 p.m. (GMT). You can watch a clip here.

“Champagne” (1928) is a Jazz Age comic parable. It tells the story of a spoiled rich girl (Betty Balfour) who leads a life of luxury on the profits from her father’s champagne business.

Suspecting that his daughter’s fiancé (Jean Bradin) is a gold-digger, Dad (Gordon Harker) tells Betty that the family fortune has been wiped out in the stock market. When the boyfriend leaves, the father thinks this proves his case.

The premiere will be accompanied by a new score performed live by award-winning composer, producer and performer Mira Calix.

Also, before Thursday’s live stream, you can watch four Hitch documentaries on The Space. (“Champagne” will not be available on-demand after the event.)

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Tere Tereba welcomes a surprise special guest to Book Soup

“He was LA’s top mobster for a generation. You don’t get more outrageous and brazen than Mickey Cohen,” says author Tere Tereba. “He was the ultimate anti-hero because he did what he wanted to do. He went against the cops, he fought city hall. He did all the things you’re not supposed to do and everybody’s afraid to do. Even his showy style of doing business. He dressed the way he wanted to, in a semi-Zoot suit. He knew what he liked and he followed it.”

Earlier this year, Tereba published the acclaimed book “Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.’s Notorious Mobster” outlining the history of the man and the city, from Prohibition to the mid ’70s. This Friday, Sept. 28, she welcomes a surprise special guest to her reading and signing at Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard, which was Cohen’s turf in his heyday.

Oh, and drinks will be served!  Zoot suits optional.

The event starts at 7 p.m. at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood/Los Angeles, CA 90069; 310-659-3110.

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The Noir File: Hitchcock, Grant, Fontaine fill us with ‘Suspicion’

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

A guide to classic film noir and neo-noir on cable TV. All the movies are from the current schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Suspicion” (1941, Alfred Hitchcock). Thursday, Sept. 27, 8 a.m. (5 a.m.):

Cary Grant bringing the glass of milk is an unforgettable moment.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s glossy, shivery 1941 domestic thriller, British provincial wallflower Joan Fontaine marries the gorgeous but irresponsible Cary Grant and begins to suspect, more and more strongly, that he intends to murder her. Hitchcock builds the suspicion, and the suspense, beautifully.

And the lovely might-be victim Fontaine, whom Hitch had made a first-rank star the year before by casting her as the shy, nameless heroine of his Best Picture Oscar winner “Rebecca,” this time won the Best Actress Oscar herself.

“Suspicion” is one of Hitchcock’s most polished and well-executed thrillers, and there are scenes and shots in the film – such as the sinister, glowing glass of milk Grant carries upstairs to his sick wife – that have become famous. But the movie has one big flaw, dictated by the culture of the time and by the Production Code. You’ll know what it is by the end of the film.

The classy British émigré cast includes Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Dame May Whitty, Nigel Bruce and Leo G. Carroll. The screenwriting team – Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison and Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville – adapted “Suspicion” from Francis Iles’ classic suspense novel “Before the Fact,” and they should have kept Iles’ shocking original ending.

Friday, Sept. 21

5:15 p.m. (2:15 p.m.): “Lolita” (1962, Stanley Kubrick).

4 a.m. (1 a.m.): “10 Rillington Place” (1971, Richard Fleischer). Noir expert Richard Fleischer specialized in true-crime movies (“Compulsion,” “The Boston Strangler”) and this is one of his best: a chilling realistic thriller modeled on the famous case of British serial killer Dr. John Christie (brilliantly underplayed by Richard Attenborough), and the hapless man he frames for one of his murders, (a brilliant job by John Hurt). Also with Judy Geeson, Andre Morell and Bernard Lee.

Saturday, Sept. 22

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Gilda” (1946, Charles Vidor).

Tuesday, Sept. 25

1 p.m. (10 a.m.): “Nightfall” (1956, Jacques Tourneur).

Paul Newman as Lew Harper

Wednesday, Sept. 26

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “Harper” (1966, Jack Smight). Paul Newman, at his most attractively laid-back, plays one of detective literature’s most celebrated private eyes, Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer, in this brainy thriller based on MacDonald’s novel “The Moving Target.”

One catch: Archer has been renamed “Lew Harper,” so Newman could have (he hoped) another hit movie with an “H” title, like “The Hustler” and “Hud.” He got one. The stellar cast includes Lauren Bacall, Janet Leigh, Julie Harris, Shelley Winters, Robert Wagner, Arthur Hill, Robert Webber and Strother Martin. Scripted by William Goldman.

Thurs., Sept. 27

9:45 a.m. (6:45 a.m.): “Murder, My Sweet” (1944, Edward Dmytryk).

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My favorite birthday greeting …

Today is my birthday and my friend Randy sent me this image. Love the question mark!

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‘Gilda’ shows that if you’ve got it, you might as well flaunt it

“Gilda” is all about Gilda and that’s the way it should be – for any femme fatale and particularly for Rita Hayworth the most popular pinup girl of WWII, a talented entertainer and Columbia Pictures’ top female star in the mid-1940s. This 1946 movie by director Charles Vidor is essentially a vehicle for the drop-dead gorgeous Hayworth to play a sexy free spirit who lives and loves entirely in the present moment.

Longtime friends Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth had a brief affair during the making of “Gilda.”

Hayworth revels in the sexual power she wields over any man who crosses her path, despite the fact that in post-war America a woman with a mind (and body) of her own spelled nothing but trouble. As the Time Out Film Guide points out: “Never has the fear of the female been quite so intense.” That said, the “independent” Gilda is only briefly without a husband and has to endure a lengthy punishment from her true love.

She first appears, after a devastatingly dramatic hair toss, as the wife of husband Ballin Mundson (George Macready). Suave, but aloof and asexual, Ballin runs a nightclub in Buenos Aires. Gilda passes the time plucking out tunes on her guitar and propositioning other men. Nice work if you can get it.

Enter Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), an American gambler who runs Ballin’s club. Johnny’s job extends to keeping an eye on Gilda when she’s carousing on the dance floor. Ballin isn’t around much because he’s off trying to form a tungsten cartel with some ex-Nazi pals. But babysitting the boss’ wife (Ballin calls her a “beautiful, greedy child”) is especially tough for Johnny because he and Gilda used to be an item and endured a bitter breakup.

Ballin (George Macready) and Johnny (Glenn Ford) have a tense relationship.

The script is laced with taunts, barbs and innuendo. For example, Gilda tells him: “Hate is a very exciting emotion, hadn’t you noticed? I hate you, too, Johnny. I hate you so much I think I’m going to die from it.” (And some see homosexual undertones in Farrell and Ballin’s relationship.)

Director Vidor, whose other films include 1944’s “Cover Girl” (also starring Hayworth), “A Farewell to Arms” and “The Joker Is Wild” (both 1957), holds his own in the noir genre. “Gilda” is a dark tale (alluding to sexual perversion and repression) and there’s some moody cinematography, courtesy of Rudolph Maté. But Marion Parsonnet’s script, despite many sharp, clever lines, doesn’t hold together and that throws off the pacing. The first third meanders along too slowly while the ending seems abrupt and slapped together.

The plot is thin and vaguely confusing – Ballin is up to no good and at one point is thought to be dead, only to turn up later at a pivotal point in Johnny and Gilda’s romance. They reunite of course and their push-pull tension is the engine that drives the story. Luckily, that tension, combined with solid direction and acting, save the movie.

(The legendary Ben Hecht is an uncredited writer on “Gilda” and if the storyline rings a bell, you might be thinking of “Notorious” also from 1946, written by Hecht, which is another story of ex-Nazis up to no good in South America. Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant play the wary, mistrustful lovers in Alfred Hitchcock’s superior rendering of similar material.)

The chemistry between Ford and Hayworth is about as real as it gets. Longtime friends, they had a brief affair during the making of the movie. In his book, “A Life,” Glenn Ford’s son Peter writes that Vidor coached Glenn and Rita with “outrageously explicit suggestions.” Peter Ford quotes his father as saying: “[Vidor’s] instructions to the two of us were pretty incredible. I can’t even repeat the things he used to tell us to think about before we did a scene.”

Hayworth performs “Put the Blame on Mame,” choreographed by Jack Cole.

According to Peter Ford, this off-screen fling stemmed from Hayworth’s unhappy marriage to Orson Welles. The romance also drew the ire of Columbia Pictures chief Harry Cohn, who reportedly lusted after Hayworth and whom Hayworth rejected. “Gilda” was the second film Hayworth and Ford appeared in together; they worked together three more times afterward as well.

“Gilda” wasn’t a critical hit, but it proved popular with audiences, especially the famous “Put the Blame on Mame” scene.

Choreographed by Jack Cole, a bold and brilliant innovator, the number is as close to a strip tease as was possible in 1946. Hayworth was dubbed by Anita Ellis in that number, though there is some debate as to whether it’s Hayworth’s voice when she runs through the song with Uncle Pio (Steven Geray) earlier in the movie.

Though “Gilda” cemented Hayworth’s celebrity status, her fame came at a price. “Every man I’ve known has fallen in love with Gilda and wakened with me,” she said. But, despite her career ups and downs, five failed marriages and a long struggle with Alzheimer’s, she kept her sense of humor. In the 1970s, Hayworth was asked, “What do you think when you look at yourself in the mirror after waking up in the morning?” Her reply: “Darling, I don’t wake up till the afternoon.”

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‘Gilda’ quick hit

Gilda/1946/Columbia Pictures/110 min.

Nightclub singer and dancer Gilda (Rita Hayworth), a prototypical sex symbol before the term came into vogue, carries on a perverse relationship with two men – her husband (George Macready) and her ex (Glenn Ford) in South America. Best of all, she puts on Hollywood’s most elegant strip tease ever, courtesy of bold and brilliant choreographer Jack Cole.

Is it Gilda’s fault that men fall in love with her left, right and center? Ask her and she’ll explain: you can “Put the Blame on Mame.” Directed by Charles Vidor with luscious cinematography by Rudolph Maté.

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On the radar: At the V&A, ‘On Hollywood,’ window popping

Three exhibitions, one in London and two in New York, look well worth a visit.
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Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle

Hollywood Costume,” which explores the central role costume design plays in cinema storytelling, is the autumn exhibition at London’s V&A Museum. With more than 100 of the most iconic movie costumes from 1912-2012, the show is an opportunity to see the clothes worn by characters such as Dorothy Gale, Indiana Jones, Scarlett O’Hara, Jack Sparrow, Holly Golightly and Darth Vader.
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Most of these clothes have never been publicly displayed and have never been seen beyond the studio archives, says the museum. The exhibition opens Oct. 20 and is scheduled to close on Jan. 27, 2013.
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And running at the V&A through Jan. 6, 2013, is another bit of sartorial fun: “Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950.”
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“On Hollywood” was shot in Kodachrome 64 color film.

On Hollywood,” an exhibition of color photographs by Lise Sarfati, continues through Oct. 13 at the Yossi Milo Gallery in New York, following a show earlier this year at the Rose Gallery in Los Angeles. Sarfati, who lives and works in Paris and Los Angeles, will have a solo show at Bibliothèque Nationale de France in 2014.
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“Tucson” 2011 by Lee Friedlander

For “On Hollywood,” Sarfati shot women on street corners, sidewalks, parking lots and corner stores, using Kodachrome 64 color film, which was used for Hollywood movies of the 1940s. Says the gallery: “The Technicolor quality of the film stock presents the unglamorous subjects and locations as a heightened reality tinged with old Hollywood artifice.”#

Mannequin – images by photographer Lee Friedlander – will open Oct. 26 at the Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York, following an earlier show at San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery. Friedlander shot images of store windows in U.S. cities over the last several years. You can see a selection of New York shots here. The work will be displayed through Dec. 22. Born in 1934, Friedlander has sustained an influential body of work over five decades.
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Robert de Niro image from “Taxi Driver,” 1976. Costume designed by Ruth Morley. Columbia/The Kobal Collection
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