The Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens, 1946–1973
Publication Year: 2010
Largely shut out of American theaters since the 1920s, foreign films such as Open City, Bicycle Thief, Rashomon, The Seventh Seal, Breathless, La Dolce Vita and L’Avventura played after World War II in a growing number of art houses around the country and created a small but influential art film market devoted to the acquisition, distribution, and exhibition of foreign-language and English-language films produced abroad. Nurtured by successive waves of imports from Italy, Great Britain, France, Sweden, Japan, and the Soviet Bloc, the renaissance was kick-started by independent distributors working out of New York; by the 1960s, however, the market had been subsumed by Hollywood.
From Roberto Rossellini’s Open City in 1946 to Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris in 1973, Tino Balio tracks the critical reception in the press of such filmmakers as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Tony Richardson, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Luis Buñuel, Satyajit Ray, and Milos Forman. Their releases paled in comparison to Hollywood fare at the box office, but their impact on American film culture was enormous. The reception accorded to art house cinema attacked motion picture censorship, promoted the director as auteur, and celebrated film as an international art. Championing the cause was the new “cinephile” generation, which was mostly made up of college students under thirty.
The fashion for foreign films depended in part on their frankness about sex. When Hollywood abolished the Production Code in the late 1960s, American-made films began to treat adult themes with maturity and candor. In this new environment, foreign films lost their cachet and the art film market went into decline.
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
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I am grateful to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for awarding me an inaugural Academy Film Scholar Grant in 2001 to write this book. It was a project I had in mind for years, and the academy’s recognition spurred me on. The Graduate School of the University of Wisconsin–Madison also provided me research support for this project for which I am grateful....
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Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (Roma, città aperta), a low-budget picture about the underground resistance during the Nazi occupation of Rome,opened at the World Theatre in New York on February 25, 1946, and proved atotal surprise. Before the war Italian films had never compared favorably with French, German, or British imports and had played mostly in ethnic theaters in immigrant neighborhoods. Open City, the first film to come out of Italy after the...
Part One: Emergence
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A vibrant art film culture existed in the United States as early as the 1920s, an outgrowth of the Little Cinema Movement, a loose network of small theaters presenting the latest avant-garde and critically acclaimed films from Europe. The Little Cinema Movement was inspired by the Little Theater Movement, a similar network of noncommercial theaters presenting the new drama and stagecraft of Europe, and by the cine clubs of Europe showing...
2. Italian Neorealism
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Assessing the impact of Open City on the postwar art film market in 1948,Thomas Pryor noted, “Distributors, who in prewar days wouldn’t go around the corner to see an Italian picture, much less undertake to sell one, now are frantically scrambling to get their hands on anything coming out of Italy. Whereas French pictures used to be most in demand, today it is Italian films, of which, incidentally, there seemingly is a never-ending...
3. British Film Renaissance
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A small but dedicated audience for British films existed in the United States at war’s end, cultivated in part by the Alexander Korda prestige pictures of the 1930s. Bosley Crowther insisted that British film aficionados “are not the sort who go to the movies with untrained or juvenile minds.” On the contrary, “they have had some considerable advantages in the cultivation of their tastes. They know a good thing when they see it and react favorably to...
Part Two: Import Trends
4. Market Dynamics
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Although Italian neorealism and the British film renaissance laid the foundation of the post war art film market, it was the growth of art house exhibition in the 1950s that led to the expansion of this market. In 1946 art houses were rarities outside New York; whereas by 1960 the number had risen to around 450.1 By comparison, there were approximately eleven thousand four-wall...
5. French Films of the 1950s
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At one time the words ‘French film’ and ‘foreign film’ were practically interchangeable,” commented Arthur Knight in 1952. “Since the war, however, English and Italian pictures have increasingly been edging in, often securing extended playing time in the most desirable theatres. No exhibitor now books a French picture simply because it is French.” The French faced the daunting task of reconstructing and modernizing their studios and theaters...
6. Japanese Films of the 1950s
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Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, the surprise winner of the Golden Lion at the1951 Venice Film Festival, was described by Time in its cover story as “a cinematic thunderbolt that violently ripped open the dark heart of man to prove that the truth was not in it. In technique the picture was traumatically original; in spirit it was big, strong, male. It was obviously the work of a genius,and that genius was Akira Kurosawa, the earliest herald of the new era in...
7. Ingmar Bergman: The Brand
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An Ingmar Bergman craze hit the art film market in late 1959. It arrived two years after the Brigitte Bardot craze—and none too soon. By 1959 more than one commentator had complained that foreign films had reached a new low, having come to mean, in Pauline Kael’s words, “Brigitte Bardot in and out of towel and sheet and Italian Amazons in and out of slips and beds.”1The Bergman craze started in Paris in 1958 and soon spread to London and...
8. The French New Wave
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French New Wave directors skyrocketed in popularity when they swept top honors at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959: Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus received the Golden Palm; François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows won for best direction; and Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour took the International Federation of Film Critics prize. Bidding on their films heated up as distributors, filmmakers, and audiences around the world welcomed the revolution. As Jonas...
9. Angry Young Men: British New Cinema
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For most of the 1950s, wrote Vincent Canby, “the British seem to haverelied almost solely on bright, sophisticated comedy, supplemented by an occasionally brittle whodunit or two, to tap the U.S. market. Now they are shipping us, along with Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, and Terry Thomas, that sort of frankly probing adult drama which could not be manufactured here under existing Production Code rules.”1 Canby was referring to the latest...
10. The Second Italian Renaissance
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Every few years, the center of gravity of serious movie making shifts from one country to another. Today it is dramatically clear Italy is producing some of the most extraordinary films since that country’s own postwar neorealistic movement. Three directors—Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni,and Luchino Visconti—are the leaders of this renaissance.” They have taken "a hard look at the contemporary world and have returned a unanimous report...
11. Auteurs from Outside the Epicenter
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This history has thus far focused mainly on what Time called “the epicenter of the new cinema,” namely, Western Europe. This chapter deals with filmmaking from “secondary concentrations of film production,” which include Spain, India, Japan, Soviet Russia, the Eastern bloc, and beyond.1 Imports from such countries faced stiff resistance from exhibitors. “If you’re an indie trying to find an outlet for an Indian, Japanese, Argentine or Polish...
Part Three: Changing Dynamics
12. Enter Hollywood
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Lured by Brigitte Bardot, Columbia Pictures entered the art film market in a serious way beginning in 1957; by 1966 the majors dominated the market, having absorbed nearly the entire pantheon of European auteurs with sweet deals offering total production financing, directorial freedom, and marketing muscle. These auteurs included Michelangelo Antonioni, Luchino Visconti, and Federico Fellini of Italy; Tony Richardson, Joseph Losey, and Karel...
13. The Aura of the New York Film Festival
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To create a film festival worthy of New York City, the board of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts invited Richard Roud, an American scholar, to replicate his success as the director of the London Film Festival.1 To manage affairs while Roud traveled the international festival circuit in search of films, Amos Vogel, the founder of Cinema 16, was brought in as administrative director. Unlike the big three international film festivals—Cannes, Venice, and...
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Reminiscing about the art film scene of the 1960s, Andrew Sarris remarked: “No one on either side of the Atlantic—or Pacific—wants to admit it today, but the fashion for foreign films depended a great deal on their frankness about sex. At a time when the Hollywood censors imposed twin-bed strictures on American movies, foreign films were daringly adult. Once the censors began to depart, in the late ’60s, Hollywood was free to supply the...
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Although the art film market has endured, it has done so on a diminished scale. It returned to its roots during the 1970s and functioned as a niche business operated mainly by small, independent outfits. During the 1950s foreign films accounted for as much as 7 percent of the total U.S. box office each year, whereas since 1970 they have accounted for around 2 percent on average.1 Every year one or two foreign films achieve the status of an art house...
Appendix: Variety’s All-Time Foreign Language Films to 2000
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Page Count: 367
Publication Year: 2010