The Deer Hunter, Vertigo, Die Hard... it’s a shame re-releases are so often such familiar films

Returning to the same films over and over can only inhibit our viewing habits.

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To the Lexi, an adorable independent cinema in north-west London, for a rare screening earlier this week of Mikey and Nicky, complete with an informed and affectionate introduction by Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian. This sweaty, festering and bleakly funny 1976 drama stars John Cassavetes as Nicky, a low-level hood hiding out from the mob in Philadelphia, where he is kept company in his torment by his pal, Mikey (Peter Falk). The tone of desperate comedy is set in the opening moments when Nicky tries to attract the attention of Mikey, who is down in the street, by throwing a bottle wrapped in a towel. It hits the road and smashes. Mikey comes upstairs and knocks on the door. 

“Nick, it’s me. It’s Mikey from the corner. I came as soon as I got your towel.”

This is only the first of the many gems that springs from the pen of the film’s writer-director Elaine May, a spiky genius of US cinema, not exactly unsung but certainly overlooked. She directed four movies — A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid prior to Mikey and Nicky, and only Ishtar after it — as well as writing a heap of others, script-doctoring a bunch more and acting every now and then. She was last seen in Woody Allen’s Amazon series Crisis in Six Scenes, having earlier provided one of the few bright spots in his 2000 comedy Small Time Crooks. She will return to Broadway this October, at the age of 86, for the first time since 1960, when she and her comedy partner, the late Mike Nichols, created a new sophisticated comic vernacular and became the toast of the town. What has occasioned her return is a revival of The Waverley Gallery by Kenneth Lonergan (who gave May’s daughter, the terrific Jeannie Berlin, a plum role as the righteous, unforgettable Emily in his film Margaret). And the rest of the Waverley cast ain’t too shabby either: Joan Allen, Lucas Hedges and Michael Cera.

I digress. As well as hailing the miracle of May and Mikey and Nicky, I come to celebrate the sterling work of the Lexi team, who put in many hours of detective work and forked out a hefty chunk of change to ensure that the film didn’t have to be screened from some crummy disc. (“The image on the DVD looked like it was being projected on the side of a crisp packet,” the Lexi’s Rosie Greatorex told me.) Work like that keeps cinema alive.

It made me think, though, how discouraging the schedule of re-releases and revivals tends to be, always sticking to established favourites like a jukebox that’s only stocked with chart-toppers. Looking at the theatrical re-releases for the rest of the year, there aren’t a lot of surprises. There’s The Big Lebowski, a great movie, the Coens’ best perhaps, but yawn. There’s an ironic 4th of July victory lap for The Deer Hunter. Some Like It Hot, which is cool, but still. Die Hard at Christmas. All commendable films, but they won’t take you far from the beaten track.

The commercial attraction is clear. These are films people know and they love. It’s like ordering your favourite item from the menu rather than taking a chance on the special. But what if distributors and exhibitors chanced their arm a bit more often, harvesting oddities and lost treasures and the films that have fallen through the cracks?

The Piano was out again last week; coming soon (again) are Mildred Pierce, The Evil Dead and Vertigo (which has been out so many times that it surely qualifies as a re-re-re-release). Hard to argue that any of these don’t fall into the category of greatness. But returning to the same films over and over can only inhibit our viewing habits. It also overshadows and limits alternative readings of cinema history. We shouldn't ignore or forget films that have already been inducted into the canon but we kowtow to someone else's idea of greatness at our peril. Addressing an equivalent orthodoxy in pop music, Denim’s song “Middle of the Road”, from the album Back In Denim, put it best: “Don’t be told who to like/ It's your choice, it’s your right to choose who to listen to/ It’s your rock’n’roll.”

Hear, hear — but with “cinema” added to the lyrics.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.