How This All Came About
In November last year I came across an interesting-looking noir short on YouTube, Blind Alley (1981). A few days later I watched it and was blown away: eleven minutes of noirish ecstasy.
I sat down to write an entry on it for this site and discovered that information on the movie, its director and its cast was extremely thin on the ground. There was nothing on IMDB to give me a lead as to where I might find stuff—nothing at all on IMDB, in fact—and searches with Qwant and Bing at first revealed very little more.
One of the results did, however, jog my memory. In his posting of the movie to YouTube the director, Elliot Lavine, mentioned his work curating film noir festivals for the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco. Sure enough, up popped a couple of interviews with him in that capacity; here’s one. I’d read the interview before, I realized, and that reminded me that someone else who curates movie seasons for the Roxie has commented a couple of times here on Noirish (displaying an embarrassingly greater knowledge of the movies concerned than mine own): Don Malcolm.
Oh, and I learned, too, that in 2010 Elliot was honored at the 9th San Francisco Film Critics Circle Awards with the Marlon Riggs Award (“for courage & vision in the Bay Area film community”):
Elliot Lavine, in recognition of his two decades of film programming, his revival of rare archival and independent titles, and his role in the renewed popularity of film noir and pre-Production Code features.
Anyway, I plucked up my courage and contacted Elliot through YouTube to ask for more info about Blind Alley. Soon we were chatting via email, and Elliot very generously agreed to answer my pesky queries. In fact, he did so with such zeal and panache that
I realized I had in effect an interview on my hands; so here, with Elliot’s kind permission, is the very first interview to appear on this site. I’ll be posting my thoughts on Blind Alley and Elliot’s other noir short, The Twisted Corridor (1982), over the next couple of days. But for now sit back and listen to what the man himself has to say.
Until now, the sum total of my knowledge of Blind Alley is what I was able to get from your YouTube posting (plus, of course, the on-screen credits); as you’ll know, the movie doesn’t even have an IMDB listing. What was the background to your creation of the movie? Was it a student project or a labor of love?
It more or less started as a labor of love in that it was born out of a deep desire to make a short noir film by any means possible. I got the idea for the film itself after going to a double feature of KISS ME DEADLY (1955) and The KILLING (1956) at a San Francisco rep theater one night in August 1977.
I’d become obsessed with film noir almost immediately upon arriving in San Francisco from Detroit two years earlier and by 1977 was thoroughly entrenched in that universe. But it was those two films on that particular night that jump-started the whole project for me. (The other film that figured prominently in this inspiration was Ulmer’s DETOUR .)
I wrote the script for Blind Alley in a few days, then set about trying to figure out a way to financially swing it.
The year before, I’d attended summer session at a private film school south of San Francisco and met a few guys who I became good friends with, and they became the nucleus of the crew. One of them miraculously put me together with the two actors in the story and suddenly, in early 1978, we were ready to go.
We began by shooting a bunch of random nighttime exteriors to transition in and out of the interior settings mainly to get a sense of the camera (I had no prior experience shooting 16mm movie film) and how things might actually look when projected on a screen. The footage was encouraging and helped to further shape the overall visual concept of the film.
A few months later we shot the dialog scenes with our two actors in one weekend. One of my friends by that time had gotten himself into the film department at San Francisco State and was able to smuggle me into an editing room at night to put together a rough cut of what we had. I was happy with the way everything looked but was now facing a money crunch.
At the time I was working full-time in a San Francisco bookstore and not making much dough. So I enrolled in San Francisco State’s film department as an extension student (micro tuition/no degree) in early 1979 and was able to finish the piece there, making it technically now a student film. Which was perfectly fine with me. The equipment was free and I connected with a bunch of great new people who helped enormously with the film. I was able to shoot additional footage and cut the pic and sound whenever I was able to make the time.
By the end of 1979 I had a locked fine-cut along with a dialog track and a music track. I then put it aside and started, my second short, The Twisted Corridor, in early 1980, before going back to finally complete Blind Alley in 1981.
Did you create any other movies beyond this and The Twisted Corridor and the unfinished feature? Is there a story behind the unfinished state of the feature?
The Twisted Corridor became the immediate follow-up to Blind Alley. I tried to concoct a more complicated storyline and utilize more actors in order to create a fuller picture. It’s up for debate how successful I was. It was finished in 1982 and wound up being the last narrative short I would make.
The next few years were spent writing and developing a feature-length script about desperate teens living in a depraved environment. My writing partner and I put together a reasonably workable script, cast several actors (including some local notables) and pretty much had the heart of our crew in place. In late 1987, with a little cash, our actors and our crew, we shot what became a three-and-a-half-minute teaser for the script (Black Fury) in order to help lure investors to the project.
We developed a relationship with a newly formed production company in San Francisco and they seemed eager to finance the film, but the situation soured and the money dried up. It had been a long slog trying to get this thing done and by late 1989, with most of the actors and crew gone their separate ways, I gave the project up.
By 1990 I found myself programming films for the Roxie in San Francisco and that more or less became my cinematic future.
Who did that lovely spiky music for the opening minutes of Blind Alley? In similar vein, I assume the co-cinematographer on that short, Eddie Detour, is a pseudonym; was it in fact yourself?
That piece (as well as most of the other music in the film) came from a 1973 LP called New Music for Violin and Piano. Paul Zukovsky is featured prominently on violin, Gilbert Kalish on piano. I cleared the rights eventually for the music once I started getting screenings and festival dates for the film, and my only regret is I didn’t list it in the credits.
And, yes, I was Eddie Detour only because I was becoming a little self-conscious about assuming so many roles.
Did the two cast members go on to do other things?
Sadly, I’ve lost track of the actors. Greg Pace (Benny) was, and continued to be for a while, a prominent figure in Bay Area stage productions. He left the area some time ago and I haven’t been able to track him down. The other guy, the heavy (Leo), was played by Ron Gregoire, a non-actor who I asked to do it largely because he looked the part. In real life he was in law enforcement, working with hardcore juvie offenders. When I first met him he had a thick bandage taped to the side of his neck. Someone had recently taken a shot at him. I haven’t seen him in years. I hope he’s still around.
I see from the internet that you left San Francisco a couple of years ago and are now teaching and curating in Portland, Oregon. Would you like to talk us through this new phase in your career?
Since arriving in the Portland area in 2017 I’ve become involved in both film programming and teaching film studies classes, the two primary activities I’d been engaged in for the past thirty years back in California. Currently I’m doing a regular series of film classes (mainly genre explorations like film noir, westerns, science fiction, etc.) for Oregon State University, held at Cinema 21 in Portland. This past September I presented the latest variation of my on-going festival of film noir, I Wake Up Dreaming at Portland’s historic Hollywood Theater.
I’m scheduled to return there in March 2020 with a series of hybrid noirs under the umbrella title The Future is NOW? The films included will be Five (1951), The MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962), Seconds (1966) and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956).
Elliot Lavine, thank you very much for your time, trouble and patience, and good luck for all your future ventures!
Some relevant links:
The Witnesses’ Record Release Party (1987) Local San Francisco band
I Wake Up Dreaming noir festival @ Hollywood Theater, Portland, Oregon, September 2019