Writing during the early years of the talkie era, film theorist Rudolf Arnheim warned against the inevitable coming of “the complete film,” in which advances in sound, color, widescreen, and 3-D would create an illusion of reality nearly indistinguishable from life itself. While Arnheim’s assumption that technological progress would primarily serve the pursuit of realism has largely been borne out, there have been some magnificent blips along the way. “Technicolor Dreaming,” the Walter Reade’s four-day celebration of the heightened un-reality of Technicolor, collects eight Hollywood films made from the late ’40s through the early ’60s using the famous dye-transfer process. The selection is heavy on established classics, but even the lesser works on display should be looking their best here—if you ever plan on seeing, say, John Huston’s Moulin Rouge, this is your best chance—the TC print and the enormous Walter Reade screen might give Huston’s innovative color palette a fighting chance against José Ferrer’s mopey Toulouse-Lautrec.
The apotheosis of the Hollywood musical, if not of the classical Hollywood dream factory altogether, Singin’ in the Rain brings Technicolor exuberance to material rendered as black-and-white tragedy just two years earlier in Sunset Boulevard, with Norma Desmond’s painfully protracted career death transmogrified into the comic spectacle of Jean Hagen’s nasal screeching. The otherworldly quality of Technicolor was a natural fit for fantastic genres like the musical and science fiction; the latter is represented here by 1955’s This Island Earth, a philosophically minded Cold War allegory that finds a tech-curious scientist (played by the perfectly named Rex Reason) drawn into an interplanetary war amid sickly-green glows and bright-red flame bursts. The ever present shadow of nuclear anxiety keeps this world of neutrino rays, weaponized telescreens, and brain-swollen mutants planted firmly on the ground.
Scarcely less strange is Written on the Wind. Released the same year as John Ford’s great American Technicolor nightmare The Searchers (not included here), Douglas Sirk’s meta-soap masterpiece is a more corrosive work, with the German-born director’s outsider coolness pushing the limits of Hollywood genre beyond psychodrama into Texas-sized irreality. One of the defining movies of its era, Written on the Wind is nearly as well suited to our own post-rational moment, but another film in the series truly captures the contemporary zeitgeist. In spite of its place as one of Hitchcock’s most popular, The Birds has never quite gotten its critical due. More than just tailor-made for the orange-alert era, The Birds locates the source of horror in the confrontation between everyday banality and the naked irrational, resonating powerfully in an America where unhinged ideology has overrun even reason itself. It’s a movie whose time has finally arrived.