Thursday, January 20, 2011

NYJFF ’11: Singing in the Dark

Moishe Oysher could have been the toast of Broadway had it been compatible with the Sabbath. He was the last great Jewish cantor with “crossover” appeal, as well as a movie star appearing in three Yiddish films and one English language feature, which was recently restored by the National Center for Jewish Film. One of the few American films of the 1950’s to directly address the Holocaust, Max Nosseck’s Singing in the Dark screens this Sunday during the 2011 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Known simply as “Leo,” a survivor has repressed all painful memories of his past life. A gentle soul, he works contently at his Manhattan hotel, where he has befriended Joey Napoleon, the slick operator comic working the lounge. One fateful night, Napoleon inadvertently gets his innocent pal drunk. With his defenses down, Leo erupts into song, bringing the house down. Suddenly, Napoleon sees a way to clear his debt to the mob, as long as he can keep Leo safely under contract and inebriated.

If not exactly a masterpiece, Dark is a memorable B-movie of considerable historical importance. Of course, there are several vocal performances from Oysher, ranging from light operetta to cantorial music. It also showcases his remarkable facility for scat-like vocalizing.

Arguably not the most gifted actor, Oysher wisely stays well within his comfort zone throughout Dark. However, Borscht Belt comic Joey Adams (gossip columnist Cindy Adams’ late husband) plays off Oysher well, while he and Kay Medford (as the comedian’s jaded girlfriend Luli) banter about zingers with contagious glee. Also look for cult actor Lawrence Tierney (the crusty old crime boss in Reservoir Dogs) as young but somehow still crusty crime boss Biff Lamont.

Despite Adams’s brisk comic relief, Dark is a serious film. Though it might look tentative to post-Schindler’s List audiences, its depiction of the Holocaust was decidedly bold for its time. Indeed, the scenes of Leo surveying the destruction of Berlin’s historic Neue Synagogue (shot on location) retain a haunting power. Accomplished cinematographer Boris Kaufman (the younger brother of Dziga Vertov, whose work included On the Waterfront and The Pawnbroker) stylishly shot Dark in black and white, nicely suiting both its noir subplots as well as the serious drama of Leo’s Holocaust experiences and resulting psychological trauma.

Undeniably significant, Dark is also an entertaining film with considerable heart, delivering much for a scrappy b-picture produced outside the studio system. Highly recommended, it screens this Sunday (1/23) as the 2011 NYJFF continues at the Walter Reade Theater. Also look for it on March 5th at Florida Atlantic University’s Kulturfest.