By Jason Persse
Every year I receive a lovely holiday card and note from New York filmmaker Norman Chaitin. He often reminisces about the 1962 premiere of his film The Small Hours at the 55th Street Playhouse, an event that benefitted MoMA’s film preservation fund. Chaitin wrote, directed, and produced The Small Hours as a true independent filmmaker, at a time when the term meant working far, far outside of the studio system. The unfamiliar cast, mixture of time-honored New York locations, and tight script bring to life the tale of an advertising executive dissatisfied with everything he encounters and the person he has become.
On August 12, 1962, The New York Times noted, “A surprise booking at a midtown theatre has provided a fresh indication of the increasing interest in independently made local movies.” Indeed, Chaitin’s film, made for less than $100,000, was a surprise, as the Hollywood studio system was winding down and there was a rise in European film distribution in the United States. Films that featured unknown actors, shot in actual apartments and on the run, were slowly being introduced into theaters in large cities. Along with The Small Hours, John Cassavetes’s Shadows (1961), Adolfas Mekas’s Hallelujah the Hills (1963), and Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World (1964) heralded the arrival of fresh narratives, all produced and financed independently by filmmakers indifferent to the Hollywood model.
The MoMA invitation to attend the August 13, 1962, premiere described The Small Hours as “an example of a continuing trend among independent filmmakers to produce low budget films dealing directly with contemporary problems in a spirit of improvisation.” Then-curator Richard Griffith commented that Chaitin’s pioneering use of a handheld camera—already a ubiquitous practice in documentary filmmaking—allowed the director to forgo staging action, replacing it with the immediacy of genuine dramatic expression and reaction.
The Small Hours prowls the streets of Manhattan, rendered as a shadowy backdrop through the exquisite cinematography by Sheldon Rochlin, while ad-man Tom Anderson (Michael Ryan) tries to socialize and drink away his growing ennui. He is generally numb and unfeeling, believing the deeper he falls into a physical and emotion stupor, the less anxiety he will experience. Tom is the manifestation of world weariness. The cast also includes Lorraine Avins, Henry Madden, Bryce Holman, Marilyn Thorson, Tony Madden, and Jewel Walker—mainly unknown faces. However, this anonymity creates a quasi-documentary feel, so for just a moment the viewer may think he’s peering into someone’s night of tawdriness after a rotten week in the office. Chaitin keeps the stream-of-consciousness dialogue authentic, and when Tom’s wife finally reveals her many affairs, the climactic conflict is a blow for him and the viewer. The absolute naturalism of The Small Hours may lead viewers to reassure themselves that it’s just a work of fiction.
Willard Van Dyke, the former director of MoMA’s Department of Film, invited Chaitin to donate The Small Hours, along with the original negatives, in a letter dated March 19, 1969. (Chaitin’s second film, 1965’s Encounter, was another New York–based film, this time a short, starring a young Robert De Niro.)
The Small Hours screens as part of the series Modern Matinees: Six New York Independents on April 1 and 20 at 1:30 p.m., April 30 at 5:00 p.m., and May 5 at 4:00 p.m.
Read more here:: Modern Matinees: Norman Chaitin’s The Small Hours