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July 24, 2014

Noel Black (1937 - 2014)

noel black.jpg

This one hits me personally. I have written what may well be the only serious consideration of Noel Black's films. This was for The Velvet Light Trap No. 13. I convinced the editor that there were a bunch of great new filmmakers that deserved analysis, rather than more retreads on John Ford and Howard Hawks. Some are writing now about the early Seventies as one of the great ages of American Cinema, but at the time, my suggestion was considered a radical idea. In those days before the internet and IMDb I missed a few things about Noel Black's career that I should have included. I should add that I briefly knew Noel, visiting him in Los Angeles a couple times when I was there, and exchanging a couple of letters.

I may still have the letter somewhere in storage, but he sent me a newspaper clipping of a stripper going by the stage name of "Pretty Poison" with a note from a friend declaring that Black's film now had the ultimate accolade.

There may be some kind of irony in that along with winning the Grand Prize at Cannes in 1966 for his short film, "Skaterdater", Black also shared the Technical Grand Prize with Orson Welles for Chimes at Midnight. Although the perception of Welles' career has changed over the years, for both filmmakers, their peak films would generally be considered their feature debuts. As it currently stands, interest in Noel Black seems to begin and end with Pretty Poison. And if you care at all, get the British DVD of Pretty Poison. Officially it's Region 2, but trust me, it's playable anywhere, and unlike the Fox DVD, this one has commentary by Black.

My personal knowledge of the rest of Black's career is spotty. I haven't seen most of the television work. On the other hand, when Black's ill-fated second feature, Cover Me, Babe very briefly played at the Baronet theater in New York City, it took me several minutes to convince the cashier that I was not lost on my way to see Five Easy Pieces at the adjacent, and larger Coronet. I even saw Cover Me, Babe again when it snuck in to New York City's worst theater, Variety Photoplays, appearing in a double feature with Carousel.

The last time I saw Noel Black was when he was in Denver, for a short period favored by the studios for advanced previews. He was with a couple of production associates for a screening of A Man, a Woman and a Bank.

Black went from promising newcomer to forgotten journeyman, also devoting much of his time to special projects for the Directors Guild of America. While the cult for Pretty Poison is mostly based on Tuesday Weld, Black's other best remembered film, Private School is beloved for Phoebe Cates' seen in various states of undress.

Those interested might also want to check out A Change of Seasons. The film might well be retitled, "A Change of Directors". The first half of the film is Black's work, the second half by Richard Lang. A light comedy was replaced by broader humor. Too bad the suits didn't trust Black on this one. It might not have been much, but it would have been better than the film that was released.

One of Noel Black's disappointments was having Robert Forster star in Cover Me, Babe. Black's choice was a relatively unknown stage actor named Al Pacino. That Black had a good eye for future talent is indicated with the unknowns in supporting roles in 1973's Jennifer on My Mind - Barry Bostwick, Jeff Conaway and as a mad cab driver, Robert De Niro.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 24, 2014 08:02 PM