On visiting the Regent Street Cinema to see Network

…or, more honestly, some fevered blather about Network.

Let’s dispense with the preliminaries. Last night, unable to resist temptation, I made my first visit to London’s oldest cinema – beautifully restored and reconditioned by the University of Westminster crew – to see two firm favourites in a Lumet double-bill: 12 Angry Men and Network. Better yet, I was with someone who had never seen either before. I was seething with jealousy – imagine your first time with these two on a big screen! – but also able to enjoy a vicarious thrill through her pleasingly audible gasps and wry laughter.

It’s a lovely place; all olive green velvet seats and slightly-too-loud speakers, with a delightful bar and nerd-pleasing programming of the kind I once gobbled up eagerly every weekend at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. And that brings us neatly back to Network.

Oh, Network. How I love Network. The only script I can think of that gives me more knee-trembling writerly joy is The Lion in Winter. Viciously satirical, horrifyingly prophetic – it sings a lament of simpler days through the voice of William Holden’s romantically ravaged news editor, Max, every bit as warped and dreadful in his own way as the glittery-eyed youth, reared on television, that he is obsessed with and disgusted by. Faye Dunaway’s huntress Diana is revelatory, fascinating – her allure is complex, her unapologetic heart worn right on the sleeves of her half-buttoned blouse. Draped across a frame achingly thin for the time and with an imperfect smile in an other-worldly face, her glassy-eyed inability to connect with anything other than ratings is chilling but somehow still attractive. And then the articulated rage, the cinematic dynamite that is Peter Finch’s drunk, suicidal, surplus-to-requirements news anchor Howard Beale, releasing the bottled anguish, the impotent fury, that dwells in all hearts and can never be extinguished.

When Beale has his come-to-Jesus moment at the hands of a capitalism-rapt network exec it’s simply one of the most gorgeous scenes committed to film. Atmospheric and elegant, menacing yet comically bizarre. Lumet is sparing with the psychedelia so the dreamlike, interrogatory shots are all the more impactful when they hit. The conceit of the documentary narrator is blissfully jarring. A few years later, Hal Ashby’s Being There will pick up the theme of the modern Messiah and do it justice too, the equally blistering satire cloaked in a gentler, more parodic comedy. But here, here there are sharply witty, audacious exchanges Aaron Sorkin would kill to reproduce. No punches are pulled or speeches left undelivered. No spittle-flecked rant from Robert Duvall’s hatchet man left unspoken, no brutal truth unrevealed.

I feel exhausted just thinking about it, but it’s a post-exertion exhaustion, self-satisfied and glowing, as if I had anything to do with the brilliance of a film made several years before I was born but more unspeakably prophetic than ever.

There. Now I have left nothing unsaid. And nothing left to say.

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