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When the director Richard Quine died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in June of 1989, it was said he had long been despondent over poor health, depression and his inability to keep making the kind of light, screwball comedies for which he was best known. But Quine was no less adept at film noir and romantic melodrama — something audiences can see for themselves during LACMA’s two-week Quine retrospective. Columbia Pictures, where Quine spent most of his career, has struck several new 35mm prints for the occasion, including the not-available-on-DVD Pushover (1954), the noir that brought Quine together with his frequent leading lady (and offscreen lover) Kim Novak; and that same year’s Drive a Crooked Road, written by a young Blake Edwards and featuring Mickey Rooney in a sensational performance as a facially scarred auto-mechanic hired as the getaway driver for a Palm Springs bank heist masterminded by Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ Kevin McCarthy. That movie hinges on a favorite Quine situation — lonely, broken people ensnared by desire — as the fundamentally decent but self-loathing Rooney allows himself to be duped by the transparent charms of a beautiful femme fatale (very well played by television actress Dianne Foster in one of her few film roles). In more than one respect, it feels like a warm-up for Quine’s masterpiece, Strangers When We Meet (1960), in which Novak is a West L.A. housewife trapped in a passionless marriage, who enters into an affair with her architect neighbor (Kirk Douglas). That said, Quine’s comedies are nothing to sniff at, the best of them almost balletic in their precise construction and elaborately choreographed camera movements. Among them is the hilarious service farce Operation Mad Ball (1957), with Jack Lemmon as an enterprising Army private trying to throw a blow-out party behind the back of Ernie Kovacs’ uptight captain. Best of all may be the blissful The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956), where Judy Holliday’s Laura Partridge navigates her way from the annual shareholder meeting all the way to the executive suite of a U.S. manufacturing giant, giving the corrupt suits a run for their money at every turn. You could remake that movie today and, with its satirical commentary on big business in bed with Washington, it would scarcely seem to have aged a day. But wherever would they find a Judy Holliday to star in it? (Los Angeles County Museum of Art; thru Sat., Aug. 16. www.lacma.org)
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