The American Cinematheque seems to have made a New Year’s resolution — to do its name full justice. Through February 8, L.A.’s 26-year-old revival and special-screening organization is presenting one of the most ambitious film series it has curated since taking up permanent residence at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre in December 1998. Called simply “Overlooked and Underrated,” the series culls nearly three dozen feature films dating from as early as 1938 to as recently as 1981, united only in their relative obscurity and (with a handful of exceptions) their unavailability on DVD. It is, to my mind, a program that cuts to the very fiber of what an organization called the American Cinematheque should be doing — namely, giving moviegoers a chance to see movies that deserve to be seen and which are virtually impossible to see by any other means. It’s also a necessary corrective to a video-retail industry that has duped consumers into believing that “everything” is available on those shiny little discs, and a direct challenge to the studios’ home-video divisions, whose decisions about what (and what not) to release can seem absurd bordering on the perverse. (Consider, for example, the strange case of the five classic Columbia Pictures Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, three of which surface in the Cinematheque series, all of which have been beautifully restored by the studio in recent years, and not a one of which has yet been issued on DVD.)

In praising the Cinematheque on this occasion, I do not mean to dismiss or discount the often exemplary work this organization has done in recent years. But I also know I am not alone in feeling that the Cinematheque programming at the Egyptian has been, overall, markedly less adventurous than that of the pre-Egyptian years, back when Cinematheque screenings were held at a smattering of local venues, including the Directors Guild of America and Raleigh Studios. One of my own earliest L.A. moviegoing memories is of a Cinematheque retrospective of films by Werner Herzog that I attended in fall 1995. Herzog himself — then, as now, one of my personal moviemaking heroes — conducted discussions following several of the screenings, and from the perspective of a wet-behind-the-ears film student newly transplanted from Florida, this seemed to affirm everything I imagined Los Angeles film culture would be. (And that was just the beginning, for there were extensive Cinematheque retrospectives of Jacques Rivette, Jean-Pierre Melville and Monte Hellman soon to follow.)

Tellingly, when the Cinematheque did Herzog and Hellman again about a decade later, the programs were considerably less complete — more greatest-hits overviews than exhaustive surveys. Which, it must be said, has become standard operating procedure for venues like the Cinematheque across the map. The change in policy is a simple matter of economics: Like their multiplex brethren, specialty cinemas of all stripes — from first-run art houses to those last remaining old-school repertory houses (like L.A.’s New Beverly cinema) — have seen precipitous drops in attendance in the new era of home entertainment (by which I mean not just DVDs and HDTVs, but YouTube and MySpace and all those other 21st-century distractions we can’t imagine ever having lived without). Programmers who once wouldn’t have thought twice about booking a full season of Herzog — to say nothing of many lesser-known filmmakers — now live in fear of empty seats. And in a city that already holds the reputation of being less hospitable to “specialized” films than New York, Chicago and San Francisco, that fear is especially acute. This is why, for example, when the UCLA Film and Television Archive imported the Cinematheque Ontario’s unprecedented retrospective of films by the Japanese master director Mikio Naruse last year, it opted to show only a fraction of the available titles. In the case of the Cinematheque, a particularly harsh wake-up call seems to have come in the form of a poorly attended 2000 series of some 27 feature films and shorts by French filmmaker Alain Resnais. The programmers have scarcely attempted such an extensive survey of a major international director since.

But if one is to take “Overlooked and Underrated” as any indication, the pendulum may be starting to swing in a different direction — not back toward complete director retrospectives, perhaps, but away from the endlessly recycled film noirs, swingin’-’60s mod flicks and contemporary Asian cult movies that have been the staples of the Cinematheque’s menu in recent times. The films in the new series have all fallen through the cracks of time and film history for no reason in particular, and if a few don’t exactly beg rediscovery, the majority make good on the Cinematheque’s promise of titles both forgotten and undervalued.

That’s certainly true of Edward Dmytryk’s Mirage (1965), a nifty paranoia thriller rarely mentioned in the same breath as Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), but no less anxious or stylish, with vivid location shooting on the streets of New York and a highly modern, fragmented editing style. Like a darker, more abstract cousin to screenwriter Peter Stone’s Grant-Hepburn caper Charade, it stars Gregory Peck as an amnesia-stricken accountant (or is he?) trying to piece his life back together with the occasional help of femme fatale Diane Baker. For paranoid romance of a different sort, Frank Borzage’s 1940 The Mortal Storm features the three stars of the same year’s The Shop Around the Corner — James Stewart (as a pacifist Alpine dairy farmer!), Margaret Sullavan and Frank Morgan — in one of Hollywood’s earliest depictions of Germany on the doorstep of World War II. Presented on a double bill with Borzage’s WWI-era Three Comrades, it’s a P.C. (the word “Jew” is never uttered) but profoundly humanistic work by a largely unsung Hollywood master, rare in its depiction of the contrasting attitudes toward Hitler that existed even among non-Jewish Germans.

Elsewhere in the program comes another chance to see The Detective, the delightful 1954 comic mystery starring Alec Guinness as G.K. Chesterton’s detective priest Father Brown and directed by British filmmaker Robert Hamer, whose entire overlooked and underrated career was the subject of a 2006 UCLA retrospective. Priests and detectives — albeit not one and the same — also figure prominently in Ulu Grosbard’s criminally neglected True Confessions (1981), an unusually subtle and character-driven crime drama in which an LAPD homicide investigator (Robert Duvall) and his monsignor brother (Robert De Niro) are drawn into the web of a Black Dahlia–esque murder case.

In short, there’s something here for everyone, and if I’ve saved the best for last, it’s to remind you of those three Boetticher Westerns — models of wit, suspense and narrative economy all. They may not be the most overlooked (or the most underrated) items on display in this particular exhibition. But when I said the Cinematheque is living up to its name, it’s not just by showing these movies, but by showing them on the Egyptian’s great, big CinemaScope screen. I’ve yet to see an HDTV that even comes close.

OVERLOOKED AND UNDERRATED | American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre | Through February 8 | www.americancinematheque.com

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