Janus Films, the Face of Art and Foreign Film Janus Films is the pre-eminent distributor of classic foreign films in the United States. Fifty years ago, its founders took a chance on distributing a little-known director named Federico Fellini and ushered in the golden age of the art-house cinema.
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Janus Films, the Face of Art and Foreign Film

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Janus Films, the Face of Art and Foreign Film

Janus Films, the Face of Art and Foreign Film

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut. Many Americans were introduced to these names of art house cinema by the distribution company Janus Films.

Fifty years ago, two movie buffs from Harvard University started Janus after founding the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square, but staying afloat in the art film business hasn't been easy as Andrea Shea reports.

(Soundbite of film, “Rules of the Game”)

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)

ANDREA SHEA: On this night, a restored print of Jean Renoir's 1939 film, Rules of the Game, lights up the screen at the Brattle Theater. This iconic picture is a far cry from the odd films presented in the theater's early days according to co-founder Cy Harvey.

Mr. CY HARVEY (Janus Films): We started out with a German film called A Captain from Kirpnick, and we had films like Scanderbag, which was a Russian film about the national hero of Albania, of all things.

SHEA: And Scanderbag was a surprising hit. But in the mid-1950s, good foreign films were hard to find, according to Harvey, so he and his partner Bryant Halliday started their own distribution company. They named it Janus Films after the double faced Roman god.

Mr. HARVEY: One face looking towards commerce and the other face looking toward art. He's also the god of the open doors.

SHEA: Harvey scoured Europe for films, where he acquired The White Sheik by a young Italian director, Federico Fellini.

(Soundbite of film, “The White Sheik”)

SHEA: This film helped established Janus' reputation but Harvey says the company's biggest break happened on a trip to Paris.

Mr. HARVEY: I saw a little notice about a film by a Swedish director whose name was totally unknown, Ingmar Berman. The filed was called A Summer with Monika, and immediately I said now this is a director we must get a hold of.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Speaking foreign language)

SHEA: Harvey flew to Sweden to make a deal with Bergman. It was the beginning of a fruitful relationship that would introduce American audiences to films such as The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries.

Mr. RICHARD PENA (Film Society at Lincoln Center): Janus really solidified a cannon.

SHEA: Richard Pena is the program director for the Film Society at Lincoln Center.

Mr. PENA: Kind of what you might think of as the essential works of the cinema in a way and people could agree or disagree, or talk what wasn't there. Still, you would walk away with a very solid basis from which you could go on.

SHEA: Janus won its first Academy Award for Bergman's Virgin Spring in 1960. But Hollywood studios soon wooed Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut away from the independent distributor. The number of art houses began to dwindle and, in 1965, Cy Harvey says he and his partner retired from the film business.

Mr. HARVEY: I'll tell you a big secret. I barely came out of there with a dollar. I mean, we broke even after 12 years of work.

SHEA: The new owners of Janus, Saul Turell and William Becker, changed the mission of the company. Saul Turell's son Jonathan is the current director of Janus.

Mr. JONATHAN TURELL (Janus Films): They basically identified a niche that wasn't so much as bringing new films, but identifying older films that had previously opened but been forgotten and licensing those for distribution in the United States.

SHEA: Turell says his father aggressively acquired films and began supplying titles to universities and schools. Many children saw The Red Balloon in the ‘70s and ‘80s thanks to Janus.

(Soundbite of music)

SHEA: After making a deal with Rank Films in London, Janus added 300 titles to its collection, including David Lean's Brief Encounter and Hitchcock's The Thirty Nine Steps.

Janus films were seen on TV after the company struck a deal with PBS. Other networks followed. Playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute discovered Janus films on TV as a kid.

Mr. NEIL LaBUTE (Filmmaker): I've taken Janus films to actor friends whom I'm about to make film with and said here's the kind of movie I want to make. We're about to make a film that's not as good as this, but I want you to see what I'm shooting for.

SHEA: Today's film buffs can see the two headed Janus logo on DVD through its sister company, The Criterion Collection. Janus founder Cy Harvey is amazed by the company's evolution and says cineastes still crave an artful foreign film.

Mr. HARVEY: It's not always open and facile and easy to understand. It makes you think and a good film will make you think.

SHEA: To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the folks at Janus struck 30 new prints highlighting its history. The films will tour North America through 2007.

For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea.

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