Home Fashion Keith McNally’s Filmmaking Past Is Forgotten No More

Keith McNally’s Filmmaking Past Is Forgotten No More

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On Thursday night at the Roxy Cinema in Lower Manhattan, a throng of scarf-bundled cinephiles attended the sold-out screening of a black-and-white psychological thriller, “End of the Night,” that was being shown for the first time in more than 30 years.

The film’s obscurity wasn’t what drew the crowd: They were there because of its unlikely writer and director, Keith McNally, the downtown restaurateur who runs Balthazar, Minetta Tavern, Pastis and Morandi.

Before he shaped New York’s nightlife with his brasseries, Mr. McNally had serious filmmaking ambitions. His first full-length feature, “End of the Night,” premiered at the Directors’ Fortnight showcase during the 1990 Cannes Film Festival, appearing alongside Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan.” It went on to be a minor hit in Europe before it became a cinematic footnote.

In advance of the screenings at the Roxy, an 118-seat art house cinema located in a hotel in TriBeCa, Mr. McNally drummed up interest with a post on his popular Instagram account: “ANYONE WATCHING THIS FILM AT THE ROXY CAN EAT AT BALTHAZAR OR MINETTA TAVERN THAT SAME NIGHT FOR HALF-PRICE,” he wrote in his typical all-caps style.

The post also quoted from a Cahiers du Cinéma review that described “End of the Night” as a “noirish tale of self-destruction” that provides an “unsettling look at a man whose life is turned upside down during his wife’s pregnancy.”

Soon after the credits rolled at the Thursday night showing, three friends lingered in the lobby, channeling their inner Pauline Kael.

“It’s giving Wim Wenders,” said Frankie Galassi, an actress and waitress who was carrying a Vanity Fair tote bag.

“It felt like a mix of ‘After Hours’ and ‘Eyes Wide Shut,’” said Zac Zellers, a bespectacled writer and bartender with sideburns. “I detected early Cronenberg and Jarmusch in there, too.”

“I think McNally showed promise,” added Ben Booth, a filmmaker and waiter.

Then they discussed dinner at Balthazar, because they planned to take advantage of the discount Mr. McNally had offered to anyone who could produce a Roxy ticket. The deal was good through Sunday night, when the film would have the last of its four screenings.

Mr. Zellers placed an unlit cigarette to his lips as he and his two friends prepared to march through the cold to Balthazar. “I think some just came for the ticket deal, because I saw a couple people leaving early during the film,” he said. “I’m thinking we’ll do the seafood tower when we get there.”

When the trio arrived at the SoHo brasserie, the maître d’ examined their tickets before seating them in the grand hall. They ordered the seafood tower, moules frites, steak tartare, frisée aux lardons, fries and profiteroles. They continued analyzing the film as they downed cocktails and concluded that it also contained echoes of the Coen brothers. When they were hit with the bill, they calculated that they had saved $199.

Ms. Galassi sipped her martini.

“I heard that McNally thought he wasn’t good at making films, so that’s why he stopped directing them, but I don’t know,” she said. “I feel maybe he had more movies in him.”

Mr. McNally, 72, was seated nearby in a red booth, keeping an eye on things. A few fans nervously approached his table to compliment him on the film, including one who gave him a bouquet of flowers. Mr. McNally, who suffered a stroke several years ago, thanked them in his soft-spoken English accent.

The next afternoon, he reminisced about his filmmaking past in an interview at his cottage-like SoHo apartment as classical music played from a sound system.

“I never really liked the film, to be honest,” Mr. McNally said of “End of the Night.” “I hated when I saw it in the cinema, even at Cannes. It was difficult for me, because I noticed all the things I didn’t like.”

“Now everyone is calling me and telling me they loved it,” he continued, “and I don’t know if they’re just being polite. I look back and can’t believe I had the audacity to make a film, though I don’t miss it, because I think my talent as a filmmaker was minimal.”

But as a teenager in London’s working class East End in the 1960s, he dreamed of making movies.

At 16, while working as a hotel bellhop, he met a producer who needed to fill a role for a boy in “Mr. Dickens of London,” a 1967 television movie about Charles Dickens’s ghost starring Michael Redgrave. Mr. McNally received the part and later acted in a West End production of Alan Bennett’s “Forty Years On.” He went on to work as a lighting technician for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

“That’s why my places are so well lit,” he said. “Because I used to work lighting boards.”

When he arrived in New York in the 1970s, he was committed to becoming a director. While waiting tables to pay the rent, he studied the works of Michelangelo Antonioni, Billy Wilder and Woody Allen, and he made noirish short films of his own. One of them, he said, starred a then little-known Ellen Barkin.

But after Mr. McNally opened the Odeon in 1980 with his brother, Brian, and his first wife, Lynn Wagenknecht, he was dragged under by its success. “As Odeon and then Cafe Luxembourg and Nell’s became enormously successful, my ambitions to make films got further and further away from me,” he said.

It wasn’t until he was almost 40 that he tore away from his all-consuming occupation to direct his first feature, “End of the Night,” which chronicles the midlife crisis of Joe Belinksy, a Manhattan insurance man who loses his job while his wife is pregnant.

The protagonist, who is suffering from a brain tumor, has a one-night stand with a Frenchwoman and goes on to pursue others who look like her in nightclubs. Mr. McNally, who was growing into fatherhood when he wrote the script, described the film as an exploration of male parental anxiety.

He followed it up in 1992 with an existential thriller, “Far from Berlin,” which flopped. By the time he opened Balthazar in 1997, his cinematic ambitions had faded to black.

In recent years, the young New Yorkers who have become fans of his brasseries and his often provocative Instagram account — where he has offered support for Mr. Allen and skewered James Corden — have also taken an interest in his cultural taste. That led the Roxy Cinema’s programming director, Illyse Singer, to approach him last year about putting together a lineup of his favorite films. His film series, which played at the Roxy in September, included “Sexy Beast,” “Klute,” “Husbands and Wives” and “The Third Man.”

Ms. Singer also asked him about his forgotten 1990 movie.

“I didn’t even know where the film cans were,” Mr. McNally said. “But Illyse was persistent, so I found them for her. They were in the basement of my house in Martha’s Vineyard. Two big film cans that had been sitting there for years.”

He said he had no plans to see “End of the Night” at the Roxy.

“I’m not going to any screenings, because I can’t bear to see it myself,” he said. “But I’m hearing that lots of young people are coming to the film, and that makes me happy. I’m not quite sure why they like it, but I’m glad they do.”

As to the 50 percent discount he was offering, Mr. McNally said: “I don’t want to subject anybody to having to see my film without getting something in return. I lose money on the deal, but I don’t care.”

By the end of Sunday’s dinner service, Balthazar and Minetta Tavern had given half-price meals to some 300 movie nerds from the Roxy. The four screenings had all sold out.

Padma Lakshmi sat among the filmgoers on Friday night. After the showing, she offered a quick review as she hailed a cab outside: “I thought the cinematography was beautiful, and it reminded me of an older New York that I miss.”

Over a shrimp cocktail at Balthazar later that evening was Megan Griffith, an actor. “It was an interesting yet infuriating exploration of the private life of a married man,” she said. “But I think any film that makes you feel a raw, visceral feeling is a success, and he did that.”

At the end of another screening, Hannah Wyatt and Sean Bentley prepared to take their tickets to Minetta Tavern to dine on roasted bone marrow and the black label burger. Ms. Wyatt, a photographer, said the movie had deepened her understanding of Mr. McNally.

“I guess his film career didn’t work out for him,” she said. “But I admire him for having at least tried to follow his dream. It’s hard to be professionally successful at doing the things we’re passionate about. So most people don’t even try.”





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