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New York’s Last Movie Clerk Knows More Than You Do

As the founder and sole employee of Film Noir Cinema, Will Malitek appears to be the final movie rental clerk left in New York City.

While his industry collapsed, Mr. Malitek flourished. Film Noir began in 2005 as a walk-in closet of recondite DVDs angled into a Brooklyn commercial drag. In 2017, it became a spacious den of films and film memorabilia attached to a 54-seat cinema.

Mr. Malitek, 55, who has worked in New York movie rentals for more than 20 years, perpetuates a way of life that faded with the closure of rental and record shops. He is the storefront scholar, the working-class aesthete, the connoisseur whose respect must be earned but also the enthusiast whose recommendations might change your life.

A review of five lists published between 2014 and 2018 of New York City’s remaining movie rental places indicates that all except Film Noir have closed. The Lower Manhattan outlet of Alamo Drafthouse, a small chain of theaters, now does rentals, but it does not employ a movie rental clerk.

On a recent afternoon at Film Noir, which is located in the traditionally Polish section of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Mr. Malitek nursed a plastic container of borscht and considered the shrine-like quality of his store: no furniture, no digital gizmos, just niche film posters (such as one for the 1984 superhero black comedy “The Toxic Avenger”) and wooden shelves with DVDs.

“I am trying to keep it as old school as possible,” he said, “so when people are here they feel like they’re in a different world.”

Catherine Curtin, an actress who grew up in New York and recently visited Film Noir for the first time, said it reminded her of nothing so much as the now-forgotten art house theaters of her youth, like the Upper West Side’s old Thalia, which closed in 1987.

Whether Film Noir is an emanation from the past or an alternate dimension unto itself, it strikes most who enter it as noble and somewhat inexplicable.

“I’d be like, ‘Do you have ‘Hiroshima, Mon Amour’?” Jess Magee, a filmmaker and onetime habitual renter, recalled in a phone interview. “He’d be like, ‘Come back tomorrow, 2 o’clock.’”

No matter the obscurity of the request, Ms. Magee would return to find Mr. Malitek with a DVD, a case and photocopied-looking DVD cover.

How did he do it?

“I didn’t ask too many questions,” Ms. Magee said.

The cinema’s programming seems designed to bewilder the public. Events include “Fear Noir,” which the schedule identifies only as “a collection of short animated films to create a total Fear Noir in your mind” and “Cult Cinema,” or “a night of sheer cinematic madness dedicated to the most obscure films ever made.”

Alongside a few new indie films like the haunting “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” movies recently on Film Noir’s calendar include “Tomato,” “Paradise” and “D.E.” — all listed without explanation of the plot or any identification of the director, the actors and the year of release.

Mr. Malitek does not care if a movie is likable; he wants it to shock, and therefore to be remembered, and he thinks that response can be heightened by shrouding the movie in mystery.

His taste mirrors his style. Contemporary mass-market American films are “propaganda,” he said; the internet “destroyed art.” But in underground, old and foreign cinema, Mr. Malitek finds the authenticity that he associates with the macabre.

He likes Japanese films best. “They don’t have those ridiculous happy ends,” he said. “They speak to the life.”

Mr. Malitek gives his own theater an enigmatic motto: “Here at Film Noir Cinema, we bring darkness to light, not light to darkness.”

He strikes patrons as a little shadowy himself.

Mitch Horowitz, a historian of alternative spirituality, has spent three years visiting Film Noir, which he calls “a little jewel box of the occult and the dark side.” The theater shows, he said, “certain horror classics or martial arts classics that you just don’t see anywhere else, including things you don’t find on streaming services.”

Mr. Horowitz has become close enough with Mr. Malitek that last month, he began hosting his own festival at Film Noir called “Chamber of HORRORwitz.”

Yet in a phone interview, Mr. Horowitz was startled to realize that he did not know Mr. Malitek’s last name. They communicate mainly through impromptu visits and handshake agreements.

Jason Grisell, an actor, artist and Film Noir regular, said he treasures the personal qualities of Mr. Malitek that make such half-intimate, half-distant relationships possible.

“In a culture that’s founded on overexposure, it’s a vanishing commodity,” Mr. Grisell said. “Mystique.”

Mr. Malitek was born in the port city of Gdansk in 1966. “There was nothing in the stores except vinegar,” Mr. Malitek said. He found another world on Channel 2 of Polish TV, which showed American movies like “The Maltese Falcon” and “Touch of Evil.”

Mr. Malitek formed two boyhood dreams: To open his own cinema and to move to the United States.

He saved up for a bribe needed to obtain a passport. When he got one, at the age of 23, Mr. Malitek was gone within 48 hours. He used East Berlin as a jumping off point for the other side of the Iron Curtain and soon made his way to New York.

Learning about movies had also taken an enterprising and rule-breaking spirit. In Gdansk, Mr. Malitek would visit a flea market where dealers hid censored VHS tapes in backpacks and underneath tables. If you saw the secret police, you were supposed to tip off everyone else by whistling. During raids, whistles filled the market.

Today, Mr. Malitek sometimes responds to questions about himself like he is being interrogated by one of those undercover agents.

Before he opened the initial rentals-only version of Film Noir (also located in Greenpoint), Mr. Malitek’s first job in the industry was at a place in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. “From obscure, sick, perverted porn to Hollywood titles — everything was there,” he said. Yet Mr. Malitek, in spite of working at this store for five years, claims he does not remember its name.

Mr. Malitek answers general questions about Film Noir — much of its income comes from events hosted in the cinema, for example — but at a certain point he tends to reply, “I don’t want to talk about money.”

Kier-La Janisse, the founder of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, a film scholarship group that uses Film Noir as its venue in New York, described the theater as noirishly well suited for discussions of horror. Two open bulbs dimly illuminate lecturers, leaving darkness around them, like they are telling a ghost story. And, Ms. Janisse points out, the building used to house a funeral home.

An average screening at Film Noir draws a crowd of just a handful of people, all of them generally first-time visitors seeking an unusual night out.

The evening of May 5 was characteristic: Five young newcomers from Brooklyn showing up on a night advertised only as “film club” during which Mr. Malitek played the baroque Japanese noir “I, the Executioner” (1968).

It depicts not just rape and murder, but a serial campaign of rapes and murders by a man against a group of women in retaliation for their having raped a young boy (who also, naturally, kills himself).

The group generally agreed the surprise screening had jarringly offended the enlightenments and sensitivities of 21st century liberal progressivism.

Could they imagine returning to Film Noir?

“Honestly,” said Molly Walls, a 27-year-old book editor, “yes.”

Mr. Malitek prefers bending the minds of the few to entertaining the many.

Here lies the real mystery of Film Noir: that a place presenting itself as a business catering to the public is actually the fantasy world of its owner.

Mr. Malitek designed the theater himself. Thanks to the income from private events, his whims dictate the programming. He avoids checking the marquees of New York’s other independent cinemas, not wanting to be influenced by outside forces.

He appears at Film Noir when he wants. He answers his phone and email infrequently — you trek to Greenpoint if you really need to talk to him. He rewards the Film Noir faithful with the fruits of his learnedness.

“I don’t like to recommend films to people I don’t know,” Mr. Malitek said. “You have to know the taste of a person.”

All of this makes Film Noir underground even by the standards of New York’s underground film scene.

Sean Price Williams is a cinematographer and director who worked at the flagship location of Kim’s Video rental store on St. Marks Place, New York’s erstwhile headquarters of underground film, and who now hosts his own unofficial movie screenings at Kraine Theater and Roxy Cinema in Manhattan. Yet Mr. Williams said that, though he has visited Film Noir, he had never seen a movie there.

“The smaller his audience, the cooler and more pure it makes him,” Mr. Williams said. “It’s just this guy — it’s his personal collection, it’s his personal taste.”

Mr. Malitek established that taste during 25 years of watching at least one movie almost every day. He has read hundreds of books about film and studied encyclopedias as esoteric as “The Definitive Guide to Italian Sex and Horror Movies.” As the last rental clerk, he may be the most expert suggester of movies in New York who is also accessible to any member of the public.

If you tell him you’re interested in the 1982 horror movie “Manhattan Baby” by the Italian director Lucio Fulci, he will beseech you to see Mr. Fulci’s 1979 “Zombi 2.” If you happen to mention that you loved “Le Samouraï,” the 1967 noir thriller by the French director Jean-Pierre Melville, he will have another French film of the same style handy when you next visit. If you enjoyed the 2010 Jason Statham and 50 Cent vehicle “13,” Mr. Malitek can give you “13 Tzameti,” the mid-2000s Georgian-French film on which it was based.

Mr. Grisell, the Film Noir regular, once chatted with Mr. Malitek about “The Denial of Death,” a 1973 book that investigates cultural attitudes toward morality. Mr. Malitek suggested Mr. Grisell watch a series of Eastern European films, Mr. Grisell said, and in them he discovered a view of death — one with “rawness and aggressiveness but also spiritual qualities” — that seemed new to him.

Mr. Grisell felt hesitant to speak to a journalist about Film Noir for fear that it would become “too popular,” he said. “It would be at the risk of losing its freedom and the ability to express enthusiasm, because I think commerce at a certain point suppresses that.”

To be on the receiving end of Mr. Malitek’s special brand of enthusiasm might indeed be an honor, but he would hate for it to feel too pleasant.

A customer returned a movie on a sunny afternoon in May. “Not many laughs in that one,” he commented.

“It’s Czech,” Mr. Malitek replied.

What was the movie — some bloody but profound lesser classic?

The erudite recommender became the cryptic film noir character. Mr. Malitek was not naming names.

The movie was just “something weird,” he said. “That’s exactly what this place is all about.”

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