<i> Times Arts Editor</i>

The International Festival of Film at Cannes, of which this is the 38th running, still does an elegant mob scene better than anybody else.

Wednesday night the vast forecourt of the new Palais and the sidewalks across La Croisette were aswarm with humanity as far as the eye could see--5,000 spectators would be a reasonable estimate.

An international army of photographers and TV crews were packed within the throng, parting like a reluctant Red Sea to receive the arriving stars. The largest tumults were for Clint Eastwood, who was holding down a yacht in the harbor and whose new Western, “Pale Rider,” is in competition in the festival, and Harrison Ford, the star of “Witness,” which was the opening-night film, not in competition.

This is, in fact, a heavily American year in several respects, which is no doubt partly the accidents of the film year, but also reflects the fact that this splendid showcase by the Mediterranean has been increasingly under heavy pressure as a market from the fall trade show called MIFED, in Milan; from the newer American Film Market in the spring in Los Angeles; from Filmex, and even to some degree, from the Deauville Festival in late summer here in France, dedicated entirely to American films and television.


There was also a widening feeling among the regulars that Cannes is not what it had been. The stellar parties of yesteryear were, alas, memories. The glamour was occasional and, of course, there was the fiasco of the new Palais in 1980, which was brutalist and bunker-like on the outside and brutal to use inside, with airless, lightless spaces, treacherous stairs and occasional overgrown rats in the basement.

This year Cannes has a new president, a career civil servant named Pierre Viot, who has long been active in film affairs and is obviously determined to make the festival a showier, splashier event than it lately has been.

When the splendidly attired opening-nighters were settled in their seats in the Grand Auditorium Lumiere, they were greeted by a 40-piece symphony orchestra, which, in a fairly weighty joke, played a few bars of an American march as part of a search for a suitable theme, but ended with some very lovely Mozart as an homage to director Milos Forman, who was president of the jury this year.

The festival was declared open by a succession of international stars, each in his own tongue. Eastwood led the procession on stage, followed by Bibi Andersson, Harrison Ford, Sonia Braga, Ben Kingsley, Philippe Noiret, Fernando Rey (from all the Bunuel films) and Nicole Garcia.


After the screening (thunderously well received by an audience that has been known to sit on its hands and even to boo when displeased), Viot and the festival fathers transported some 450 celebrities and dignitaries, including the expatriate American writer James Baldwin, up the hill in the most ancient part of Cannes for a fine three-wine supper, served under a sort of temporary greenhouse constructed alongside the very old church of Le Suquet. There were ceremonial fireworks, startling at first report and leading one worldly American to say, “You see, even in France, it’s not all terrorism.”

Beyond the dozens of American films that are among the 400 up for territorial sale in the film market, there are 13 U.S. selections in the four main components of the festival, including the closing film, John Boorman’s “The Emerald Forest,” as well as the opening film.

Like “Witness” and “The Emerald Forest,” Woody Allen’s “Purple Rose of Cairo” is a main festival selection, but out of competition. In competition are Alan Parker’s “Birdy,” Peter Bogdanovich’s “Mask” and Paul Shrader’s “Mishima.”

In the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight, launched after the revolutionary events of 1968 to give more attention to non-mainstream, left-wing and Third World films, will be Victor Nunez’s “A Flash of Green,” “Dim Sum--a Little Bit of Art” by Wayne Wang, “Crossover Dreams” by Leon Ichaso and “Desperately Seeking Susan” by Susan Seidelman.

Critics Week, a series of selections by an international body based in Paris, will include “The Killing Floor,” an extraordinary docudrama by William Duke. An independent film whose several sources of financing included several trade unions, it dramatizes the involvement of black workers out of the South in the meat packers’ union in Chicago during and after World War I.

It is an impressive Cannes debut for Duke, a black film maker. “The Killing Floor” was previously shown at the recent U.S.A. Festival in Dallas.

Another main festival series, called A Certain Regard, generally offers unusual first or second films of directors. It will include a new work, “Latino,” by the American cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who directed the memorable “Medium Cool” in 1968.

There will be tributes to the late film maker Joseph Losey, an American director who spent the last decades of his life in London and Paris. His final film, “Steaming,” will be shown. There will be homages as well to James Stewart, who will be here for a showing of “The Glenn Miller Story,” and to the late great French director Francois Truffaut and the writer-performer Sascha Guitry.


The controversial Palais itself has been refurbished, reportedly at a cost of $5 million, by the city of Cannes, whose aggressive mayor, Anne-Marie Dupuy, has no taste for fiascos. The dangerous stairs have been rebuilt, and redecorating has made the place much less formidably institutional than it was.

The press conference room is still far too small, and fewer than half of the journalists eager to debrief (or in many cases simply to gawk at) Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis after the press screening of “Witness” could be accommodated.

The summary of last year’s festival was, “It rained,” which it did every day but one. This week began in rain, and there were dread fears that the festivalgoers were in for another fortnight of the aroma of wet tuxedos and damp organdy, with nothing to do but go to movies. But by Thursday the sun was out in force, suggesting there are no limits to the power of a Cannes Chamber of Commerce.