"For British followers of European cinema, Kenneth Rive is a name etched on the subconscious." So began a recent Guardian article on a London Franšois Truffaut season, and, indeed, the postwar popularity of French and other foreign films owed much to Rive, who has died aged 84. His Gala Film Distributors introduced the works of Truffaut and the nouvelle vague to audiences here.
Born in Canonbury, north London, the son of a cinematographer, Rive was a child actor, whose film appearances included Das Geheimnis Des Abbe X (Behind The Altar, 1927) and the Conrad Veidt movie Rasputin, Dńmon Der Frauen (Rasputin, Demon With Women, 1930).
He worked for British intelligence during the war, and afterwards became a cinema manager. Then, in 1952, he bought the leases of two cinemas in central London, which, as the Berkeley and the Continentale, became the foundations of a prestigious, national arthouse circuit. The appeal of "continental films" in the 1950s and 1960s was considerable as they often presented a more mature picture of human relationships than Hollywood, then still constrained by the notorious production code.
Rive created Gala Film Distributors in 1958 to feed his cinemas, and quickly expanded its repertoire, distributing films by Resnais, Lelouch, Chabrol, Bergman, Fellini, Bu˝uel and Kurosawa, among others. The relationship with Truffaut went deeper than most. It began when Rive saw Les Quatre Cent Coups (1959) just after its completion and acquired the British rights. For many years, he maintained a small office in Paris, with Truffaut a couple of floors above, the better to spot the best new French films.
Even after the major studios began to acquire world rights in the increasingly popular "art movies", MGM and Columbia still preferred to hand over to Rive the UK rights to such films as Sophia Loren's Oscar-winning Two Women (1960) and Fellini's La Dolce Vita (also 1960). Gala held sway with its cinemas in most major cities playing subtitled films, and Rive was president of the Cinema Exhibitors Association from 1970-72.
As film-going declined during the 1970s, and Hollywood espoused more adult themes, Rive decided to link his for tunes with the BBC. By mid-decade, he had established a relationship which ensured that Gala's increasingly risky acquisition costs were covered by a television pre-sale; in return, the corporation got the films for screening less than a year after their release, instead of the three-year holdback then decreed by the film trade.