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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 28, No. 6. 1965.

films — Chewing the Cud

page 10


Chewing the Cud

The most interesting fare of the past few weeks has been provided by return seasons of old (and not so old) films. I have long ceased to be amazed at the excellence of some of the minor films made within the mainstream of American cinema. There are two ways of making a film on a low, or relatively low budget. The results of one method are constantly seen on tv—innocuous pieces completely devoid of imagination and worth. The Petticoat Junction series is a typical example of this kind of mass-produced trivia. The other method is characterised by films like Angel Baby, Black Tuesday, The Ride Back, Stakeout on Dope Street, Crime and Punishment, U.S.A., Warhunt, Kilter's Kiss, Heroe's Island, Underworld U.S.A., City of Fear, Murder by Contract.

These are visibly B-pictures, but all could be studied to advantage by more prosperous groups on both sides of the Atlantic. Variably played and executed, they all possess that economy of visual style which, to my mind, sets them above the majority of their inflated colleagues.

At a city theatre recently I was able to see Terror in a Texas Town, directed by Joseph Lewis. This looked as though it had been made on the simplest budget imaginable. Even the lack of any kind of production value, however, cannot detract from an appreciation of the way in which this film has been put together. Shot and cut with imagination and a genuine feeling for the medium it makes the most of its 80-odd minutes. The narrative moves without irrelevant interruptions and Lewis has done a particularly good job in charting the gunman's obsession, around which the film revolves. Most of the performances are above average, although Sterling Hayden's attempt at a Swedish accent is rather odd. There is a simple, two-motif score by Gerald Fried which is even better than his evocative music in the Roger Corman gangster opus. Machine Gun Kelly.

This, then, is a film worth searching out and having a look at, as are all the films I have mentioned above. I don't usually find myself in agreement with so-called "auteur" film critics and theorists, but I do agree with Andrew Sarris when, in Film Culture No. 27, he writes: "Film for film, director for director, the American cinema has been consistently superior to that of the rest of the world from 1915 through to 1962. Consequently, I now regard the "auteur" theory primarily as a critical device for recording the history of the American cinema, the only cinema in the world worth exploring in depth beneath the frosting of a few great directors at the top." On the evidence of "Terror in a Texas Town" and others of its ilk, this latter assertion would seem to be true.

The American director, Edward Dmytryk, has had a varied career which may in itself prove something of an object lesson. After nine years as an editor he began directing in 1940, making films as widely differing as Hitler's Children (1943), a blatant propaganda piece, and the reputedly masterful Crossfire (1947).

In March, 1947, the House Committee of Un-American Activities announced its intention of conducting "... a secret investigation of Communism in motion pictures." In Hollywood, political events of the 'thirties had brought the first ardent stirrings of social conscience. Stars had boycotted silk stockings in protest against Japan, had given money, secretly or openly, for strikers in California and ambulances in Spain. Actors, writers and directors had joined in forming leagues and committees, holding protest meetings against Fascism and raising money for the victims of Nazism. It is certain that Hollywood's vulnerability in 1947 arose partly out of this past: what was under investigation was not simply the supposed infiltration of Communism into the industry; it was also the conscience of Hollywood. The Committee's "hearings" got under way despite vehement protests from a group known as the Committee for the First Amendment (some members and sympathisers —John Huston, William Wyler, Fredric March, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Danny Kaye, Burt Lancaster, Larry Adler, Gregory Peck, Edward G. Robinson and Richard Conte).

Altogether 10 witnesses were examined. These witnesses were to become known as the "Hollywood Ten" because of the refusal to answer questions concerning their political affiliations. Dmytryk was one of them. The 10— seven writers, a producer, a director and a writer-director—had laid themselves open to a charge of Contempt of Congress by their frontal attack on the Committee's authority, and were in due course each sentenced to a year's imprisonment and a 1000 dollars fine. All were barred from further employment in the industry.

Dmytryk repented and recanted while in prison, attacking the Communist party, giving secret testimony to investigators and "naming names." He left the country but returned when hearings were resumed in 1951 and gave public testimony. There were at the time numerous ways of avoiding the iron heel of the McCarthy regime. The persecuted could, like the majority of the Hollywood Ten (and some others, notably Arthur Miller) retire from the industry altogether. They could, like Dmytryk, Sterling Hayden and Budd Schulberg, confess all and hope for reinstatement.

Kuki Kaa, in "The Devils" which had a very successfully season in the Little Theatre.—Chirs Black photo.

Kuki Kaa, in "The Devils" which had a very successfully season in the Little Theatre.—Chirs Black photo.

Some fled to Britain and the Continent. Best known among these are Joseph Losey ("The Damned," "The Servant") and Jules Dassin ("Rifflfl," "He Who Must Die," "Never On Sunday," "Phaedra"). Others stayed on the fringe of the movies, often writing under assumed names. Dalton Trumbo (as "Ronald Rich") and Michael Wilson (no script credit) received Oscar nominations for "The Brave One" and "Friendly Persuasion" respectively. Another in this category, Carl Foreman ("High Noon"), has crept back into action with the writing of "The Guns of Navarone" and the directing of "The Victors," while Trumbo's name is now frequently seen in credit lists, often linked with that of Kirk Douglas ("Spartacus," "The Last Sunset," "Lonely Are The Brave").

Meanwhile, Dmytryk was again respectable and making films. His efforts since those days have varied in the extreme, ranging from worthy films like The Sniper and The Young Lions to the absurdities of Walk On The Wild Side and Where Love Has Gone. I don't think The Carpetbaggers was as badly directed as some would have it. All this is by way of introduction to Broken Lance, one of Dmytryk's better films. In fact, this is a western of unusual excellence which apparently has its basis in Shakespeare.

Ted Valentine of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre writes: "One of the most interesting Shakespeare plagiarisms was 'Broken Lance,' in which, perhaps not surprisingly, Spencer Tracy played himself well in the running for anyone's short-list of the greatest King Lear of our time." Dmytryk has succeeded in creating a rare picture of the west, one in which the vast expanses of land and the enormity of Devereux's kingdom constantly impress. The shots of the cattle-baron and his sons galloping across the range reminded me irresistibly of the best moment in King Vidor's Duel In The Sun, when the cowboys converge on the meeting-place from all directions.

Robert Wagner and Jean Peters are competent enough as the young lovers, Richard Widmark and Katy Jurado are excellent and Spencer Tracy is, as usual, quite magnificent. I cannot recall this actor ever having given a bad or mediocre performance. Here he succeeds in making a sympathetic figure out of the cruel, misguided tyrant. There are flashes of humanity and humour lurking not far away and the whole performance has that air of graceful spontaneity which typifies so many of Tracy's performances. Dmytryk counterpoints the epic quality of the landscape with some nicely underplayed episodes. We do not see Matt Devereux die but we see him already dead, emerging from a grove of trees sitting bolt upright in the saddle. This is beautifully done. This was a fine moment in a film that gave me much pleasure, a film that represents a happier episode in the work of an erratic director.