Friday 29 May 2020

Andrew Sarris and The American Cinema

Yet, anyone who loves the cinema must be moved by Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, a film with a scenario so atrocious that it takes forty minutes to establish that the daughter of Dr. Jekyll is indeed the daughter of Dr. Jekyll. (p. 143)
Andrew Sarris's book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 is among the most influential and popular books within cinema studies and among cinephiles the world over. It is often said to be the birth place of the "auteur theory" (allegedly taking the critical writings in France, especially in Cahiers du Cinéma, and condensing their ideas into a theory), and it has been a central part in many people's cinematic lives; being used as a guide book to American cinema and what to look for in that rich cinematic history. It is also a book that has been criticised or ridiculed by film scholars who find the idea of authors and auteurs misguided, or romantic, or ideologically suspicious. Feminists have also criticised it for its lack of women filmmakers.

But like many books and articles of such influence, it has also taken on a life of its own, an almost mythical position, and, like Laura Mulvey once said about her own article "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema": "it has acquired a balloon-like, free-floating quality." Both its friends and foes often seem to not necessarily pay that much attention to what Sarris is actually saying. They are talking about their ideas of the book, rather than the actual book. I have written before about how off-putting it can be when people base their judgement about films and directors entirely upon what Sarris has said about them, or what they think Sarris has said about them. He is one of those people whose followers do not always do him justice.

But while it is wrong to dismiss The American Cinema as some kind of romantic love song to towering geniuses (Sarris is appropriately aware of the constraints of filmmaking and its collaboratory nature), the book has its flaws and weaknesses. It is also a book of infectious enthusiasm and passion, and there are many wonderful sentences and insightful observations in each part of the book.


Films are not made by single individuals alone, they are made by a group of collaborators. But these collaborators do not all have the same impact on the film, and most are only concerned with a specific aspect of the film. It is usually only the director, whether or not she has a screenwriting credit, who has all aspect of the film as her responsibility. This is not a theory but a known, empirical fact about how films are made, and those who have written about films, at least from the 1910s, have as a rule taken this position. The great British critic Dilys Powell mused about the national, industrial and cooperative aspects of cinema in an article in 1946, and then asked the rhetorical question: “How can one man leave the mark of his personality and his talent on this hugger-mugger?” which she answered with “But he does.” This is the same question and answer Sarris gives, and he is also trying to provide an explanation as to how.

Raoul Walsh and Ernst Lubitsch

His definition of what he means by "auteur theory" is this: "The auteur critic is obsessed with the wholeness of art and the artist. He looks at a film as a whole, a director as a whole. The parts, however entertaining individually, most cohere meaningfully. This meaningful coherence is more likely when the director dominates the proceedings with skill and purpose." (p. 30) He then discusses various constraints, including studios and producers, and says "The strong director imposes his own personality on a film; a weak director allows the personalities of others to run rampant. But a movie is a movie, and if by chance Robert Z. Leonard should reign over a respectable production like Pride and Prejudice [1940], its merits are found elsewhere than in the director's personality, let us say in Jane Austen, Aldous Huxley, Laurence Olivier, Greer Garson, and a certain tradition of gentility at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer." (p. 31)

I think it is unfortunate that he used the expression "auteur theory" in the book because there is no such thing, at least not as it is commonly understood. The idea that a director usually is the creative force behind a film is not a theory, any more than it would be a theory to say that Frida Kahlo or Hilma af Klint are the creative individuals behind their respective paintings, or that Anne Tyler is the author of Breathing Lessons. As there is no "painter theory" or "author theory," there is no "auteur theory." He does correct himself at one point by saying "the auteur theory is not so much a theory as an attitude" (p. 30) and on another page he says that it is "merely a system of tentative priorities" (p. 34) yet he continues to say "auteur theory."

Sometimes those who criticise him, or "auteur theory," will mention an important scriptwriter or cinematographer or editor and use their names as an argument for why Sarris is wrong. But he is not denying their presence or importance. Those who criticise him for romantic ideas about artistic geniuses should pause to consider that of all the directors he writes about in the book, few of them are said to be great, and even fewer geniuses. "Not all directors are auteurs. Indeed, most directors are virtually anonymous. Nor are all auteurs necessarily directors." (p. 37) He uses The Americanization of Emily (1964) as an example of a film in which the writer, Paddy Chayefsky, is more important than the director Arthur Hiller. Some of those who criticise Sarris claim that he ignores the production circumstances of filmmaking but he does not do that either, it is rather the opposite. It is precisely the modes of production, that others claim invalidate his arguments, that are the basis of his argument. He writes "The auteur theory derives its rationale from the fact that the cinema could not be a completely personal art under even the best of conditions. The purity of personal expression is a myth of the textbooks." (p. 32) and a little later: "To look at a film as the expression of a director's vision is not to credit the director with total creativity. All directors, and not just in Hollywood, are imprisoned by the conditions of their craft and their culture." (p. 36) Neither does he ignore filmmakers' weaknesses or how consistencies can be liabilities: "All that is meaningful is not necessarily successful. John Ford's sentimentality in The Informer [1935] is consistent with the personality he expresses throughout his career, but the film suffers from the sentimentality just the same." p. 35 He also mentions Hitchcock's Marnie (1964) and Hawks's Red Line 7000 (1965) as two other films that are clearly personal and consistent yet have, to him, obvious weaknesses.


Almost all of what he has to say about auteurs and directors are widely accepted ideas and beliefs, and many of those who have criticise him probably feel the same way, unless they are of the belief that human agency and personal vision could never possibly appear in filmmaking. What he wants to do with the book is not to idealise directors or ignore the production circumstances. His main concern is to bring forward the riches of Hollywood cinema and say "Look, here are films and filmmakers as great as any from Europe or the rest of the world!" and the book is a polemic against a certain kind of criticism that sees American cinema as only mainstream trash, with a few serious-minded films. He makes an important distinction: everybody is a potential auteur, or is potentially great, and it is only after you have researched, investigated and analysed their work that you will be able to tell. "Welles is not superior to Zinnemann 'of course,' but only after an intensive analysis of all their respective films." (p. 32) That he himself is at times unable to live up to this ideal of "intensive analysis" is another matter.

He also criticises those who look at films only from the perspective of plot and story, and disregard the visual element. As a director will be explicitly concerned with the look of the film, its visual elements, even when somebody else wrote the script, it is only natural that directors are especially important to Sarris. There is nothing romantic or ideologically suspect about that, and there is nothing there that is revolutionary or remarkable, and no particular reason for anybody to get upset or provoked by it. Yet upset and provoked people were, and the kind of critics and scholars he was criticising are still prevalent today.


That was the first part of the book, the historical and theoretical groundwork. The next part, the largest part, are the brief entries about individual filmmakers. There is great writing in this section of the book, but here I will focus on what I think are its flaws, and the key weakness of the book: Sarris's judgements, ranking and his system of 11 different categories. The weakness is that they are often difficult to understand, and at times contradictory.

These are the categories:

Pantheon directors
The far side of paradise
Expressive esoterica
Fringe benefits
Less than meets the eye
Lightly likable
Strained seriousness
Oddities, one-shots, and newcomers
Subjects for further research
Make way for the clowns!

The first thing to note is that Fringe benefits consists of directors who are not Americans and have not made films in the United States, except one, René Clair. So why are they in this book? I have never understood it. If he felt compelled to add some European filmmakers he should at least have explained why, and why these 11 randomly chosen ones. It is a mystery. It is also a mystery why Clair is in this section. Jean Renoir and Max Ophüls has not made more American films than Clair, but both are included in Pantheon directors and not Fringe benefits. This seems arbitrary. Not that Clair should also be included in the pantheon, but if they can be included among American directors then Clair should be able to as well, in a suitable category; maybe Lightly likable.

The problem with the other categories, except Make way for the clowns!, is that it is rarely clear or obvious why a particular filmmaker is in one category and not in another. At times it feels like there has been an editorial oversight; as if Sarris had put the director in a different category but somebody got the categories and entries mixed up. Judging by what Sarris writes about Victor Fleming, why is he in Miscellany and not Lightly likable? Why are Jack Garfein and Leslie Stevens in Miscellany and not Oddities, one-shots, and newcomers? Some in the category Subjects for further research, like Rex Ingram, Sarris seems to not know much about and therefore they belong there, but he has as much to say about Henry King as he has about many others in other categories, so why is King there and not in Lightly likable or Miscellany? Although the category of Miscellany feels especially muddled, as most of the directors within it might as well have been included in other categories. In Pantheon directors, there is nothing in his entries about Flaherty, Lang and Renoir that explains why they are in that category and not in The far side of paradise or Expressive esoterica. On Chaplin, Ford, Griffith, Hawks, Hitchcock, Keaton, Lubitsch, Murnau, Ophüls, von Sternberg, and Welles he is better at emphasising what he thinks makes them special and great, and why they are in the pantheon.

On the other hand, his entry on George Cukor in The far side of paradise suggests that Cukor, rather than Lang or Renoir, belongs in the pantheon, whereas Anthony Mann might as well have been placed in Expressive esoterica as in The far side of paradise where he now is. (Personally, I think Mann belongs in the pantheon.) And what is George Stevens doing in The far side of paradise? It would have been more understandable, based on what Sarris has to say, if Stevens was to be found in Strained seriousness. Allan Dwan should clearly not be in Expressive esoterica but in Subjects for further research. And what exactly is the difference between Less than meets the eye and Strained seriousness, and why are there so many English directors in either category? Carol Reed and David Lean are in Less than meets the eye, yet Reed had made only two films that can be said to be American, and David Lean had not made any (although some had international funding), and neither had Jack Clayton, Bryan Forbes (except King Rat (1965)), Karel Reisz or John Schlesinger (all four in Strained seriousness). As with Fringe benefits, I do not understand why they are in the book at all. Sarris does mentions this in the preface, saying that "the doctrine of directorial continuity within the cultural marketplace of the English language takes precedence over ethnographic considerations" (p. 16), but I still do not understand why. Would he have included, say, Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks, and George Cukor in a book called The British Cinema?

It is also peculiar that Richard Fleischer, John Sturges, and Robert Wise are in Strained seriousness. Neither of them, it seems to me, whatever their strengths and weaknesses, might be accused of "the mortal sin of pretentiousness. Their ambitious projects tend to inflate rather than expand." (p.189) which is how Sarris defined that category. He has not explained in what sense this is applicable on Fleischer, Sturges or Wise. An individual film here and there of either director maybe, but not their careers as a whole, which is what Sarris claims to be interested in.

I could give more examples, but I have mentioned too many directors already and I think I have made my point. In short, I find the disposition of the book confusing, and the logic and reason for the various categories, and the directors placed in them, to be lacking. Why have the categories at all, when it seems as if Sarris himself cannot really keep them apart? "One reason is to establish a system of priorities for the film student. Another is the absence of the most elementary academic tradition in cinema. /.../ The rankings, categories, and lists establish first of all the existence of my subject and then my attitude toward it." (p. 27) he says, but he sets a poor precedent for students by his bewildering system.


It is possible that the problem is not in the categories but in Sarris's writing. Maybe it is obvious to him why this director is in that category, and vice-versa, but he has not been able to explain this to the reader. Most entries are too short anyway to be of much help. The short entry on William Dieterle is almost offensive in its unthinking dismissal. William Wyler is barely discussed at all, despite being a formidable director of remarkable talents. It is clear Sarris does not think Wyler has much talent at all, but you will have to do a lot better work in explaining why than he does. Henry Hathaway (in Lightly likable) gets about as much space as Wyler, but Sarris goes into more depth. I do not agree with what he says, as I think Hathaway is one of the best, but unlike the entry for Wyler, I get what he is saying about Hathaway. Another I do not understand is the entry about Carol Reed. He begins by stating that the "decline of Carol Reed since Outcast of the Islands [1951] is too obvious to be belabored." (p. 163) but then he goes on to say that Reed's films before 1952 are bad as well, so does he mean that Reed declined from being a bad director to being a terrible director? He says that "Reed steadily lost control of his medium as his feigned objectivity disintegrated into imperviousness," (p. 164) I do not know what this means, but I have never associated Reed with being particularly objective. And Reed's decline is not at all obvious. The Man Between (1953) and Our Man in Havana (1959) are as good as his earlier films, and both A Kid for Two Farthings (1955) and Trapeze (1956) are fine films. I also like The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) but that is admittedly a lesser film, even though it is an improvement on Reed's previous The Running Man (1963).

After mentioning some of Henry King's films that he finds better than average, he says they are "not quite forceful enough to compensate for the endless footage of studio-commissioned slop which King could never convert into anything personal" (p. 234). Compare this to what Sarris said about Ford: "Critics of the thirties always joked about the way that the Hollywood system compelled Ford to make three Wee Willie Winkie for every Informer. The joke, then as now, was on the critics." (p. 45) What is the difference between Sarris's view on King, and these alleged critics of the thirties' views on Ford? I think he makes the same mistake that those critics made.


It is a curious thing, but judging by the book his tastes are surprisingly narrow. I like both Phil Karlson and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, both Sam Fuller and William Wyler, but Sarris seems more binary. It is either one or the other. But the problems with the book is not that I often disagree with him, but that it too often is not much to agree or disagree with, as he is confusing and vague. This is probably inevitable for a book of this kind, but it also has the feeling of having been written and published in too great a haste. More time might also have given him the chance to include some noticeable omissions, such as Edward Dmytryk, John Farrow, Anatole Litvak, and the great George Sherman.

One might also ask why the subtitle of the book is Directors and Directions 1929-1968. Since many directors discussed in the book, such as Ingram, Griffith, Murnau, and Victor Sjöström, made almost all of their films before 1929, it would make more sense for the subtitle to be Directors and Directions 1915-1968.


I have been reading The American Cinema for maybe two decades. It is an important book for me, as it is for many others. "If you received The American Cinema at the right moment in your life, and many people including myself did, it came with the force of a divination, a cinematic Great Awakening. I suppose that makes Andrew Sarris, its author, the Jonathan Edwards of film criticism." is how Kent Jones put it in an article from 2005. It came to me later in life, and it was not a great awakening, but I treasure it, despite the issues I have raised in this article.

One of my favourite sentences in the book comes from his entry about Fred Zinnemann. "In cinema, as in all art, only those who risk the ridiculous have a real shot at the sublime." (p. 169) I do not agree with much of what he has to say about Zinnemann, as I would put Zinnemann in the pantheon if I was using Sarris's categories. But I do like that phrase, and I understand what he means, and how it relates to Zinnemann. Zinnemann's last film Five Days One Summer (1982), which unfortunately is not particularly liked by anyone, is a film in which I think he did risk the ridiculous, and reached the sublime. I am thinking in particular of the last half of the film, in which the mountains of Switzerland take on a life of their own. I am told that Sarris liked it when it came out, but I have not been able to locate any writings by him on it. I would be interested to know what he had to say.

Five Days One Summer

The quotes from Powell, Mulvey, and Jones are from:

Powell, Dilys, Dilys Powell Film Reader (1991), p. 37

Mulvey, Laura, Visual and Other Pleasures (1989), introduction

Jones, Kent, "Hail the Conquering Hero: Andrew Sarris" in Film Comment, May-June 2005

Link to a recent piece on Henry Hathaway:

Link to my argument for why Anthony Mann should be considered one of the best filmmakers of all time:

Friday 22 May 2020

Henry King - part 2

Five years ago, I wrote an article about Henry King and his career. At the time I had seen only about 20 of his films but now I have seen twice as many, almost all of his sound films, and every film he made from 1935 and onwards. All that I said in 2015 still stands, but I am now even more impressed by his work and I want to write about him again, even if I repeat myself somewhat. King's impeccable craft, the loving care he clearly devoted to every shot, and the recognisable style he stayed true to from at least the late 1930s, is one of the true wonders of Hollywood cinema.

Almost all of the films I have seen have been made with that care and devotion, and the only one I think is a failure is Ramona (1936). It is poorly paced, has too much intrusive music, and awkward acting. It is about Native Americans and Hispanics, and Don Ameche is playing the male lead as a chief's son, but Ameche as a Native American was a challenge already at the time and it has not aged well. Loretta Young is playing Ramona, part Spanish, part Indian, and she fits in a little better but not ideally cast either. The film is well-intended and meant as a treaty of tolerance and acceptance, but it is still insensitive to the issues. I think that this is one reason why King's usually sure hand is shaking here, that he does not feel at home. But visually it is not a failure; it is one of the first films in full three-strip Technicolor, beautifully shot by William V. Skall. Frank S. Nugent reviewed it in the New York Times and had this to say: "Chromatically, the picture is superior to anything we have seen in the color line."

But that is the one bad film out of the 40+ ones I have seen. They vary in interest, but that is almost invariably because of occasional weaknesses in the script and the story. When it comes to filming and framing, King is remarkable. His films, at least from 1935, are shot, lit, edited, paced and framed with such attention, care and even love, and as they are stylistically consistent, we can talk about a recognisable King style, or touch. The interiors, when in colour, have a blue-greenish hue that is characteristic of King, and there is ample use of shadows to create texture and mood, whether it is black and white or colour. He stages in depth, using deep space and deep focus throughout his career from early on, and often the sets will have visible ceilings. This makes his interior spaces feel real and lived in. The exteriors, frequently on location, have a real feel for the spaces in which the films take place. This is what got me hooked on King in the first place, the incredible talent with mise en scène, and for making each shot count, as if every shot was the highlight of the film for him. Sound matters too, and how the characters move in the spaces the inhabit.

He was rather conservative in his style and filmmaking, but that is not a problem. Everybody cannot be part of an avant-garde, and I am not sure if there is anybody in the history of filmmaking who had such a persistent, coherent style combined with such an unfaltering sense of quality, for such a long and uninterrupted period. Maybe Yasujiro Ozu, or Alfred Hitchcock. (Which does not mean that I think King is as great an artist as either of them.) Others have made better films than King, but most of them have had more uneven or shorter careers.

Part of the credit for the pace of the films must go to 20th Century Fox editor Barbara McLean, with whom King worked for about 20 years (1936-1955) and 29 films. They formed a close team. Unfortunately, she was also an editor who liked close-ups and disliked long takes, so whenever I see an intrusive close-up in one of King's films I tend to blame it on McLean. Stanley and Livingstone (1939) is especially full of them. But there are fortunately more great scenes done in long takes than intrusive close-ups in King's oeuvre, and sometimes the whole scene is one take such as this lovely sequence from Deep Waters (1948). Here you can also see the close relationship between the characters and their space I referred to above:

Another key creative partner was Leon Shamroy, one of Hollywood's best and most important cinematographers, in black and white but perhaps even more in colour. King considered Shamroy his "good right arm". Regarding collaborations and the process of making a film, King had this to say:
The director is a storyteller – it is his responsibility to tell the story we start out to tell. That story must be on the motion picture screen – regardless who writes, photographs, edits et cetera. All must work closely with the director, or else you will have different interpretations, technically perfect – and telling nothing. No one person makes the picture – many people contribute. But all contribute together – with one interpretation. The director must set the pace – the tempo – visualize the characters – create the atmosphere around them. He must create on the motion picture screen what the author puts in a book.

King was a religious man and his films are populated with honest people, sometimes flawed, who do the best they can under trying circumstances, and who are in the end either rewarded or forgiven by a benign world or God. He made primarily three kinds of films: rural dramas; expensive biopics and historical dramas that were explicitly studio head Darryl F. Zanuck projects; and historical adventures. The production values and set designs on the historical biopics (such as Lloyds of London (1936), Little Old New York (1940) and Wilson (1944)) are spectacular, as handsome and expensive as any studio productions of the time, but fine as they are, I prefer King's more personal, more intimate, projects where you feel he is more invested in the material. Late in his career he also did four films in connection to "the lost generation": two Hemingway adaptations (he had met Hemingway in Paris in the early 1920s and they remained in contact) and two films about F. Scott Fitzgerald. King's experiences with the last one, Tender is the Night (1962), left him disillusioned as its producer David O. Selznick imposed himself on it. King felt it was ruined, but I like it. Beloved Infidel (1959) is weaker, and lacks the visual glow that one has the right to expect from King, but the story is interesting and it has two fine performances by Deborah Kerr and Gregory Peck (as Fitzgerald). But its predecessor, This Earth is Mine (1959), is the last of King's films I think has the same rich quality as his earlier films.

In my previous article I compared King with Henry Hathaway, whom I have written about many times, and I want to emphasise it again. King started directing earlier and stopped earlier, but their careers still run parallel, and they were both at 20th Century Fox through most of their careers, working with Zanuck. But as the films are expressions of their directors, they are different. King is more focused on the past and Hathaway more on the here and now. King is more about forgiveness and Hathaway more about revenge. King is more about community and Hathaway more about the lone individual. Visually, King's films have a softer edge and Hathaway a harder edge. King's interiors are warm and inviting, Hathaway's harsher and more temporary. Personally, I find Hathaway's films and career to be more stimulating and exciting.

depth composition in Little Old New York

Andrew Sarris put King in the category "Subjects for further research" but judging by what he wrote in the entry it does not seem like he was interested in doing that research. He dismissed King by saying that "even at his best, King tended to be turgid and rhetorical in his storytelling style" and that even his good films were not "enough to compensate for the endless footage of studio-commissioned slop which King could never convert into anything personal or even entertaining." I do not know what he means by that. I find Wilson turgid at times, and I'd Climb the Highest Mountain (1951) lay it on a bit thick towards the end with its religious message, but it is not enough to ruin either film and in any event they are only two out of plenty. As to whether his films are personal, that depends on what you mean by that, but they feel personal to me, and they feel connected to each other.

Possibly due to Sarris's influence, King is not regarded as a major director and is rarely given much attention at all. There are several famous and celebrated directors whom I would consider King at least an equal to, or even more accomplished than, for example Frank Capra, Delmer Daves and George Stevens. Both in terms of individual films and as a complete oeuvre. These are arguments to be had, but King should not be written off beforehand.

Finally, let me return to the issue I raised in the beginning with Ramona. In Maryland (1940), which is in every way superior to Ramona, there is also a problem with the representation of race, this time African Americans. The paradox in Maryland is that the black characters are given an unusually large amount of story-time, which should be a good thing, but unfortunately since films from this period usually portrayed black characters in a patronising and prejudiced way, the more story-time they get, the more cringe-worthy scenes and characters there will be. To quote Donald Bogle, Maryland is "a bad one not only for [Clarence Muse] but also for his black co-stars, Hattie McDaniel and Ben Carter." But this is something which is not an issue with King in particular so much as with the culture and context in general. He does not rise above that, even if he means well in both Ramona and Maryland.


Having seen over 40 films by King, and finding them so consistent in quality, it is difficult to make a list of favourites. But here are thirteen to start with:

Tol'able David (1921)
State Fair (1933)
Stanley and Livingstone (1939)
Chad Hanna (1940)
The Song of Bernadette (1943)
A Bell for Adano (1945)
Margie (1946)
Deep Waters (1948)
Twelve O'Clock High (1949)
The Gunfighter (1950)
David and Bathsheba (1951)
The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952)
The Bravados (1958)


Bogle, Donald Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (1989, 2nd edition) p. 56

Sarris, Andrew The American Cinema Directors and Directions 1929-1968 (1968) p. 234

King's thoughts about Tender is the Night and the quote about Shamroy are from an interview in Focus on Film #26: 1977

My earlier piece on King:

My article about A Bell for Adano

Concerning Barbara McLean, she was editor of about 60 films, so half of her output was films directed by King. It would be interesting to compare in depth films he made with other editors, and films she edited with other directors, including John Ford, Joseph Mankiewicz, Henry Hathaway and Edmund Goulding. Their films of course do not at all resemble each other, but there might be a "McLean cut" that is noticeable in her work. But Way Down East (1935) was edited by Robert Bischoff and if does not feel different from King's later films edited by McLean. The same is true for the films he made after their partnership ended in 1955.

a magical scene in Way Down East, a really lovely film

Friday 15 May 2020

Jean Negulseco

Jean Negulesco is one of those directors that are neither well-known nor unknown, and his films, to the extent that they are known, are not necessarily known as being films by him. His most famous one today is probably How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) but it is known for its glamorous actresses (Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable) in the first film made (but second to be released) in CinemaScope, and not for being "a film by Jean Negulesco". But does it mean anything to say "a film by Jean Negulesco"? Are there any stylistic consistencies or a worldview that comes with that expression? I think there are at least stylistic consistencies. Another thing Negulesco is famous for is Andrew Sarris's quip "Jean Negulesco's career can be divided into two periods labeled B.C. and A.C. or Before CinemaScope and After CinemaScope." Sarris point is that the B.C. period is good and the A.C. "is completely worthless". I agree with the first part and disagree with the latter.

Negulesco was born in Romania; one of the many who came from Mitteleuropa and eventually ended up in Hollywood. Negulesco had spent his teenage years in Vienna and then moved to Paris to be an artist and designer, and he was good at it. He went across the Atlantic in the mid-1920s for a New York exhibition of his paintings, and found his way to Hollywood. There he continued to paint and do drawings, and selling his work, but he also did all sorts of things in the film business, often related to design, and short films and documentaries. In the early 1940s he began making feature films at Warner Bros.

Warner Bros. of the 1940s is mainly associated with the rough and the hardboiled. The films of Negulesco had a different sensibility. Dreamy, velvety, romantic. Even those of his films that are usually referred to as film noir, such as the exceptional The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), have that different ambiance. Part of the charm of The Mask of Dimitrios is how strange it is at times. Here is an image from the Peter Lorre's visit to the Bureau of People in Athens. Greece, a sequence that is best described as Kafkaesque, almost surreal. Greece is not the only European country Lorre turns up in during the film: he travels from Istanbul and across southern Europe and up to Paris. That is one consistency in Negulesco's oeuvre, Europe.

Peter Lorre, as well as Sydney Greenstreet, returned in Three Strangers (1946), which is not as exceptional but still strange and dreamlike, and with a script by John Huston and Howard Koch. The Conspirators (1944), a film with Hedy Lamarr and Paul Henreid as well as Lorre and Greenstreet, set in Portugal among refugees from the Nazis, is uneven but has many moments of greatness, mostly because of Negulesco's skill at creating that recurring mood of fear, desire and the slightly otherworldly, all at once. Here is a scene that I particularly like. It is good from the beginning but after 1.50, when the song begins, something happens and it turns into something else, even better.

After these thrillers, or what they might be called, he made the extravagant melodrama Humoresque. The first 40 minutes or so is too much transition, and not interesting, about the main character's life from childhood until his breakthrough as a violinist. But when that happens, and he meets the female lead of the film, the film stops rushing through exposition, slows down, and instead goes deeper into the inner lives of the characters. That is when it becomes great. The style is more withdrawn and "tasteful" then Negulesco's previous films, but with inspired shots here and there that are more noticeable, and it still at times has that same velvety mood, look and tone as his other films of this period. Its use of music is excellent, and there is a lot of it. Some of the best parts of the film is from practice and concerts when the main character, played by John Garfield, plays his music while we see how it affects him and the audience, and there will be several minutes of only that. It is Isaac Stern and not Garfield who plays the violin, but the illusion is complete. There are also several scenes at a jazz club, which are also very good, and where Negulseco's skills at creating that certain mood shines through. The female lead is played by Joan Crawford and she is marvellous. Her face and body, even her mouth, working together with her voice to create depths and complexities beyond the spoken words. She and Garfield have a telephone sequence towards the end which is at least as good as the famous backseat sequence between Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger in On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan 1954).

Negulesco followed Humoresque with Deep Valley (1947), with Ida Lupino. It is one of his best, equal almost to The Mask of Dimitrios, and about love and desire, and the female gaze, in rural America. That female gaze is something that is recurring throughout Negulesco's career. Many of them are centred on women (frequently three), and are about their interactions with each other and their desires, and the struggles of living in a male-dominated world.

Deep Valley

After Deep Valley, Negulesco moved from Warner Bros. to 20th Century Fox, where he became a close friend of Darryl F. Zanuck, and initially made a series of good films. Road House (1948) for example, which continues the ambiance of the earlier films for Warner Bros. and also stars Ida Lupino. Three Came Home (1950) is about women held in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during World War 2. Claudette Colbert plays the female lead and Sessue Hayakawa plays the camp commander, foreshadowing his similar role in The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean 1957). It is a powerful film, and complex, and the prison commander is not demonised but humanised. In one scene he talks about how afraid he is for his family in Tokyo, which is always being bombarded by the Allies. Then he mentions that he is happy now because they are finally getting away from the capital. Instead they will sit out the rest of the war in a smaller town where they should be safe. The town he mentions is Hiroshima. It is impossible to watch that scene without feeling a knot in the stomach; the contrast between his happiness of his family hopefully being saved, and our awareness of the horror that awaits them, is unbearable.

The set design for Road House is striking, maybe Negulescian

In 1950, Negulesco also directed John Garfield in Under My Skin (1950), based on Hemingway's short story "My Old Man" adapted by Casey Robinson, and set in Italy and France. One of several Hemingway adaptations Robinson did, and the least successful. It is an average film, but a terrific performance by Garfield. A better film is the college drama Take Care of My Little Girl (1951), with Jeanne Crain as a new student at Midwestern University, and her struggles in her sorority and with men. Lydia Bailey (1952), set in 1802 during the Haitian slave rebellion, is a remarkable film, of which I have written at some length before here.

Lure of the Wilderness (1952) is based on the same book as Jean Renoir's Swamp Water (1941) and shot in the same swamps of Georgia (and Florida). The swamps are the best thing about the film. The long sequences without dialogue, only canoes and people moving through the water, or people hunting, are quite beautiful, and it has an unusual and ominous score by Franz Waxman. Walter Brennan is great, alas Jean Peters and Jeffrey Hunter are not. But it is a strange film, with Negulesco clearly more interested in the natural world than the young leads, and rightly so. On occasion I was thinking of Walter Hill's Southern Comfort (1981) and at times even of Terrence Malick.

Phone Call from a Stranger (1952), written and produced by Nunnally Johnson, is a drama about a plane crash and a lone survivor's decision to visit the relatives of some of the people whom he had spent time with on the flight. It has its moments but is nothing special. The same can be said about Titanic (1953), written and produced by Charles Brackett. Both those two feel more like the work of the studio, 20th Century Fox, than any creative individual, and are rather bland.

After this Negulesco entered his new phase, the glamorous one in colour and CinemaScope. There were mainly two kinds of films, those set around scenic parts of Europe (and a weak one set in India, The Rains of Ranchipur (1955)) and those set at offices in Manhattan, depicting the rat race. Of the first kind there is for example the sweet-natured Woman's World (1954) and the more neurotic The Best of Everything (1959). I like them both, but The Best of Everything is more memorable, and it has been influential on many films set in offices, including Working Girl (Mike Nichols 1988), and series like Mad Men (2007-2015).

Hope Lange and Joan Crawford

Of the European ones, I believe Three Coins in a Fountain (1954) is the most famous one but I do not particularly care for it. Set and shot in Rome (the second unit also went to Venice), it lacks wit, the actors have little chemistry, and the plot is not enough to carry 102 minutes. It is template filmmaking. I do like Boy on a Dolphin (1957), partly because it is preposterous in a good way, but it is uneven and everybody feels slightly off, or miscast, even Sophia Loren. One of the best things about it is the sequence were Clifton Webb's character travels around the stupendously scenic Greek countryside, all the way from Athens to Meteora, in a grey 1953 Ferrari 375 America Coupe. Visually, the film is spectacular from beginning to end. I wonder if Greece has ever looked so good. In her autobiography, Sophia Loren says that Negulesco fell in love with landscape and made the Mediterranean Sea the heart of the film. The story about hidden treasures, and the politics of removing such treasures from the country where they came from and bring it the United States or Britain, is interesting, albeit handled without much conviction.

Alan Ladd and Sophia Loren

Negulesco continued making such Europe-based films (France, Italy, Spain) in the late 1950s/early 1960s but of those I have only seen A Certain Smile (1958), which has exquisite colour coordination and a fine Joan Fontaine in a smaller role, but that is all to be said for it. I am curious about Jessica (1962), where Angie Dickinson plays a nurse in Sicily. His penultimate film The Invincible Six (1970) is something completely different, an Iranian/American co-production about an effort to steal some Persian crown jewels in Tehran but that turns into a riff on Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa 1954), or so I am told as I have not seen it. Then Negulesco replaced Ronald Neame on one of Zanuck's vanity projects, Hello-Goodbye, which is yet another glossy European romance, and the last thing Negulesco directed before retiring and settling down in Marbella in Spain. He moved there soon after Hasse Ekman moved to Fuengirola, not far from Marbella, and they both remained there until they died. I wonder if they met, or knew each other.


From 1944 to 1952, Negulesco made a series of great films which are noticeable for their tone, temperament and style, the nuances of love and desire, the importance put on decoration (plenty of sculptures, busts and figurines) and faces, and for a number of exceptional performances. While much of this remained after 1952, it does feel like he somehow lost his ambition, but, unlike Sarris, I do not think this can be blamed on CinemaScope. He had already made some uninspiring films right before CS, and there were still some good films after CS. He remained seemingly incapable of doing anything that did not look good and enticing, but the excitement and conviction, and distinction, of those earlier years were not there anymore. But neither do I think, as David Thomson did, that it is about which studio he worked for. Negulesco's first films at Fox were about as good as his earlier films at Warner Bros.

I think it is a question of subordinating yourself to the kind of film you are making, and aiming to serve that. This is of course something almost everybody does, but there are different ways of going about it. You either make films were the original idea and impetus comes from you to begin with, which was a position it usually took some time before you could reach in the studio era, and only if you had distinguished yourself or had ways to maintain your independence. Or you push almost every film you make as far as it will go towards becoming subordinated to your overall artistic project, regardless of whether it was your initial idea or an assignment handed to you. Or you focus primarily on each individual film as a unique object, and try to make as good a job as you can under the given circumstances, without any particular need to assert yourself on top of the given material. I think Negulesco can be included in that last category.

But in those years from the mid-1940s to the early 1950s he was able to reach some higher level of achievement, and some of those films are special. As for his later career, he was adapting to changing circumstances like everyone else, and maybe he just wanted to return to Europe after the war. There he was paid well for directing beautiful people in beautiful locations, sometimes making a good film, and possible enjoying the good life. Whether or not he did, I am not in a position to say.


Audrey Wilder, wife of Billy, was known for making spontaneous limericks. Here is what she came up with when asked for one by a woman whom Negulesco had brought as a date to a party:

There was a lewd man from Unesco
Who was humping a lady al fresco
From the gathering crowd,
A voice clear and loud:
"Why, it's Jean Negulesco."

John Garfield acted in two Hemingway adaptations in 1950 and the one to treasure is not Negulesco's but The Breaking Point, directed by Michael Curtiz, and adapted by Ranald MacDougall from To Have and Have Not. That is an especially fine film, possibly better than anything Negulesco ever made, and it has one of the greatest, and saddest, ending I have ever seen.

In general, a comparative study of Curtiz and Negulesco would be interesting. I have written about Curtiz here before.

I mentioned above that Casey Robinson had made other adaptations of Hemingway besides Under My Skin. They are The Macomber Affair (Zoltan Korda 1947) and The Snows of Kilimanjaro (Henry King 1952) and very good.

I use the words ambiance in the piece. Here is my longer discussion about that word.

The Sarris quote is from The American Cinema Directors and Directions 1929-1968 (1968) p. 262

David Thomson's thoughts on Negulesco from A Biographical Dictionary of Film (1994) p. 539

Sophia Loren's anecdote about Negulesco from Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life (2014) p. 116

I can recommend this article by Sarah Berry about the women in Negulesco's films:

Crawford in Humoresque

Friday 8 May 2020

On watching films at Fanfaren

Those of you who are active on Facebook might have come across the trend right now to post still images from ten different films that for whatever reason have some special meaning for you. Home isolation makes people both eager to engage with each other online, and also, it seems, make many of us more nostalgic than usual. That made me think about various films that have some special meaning for me, a topic which I have brought up here before. Most of these experiences were in the 1980s, my formative years even though I was only five years old when the decade began. Some of these experiences were at home, watching something on TV, or with friends watching something on video. But there was also the cinema in the suburb where I grew up. The suburb is called Farsta, and the cinema was called Fanfaren. I would like to share some memories of that cinema.

Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) on the marquee, so before my time.

I was fortunate to be growing up in Farsta because Fanfaren was huge and not some small, second-run theatre. It had over 500 seats, one of the biggest screens in Stockholm, and was a premiere cinema. At least until 1985. Then it became a lot smaller and was no longer a premiere cinema. Instead, cinema screenings had to compete with theatre plays, music performances and other kinds of cultural activities of varying level of competence. It also had a small kiosk where you could get chocolate and assorted candy. I do not remember whether they had popcorn, but they did have Nickel, which is what I would usually get.

I visited this cinema frequently, sometimes several times a week, but I have forgotten most of what I saw there. But there are some exceptions, and in particular there were these seven films that I can vividly recall watching: a re-release of Robin Hood (Wolfgang Reitherman 1973), Herbie Goes Bananas (Vincent McEveety 1980), The Color of Money (Martin Scorsese 1986), The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci 1987), Batman (Tim Burton 1989), The Hunt for Red October (John McTiernan 1990) and Miller's Crossing (Joel and Ethan Coen 1990).

Robin Hood is the Disney version, and if I remember correctly I saw it by chance. I was doing some sort of organised outdoor group activity (not the boy scouts but something like it, for small children) when it started to rain, and the man in charge of the event suggested we go to the cinema and watch a film instead, and Fanfaren was showing Robin Hood. As it happens, this is my earliest film memory. I particularly remember a fire, which terrified me. I do not know exactly when I saw it, which year it was, so I do not know how old I was. But despite being terrified, it is a memory I treasure a lot.

When I saw Herbie Goes Bananas, I was older and it was not by chance. I went to the cinema by myself because I wanted to watch this particular film. And I loved it so much, and could not stop talking about it when I came home. Me and dad had a discussion about the use of point-of-view shots, among other things. I do not know if it was the first time I went by myself, but it might have been and this might be one reason why I remember it all so well. It opened in Sweden (including on Fanfaren) in September 5, 1981, just a few days after my birthday. I was only seven, yet already I was going to the cinema by myself. But being out by myself was something I was used to. I would always walk on my own to the nursery (loudly singing Beatles songs), and sometimes I would disappear afterwards, to play, alone or with a friend, so my parents would go out to look for me.

When The Color of Money came out I did not go by myself, but with my dad. I said I wanted to go to the cinema and he asked what I wanted to watch. He was expecting some youth film and was surprised when I said The Color of Money. He was also relieved, because that was something he might also enjoy, so we went together. I do not remember what he thought about it but I liked it a lot, and can still recall each crisply edited pool scene. It is one of the few films by Scorsese I have never re-watched, and this is partly because I feel like it would remove it from its status as a dear childhood memory and become just another film.

I do not remember who I watched The Last Emperor with, but I think it was with my mother. This is also a film I have never watched again, despite thinking after I had seen it that it was maybe the best film I had ever seen. There are plenty of scenes I remember in detail, and the broken chronology, and Peter O'Toole. It is not an easy film for a twelve-year old, but there I was, having a cinematic experience like few others. Unlike The Color of Money, this is a film I would like to re-watch today.

It might be forgotten today, but the marketing campaign for Burton's Batman was exceptional. It was everywhere, all the time, and it was not dissimilar to the MCU films of now. A classmate said excitedly that she was convinced that every human being on the planet was going to watch Batman. (In the photo above of the cinema entrance there is a high-rise in the background. She lived in that building, so she had easy access to the cinema.) The film was not quite that successful, but at least I watched it. Again by myself. I hated it. And not only did I hate it, but it had me so wound up, I could not sleep that night. It was like had some kind of fever, the room was spinning as soon as I closed my eyes, and I felt physically sick. The next morning all was well again, but it was a visit to the cinema I wished could be undone. For a while it made me reluctant to go back to Fanfaren. But not for long.

The following year, in the autumn of 1990, it was time for The Hunt for Red October. I had already watched it with friends at one of the larger cinemas in the city centre, but as I liked it so much, I dragged my mother and brother with me when I wanted to re-watch it. I was as thrilled as the first time, and I remember my mother's gasp of shock when Sean Connery's character was shot. Afterwards though my brother (four years younger) was complaining. He had not enjoyed it at all, although, he emphasised, "it was not a bad film." I appreciated that. I am not sure if he said it just to please me, or if he meant that it was a well-made, well-acted film, but that he found it boring.

The final memory is when I took my dad with me to watch Miller's Crossing, and we were both mesmerised by it. The scene in the forest with John Turturro begging for his life will haunt me forever.

There would be no more visits because Fanfaren closed in 1992, but those were my seven special memories. They are such strong memories for different reasons, but they have stayed with me to this day. I suspect they will remain with me forever. Yet they are also uncertain. Do I remember correctly? Initially I was going to mention an additional film, an English adaptation of one of Enid Blyton's books about The Famous Five that I was convinced I had watched at Fanfaren. But I cannot find any evidence of the existence of such a film. It seems the books have only been adapted into TV-series in Britain, never into films. That is my eight memory, ghost-like and strange, of a film that does not exist.

Friday 1 May 2020

Johnny Apollo (1940)

Johnny Apollo (Henry Hathaway 1940) was one of the first films by Hathaway that I saw as I began my decade-long research into his life and work (see links below), and I have now watched it again. It is a fine film, and it has the Hathaway touch. It is also a transition film in some ways. It was his first film for 20th Century Fox, as he was hired by Darryl F. Zanuck, for a large fee, to develop and directed a film with Tyrone Power. Johnny Apollo is the result, a film that Hathaway made with considerable autonomy. He and Philip Dunne worked together with shaping a script, based on Hathaway's ideas, and there seems to have been no studio interference on set.

The story is that Robert Cain, a Wall Street stock broker, is caught and sent to prison for embezzlement. His son, Robert Cain Jr., has lived a rich and sheltered life, unaware of his dad's illegal activities, so now he has to face both the shame and a sudden lack of money. His father's friends avoid him, and nobody wants to hire him because of his father being in jail. Eventually he turns to crime, almost by chance.

Retold like this, it would seem as if Johnny Apollo was like many other gangster films from the 1930s, something like Public Enemy (William A. Wellman 1931), Angels With Dirty Faces (Michael Curtiz 1938) or The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh 1939), but it is not; neither in style, temperament or trajectory. There is for example no focus on crime itself, or the gangster in society. It is not interested in that but in the characters, their personal development and their interactions. The film is slower, more mellow in tone, and there is little violence, compared to many famous gangster films. I would not call it a gangster film at all.

While Johnny Apollo was made in late 1939, released in 1940, it does not feel like a film of the 1930s. In tone, look and sensibilities it feels ahead of its time. It could have been released ten years later without it seeming old-fashioned. If it had been released then, it would now inevitably be referred to as a film noir. But as film noir is inexplicably said to have begun in 1941 (with John Huston's adaptation of The Maltese Falcon), Johnny Apollo is not mentioned in that connection. But referring something to film noir usually raise more questions than provide answers. It is a paradox in that film noir is either defined too broadly, encompassing most black and white Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s that are not cheerful, or too narrow, with an arbitrary set of necessary traits that might be found in a handful of films but not in many of the most celebrated noirs.

It would be more accurate to say that Johnny Apollo is not of any named style or genre and its story is unpredictable all the way until the end. The characters grow and change along the way, and while their actions are always plausible, given what we know of them, they can still surprise or take off in new directions. This is one of Hathaway's many strengths as a filmmaker, when he tells his own story in his own way, and do not follow some genre template. He once made a distinction between "Westerns" (films that just happened to take place in the time and place of the Old West) and "Western Westerns" (films that were generic Westerns, telling clichéd stories), and that distinction is valid for many of his best films, whether set in the Old West or not, as they are of no distinct genre, or might appear to be one genre but then turn into something else.

Something that Hathaway is known for is his habit to use as much on-location footage as possible, and this is often said to have begun with The House on 92nd Street (1945). But many of Hathaway's films, from his start in the early 1930s, were shot partly on location and this is true of Johnny Apollo too. Scenes are filmed on streets, railway stations and even at Sing Sing, among other places. It adds a local flavour to the film that is one of its many qualities, and might also be a reason for why it feels ahead of its time. Not that on-location filming was unusual at the time, other films from 1940, from Gregory La Cava's Primrose Path to John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath, use it to good effect too, but they often feel more specific to their time whereas Johnny Apollo does not.

The film's cinematographer is Arthur Miller, who might have been the best cinematographer working in Hollywood at that time. It is a shame that he and Hathaway did so few films together (only two I believe), although the style of the film is what you would expect from Hathaway. He knew better than most where to place the camera, and his square, forceful composition, with plenty of use of deep space, and deep focus when possible, are often striking without being showy. Consider this image:

It is the moment that the son learns about his father. In the background of the shot we see his old life, carefree, sporty and happy, and in the foreground we see his new life, shame and crime.

While Tyrone Power plays the lead as Cain Jr. (he later changes his name to Johnny Apollo), the greatest performance is by Lloyd Nolan, as the gangster who takes Cain/Apollo under his wings. He is for a long time a likeable guy, friendly, loyal, sweet, attentive and funny, but when he is threatened he is ruthless. But as it is not until the end of the film that he is threatened, we have not experienced his vicious side for most of the film and might easily have been seduced by him. Charley Grapewin, as an old lawyer and close friend of the gangster, also gives a great performance. The main female character, the girlfriend of the gangster, is played by Dorothy Lamour. She is not, as is often the case in the 1940s, a femme fatale, and she is not a victim either. Instead she is a strong, independent character, something of the moral centre of the film, and it is she who put things right in the end. Not because of a genre contrivance but as it comes naturally to her character to do so. Edward Arnold plays the dad and his is fine too. Arnold is, in the first scenes, his conventional screen persona. Cain Sr. is angry, sleazy and corrupt, but when he is in jail he begins to change and grow too, and becomes a new and better man: sad and dignified.

Grapewin and Nolan, Marc Lawrence in the middle.

As you can tell, I like Johnny Apollo very much. Many of the reasons for this are things that are hard to describe as they are gestures, moods, exchanges between characters, things that are created on set by the director and the actors. The way Power looks at his hands as Lamour sings a melancholic song; the way Lawrence push out a chair with his foot to Power to show there are no hard feelings after a fight; the closeup on a used ice pick; Power and Lamour meeting for the first time in a staircase; Nolan telling a joke about having tried to rob a freezer thinking it was a safe; the way the camera often lingers on things instead of pushing on, The latter aspect is something I particularly like about Hathaway, the way he can spend a lot of time on small, seemingly insignificant moments. It makes his films follow their own rhythm, and it is a rhythm I feel at home in.


I do not want to suggest that Hathaway is unique in transcending genres, doing his own thing, and creating distinct characters and mood. It is what artists do, and all the great filmmakers in Hollywood did it. I only want to emphasise that Hathaway is among those great ones, and while Johnny Apollo is not his best work, it is a fine example of what he can do, and how he goes about telling his stories and making his films.

The one thing that feels wrong in the film is the ending, or rather the second ending. There is a sequence in prison which feels like the end, both emotionally and stylistically. It ends with the following shot, and then a fade-out to black. It is the appropriate way to end the film, and a satisfying closure.

However, after the fade-out there is a new scene, of three main characters laughing together and driving off in a car. Since it is abrupt, unnecessary and its tone inappropriate, I feel with some certainty that this was not part of the original script or Hathaway's intention, but something added in post-production to satisfy the audience's alleged need for there to be an obvious happy ending. I cannot know for sure, but I think it is a fair assumption to make, and it would not be unique for Johnny Apollo for such an ending to be added. But regardless of how it happened to be there, it is easy to ignore.

Information about Zanuck hiring Hathaway, and his autonomy during the production, I got from Henry Hathaway: The Lives of a Hollywood Director by Harold N. Pomainville.

Basil Wright once said about Hathaway: "Note first the verisimilitude of the settings, second, the modest but unerring rightness of all his camera angles, and third, the sense of ebb and flow of passion between two tough but inarticulate humans." and it is a perfect summation of his oeuvre.

Links to all my previous posts on Hathaway: