You skipped ‘motherfucker,'” Andre de Toth alerted
me. Unfamiliar with his Dell laptop, I found the cursor and scrolled
back. I had skipped “motherfucker”… without realizing
it, of course. De Toth smiled as I reread my lady friend’s online
letter aloud—with the ordained curse word intact. “‘Motherfucker’
is important,” de Toth announced, “it adds punch. It’s very important!”
Andre de Toth knew about punches. He knew how to
take them. He learned in the political uprisings of his native Hungary,
where as a teenager he was shot and woke up in a morgue. He learned
in Poland in October, 1939, where he witnessed the Nazi war machine
light the torch that started World War II. He learned from the bone
bank in Switzerland that fused his spine in the first of three broken
necks. He learned from watching his wife, Veronica Lake, the mother
of his children, self-destruct in a haze of alcohol and drug addiction.
He learned in the trenches of Golden Age Hollywood, battling moguls
like Harry Cohn and Jack Warner on countless hardboiled genre pictures.
Punches? With seven wives, 19 kids and 45 movies to his credit,
he could teach a college course on the art of rolling with the damn
And now he’s gone. Dead of an aneurysm. Andre de
Toth was always straight to the point—even at the end.
De Toth’s films were an expression of the man he
was. In his youth he was dashing, but even his best movies were
never pretty. He reveled at showing human nature at its worst, “to
show us what not to do,” he said. His obsession with the Judas kiss
of betrayal transcended genre. This was evident from his startlingly
original, late 1930s neo-realistic Hungarian melodramas (Two
Girls on the Street, Semmelweis), through his bleakest American
westerns (Ramrod, Day of the Outlaw) and his scathing explorations
of the criminality of war (None Shall Escape, Play Dirty)
to his atypical, female-driven film noirs (Pitfall, Crime Wave).
Treachery, adultery, revenge and occasionally—if you were lucky—redemption
were par for the course for Andre de Toth’s heroes. “I shoot the
clean, dirty truth,” he told me over some good bordeaux at his home
in Burbank, “the truth can be very dirty, you know.”
The week of his passing, newspapers around the world
eulogized him with phrases like, “a glorious rogue,” “an enfante
terrible into his eighties,” “an in-your-face maverick” and, of
course, they praised him as the one-eyed man who made the best 3-D
picture ever, the classic House of Wax (1953). However, like
his films, de Toth had no place for rose-tinted glasses. “How do
you want to be remembered?” he was asked several years ago by MM.
“I don’t give a shit,” he shot back, unblinking.
Why do people come into our lives? When you’re lucky
enough to befriend a master, you don’t screw it up. And Andre de
Toth was that: a true artist who maintained an uncompromising personal
vision within the machinery of the old Hollywood system. But to
me he was also a mentor, a father-figure, a collaborator.
I sought out Andre de Toth because I wanted to learn
about his pictures. Without realizing it, I wanted his wisdom. Over
coffee we sparred, tape recorder rolling. Five years later, with
a documentary in the editing stages and a book mostly written, I
haven’t stopped learning.
De Toth himself never stopped, either—he never stopped
asking questions, never stopped being fascinated by life. How many
89-year-olds do you know who are active on the Internet? He called
me once while deleting junk e-mail, “Amazing, they send so many
dirty ones… ‘Hello Stud!'” De Toth laughed. “They say such
funny things.” As his body atrophied, his mind continued to rage.
Whatever the corny parable is about the old man teaching
life lessons to the young man whose enthusiasm feeds the old man’s
spirit, I don’t much care. I just miss talking to my friend about
girls, whiskey, dogs, movies, his day, my day. Life. I miss hearing
him bark at me. I miss hearing him tell me why “motherfucker” is
so important. MM