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Edward Dmytryk

Edward Dmytryk

Articles - Crossing the Line

Directing in the early 60s.

EDWARD DMYTRYK’S 53 MOVIES reflect
the spectrum of the American experience. He tackled prejudice and
mass psychology, explored psychopathic crime, human rights issues
in wartime, and the Western myth. Through his films, one can see
how Americans thought, how we reacted to social and moral issues,
and how being such a diverse people has strength­ened us as a nation.
Dmytryk traveled many dark roads in his own life, and he showed
us those labyrinthian paths in his movies.

Dmytryk died on July 1 at age 90. His early years
were unusual, and in some ways determined the course of his life.
He was born in Grand Forks, British Columbia, on Sept. 4, 1908,
to Ukrainian immigrant farmers, and his parents took him back to
the Ukraine for visits often, once for a year. At age 5, however,
his mother died and his father moved Edward and his three broth­ers
to San Francisco. The elder Dmytryk remarried, but the family finances
required the brothers find work at an early age.

One of Edward’s odd jobs in 1923 was as a mes­senger
for Famous Players-Lasky, (re-estab­lished as Paramount Pictures)
and his movie career began. He remained at Paramount as a cutter
until 1939, when his directorial career started taking off. In
his autobiogra­phy, It’s a Hell of a Life But Not a Bad Living (1979),
he said his work in the cutting room determined his success as
a director, and that the editing process "has some bearing
on every other facet of the art."

He directed a series of low-budget movies at Paramount
and RKO, one of which, Hitler’s Children (1943), created
a sensation. The popular film explored how Nazi ideology destroyed
the teenagers of Germany. He followed this with Tender Comrade (1944)
and Murder, My Sweet (1944), one of the earliest film noir
masterpieces.

During the ’40s, the team of Dmytryk, Adrian Scott
and John Paxton, based at RKO, were the wunderkinds of the film
noir genre. The two films with Dick Powell, Murder My Sweet,
and Cornered (1945), revo­lutionized film noir. Crossfire (1947),
with Robert Ryan, Robert Mitchum and Robert Young, used film noir
to analyze the dark side of prejudice in America. It was not only
a stunning noir but also the first film on anti-semitism. Dmytryk
was nominated for an Academy Award in 1948, as were Scott and Paxton.
Ironically, the film lost to the drawing room anti-semitism movie Gentleman’s
Agreement
, and its director, Elia Kazan.

Left to right: Dmytryk, DP David Secker and Prod. Stanley
Walker in Leeds, England on Norwood Motion Pictures’ A
Prayer for the Dying
.

In 1946 Dmytryk cast a gor­geous young actress named
Jean Porter in Till the End of Time. They married and, true
to the movie’s title, the couple stayed together for the next 51
years. "He was really a good man," she said. "He
wanted to help mankind; he wanted to help the world. He was a very
sensitive for the dying.  People don’t know that." Crossfire
would ultimately be the climax of Dmytryk’s first Hollywood career
phase. In 1947 Sam Wood gave testimony at the House Un-American
Activities Committee that Dmytryk and other members of the Screen
Directors Guild had attempted to sway the Guild to favor Communist
inter­ests. An earlier movie directed, produced and written by
Dmytryk, Scott and Paxton in England, So Well Remembered (1947)
had incurred the wrath of Howard Hughes, the new head of RKO, because
he sensed left-wing sympathies. That same year he was investigated
by the HUAAC and found guilty of Communist party affiliations.
Forever after known as one of "The Hollywood Ten," he
returned to England and made The Hidden Room and Give
Us This Day
in 1949, but decided to return to the States in
1951, where he spent six months in jail. Subsequently he gave testimony
in the sec­ond round of House hearings which helped incriminate
several former col­leagues. He was then removed from the blacklist
and resumed his Hollywood career, though many critics believe his
later work lacked the original approach he had been known for.

According to his wife, Jean, "Eddie" had
indeed briefly been a member of the American Communist Party, but
withdrew years before HUAAC." He never thought the Committee
had any right to ask about his private beliefs." Jean says
that Dmytryk recanted before the committee because he did come
to believe there was a Communist conspiracy, although the only
names he confirmed for the FBI were from a list already in their
possession.

Jean and Edward Dmytryk at their Encino home in 1998.

In 1952 the producer Stanley Kramer hired him to
direct movies for his company. The Sniper, a return to film
noir, was a prophetic film about a serial killer motivated by psychosexual
dysfunction. The success of that thriller led to The Caine Mutiny (1954),
which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. For many years he
received letters from naval commanders praising the lean and authenticity
of The Caine Mutiny as the greatest naval story ever made.
However, the Academy did not nominate him in the directorial category.

For more than 15 years, Dmytryk taught filmmaking
at the University of Texas at Austin and then at the University
of Southern California. "The students had never been taught
by a director like Eddie," Jean said. "He enjoyed teaching,
and in par­ticular it always pleased him to know that they were
learning how to make films real without showing the ‘reality.’ " Dmytryk
was fascinated by "everything in the world. He told his students
you have to know about everything before you can be a good direc­tor," Jean
said. With his students he made his last movie, He is My Brother,
in 1976.

During the ’50s and ’60s, he directed adaptations
of other best-selling novels, including The End of the Affair, The
Young Lions
, Raintree County, A Walk on the Wild
Side
, The Carpetbaggers and Where Love Has Gone.
Jean said Dmytryk would often get letters from authors praising
his adaptation from book to film. Jean’s favorite film of her husband’s
was his adaptation from an Irwin Shaw novel, the World War 11 drama The
Young Lions
(1958). "It showed the war for what it was," she
said. Dmytryk assembled a cast that was a Who’s Who list of ’50s
acting talent: Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Dean Martin, Maximillian
Schell, Mai Britt, and Barbara Rush.

During the ’50s Dmytryk also created two offbeat
psychological westerns which were minor masterworks: Broken
Lance
(1954) and Warlock (1959), which are still praised
by fans of the genre.

His friend, director Delbert Mann (Separate Tables),
says "I was very fond of Eddie. I think he was quite an outstanding
director. The tragedy, of course, is what hap­pened to him during
the McCarthy days, which was tragic for everyone in the busi­ness,
particularly for him. I thoroughly believe his point of view, as
I believe Elia Kazan’s point of view. Kazan does say he was a believer
and a member of the [Communist] Party. But he learned better. He
realized that he had been wrong and he acted upon that premise.
A lot of that went into Eddie’s thinking when he did his testifying.
Eddie made some wonderful pictures, and his film noir technique
was new and spectacular. It’s just tragic that his career was so
cut off in mid-stream as it was. I know that in later years he
did good work in teaching and in coaching and working with young
people, and that was very much to his credit." MM

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