Prior to the days when movies were amalgams of past movies, the clash between genre and auteur, between the classic mythic structures of story and the artist’s sensibility was the driving force behind Hollywood cinema.
In the 1930s, when American movies first achieved a position of dominance on world screens, gangster films, horror films, historical romances and thrillers were the dominant genres. By the turn of that decade, Busby Berkeley’s musicals, John Ford’s westerns and the screwball comedies of Preston Sturges were driving world cinema both artistically and commercially.
But in the ’40s, the mood changed. War and war films permeated the collective consciousness, and the peculiar blend of urban cynicism, downbeat subject matter and dark shadows known as “film noir” made its appearance.
One of the finest examples of film noir is Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947), a tense, talky thriller shot entirely at night and recognized as the first Hollywood film to deal with the subject of racial bigotry. Nominated for five Academy Awards including best picture and best director, Crossfire instantly transformed the former studio apprentice into an A-list Hollywood director, launching a career dizzying in its travails and triumphs.
By the time he left moviemaking in the 1970s to teach at the U.S.C. Film School, Dmytryk had directed 57 features, including such classics as The Caine Mutiny, The Young Lions, and Raintree County, and worked with such legendary actors as Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, and John Wayne. He had also, along with John Huston, Billy Wilder and a handful of other directors, created a genre which remains as culturally powerful today as when it emerged 50 years ago.
But Dmytryk would become doubly famous for something else. In a classic case of life imitating art, he would star in a great noir episode of American political history by becoming one of the famed “Hollywood Ten,” the group of writers and directors who defied the House Committee on Un-American Activities in October, 1947, by refusing to answer charges that they were members of the Communist Party. Subsequently jailed for contempt of Congress, Dmytryk later admitted that he had in fact been a communist, but denounced the party as a collection of hypocrites whose ideas about promoting equality and justice were never accompanied by action. In 1951 he returned to the US after a self-imposed exile in England and gave testimony in a second round of hearings which served to incriminate some of his former colleagues. He was subsequently removed from the industry’s legendary blacklist.
Tim Rhys and I met with Eddie Dmytryk last summer at the Hollywood Hills home he shares with his wife of 50 years, the lovely actress Jean Porter. Over the course of a three-hour conversation we learned a good deal about this spry, likeable man who began his career in 1923 as a messenger boy at Famous Players-Lasky (which later became Paramount Pictures) and went on to blossom as a film editor for such directors as Leo McCarey and George Cukor before pioneering, as a director, the complex and intelligent style known as film noir.
Now 87 years old, he continues to teach part-time at USC and has written an impressive list of books on cinema, as well as an autobiography: It’s a Hell of a Life, But Not a Bad Living. His recently completed follow-up memoir Odd Man Out has just been published.
As he reflects on his life and career, one gets the sense that Dmytryk wishes his cinematic achievements had not been marked so indelibly by the blacklist. He remains irritated by what he refers to as the politically-driven falsehoods and inaccuracies that pervade the many articles and encyclopedia entries published since the days of his Hollywood Ten infamy.
“I’ve come to hate the liberals more than anybody. I’m a socialist, not a liberal. The people that helped me during my problems were liberal Republicans–not Democrats, not communists and not leftists. Many of these [writers] imply that I lost my talent after I came back, but the fact of the matter is I became a better director. I started making pictures like The Caine Mutiny (1954) and The Young Lions (1958). I consider The Young Lions a far better picture than Murder, My Sweet (1944), even though that’s the one they always praise.”
Murder, My Sweet, which hit the screens the same year as Wilder’s Double Indemnity, furthered the excitement created by The Maltese Falcon, Huston’s stunning 1941 directorial debut, and another noir classic, Frank Tuttle’s This Gun for Hire (1942). All represent Hollywood’s first forays into the dark, paranoiac cinematic mood that came to be known as film noir. Part detective story, part gangster, part urban melodrama, film noir is identified best by its shadowy, pessimistic undercurrents. If the genre has a literary source, it is the detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, both of whom demonstrated sympathies with the Left at a time when the political mood in Hollywood was decidedly reactionary.
Dmytryk’s next two films, Cornered (1946) and Crossfire, along with Edgar Ulmer’s Detour (1945) and Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1945), elevated the experimental style into a mythic art form, the effects of which continue to resonate through popular culture.
The current noir revival as embodied in such films as Red Rock West, Leaving Las Vegas, Seven, and Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead, have put Dmytryk back in the spotlight after a 20-year hiatus. All indications are that the irrepressible film legend is happy to be back. “I’ve been interviewed by more goddamned people in the last few months,” he laughs. “I guess they think I’m going to die any minute and they want to squeeze in whatever they can get before I go. That’s the only way I can explain it.”
Eddie Dmytryk was a gifted filmmaker who had a very specific and innovative way of making movies. Faced with extreme budget and time constraints during the filming of Crossfire, Dmytryk developed a production formula that he continued to use for the remainder of his directorial career.
“It was very simple. I used to be a weightlifter until about age 70, and I know a great deal about exercise. I know that your muscles get tired. And just as your muscles get tired, your brain gets tired when overworked. You wind up printing things that you wouldn’t even say were good takes if you were fresh! So I decided we’d start at nine and go till about four-thirty when I’d rehearse my cast in the next day’s work and give my cameraman the set-up for the first shot. Then we’d all go home.
“The main advantage was that everybody would go home knowing what they were going to do the next day. I remember doing this one scene with (Spencer) Tracy and Richard Widmark from Broken Lance, the western. I did a scene about 10 minutes long in one take because I had all my cuts built into the scene. I shot no protection at all. They would come in for a close-up or walk away from the camera into a longer shot, or the camera would move, so I got all the movement I needed. But I rehearsed it in the afternoon the day before so at nine the following morning the set was lit and we were ready to go. Tracy and Widmark always came to the set a little bit early, so we ran through one rehearsal, shot it, and by 20 minutes after nine I had three days’ work in the bag.”
In that instance, Dmytryk had covered 10 pages of script in one 20-minute take. He normally averaged roughly three script pages per day. When we asked him how many set-ups that included, he launched into the following story:
“Crossfire was a story about anti-Semitism. We didn’t know while we were making it whether anybody would go to see such a picture, so number one, we made it a mystery story to sugar-coat the message we were presenting. It worked beautifully. But we wanted to make it cheaply in order to protect RKO’s inclination to make these kinds of “prestige” (“message”) pictures. We figured we could make it for $500,000, but I wanted a great cast. We spent three-quarters of the money for cast alone, mostly on Bob Young, Bob Mitchum, and Bob Ryan. So that meant we had to have a very quick schedule, 22 days. I eventually shot it in 20 days and everything went smoothly. We had used these techniques before, but only spasmodically. What’s film noir? You use shadows, chiaroscuro, hot light here, no light there. It takes half the time to light.”
Thus was born the great genre of film noir, from practical considerations of time and money.
“Of course, we were going for a mood as well. Three or four years later (Jean) Renoir and I were talking to some students down in San Diego and one of them asked me to tell them about film noir and I said, ‘What is film noir?’ He said, ‘You invented it, you should know!’ I said I hadn’t the faintest idea.
“You know what I did? I showed my photographer, who was Harry Wilde at that time, a book of chiaroscuro paintings with deep shadows that were practically black, and hot lights on faces, and said, ‘This is what I want.’ But what he gave me was better than what I had thought I wanted. Anyway, we averaged about seven set-ups a day and shot the whole picture in 140 set-ups.
“The other thing I did was arrange set-ups that would cover a good many pages of dialogue. But some of the schedules I’ve had! The Young Lions took me about 125 days. Raintree County took me over 160 days, but that was because I never worked in the afternoons because Monty (Clift), who was in practically every shot, was always drunk and under the influence of drugs in the afternoon. The Young Lions was budgeted at $2 million and 60 days, and I said to the head of the production department at our general meeting, ‘I can’t do this in that time because I’ve got Monty Clift and Marlon Brando, the two greatest time killers in Hollywood!’ We wound up coming in at $3 million, but the picture made a tremendous amount of money.”
We next asked him how he was able to elicit the kind of performance Bogart delivered as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny.
“It’s very easy. You elicit your strong performances in two ways. First, you give the actors confidence that they can do something. You’re working in the most insecure business in the world. I always say that the director is the biggest actor on the set because he’s got to act like he knows what he’s doing, even though half the time he doesn’t. He’s just as insecure as the others, but he can’t let the crew know that because if the crew senses that he’s insecure, he’s in serious trouble; they won’t work as hard. The thing you have to do is give them and the actors confidence. You do that by letting them know that you love them.”
We then inquired about Dmytryk’s approach to the script. Predictably, the old pro had much to say on the subject.
“A lot of my students think that you write a script and then you just shoot that script. Well, you never just shoot that script. First, you look at it and figure out how you can start it so that you have the viewer’s interest right away. Every good director is a script doctor. I’ve never written an original script in my life because I’d rather have somebody else do that work. I build on that; make it better.
“On The Young Lions, I could have gotten script credit for writing it simply because I changed so much. But we never asked for those things in those days. You know, very often I went back to the book. I had the book with me in the side pocket of my chair all the time and I would say, ‘Gee, this is awkward,’ or, ‘this is kind of stilted.’ The most difficult thing in the world is to write a scene the way people really talk. Mamet tries to correct that by having everybody say ‘shit’ and ‘motherfucker’ all the time. But people don’t always talk that way either, do they? The only time I use that kind of language is when I’m illustrating something. Or when I was in jail, because it was so goddamned frustrating. Mamet pictures drive me right up the wall. The same with Pulp Fiction.
“Now I liked, to a certain extent, The Shawshank Redemption. It was a little overdone, but then I’m a little prejudiced. When I was in jail, the warden was a very sympathetic, wonderful guy. Really wonderful. Walter Winchell had published a column which stated that Jean Porter was going to divorce Eddie Dmytryk, and the warden thought that I’d go crazy, perhaps. So he called me into his office and talked to me for a while, and then he showed me the clipping. I said I had a lot more confidence in my wife than he or Winchell had, and told him not to worry about it. And, of course, it was a completely phony item.
“I think Spielberg became a man last year for the first time with Schindler’s List. He was always a good director, and certainly the greatest moneymaker in Hollywood history. Schindler’s List is the first picture I have seen since Dr. Zhivago that I think is truly great. Forrest Gump was a shitty picture, pardon me for saying that. And (director Robert) Zemeckis is an SC alum! For me, it was a nothing picture. Completely phony and false. The thing about writing, let’s face it. I used to read at least a hundred scripts a year, and if I found one that I thought was worth making I’d consider myself very lucky. The writing is lousy. It’s always been that way. It’s very difficult to write.”
As Eddie sat there relating his stories, the very picture of robust good health, we wondered why he had decided as far back as 20 years ago to stop making pictures. He obviously still loves the business, as evidenced by his continued teaching and prolific writing. But why did he decide to vacate the director’s chair?
“Mainly because I couldn’t get the kind of films I wanted anymore. The style [of writing] has changed. They write in bites now. In addition to that, making movies is misery. I’ve never been as happy as I have been since I retired from pictures. Making pictures is the hardest goddamned work in the world. It’s satisfying only after the picture is made and you’ve been successful. I’ve got two or three pictures left in me if I had the opportunity to make the right ones. There’s such a shortage of good pictures today. We’ve always made bad pictures, but we didn’t make as many bad pictures then.”
We could not let the opportunity pass without asking the director of The Caine Mutiny to share with us some of his experiences making that classic film.
“I really reconstructed the navy on that picture. There was the sequence where I captured the action on the deck of an aircraft carrier from a helicopter up above. I asked for general orders where all the men come to their stations, but at first it took them half an hour. And I thought, this isn’t going to work. I’ve got to show this in a scene, and I’ve got at most half a minute for the whole thing. So I was giving instructions by radio, telling everybody to run, run, and goddammit they were wonderful! I had two thousand sailors crisscrossing each other, everybody running like hell. It was beautiful.”
In concluding the interview, we asked Dmytryk for some final thoughts on Hollywood, yesterday, and today.
“Hollywood has changed. It used to be run by people who really cared. What’s wrong today is that these young executives think that by virtue of their titles they know something about making pictures. The corporate influence is terrible. You know the old joke about a camel being a horse made by committee? You think Michelangelo had 18 people standing around him telling him how to do it?
“The other thing is content, the extreme violence, and overt sex. Now, sex to me is a private thing. We had sexy scenes. God knows we had great sexy stars, didn’t we? But we didn’t show them screwing, we’d only build up to it. Nobody believes in foreplay anymore. Well, we believed in foreplay. We’d build up to where you knew damned well they were going to go to bed together. And then we’d cut to something simple like a curtain fluttering in the wind or something like that. What people do now is put them in bed on top of each other, and there they are riding around and you say to yourself the old song lyric, “is that all there is?”
“We wanted to let everybody use their own imagination. If they believed that whipping each other made for better sex, they could imagine that the couple went off and whipped each other. If they believed in the missionary position, they could imagine that. Whatever their own sexual dreams and desires happened to be, they could use them. This is one of the things pictures used to do: allow you to think with them. Today it seems that not much thinking goes on at all. But you must think if you hope to succeed in pictures.” MM