Tuesday, July 9

The Directors: Edward Dmytryk

You can name an Edward Dmytryk-directed movie.  I know you can.  Are you thinking or did you already know of one?  Well,  depending upon how well you recall what you read, he directed Walk on the Wild Side, which we covered in a posting just three back.  Remember?

As you might imagine, I first became aware of him when he made a western in 1954 that I quite liked.  It was called Broken Lance and starred Spencer Tracy, Robert Wagner, Jean Peters and Richard Widmark.  It concerned a controlling father of four sons, three of whom he is at odds with and his fight to get people off his land.  In its many shadings, it would be a theme he would tackle over and again.  As I grew older and sought out his films, I noticed a lot of strong men, some good, some not so much, in difficult situations to unravel. 

I would come to understand that Dmytryk made as valuable a contribution to films of the forties as anyone.  He was right up there with some of the heavyweights of his profession.  Tragedy struck in the early 1950s and most would say he never really gathered that earlier momentum again, although he would work for a few more decades.  That tragedy has kept him in the Hollywood history books forever more.

He was born in 1908 in British Columbia to Ukrainian immigrant parents.  Five years later his mother died and his father and three siblings moved to Southern California.  At age 14 young but ambitious Edward left home and got on at one of the pioneering movie studios, Famous-Lasky Players as a messenger boy and general gofer.  He soon became a projectionist and while doing so learned how to splice film.  By this time Famous-Lasky had changed its name to Paramount Pictures and Dmytryk soon became a gifted film editor.  But never one to stay below when there were ladders to climb, he took on directing, a career he knew he was meant to have.  

He got off the ground with a smattering of "B" pictures, the do-what-you're-assigned-to-do stuff but in 1944, it all changed with Murder, My Sweet.  This film and one more to come in three years, are two of the best film noir movies ever made.  If we forget everything else he ever did (well, um, er, not counting Walk on the Wild Side), he deserves his spot in Hollywood folklore for these two films.

Murder, My Sweet is based on a Raymond Chandler work about a maverick private eye, Philip Marlowe, out to find the girlfriend of a petty criminal.  Those are just a few words to start a series of dramatic events that blew the top off the heady film noir experience for me.  Dmytryk gave Dick Powell and Claire Trevor the roles of their careers.  Powell became the prototype for every unshaven, smart-mouthed, down-on-his-luck gumshoe to come and Trevor stands among the three or four best, sexy, bad dames to ever grace the screen.  If you don't know this film, change that.  You won't be sorry.   

The year before he had his first measure of success with a war film called Tender Comrade except that it concerned the women at home.  Ginger Rogers had a dramatic part opposite Robert Ryan and when we weren't misty-eyed we were hearing some leftist-leaning dialogue that would one day come back to bite Dmytryk on that body part that fills a director's chair.

Dmytryk, who did his fair share of war films, commandeered a big, important one called Back to Bataan, filmed at the end of WWII and starring John Wayne and Anthony Quinn.  It would be interesting to know how ultra-conservative Wayne got on with his liberal director.  (Guess I'll find out soon as I'm about to start a bio on Wayne.)

Couched in here was Till the End of Time, another film with a war flavor but this time the end of the war.  It concerns a young soldier trying to adjust to civilian life and a new romance.  Touchingly played by Guy Madison and Dorothy McGuire, it remains a favorite of mine.  Also featured is a young Robert Mitchum in the first of his three films with Dmytryk.

Roberts Mitchum, Ryan, Young in Crossfire

In 1947 came that second film noir and arguably the best film Dmytryk would ever make, Crossfire.  It starred three Roberts... Mitchum, Ryan and Young and featured an electric, Oscar-nominated performance by Gloria Grahame in one of her famous bad-girl roles.  This was a film noir combined with a message movie.  It concerned the murder of a soldier and while we're sure all along who did it, we don't know why.  He can't be arrested until the cop is sure of the motive.  As it turns out, it's simply because he was Jewish.  More interesting, perhaps, is that when the novel was written, the victim was gay but that was out of the question in 1947.  Dmytryk guided an exquisite cast and made superb use of flashbacks to tell a gripping tale.  It would earn the director his only Oscar nomination.  Crossfire has never lost its punch and remains one of the best noirs ever produced.

Then it happened... the darkest time in Hollywood history.  It was a time of shifting loyalties and the Red Scare.  Better dead than red was often heard at the time and soon Dmytryk's career would be dead.  He was outed by a fellow director (Sam Wood).  Dmytryk had a brief flirtation with the Communist Party in 1945 and he was asked to provide names to the House Un-American Activities Committee of other Hollywood types who had some current or former ties and he refused to do so. 

He was then branded by what became known as the infamous Hollywood 10, mostly screenwriters, and all were blacklisted in Hollywood, not allowed to work.  Some committed suicide, some faded into obscurity, some took false names and worked in lesser productions and Dmytryk left the country for England.  There he made a couple of films when he was summoned back to the U.S. on passport issues.  He was promptly arrested, did a little time and provided some names.  Regardless of what anyone thought of any piece of this, Dmytryk was allowed once again to work in the U.S.

Producer (and future director and ribald liberal) Stanley Kramer came to Dmytryk's aid by hiring him to direct a little "B" film noir called The Sniper in 1952.  I recently saw it on TCM and was quite taken with how good and insightful this little film is.  Arthur Franz is completely fascinating as a misogynistic killer who seems quite normal until his fierce urges overtake him.

Arthur Franz as The Sniper

In 1953 he made an excellent war film with Kirk Douglas called The Juggler.  It was about a Jewish refugee with emotional problems relating to the war.  It was more popular with the critics than with the public.  The following year came another excellent war film, The Caine Mutiny, and a terrific Humphrey Bogart performance as an naval officer who is loosing his marbles (if you've seen it, then you know pun intended).  It featured excellent supporting turns by Van Johnson, Jose Ferrer and Fred MacMurray.

The remainder of Dmytryk's career was on a hit and miss basis although frankly I liked much of it.  It is true it didn't live up to his earlier projects but the newer stuff provided some mighty glamorous casts and much publicity.

Soldier of Fortune (1955) featured Clark Gable and Susan Hayward in a tale of a wife who asked a well-connected Hong Kong citizen to help find her missing husband.  The same year it was The Left Hand of God, again with Bogart, as a man masquerading as a priest in war-torn China.  The Mountain (1956) with Tracy and Wagner as brothers (uh-huh) was worse than the other two.

In 1957 and 1958 came two lumbering productions, both starring Montgomery Clift.  Dmytryk's direction may have hit some marks in steering large casts of temperamental actors but his former skills in editing could have been put to better use.  Raintree County co-starred Elizabeth Taylor, Eva Marie Saint and Lee Marvin was a Civil War story about a young doctor who married the wrong woman and suffered because of it.  It may have aspired to be Gone with the Wind but failed.  The Young Lions with Marlon Brando and Dean Martin was better.  The story of two Americans and one German and their women and how the war effects them all.  It provided a fine explanation of how the Nazis came into power but it, too, needed some good scissoring.

Another trio of actors, Quinn, Widmark and Henry Fonda, made a good western, Warlock.  It concerned a lawman and his partner-henchman called into a town to eradicate a gang of thugs.  If most westerns are short on good characterizations, this isn't one of them.

He took one of his Young Lions stars, May Britt, and tried to fashion her into a young modern-day Marlene Dietrich in a redo of Dietrich's The Blue Angel.  Likely Dmytryk never received as many slings and arrows as he did for this one.

Then came three films that dealt in their own ways with the sleazier side of life and I'll be damned if I didn't go gaga over all of them.  First up was Walk on the Wild Side which you can read about in glowing detail on this link.  The Carpetbaggers (1964) no one would accuse of being good but it sure in the hell was popular.  Based on Harold Robbins' trashy novel of a megalomaniac Hollywood stud and his women and mental problems, it starred studly George Peppard, newly-peroxided Carroll Baker and Alan Ladd in his final role.  Trash, trash, trash.  God, it was fun.

Dmytryk must have found Robbins to be a good omen because the writer's latest, Where Love Has Gone came next.  I would never do anything as outlandish as having it on my favorites list, but damn if I didn't love this sicko little piece of film-making.  Every gay boy in the English-speaking world likely saw Susan Hayward and Bette Davis (two strong-willed dames if there ever were any) as a battling mother and daughter in the story of a teen girl who kills her mother's boyfriend.  It was directly ripped from the headlines of Lana Turner's daughter doing that very thing.  I could even get over wooden Michael Connors and embarrassing Joey Heatherton to enjoy this delectable little gem.  There's trash and then there's good trash.

In 1965 Gregory Peck made Mirage for Dmytryk.  It may not be the best work for either of them, but I found it to be a tidy little thriller about an amnesiac done in the Hitchcock tradition.  Widmark joined the director for the third time in Alvarez Kelly, a routine Civil War shoot-'em-up with William Holden.  Of course, I liked it.  And it was both Mitchum and war again for the well-received Anzio.  Then came another western and the unusual teaming of Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot in Shalako.  More routine.  More enjoyment.  What can I say?

Dmytryk's career ended in the seventies and his only film worth any note was Bluebeard, but I think the note concerns why it was done at all.  With a cast headed by Richard Burton and a bevy of beauties, there was more chitchat about the making of the film than the dreary outcome.

Beginning in 1978 he taught at the University of Texas and then the University of Southern California.  During this period he also wrote four well-received books on editing, art direction, cinematography and of course film directing.  The man knew his craft.  He was an incisive director who brought some bold stories to the screen while he looked for the humanity in his characters .  He helmed some major successes that hold up today and made lesser films that were nearly always entertaining.  He is very deserving of your attention.

He was married for years and years to actress Jean Porter who married him during his worst period... the Red Scare.  Edward Dmytryk died at age 90 in 1999.

Joanne Dru

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