John Huston, Nicholas Ray

Two Blu-ray debuts this week: John Huston’s long out-of-circulation 1951 “The African Queen,” now with Technicolor worthy of its great cinematographer, Jack Cardiff (unfortunately, there are no digital techniques available to tone down those two cornball performances), and Nicholas Ray’s pioneering 1956 study in male hysteria, “Bigger Than Life” — now in a gorgeous edition from Criterion that makes those Yellow Cabs practically jump off the screen. My New York Times review is here.

Steve Legget of the Library of Congress passed along this link from the British silent movie site, The Bioscope, concerning the ambitious Media History Digital Library project. The aim is to scan and post some 300,000 pages of early movie magazines, including “The Moving Picture World” and “Photoplay,” and their first batch, taken from the collection of the Pacific Film Archive, is now online here , including six volumes of “Photoplay” covering July 1925 through June, 1930. It’s an amazing resource, and needless to say, quite a time sink once you start digitally leafing through those sepia-toned pages.

250 comments to John Huston, Nicholas Ray

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Ford was as much handicapped by Westerns as Hitchcock was by suspense films or Vincente Minnelli by musicals.

  • Peter Henne

    I’ve always thought that the “Less Than Meets the Eye” category is simply one level down from “Far Side of Paradise”-so still quite worthwhile from Sarris’s point of view. He writes, “These are the directors with reputations in excess of inspirations. In retrospect, it always seems that the personal signatures to their films were written with invisible ink.” As I read Sarris, he’s not saying there is NO inspiration, or their signatures have NO ink, but adding a caution about this group. Huston, for instance, hits his top 10 three times. Kazan makes the top 10 twice, and the top 25 ten times. It’s hard not to conclude there is quite a bit of admiration for this group, though Sarris would like to call attention to what he believes to be excessive praise for them.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    The “less than meets the eye” grouping was clearly an attempt to deal with what had been considered the most acclaimed Hollywood-based directors (in terms of reviews of their time, reputations and Oscars) in a polemical way rather than saying that they were absolutely inferior to the ones in the three “top” categories. Also, Sarris was influenced, not only in opinions but also in style by the Cahiers 1950s critics who loved to attack sacred cows of the time.

  • Alex Hicks

    Blake,

    I think all-time best 10 lists that start out with Earrings of Madame de…, The Rules of the Game, Ugetsu and Sunrise put some distance between the Sarris who wrote them and the Sarris of The American Cinema — a take off point for the mail by me to which you refer.

    Tom B. Your “Ford was as much handicapped by Westerns as Hitchcock was by suspense films or Vincente Minnelli by musicals” is very well put. One cannot disagree with the letter of your statement at all.

    Michael Worrall,

    You still don’t get my use of “handicap” as “discount” after my last post, complete with dictionary definitions, and can’t see how one how one can find great films in a genre one doesn’t much like, then I think clarification with you is likely to be unproductive.

    3:10 to Yuma, now there’s a good little movie!

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    What strikes me about Sarris’s Best Lists is that they are, if not exactly “conservative,” at least thoroughly predictable, gathering titles that most auteurists would probably put on their own Best List. The first list cited by Alex, being the earlier, is also the most unsurprising. All the films cited (with the exception of two by foreign directors who are not in Sarris’s book) are by “Pantheon” directors and among the most admired of their films. The 1991 list is not all that different — replacing one major Hitchcock by another etc.. and adding two or three films that didn’t yet exist at the time of the earlier list. The only unexpected (and daring) choice was DEADWOOD, a TV series which I had never heard of (can a TV series run for Best Film?)

    Sarris’s categories have always struck me as the weakest aspect of his book. Although one can’t argue with the selection of Pantheon Directors, most other categories are largely arbitrary and debatable, with the exception of the ones that content themselves with simply stating what they’re about: “Subjects for further research” or the most encompassing “Miscellany” which seems to be telling us: “I just can’t think of any category where to put those directors.” But what are people like Brahm, Dieterle, Negulesco, Douglas, Heisler or Quine (a miscellany indeed) doing in that dustbin-like hodgepodge?

    D.K. Holm is right when he points out that it would be difficult to fit lots of contemporary directors in the Sarris categories — does it mean that films and filmmakers have changed too much, or that the categories were too arbitrary in the first place?

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Around the time Sarris wrote The American Cinema, he famously wrote a Sunday NY Times article proclaiming Lola Montes the greatest film of all time (to back up Alex’ point).

    Back in my Northwestern film school days, the genre study one quarter was “art film,” focusing on Bergman, Antonioni, Bresson and a few others and trying to create a parallel to this group of directors and their work to westerns, musicals, comedies and other genres. I really resisted at first (mainly over the question of directors’ conscious acceptance of basic formulas as a starting point in being part of a genre), but ultimately came around to seeing that was at least some legiitimacy. (This was when Peter Wollen and Stuart Kaminsky – two very different academics to put it mildly – split the teaching duties; this class was taught by Kaminsky).

  • Blake Lucas

    “The only unexpected (and daring) choice was DEADWOOD, a TV series which I had never heard of (can a TV series run for Best Film?)”

    Jean-Pierre, please note this was from Alex’s own list, not Sarris’ lists; Alex had noted he would have a lot of similarites with Sarris but this wasn’t one of them.

    And Alex:
    “I think all-time best 10 lists that start out with Earrings of Madame de…, The Rules of the Game, Ugetsu and Sunrise put some distance between the Sarris who wrote them and the Sarris of The American Cinema…”

    I don’t see how you can say that? Can anyone else here explain what Alex means by this? All four choices seem so at one with the Sarris of THE AMERICAN CINEMA. Maybe this has already been answered though.

  • Kent Jones

    I’m having a vision of Brad Pitt carving people’s ten-best lists into their foreheads.

  • Peter Henne

    “The ‘less than meets the eye’ grouping was clearly an attempt to deal with what had been considered the most acclaimed Hollywood-based directors (in terms of reviews of their time, reputations and Oscars) in a polemical way rather than saying that they were absolutely inferior to the ones in the three “top” categories.”

    I feel like you are conflating two things, since Chaplin, Lubitsch, and Sternberg at least had high artistic reputations in their time and Chaplin was enduringly admired, all in the Pantheon and all among the most acclaimed at some time.

    The reasoning behind the first three categories seems the most clear-cut to me. Choose whatever words you like, but the first three brackets simply indicate levels of excellence, pretty much like assigning grades, numbers of stars, or medals in a contest (gold, silver, bronze). Surely, he means to say the Pantheon is the best, the Far Side of Paradise is runner-up, and Expressive Esoterica is the best after that. After these three, Sarris is less clear on his groupings.

    Jean-Pierre, this conversation is proof that it’s all debatable, and I imagine that Sarris would approve arguing over who’s in and who’s out.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Sarris made his categories in the late 1960s. In the US, Chaplin was considered a relic, his films mainly unavailable; Lubitsch mostly forgotten; Sternberg known mainly because he discovered Dietrich (who was considered camp).

    The directors in “Less than” were the ones who had for the most part the greatest current reputation when Sarris wrote the book.

    I believe this category was intended in part as polemical. (Included were 11 of the 23 Oscar best director winners from 1945-1967; 15 of the 22 NYFC best films in these years – 16 of 23 likely had they voted in 1962 – were directed by those in this group.

    If you go to the ranked listings of films in the back of the book, it is full of cases of films where directors in the “less than” category are listed ahead of many films in the top 3 categories.

    Sample year – 1954

    He lists On the Waterfront ahead (i.e. better than) River of No Return, Magnificent Obsession, Human Desire, Apache and Hell and High Water among others.

    Another – 1965

    The Collector is listed ahead of The Damned and Eva, The Great Race, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, Red Line 7000.

    (One of the curiosities of the director groupings for me at the time as much as now is how George Stevens escaped less than meets the eye and instead achieved far side of paradise – I was initially seeing all these directors’ best known films around the same time, and the distinction for me was never convincing).

  • Jared Weigley

    Kent,

    I’m drawing a blank on who it was – someone associated with the film – but I once saw HUSBANDS introduced at Anthology Film Archives and heard both the story about Cassavetes re-editing HUSBANDS and also that Cassavetes turned down an offer to finance the film because he thought the deal was too fair. Instead, he had the contract drawn up again so that he would have less money to work with.

  • Barry Putterman

    Well, this topic doesn’t seem to be in any danger of going away, so let me stick my foot into it further. The title of the book is “The American Cinema” and I think that we need to take that both seriously and literally because the book itself is both very serious and very literal about its purpose of creating a complete re-definition within the critical establishment of its subject matter.

    Towards that end, I would say that it centers on attacking what it sees as the two central misconceptions about American studio system films; 1. that the directors who worked in at are primarily faceless artisans serving an artlessly commercial machine, and 2. that the foundation of the product, genre films, are essentially weightless and artificial in comparison to social issue films.

    On the first point, the structure of categories does seem like a coherent and frankly “fun” way to structure such a huge endeavor as individuating the directorial personalities so so many people. That the structure lived on past its usefulness and became embedded as gospel despite the author’s own warnings that the rankings were provisional really is more our fault than his. Although it could be claimed that he should have seen it coming given what human nature is.

    On the second point, I really can’t understand how anybody can claim to be a disciple of the book and not have a love a genre movies. A deep understanding and affection for genre movies is central to understanding Sarris’ case for practically every director he praises in the book. And by the same token, a devaluation of social issue movies is in evidence all through the book, although it rarely gets acknowledged as such. You can see it in the sections of the introduction that deal with BICYCLE THIEF and I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG, in the downplaying of achievements such as THE GRAPES OF WRATH, in the selection of Chabrol rather than Godard for the Fringe Benefits category, and, I would claim, in the selections that go into the pre-war overrated group, Less Than Meets the Eye, and the post-war overrated group Strained Seriousness.

    That Sarris so completely succeeded in re-defining his topic within the critical establishment is a testament to the greatness of both the book and its author. But we also have to understand that the book is the way it is partially because of the specific objectives it was serving. The world moves on and the need for modifications never cease.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Let’s not totally forget that Sarris’s wonderful achievement was very similar (and to a degree inspired by) French criticism that had been going on for at least ten years. Not having read Sarris at the time (1960) I wrote, with a few other young critics, a little book about American cinema that made many similar points to the ones made by Sarris. We just didn’t put directors into categories. It was an immensely and ridiculously ambitious book and it turned out to be full of terrible errors, but it was very much in the spirit of a Sarris we knew nothing about. Over the decades we attempted to improve it (mostly by totally rewriting it) but we were there way back when.

    Which is why, no matter how much I respect Sarris, I never could really go along with the adoration his book has received in the USA, but then that’s because I wasn’t here and you guys were. Barry is right, of course, but what sounded so revolutionary in Sarris’s approach had been taken for granted by cinephiles in France for quite some time when he came out with his book. Not that I’m trying to imply that I (or anybody) was ahead of him but things should sometimes looked at in perspective.

  • Barry Putterman

    Indeed Jean-Pierre, to a certain extent Sarris was building on a foundation that had been well established in French criticism, which is a point that he freely acknowledges. The audience he was trying to convince however was the American film culture, which, of course, wasn’t about to be lectured to by a bunch of foreigners.

  • Peter Henne

    Tom, Of course I looked at the back of the book! That’s why I cited numbers for year-end placings for some directors in my 3-27, 4:48pm post. Tom, do you think anyone on this board hasn’t poured over those lists? Also, I specifically said that Chaplin, Lubitsch and Sternberg had been well regarded and did not say that they were continuously, though I wonder if that case could be made for Chaplin. Anyway, I think we’ve both cited some statistics to support our positions. I haven’t tested for every director in “Less Than Meets the Eye,” but all I’m saying is that several of them compete pretty well in the yearly lists and that alone indicates Sarris did not create the category merely to dump on its members.

  • Peter Henne

    Forgot to add: It only makes sense that Sarris has an overall higher regard for directors in the first three categories than for all of the domestic categories that follow, which each have frivolous or slightly denegrating headings, excepting Subjects for Further Research and Miscellany. I can’t imagine that Sarris was, e.g. withholding Kazan from Far Side just to be polemic and teach him a lesson about having an overblown reputation.(I would have added this to the last post, but the glorious Edit function is stalling out on me.)

  • Alex wrote:” You still don’t get my use of “handicap” as “discount” after my last post, complete with dictionary definitions, and can’t see how one how one can find great films in a genre one doesn’t much like, then I think clarification with you is likely to be unproductive.”

    I can’t see how one can: 1.) State that Ford is a genius; 2.) Say that his handicap in making Westerns results in him being unable to enter into most pantheons and then place two of his films in your top ten; 3.)Then consider retracting the two films because you you don’t like the genre–which strikes as more of an issue of personal taste then aesthetics; 4.) State that Classical Hollywood films are worthwhile for escape and only require “mental energy low” and 5.) Then say that you agree with Tom Brueggemann that: “Ford was as much handicapped by Westerns as Hitchcock was by suspense films or Vincente Minnelli by musicals.”

    Now, maybe I am being thick. However, perhaps all the pieces of your argument –even with the backup of a dictionary– don’t add up to a consistent or coherent argument. (I personally think you would need more than a dictionary to explain yourself on this one.) I guess, ultimately, that I do not find it productive to have discussions on film, filmmakers and/or auteurism with someone who is going to dismiss Westerns. I think we should part trails as of this moment.

  • Jared Weigley

    I’ve been contemplating the question of whether contemporary American directors can be comfortably placed into the categories Sarris devised for THE AMERICAN CINEMA. The reality that so many of today’s more prominent American directors constitute genres unto themselves (Quentin Tarantino makes “Quentin Tarantino” films, etc) makes doing so problematic. This problem, in turn, reveals something about the nature of the authority of Sarris’ book.

    Traditional genres make for very useful measuring sticks; they create the impression, however chimerical, that artistic greatness can be objectively measured through the way a director approaches genre material. Extolling RIO BRAVO, for example, as a masterpiece of the Western genre seems like a statement of objective fact. Championing PULP FICTION as a great Quentin Tarantino film, on the other hand, has the ring of a proof by definition argument; one must already be a convert to the cause for those words to even mean anything. Moreover, comparing the merits of Quentin Tarantino and, say, Tim Burton is blatantly subjective in the way that apples and oranges comparisons always are.

    The starring role traditional genres play in THE AMERICAN CINEMA, then, and the authority of the book strike me as very much intertwined. Again, traditional genres serve the useful function of making it appear as though artistic merit can be objectively measured and calibrated. Without the primacy of traditional genres found in classic Hollywood, THE AMERICAN CINEMA would lose its air of empiricism and thus much of its authority. You could still write a book labelling Quentin Tarantino as, say, “Expressive Estorica,” but it would not carry nearly the weight as a polemic that THE AMERICAN CINEMA does.

    On the other hand, you’d probably get some interesting responses if you filed Tarantino (or Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg or David Lynch) under “Miscellany.”

  • JP, didn’t the Cahiers critics vote for the American TV show ’24′ in their 2002 list? If they didn’t, I have no idea what title ties with Van Sant’s GERRY for 10th place here:

    http://alumnus.caltech.edu/~ejohnson/critics/cahiers.html

    (scroll to the 2002 list, obv.)

  • nicolas saada

    Jaime, Michael, Barry, Kent and JP: I have stopped making lists for a very long time, especially since I realized how many marvelous films I either misjudged or missed. Discovering the writings of critics like Durgnat, I have fashioned a way of looking at films, or placing them, that has dramatically changed over the past years. I have to add that endless conversations with people like Kent or Paul Schrader have also enabled me to build a different relationship to my idea of films, especially Hollywodd films.
    For instance Lean, Stevens and Wyler are regarded in France as “academique” directors.
    The right translation would not be “academic” but rather “stiff and conventional”. The problem lies in the fact that “classicism” (another terrible cinephile misconception) is associated to directors who are unable to either transgress a genre or a style.
    It might explain for the amount of nonsense I had to deal with when discussing Jane Campion’s BRIGHT STAR.
    Obviously directors who fall in categories are directors whose work writers don’t have the time or opportunity to return to. At the time Andrew Sarris wrote his book, he had to rely on his memory rather than taking a fresh look at these films. They were no dvd or even videotapes then.
    I wrongly associated Stevens to a rather stiff and pompous way of making movies until I recently watched A PLACE IN THE SUN, GIANT and ANNE FRANK back to back; to my greatest if not immense surprise.
    David Lean has been part of my pantheon ever since I discovered the early black and white films: there are some extraordinary things in PASSIONATE FRIENDS… And “classicism” or “academism” is not a term I would use when a director can associate in a single image, Julie Christie’s loss of virginity and the 1905 uprisings. (The blood spilling on the snow in DR ZHIVAGO, probably one of the most poetic and crude images to have make its way in a blockbuster). We talked about Wyler in another thread and I won’t repeat myself. The problem is that these directors are put in a category by writers who don’t take the time to watch the films again. It’s also a time factor thing I imagine.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Jaime, it does look like they meant the TV show. It’s interesting to ask such questions as: what defines a TV show as opposed to a movie? Or to a “made-for-TV movie”? Does the different medium makes one “show” essentially and aesthetically alien to the other? Isn’t the TV series closer to “cinema” than anything else?

    The concept of series is in a sense a throwback to the old movie serial — a genre (or rather format) that rarely if ever made it in Ten Best lists. TV series are still looked down upon the way movie serials were fifty years ago or more. Is it because they are considered to be intrinsically “inferior”? Some of us here have immense admiration for some current or recent TV series, especially the superb THE WIRE. Would we add it on to a film Ten Best list?

    One problem is that a movie is a self-contained unit with a beginning, middle and end, running for a little more or less than two hours, whereas a TV series never seems to end, it just goes on and on — typically covering the whole season with one plot, then starting again with a (more or less) different plot the next season. This amorphousness contrasts with the familiar and predictable structure of the movie and makes it difficult to respond to and evaluate the series the way we are used to do a movie.

  • Nicolas, don’t forget that Sarris didn’t have to see many of the films he discussed in “The American Cinema” on DVD because he had seen them in first run, in glorious 35-millimeter and within the context in which they were made (“Anne Frank” was only six years old at the time Sarris was writing). I like some early Stevens, too (we’ve been over this a million times in this forum) but the three films you cite were much overrated at the time of their release, mostly because they embodied “important” social themes (the definition of respectability at a time when genre films were held in contempt by the critical establishment), and they more than deserved being taken down a notch or two. I’ll take Sternberg’s “American Tragedy” over Stevens’ version any time — it’s a far more politically engaged film, created with an appreciation for the hard surfaces of reality (the complete opposite of Sternberg’s Dietrich melodramas) that Stevens’s gauzy, evasive, romanticized film never approaches. To me “classicism” — a term that holds no negative connotations to me — means Dwan, Walsh, Hawks, Ford, McCarey, Lubitsch, and their brethren far more than the later, overstuffed work of Wyler, Stevens and Lean, which really belongs to a more baroque, mannerist period.

  • Jean-Pierre,
    What is the title of your 1960 book? This sounds very interesting.

    On TV series:
    1970′s auteurists were convinced that each episode of a TV series was a separate work of art. One that could only be judged all-by-itself. This attitude underlies THE AMERICAN VEIN (1979), the auteurist study of American TV by Christopher Wicking and Tise Vahimagi. It also underlies my web site articles on TV. For instance, I discuss Joseph H. Lewis episodes of THE RIFLEMAN like DUEL OF HONOR in the Lewis article, and Boetticher’s episode STOPOVER in the Boetticher article. DUEL OF HONOR is just a movie that is 23 minutes long, IMHO. This is cool; lots of good films from the 1910′s are around the same length, such as THE CRY OF THE CHILDREN or FROM THE SUBMERGED. Not to mention experimental films from the 1940′s like FIREWORKS or CHRISTMAS USA.

    But I know that many film critics today are equally convinced of the opposite, that a series-as-a-whole is a work of art. People view MAD MEN or THE WIRE or DEADWOOD as a work of art, and the episodes as just arbitrary sub-sections. This might or might not be a good approach for the serial TV dramas of the 00′s.
    I still think this would be a wrong-headed approach for much classic TV. Been watching a lot of STUDIO ONE on DVD. Individual episodes like TWELVE ANGRY MEN or SENTENCE OF DEATH or AN ALMANAC OF LIBERTY seem like works of art. Not the series as a whole. Each of these is around 48 minutes long…

  • Kent Jones

    Mike, it depends on the series. I’ve only seen a little bit of 24, but it functions as one unfolding story, as does THE WIRE. On the other hand, a lot of the series and anthologies I saw when I was growing up functioned differently, and you could speak of this or that episode apart from others. One exception would be THE FUGITIVE.

    Dave, it’s been a while since I’ve seen A PLACE IN THE SUN, and it’s far from my favorite movie. Compared to the book, it is indeed romanticized – most of the romanticization occurs around the Taylor character. It’s also gauzy at times, and at other times not at all (the lake scene, for instance). But why is it evasive? That I don’t get.

  • Kent,
    I’m not sure whether this is right place to ask about “Shutter Island”, but I’m really curious to know your opinion about this film.

  • Because it takes a very tough novel about class relations in America and turns it into an Elizabeth Taylor weepie, for starters.

  • Kent Jones

    My problem with the movie is that it exchanges Dreiser’s harshness for a tinny form of anti-capitalist visual rhetoric married to a trendy form of social determinism, laid over Clift’s character. The mistake, I think was in making George so sympathetic.

    On the other hand, it does have a strange hypnotic power. Again, it’s not my favorite movie, and the novel it ain’t, but I don’t think Stevens turned it into an Elizabeth Taylor weepie. That was the publicity department’s job. Of course, for my mom’s generation it was a Montgomery Clift movie before anything else.

    Vahid, let’s just say that I like it.

  • Stevens’ SUN is evasive on class in the way it over determines George Eastman’s romantic dilemma erotically, providing an Alice Tripp devoid of romantic appeal, an Angela Vickers magnetic enough to draw a member of the country club set onto the assembly line, and a young Eastman with a bit too much ready (if somewhat uneasy) charm and that cool unweathered leather jacket. The Stevens film is also short on description of the dreariness of material and spiritual (if Evangelical) dreariness of George’s background and the rote indignities of class relations at work. Unfortunately, the much better von Sternberg film’s court room wrap up is as weak as the Steven’s film’s.

    Now if Steven has set himself the challenge of a SUN with Taylor played tired and dowdy in the working class role and someone not too much more romantically appealing than Winters (say Elizabeth Scott) in the role of Vickers, that could have called forth more of his waning, if increasingly well funded and untethered, talent; and we might have had more drama and less gauzy swoons.

  • Alex Hicks

    For the VERY TEDIOUS record RE Mike Worrall’s parting points of “March 28th, 2010 at 12:21 am, on point “2”: I never said anything about Ford remotely approaching the statement that “his handicap in making Westerns results in him being unable to enter into most pantheons.” Writing that I did indicates a persisting inability or unwillingness to understand that being “handicapped” (or “discounted”) a notch by others need not make anyone “unable” to accomplish anything. It merely shaves a little off the probability that they will. I had expected that an OED definition would have averted further semantic confusions, while sports examples (evoking the cavernous Astrodome, Nolan Ryan and the Hall of Fame; soccer “yellow cards;” and the like) would have averted further logical confusion. (Also, although it can plausibly be said that I did “place two of his [Ford’s] films” in my “top ten,” those two were two out of four options for one rank and so more like a twentieth of my ten choices than the fifth of them that two out of ten would have been.)

    Regarding pot shot “4” Worrall says nothing literally inaccurate, yet I see that Worrall facetiously refers in Sunday’s new thread to the “low mental energy” required for Westerns as if he thought that stating a preference for Hollywood films for escapist pleasures meant the same as a stating that Hollywood films, Westerns in particular, offered nothing else but “low energy” escapism.

    On Worrall’s first and fifth points, yes, I did refer to Ford’s “genius” and I did like Tom Brueggemann’s point that “Ford was as much handicapped by Westerns as Hitchcock was by suspense films or Vincente Minnelli by musicals” –as “much” or “as little” as the case may be. Certainly, Hitchcock has done at least as predictably well with Pantheons as Nolan Ryan with the Hall of Fame, whatever “cons” as well as “pros” might have gone into judgments on the ultimate merits and admission of each. Minnelli’s did pretty well for his reputations as well.

    Criticism “3” seems okay to me, at least assuming that I’m responsible for not making it clear that I was chiding him.

    That’s it for these ultimately tedious excursions into pulpiness and Sarris and top ten list. For one thing, they’ve lead me into making unfavorable comparisons of films I like and admire.

    Maybe Kent Jones is right about the ranking thing and putting the fear of Brad Pitt and his knife into its practitioners.

  • Ah, THE AMERICAN VEIN … I was waiting for that to come up. To me, it’s a parody of Sarris’s book (perhaps knowingly, given the chapter titles, but definitely serious in its attempt to apply the same methodology to episodic TV directors). The problem with that, of course, is that TV doesn’t work that way; it’s always a writer’s or producer’s or star’s medium before it’s a director’s medium, apart from a few extreme stylists like Sutton Roley or Walter Doniger. So almost all the auteurist rhetoric in the text seems empty and vague (with apologies to Wicking and Vahimagi, the latter of whom left a very nice comment on my blog once). That’s compounded by the authors’ acknowledged fact that they were able to see only a small percentage of the works under consideration (which is still a problem for TV scholars even in the DVD age).

    I bring that up because flaws in THE AMERICAN VEIN always underlined my inability to connect with THE AMERICAN CINEMA. Maybe it’s generational — I came to it in the early 2000s, when most of Sarris’s arguments had been taken up and more fully explored by others. But I’ve been skimming it again this week, and I’m still irked by the glibness of his dismissals (and even some of his praise).

    Kent & Mike, as to the episodes vs. whole series question: obviously you guys are right about older TV conforming more to the former, and newer TV shows to the latter. HILL STREET BLUES and ST. ELSEWHERE are the dividing line there. But it’s often useful to reverse that approach. I wrote about RAWHIDE a couple of weeks ago; the consciously post-modern half-season of that show that Bruce Geller & Bernard Kowalski produced is essentially a unit. On the other end, auteurism can separate out a lot of individual episodes from modern serialized shows: the CSI episodes of Tarantino or William Friedkin or Jerry Stahl; the standalone WEST WING by Jon Robin Baitz about CJ’s father; the one IN TREATMENT episode that showcased a brilliant one-off performance by Glynn Turman. THE X-FILES is a great series mainly because it alternated its long-running “mythology” storyline with bold standalone episodes that altered the tone and look of the show radically, at the risk of alienating (har har) its core audience. So I guess I’m suggesting, long-windedly, that the individual TV episode is alive and well.

  • Brad Stevens

    As far as I can tell, the style for most TV series is set by whoever directs the pilot. There are many examples of well-known filmmakers directing pilots – Abel Ferrara’s CRIME STORY, Susan Seidelman’s SEX AND THE CITY, Walter Hill’s DEADWOOD – which are thematically and stylistically consistent with their feature films. In subsequent episodes, the directors are obviously obliged to imitate this style: Michael Almereyda usually has a quite distinctive way of shooting, but his episode of DEADWOOD looks more like a Walter Hill film!

    Exceptions sometimes occur whenever the director occupies another prominent role, such as producer, screenwriter or actor: the John Cassavetes-directed episodes of JOHNNY STACCATO are stylistically quite distinct from those episodes by other directors, as is Sam Fuller’s episode of THE VIRGINIAN (which Fuller also wrote).

  • That’s true in some cases, Brad — certainly the look of THE WEST WING stayed close to the style set by Thomas Schlamme in the pilot — but then there’s factor whereby a studio spends a fortune on the pilot and then the series doesn’t look anything like it because each subsequent episode is made for a fraction of the first one. One of the (many) flaws with DEADWOOD is that it quickly starts to look more like a cheap backlot western from the ’60s than a Walter Hill movie. Same thing with LOST.

    We’ll see how long LUCK manages to emulate Michael Mann….

  • Kent Jones

    I remember Tarantino’s episode of ER being pretty distinctive.

    Stephen, how’s THE UNIT? I never looked at it.

    I was disappointed by the first episode of THE PACIFIC. But then, I’d just looked at THE THIN RED LINE again, which put it at a considerable handicap.

  • Have been watching THE VIRGINIAN on cable TV.
    IT TOLLS FOR THEE (Fuller) has a first half that looks at 19th Century journalism out West. It seems like a direct sequel to PARK ROW. Didn’t like the second half much, despite Lee Marvin as villain.

    THE SMALL PARADE (cute title) is directed by Paul Nickell. Nickell was a house director on the 1950′s live drama STUDIO ONE. His work seems to look at relationships between adults and growing children, with considerable warmth, personal gentleness but political trenchant-ness. AN ALMANAC OF LIBERTY is his best STUDIO ONE film so far, an interesting political allegory.

    Other good episodes have mildly “name” directors too:
    A KILLER IN TOWN John English
    THE EVIL THAT MEN DO Stuart Heisler

  • Blake Lucas

    These posts remind me that I looked up SCREEN DIRECTORS PLAYHOUSE on IMDb. It seems like it went on for most of one year and the list of directors they enlisted turned out to be really fascinating. And of course, this was not an episodic series but an anthology show so the shows were stand alone and could reflect their director’s styles and interests to some extent.

    These directors did episodes (if more than one the number is in parenthesis):
    Leo McCarey (2), Frank Borzage (3), John Brahm, George Waggner (2), William Seiter, Norman Z. McLeod, Andrew L. Stone, Stuart Heisler, John Ford, H. C. Potter, George Marshall (with Buster Keaton starred), Ted Tetzlaff, Tay Garnett (3), Allan Dwan (2), Ida Lupino, David Butler, Byron Haskin, Wiliam Dieterle, George Sherman, Claude Binyon, Fred Zinnemann, Frank Tuttle, Hugo Haas, Gower Champion, Lewis Allen, Ted Post, John Rich.

    [I hope it's evident these are listed in the order they came up, and doesn't reflect how I'd rate any of the individual directors.]

    What a windfall that would be if the whole thing were somehow made available. I’d be fascinated to see it. It almost seems torn from the pages of THE AMERICAN CINEMA, especially if one adds names (Binyon, Seiter, McLeod, et al.) that Sarris left out but who have been discussed, sometimes warmly, at davekehr.com.

    I’ve seen only a few that I remember–Ford’s “Rookie of the Year” and McCarey’s “Tom and Jerry.” Maybe I’ve seen some others I don’t remember. Anyone seen one they thought was a major work or especially interesting?

  • I only saw the first season of THE UNIT and thought it was pretty disappointing — two of the most exciting talents in television (Mamet and Shawn Ryan of THE SHIELD) and somehow it still turns out be something of a generic CBS-house style military show (sort of NCIS with brains). And yet, it’s still recognizably a Mamet work, with a lot of his repertory company turning up and some of his signature dialogue. Definitely worth a look for Mamet completists.

    (Incidentally, Mamet’s episode of THE SHIELD looks pretty much like any other, apart from the presence of Rebecca Pidgeon. And Shawn Ryan is now spinning his wheels as the showrunner of LIE TO ME (“psychic crime fighter” show not of his own creation), so I guess the days when any halfway interesting TV writer/producer could get a pilot deal on cable are officially over.)

    Mike, the director Richard L. Bare claims that he reshot and recut all of those early VIRGINIAN episodes after Universal fired the original producer, Charles Marquis Warren, and replaced him with Roy Huggins. So it’s possible that “It Tolls For Thee” was tinkered with, even though it’s very recognizably a Fuller work.

  • Barry Putterman

    Stephen, “The American Vein” is indeed pretty lame for all of the reasons you mentioned. From where the authors were sitting, I don’t think that they had any idea of how enormous the task is to evaluate American series television. And, like you, I believe that they were on the wrong track in trying to understand everything through director credits. Nevertheless, I believe that theirs’ was an honest effort, even if they did try to copy Sarris’ format too slavishly.

    If you want to read something that really does read like a sick parody of the Sarris book, Wheeler Dixon put out something a few years back that sort of went on the premise that the auteurists hierarchy needed to be overthrown and replaced by a collection of studio grind-em-out and poverty row directors. I remember him going on a bit about how superior Phil Ford was to John Ford and using a rhetorical point that Sarris used about Hawks as a way of praising Ray Enright. I actually have the book laying around somewhere. I wanted to have it order to get filmographies on some of those guys.

    Blake, when we were talking about McCarey, I mentioned seeing a program of “Screen Directors Playhouse” episodes at the Thalia theater here in the Apple. I brought it up mainly to say how wonderful I thought “Tom and Jerry” was. But actually, every episode I saw was at least satisfying. At that time I failed to mention the Lupino, “Number Five checked Out,” which is very much in the spirit of THE HITCH-HIKER.

    I’d STILL like to know who has the rights to that show and why we can’t see it on home video. As a side note, I have a TV Guide from 1956 which details the Claude Binyon episode that would be running that week. VERY frustrating!

  • Jim Gerow

    I still have my original 35-year-old copy of The American Cinema, held together by a rubber band, plus a newer version with the important Afterword that Kent mentioned. It’s interesting how many of the Pantheon directors are expatriates who did major work in Europe as well as Hollywood (Hitchcock, Lang, Lubitsch, Ophuls, Murnau, Renoir), while the Far Side of Paradise is dominated by American-born directors. I personally would elevate Ray, Walsh, Mann, McCarey, Borzage, Tourneur, Minnelli, Preminger, Cukor, Sturges and Fuller (but not Wilder) to the Pantheon.

    Related TCM Alert: TWO RODE TOGETHER is on this Wednesday at 11 AM Eastern. It was directed by John Ford. He made Westerns.

  • Stephen Bowie

    I’d like to see SCREEN DIRECTORS PLAYHOUSE too … but it doesn’t seem quite as exotic to me, since about half of those “screen” directors had already settled permanently in television by then. I’ve seen dozens of hours of Ida Lupino- and John Brahm-directed TV shows, most of them probably with bigger budgets and better material. But, yes, some Borzage and Hugo Haas marginalia would be fascinating to see … and then there’s the Nick Ray-directed episode of GE THEATER, which I still haven’t tracked down, although I know it does circulate in private collections.

    Barry — And W. Lee Wilder is superior to Billy Wilder! Oh, wait … that one might actually have some currency around here….

  • Blake Lucas

    I’ve seen the Nick Ray “High Green Wall”–very interesting half hour drama, though I wouldn’t say it’s a major work.

    And yes, Stephen, I know some of those directors wound up doing a lot of TV, and some others who many of us here love were not getting theatrical features, or not many, at that time (Borzage, McCarey) even if their careers in theatrical features weren’t over. But Allan Dwan was working a lot still–of course, his ability to work a lot may have been helpful in a TV anthology show. And somehow they got John Ford, at an artistic peak at the time, who brought his stock company and turned out a nice little story, certainly Fordian enough in some aspects, in “Rookie of the Year.” Ida Lupino did so much television following that amazing 1949-1953 “Set of Six” (they should put out Conrad’s short story collection as an extra in a DVD release of those films as a group) and I haven’t seen a lot of it, but found her three FUGITIVE episodes distinctive and well-served by her presence as director, so was especially perked by her name and trust Barry on this one.

  • I’ve got that Wheeler Dixon book, Barry — it’s called “The B Directors — A Biographical Directory” and mostly its a useful compendium of short biographical sketches, without much in the way of critical judgments. He does make the startling assertion, though, that Phil Ford (Francis’s son) was “often more interesting than either John or Francis.” I’ve enjoyed the handful of Phil Ford films I’ve seen (mostly they’re Republic productions, and remain locked away in the Paramount/Viacom vault), and its my sense that his crime films were superior to his westerns — “The Last Crooked Mile,” “The Mysterious Mr. Valentine,” and “Hideout” are all pretty decent.

    On “Screen Directors Playhouse,” I can vouch for one of the Borzage episodes, “The Day I Met Caruso,” which was written by Zoe Akins and is quite charming, with a wonderful swell of Borzagian goosebumps at the climax. Dwan’s “It’s Always Sunday” is one of his lovely small town stories, with Dennis O’Keefe and Fay Wray, and his “High Air” is a tight little drama about father and son sandhogs (William Bendix and Dennis Hopper) written by A.I. Bezzerides. The copyright reads “Hal Roach Studios,” though I remember reading that the Directors Guild had something to do with it. There is no producer credit, apparently for polemical reasons! I’d love to see some more of these.

    Stephen, you’ve got to admit that “Killers from Space” is funnier than “The Major and the Minor,” though perhaps not as creepy.

  • Stephen Bowie

    Lupino, like Tourneur, is a favorite film director whose distinctiveness seemed largely muted to me by the time she got to TV. I haven’t seen all the work side-by-side, though, so I don’t completely trust my perception there. I’d be interested in your comments on her FUGITIVE episodes if you remember anything specific.

  • Stephen Bowie

    The uncredited producer wasn’t uncommon on some of those ’50s filmed dramas. WICHITA TOWN, a Mirisch Bros. production, doesn’t have one (the writer Richard Alan Simmons told me it was him), and Revue Productions (the TV arm of MCA, later Universal) was also stingy about doling out producer credits. The Darren McGavin version of MIKE HAMMER apparently produced itself, for instance.

    Bezzerides, incidentally, should be well-represented in the next volume of THE BARBARA STANWYCK SHOW, due out on DVD later this year. At least two of his scripts were directed by Jacques Tourneur.

    Dave, I have to assume you’re not kidding about THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, which I find very funny and not at all creepy (though I see how it could be, with someone sexier than Ginger Rogers in that role). I wish I had seen KILLERS IN SPACE so I could demur even more firmly.

  • Barry Putterman

    Dave, I guess I’ll have to dig out the Dixon book now. My memory is that there was quite a bit of advocacy in it. I particularly remember him making a big case for George Blair.

    I’ll grant the possibility that KILLERS FROM SPACE is funnier than THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR (and human beings can’t get much sexier than Ginger Rogers in my book). But in the annals of the recently deceased Peter Graves 50s horror classics, can it really compete with BEGINNING OF THE END? I think it is quite possible that Bob Newhart’s entire career is an outgrowth of Graves’ telephone conversation with the president in the climax of that B.I.G. classic.

    Stephen, the directors had much more control over their “Screen Directors Playhouse” episodes than they did their work in continuing series. That’s why they called it “Screen Directors Playhouse.”

  • You’re right, Barry — he calls Blair “the American Georges Franju,” a claim I am unable to verify from my limited exposure to Blair’s work. Though I do like his “Alias the Champ,” a 1949 comedy starring the unique and irrepressible professional wrestler Gorgeous George, a film that should be shown in every gender studies class.

  • Johan Andreasson

    One television actor after another with impressive jaw lines passes away: First Peter Graves and then Robert Culp.

  • Brad Stevens

    Just picked up Universal’s ‘restored’ region 2 disc of JOHNNY GUITAR, and was surprised to find that the opening credits appear against a blue background. All previous transfers that I’ve encountered run the credits over a shot of a landscape.

  • Blake Lucas

    Brad–The credits over the landscape is definitely the way it was in the original film as released in 1954 (and the only way I’ve ever seen it). This is very strange.

  • Brad Stevens

    I e-mailed Bernard Eisenschitz. According to him, “there always (always? as far as I can remember) were two backgrounds for the credits. The French Montparnasse dvd has the blue background”.

  • Blake Lucas

    OK, but I wonder what the story really is on this. I’ve known of replaced credits on reissues. It’s hard to imagine Republic springing for two different versions of the credits back in ’54.