Litvak Lit

“I may not be talented, but I am very, very intelligent!” yelled Anatole Litvak in an argument with his screenwriter, Peter Viertel (according to Viertel).

James Cagney called Litvak “a natural-born asshole,” and the seeds of his early retirement were sown in the making of Litvak’s CITY FOR CONQUEST. They just took a while to sprout.

Elia Kazan, directed by Litvak twice in his brief stint as a WB character mook, pondered, as Richard Schickel put it, “if this character could be a director, why not him?”

Trying to research Litvak a little, I find there’s one book, but rather expensive (but can anyone recommend it?) and most of the references I find in the university library system are about things like income tax, poker games, horse racing…

There’s an anecdote somewhere about Hall Wallis being furious because Litvak shot twelve takes of a close-up of Bette Davis and printed the worst. He was sure by take 12 Bette had forgotten what the scene was and why she was in it.

Bette herself, who was Litvak’s lover when they made THE SISTERS and ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO, called him “a slave to his preconceptions.”

Arthur Laurents rewrote “every line” of THE SNAKE PIT, he claimed, and seemed a bit annoyed that Litvak was “too busy” (shooting the film, in fairness) to come to the arbitration hearing, with the result that Laurents received no credit.

Litvak does not rate a mention in Sarris’s The American Film. Well, he had to find room for Theodore J. Flicker, get in on the ground floor of THAT major filmography-to-be. (THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST is one of my very favourite films, but still…)

So, Litvak or shit-sack?

Bertrand Tavernier claims a degree of shame for his neglect of the Russian/Ukrainian filmmaker: “we let somebody like Anatole Litvak die without ever meeting him – and he lived in Paris! Litvak is somebody whose films I’ve since discovered from the Thirties and Forties, as well as his documentaries for Capra: Litvak made the best of the Why We
Fight
series. But in the Sixties, Truffaut, in order to boost Bonjour Tristesse
(Otto Preminger, ’58), which he loved, knocked other directors who had
adapted Françoise Sagan. One of them was Litvak [Goodbye Again]. And stupidly, we followed Truffaut. Because Litvak s last films were bad, we refused to investigate his career. And his career had started in Russia; then he went to Germany and France, where masterpieces in the Thirties like Coeur de Lilas (’32) which contains scenes and a use of sound as imaginative as Renoir- as well as interesting films like L’Equipage…”

The late films aren’t even bad, I think. As with a lot of late work, familiarity with the earlier films and a bit of sympathy go a long way.

The Russian work Tavernier refers to is unlisted on the IMDb and because nobody thought to ask Litvak about it when he was alive, I’m uncertain we can know much about it. (Here’s where I wish I owned that expensive book.) The Encyclopaedia Britannica confirms that Litvak, after fighting in the Russian side in WWI, “began acting in his teens at an experimental theatre in St. Peterseburg,” then directed several short subjects for Nordkino studios, before he left for a career shuttling between Paris and Berlin in 1920. The earliest credits we have are as assistant director for fellow emigres Tourjansky and Volkoff, and on Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON, as well as editor on Pabst’s JOYLESS STREET, but there must be other credits we don’t have — he couldn’t, surely, have become an editor without first being an assistant. Still, those remarkable stylists must surely have exerted powerful influences on the budding director, adding to anything he’d soaked up from whatever Russian filmmakers he worked with.

“Tola” is often attributed with expressionistic tendencies, which is true enough. It’s assumed these were absorbed in Germany, but they might also come from Russia and France — one reason NAPOLEON is such a stonking piece of cinema is because Gance had seemingly absorbed every stylistic tendency the medium had thrown up.

Since none of Litvak’s Russian work is available or even identified to me, his first German film, DOLLY MACHTE KARRIER (1930) is unavailable, and frustratingly, though I’ve been able to see a sampling of the early French and German movies, I haven’t located two British versions of German and/or French originals, TELL ME TONIGHT and SLEEPING CAR, which feature interesting people like Magda Schneider, the awful Sonny Hale, Edmund Gwenn, Ivor Novello and Madeleine Carroll.

There are also odd bits of TV work and a short documentary about refugees that remain stubbornly buried. But all the films from Litvak’s US period on are accessible, which puts him ahead of the Cromwells and Milestones of this world. I won’t be writing about, or probably even seeing, ALL of them. But I aim to provide a bit of an overview of the man’s skills and incredible dynamism.

5 Responses to “Litvak Lit”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “Not without interest” is the best way of describing his career. All those takes of Bette Davis sounds Kubrikian to me.

  2. Everett Jones Says:

    There’s a–not great, but watchable enough–print of “Sleeping Car” up on the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/SleepingCar

  3. Many many takes either means the director doesn’t know what he wants, or can’t explain it, or else he’s trying to break an actor. Bette was known for a certain stubbornness so maybe he was trying to get her to unbend. And after all, she was used to it with Wyler…

    Thanks, Everett, I’ll check it out!

  4. chris schneider Says:

    As long as you’re thinking about Anatole Litvak, don’t ignore the score written by my beloved Harold Arlen (with Johnny Mercer) for the Litvak directed BLUES IN THE NIGHT.

  5. That’s on the list!

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