Archive for October 24, 2020

Litvak in Anger

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 24, 2020 by dcairns

“[…] very few studios at that time would dare to make a picture of that kind. Jack and Harry· Warner let me do it. I had trouble in inducing them to do it. They got scared many times — they got scared even practically before we started the picture — but they finally let me do it, which is the most important thing.” Anatole Litvak, oral history.

Screenwriter John Wexley told Patrick McGilligan: “[…] we had big problems with the German embassy and consulate and with the German-American Bund. Then Martin Dies, who started the House Unamerican Activities Committee […] came to Warner Brothers to try to change Nazi Spy so that it would include anti-Communists as well as anti-Nazis. But the Communists had not done any espionage, so we couldn’t include them — besides which, we were dealing with an actual case. […] I saw Dies going out of Warner’s office as I went in through an anteroom. I told Warner, ‘I saw Dies coming out of here. Are you knuckling under to that pipsqueak congressman from Texas?’ He said, ‘Oh, I told him off. But if you could work in something about the pinkos.'”

Ben Urwand, in The Collaboration, writes about chief censor Joseph Breen’s concerns: “[…] he understood that a controversial picture by Warner Brothers might endanger the business of other studios still selling movies in Germany. Nevertheless, after going through the script, he was forced to admit that the picture was technically within the provisions of the Production Code: it represented Germany “honestly” and “fairly” because it told a story of espionage that had not only been verified in a court of law but was also common knowledge throughout the United States.”

CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY (1939), which I first wrote about here, is fairly famous now as the film which sparked an international incident that could, in theory, have brought the US into WWII two years early in a timely fashion. Yet this raised profile doesn’t seem to have done that much for the reputation of its director.

By happy chance I stumbled on a copy of Ben Urwand’s controversial The Collaboration in my favourite charity shop (St, Columba’s Bookshop) — he devotes a good few pages to this movie, seeing it as the exception that proves his thesis that the Hollywood studios bent over backwards to appease Nazi Germany.

To denigrate the courage of Warner Bros in making an anti-Nazi film, Urwand says, “Despite all the drama and secrecy, however, Confessions of a Nazi Spy was by no means a great film. Warner Brothers claimed to have spent over $1.5 million on it, but the actual figure was closer to $650,000.” Firstly, I don’t see that the budget has any direct bearing on the film’s greatness or lack thereof, and I feel amusement and affection regarding the typical crooked and cheap way the studio operated here. Urwand is plain wrong to call it an obvious B-picture — even though star Edward G. Robinson doesn’t appear until comparatively late in the show, his presence is enough to lift it to A-picture status, even without the bonus value of Francis Lederer, George Sanders and Paul Lukas.

I’m grateful to Urwand for reporting that Joseph Goebbels was apparently delighted to see himself portrayed in a Hollywood film by Martin Kosleck, as well he might be — Kosleck is adpet at creepiness but is much better looking that Goebbels. “I myself play a main role and not even a particularly unpleasant one,” JG gloated in his diary.

But Hollywood has never made propaganda films to have an effect on the enemy, but on the American public first and allies second. Goebbels wrote,”I do not consider the film dangerous […] It arouses fear in our enemies rather than anger and hate.” Far be it from me to belittle Joe’s expertise in this field, but very possibly Americans needed to be alarmed first, before they could be aroused to aggression. I mean, that’s why Pearl Harbour was such a smashing success, surely?

The movie isn’t my favourite Litvak but I love that he and Warners made it. It has an unusual structure, simply following the development and then rolling-up of the Nazi spy operation, which

This movie comes from the period when Don Siegel was running the Warners montage department, and, under the deranged influence of Slavko Vorkapich over at MGM, was pushing the studio’s montages in a more radical, symbolic and visual ambitious direction. He has several good stories about his work on Litvak films. How true they are is known only to the principle characters, who are dead.

On CONFESSIONS, Siegel wanted to show Nazi propaganda leaflets dropped onto a city street. He figured out that the best way to show the content of the leaflets and their distribution almost at once would be to start on a tight view of a single flier, then have it drop away from the lens, revealing many more identical fliers all falling down upon the outraged citizenry from an appropriately great height.

So: a sturdy plank was projected from the roof of a tall building with a camera on the end of it, pointing straight down. An operator was to hold a leaflet in front of the lens, then let it go at the appropriate moment while assistants tossed hundreds more leaflets off the building, then he had to rack focus quickly from VERY CLOSE to INFINITY. This was being done without any permissions and so the hope was they’d be able to see genuine passers-by picking up the falling papers and reacting to them for real.

Siegel is asked if he wants to check the shot. Not wanting to “yeller out” in front of the boys, he agrees. So he squats on the plank and edges very carefully out over the void, the plank bouncing cheerfully with each movement of his (clenching, perspiring) buttocks.

Trembling, he looks through the viewfinder. Can’t see a damn thing, Maybe it’s not racked properly.

“Looks great!” he declares, and inches tremulously back to terra firma, or its nearest Los Angeles equivalent. He never knew if the operator was onto him. But the shot turned out fine, he says.

It’s not in the film, though — only the latter part of it:

CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY stars Dr. Clitterhouse; Count Dracula – posing as Bellac Gordal; Addison DeWitt; Dr. Dohmler – Psychiatrist; Col. Dodge; May Emmerich; Angela Merrova; Woody Woodpecker; Howard Joyce; Spectator at Stoning (uncredited); Mike O’Reilly; “Concentration Camp” Ehrhardt; Captain Schultz; Reinhard Heydrich; Mrs. Barryman; Father Peter Lonergan; Norman Bissonette; Will, the Groundsman; Dwight Severn; Chief Inspector Bernie Ohls; and Adolf Hitler as himself.

Thanks to Karen Green and Columbia University for finding and supplying the Anatole Litvak oral history quoted above.