Archive for John Wexley

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.

Doc C.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2020 by dcairns

I always assumed the writers of THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE named it, and its protagonist, with a dirty joke because they assumed none of the ubercatholics at the Breen Office would get it. Co-scenarist John Huston, in his memoir, devotes one line to the film, acknowledging it exists but saying no more. All his other comments concerning Litvak are to do with horse racing — the two men were heavy gamblers, and there are some amazing stories about that, but nothing that really illuminates the A.L. filmography.

Apart from the title, the other mystery here is the ending, which likewise ought by rights to have been forbidden by the censor on the basis of “crime must not pay.”

Asides from these two points, this is a near-perfect film, with surprising fluidity of tone and a straightfaced quality absent in other WB crime comedies, eg A SLIGHT CASE OF MURDER or BULLETS OR BALLOTS (though it’s been a while). Edward G. Robinson is very calm throughout, as the scientist who tries to investigate criminal psychology by committing crimes himself (since he naturally doesn’t know any crooks). Once he meets Claire Trevor, Humphrey Bogart and their gang, some broader schtick does ensure — after all, Allen Jenkins, Curt Bois, and other great scene-stealers are around (for Clitterhouse to test). Jenkins’ hysterical mutism is good for some broad yocks.

Then there’s murder, and one of the best trials since Alice in Wonderland. The story is very neatly worked out — minor characters like the nurse, patient and police chief are dropped in early, disappear for the central business with the gang, but come back for delightful curtain calls at the end. John Huston, Barre Lyndon and John Wexley are the writers. Wexley’s name was only vaguely familiar, but he was a Litvak fave, it seems, working on CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY, CITY FOR CONQUEST, and THE LONG NIGHT. Only Peter Viertel worked up nearly as many (if you include his uncredited polish on THE JOURNEY).

With Litvak I expect zip pans and expressionistic touches — this movie has one of each, but they’re good ones. The zip pan reveals a surprise Bogie to Trevor, the expressionistic touch is an alarming POV shot from someone who’s received an overdose of sedatives…

Ah-hah! It was a PLAY. So blame the prolific Barré Lyndon.

I think this might be the most Hustonesque — if that is a thing — script job pre-MALTESE FALCON. It’s all about irony, and it’s the story of a kind of failure: a criminal psychologist who becomes both a criminal and a madman in the course of his work.

Ah-hah two! John Wexley, Huston’s collaborator, is interviewed in Patrick McGilligan’s Tender Comrades, which belongs on every cinephiles shelf. On Huston: “Johnny was very verbal. But he wrote strange, jarring things the character never would say. I liked a lot of it, but it didn’t belong. We were dealing with how gangsters would speak and also with a psychologist who joins the gang–he becomes enmeshed and lives a double life–and it never sounded like gangsters or a doctor; it sounded like Johnny Huston. It wasn’t anything great one way or another, but we always had to go back and fix what he did. I had to be awfully discreet about it with [producer] Bob Lord. That lesson may have helped Johnny later; he didn’t do that kind of writing when he did The Maltese Falcon.”

On Litvak: “We became very warm personally. He would tell me all about his problems with women. He had a place in or near Malibu, and we preferred to work at his place.” In fact, Litvak also got a visit from Michael Curtiz, who then modelled the amazing house in MILDRED PIERCE on Litvak’s home.

On Jack Warner: “He was a vaudevillian. I had an argument with him about costs on Clitterhouse. I had a scene where the gang of thieves rob a building to get some minks, and Eddie goes with them. Bogart tries to kill Eddie, locks him in a cold-storage vault. Bogart thinks he’s dead; fortunately, Eddie gets out. We wanted a surprise end to the sequence. It’s a decisive sequence, because next Eddie goes after Bogart. Because I was from New York, I knew that there are elevators that come up on every sidewalk. So in this scene the cops would be standing around, and the top cop would say something like, ‘He must be hiding somewhere.’ The sidewalk opens up, and Eddie comes up in the elevator, debonair, right in the middle of the cops. Eddie says, ‘No one down there,’ lights a cigar, walks off. It would get a big laugh.

“But I got a note from Jack Warner saying ‘We don’t have those elevators [on the lot]. We’d have to dig a hole and get a crank to bring him up. It would cost too much.’ We were already shooting. I called him up and said, ‘What kind of peanut brain are you? Fourteen hundred dollars is all it would cost. I’ll pay it myself.’ That changed his mind. I called Lord and said, ‘Deduct it from my salary.’ Lord said, ‘I’ll pay half.’ Warner finally paid.”

On adapting the play: “The play had an ending, but I invented a trial at the end of the film and a bewildered jury–was Clitterhouse sane or insane? People would leave the theater with that humorous question in their minds.” A smart move: I imagine the Breen Office was as perplexed as the film’s jurors, and so they couldn’t condemn the film’s blatant immorality because it’s not precisely clear whether or not crime pays. Brilliant.

CLITTERHOUSE channels the Warner house style very nicely, but it isn’t realy like any other film I know. Just a really unusual tone, or tones. Another Litvak film I wholeheartedly recommend.

THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE stars Caesar Enrico ‘Rico’ Bandello; Gaye Dawn; Fred C. Dobbs; Jonathan G. ‘Goldie’ Locke; Battling Burrows; Pearl Fabrini; Doctor Treating Knute; Carson Drew; Inspector Crane; Franzi Kartos; Detective Tom Polhaus; Paul Cezanne; Mrs. Truesmith; Detective Bates; the voice of Drake McHugh; ‘Slapsy’ Maxie; and Angelica ‘Angie’ ‘Angel’ Evans Conway (scenes deleted).