Archive for Peter Viertel

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).

Litvak Lit

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2020 by dcairns

“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
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.

Ceiling Hero

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on June 11, 2019 by dcairns

One bit of film-making in THE SUN ALSO RISES got me excited about the Henry King retrospective at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna (mere weeks away!)

Ty Power stares gloomily at the ceiling of his Paris flat.

His POV:

Yes, that’s a Parisian ceiling alright.

Ty continues staring.

King wants to be really sure we’ve grasped this, because he’s about to do something unusual. So here’s a second view of the ceiling:

Slightly closer, also decentring the light because that’s not what Tyrone is interested in. If we’ve all grasped the concept that Ty is staring at the ceiling, perhaps we can move on –

Ty is REALLY staring at that damn ceiling, OK? You with me on this?


…King cuts to a DIFFERENT ceiling. Clearly different — no light, different lighting. Clearly, a 1957 audience is going to be confused. Even a 2019 audience isn’t going to know what’s going on yet.

And King cuts to Ty, under very different circumstances, staring at this new ceiling. We’ve gone into flashback BY DIRECT CUTTING. Albeit with a lot of careful set-up. But a year before LE BEAU SERGE and two years before LES QUATRE CENTS COUPS. Solidly pre-nouvelle vague.

The screenwriter is Peter Viertel, son of Berthold, a man steeped in cinema, and the idea may have come from him. But King went with it. The editor is William Mace, who also did some fairly turgid stuff at Fox but cut THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK which must have been an adventure. And Darryl F. Zanuck is the producer. Credit belongs with all of them because any of them could have messed it up or stopped it happening.

“It’s terrific!” as the CITIZEN KANE poster says.