Summer of Movies: Some Edward Dmytryk Films

I’d been looking to expand a look at Dmytryk’s work and career for a film class this upcoming year. Calendars move in ebbs and flows, Jewish holidays move around, etc. Long story short, a few weeks got added to the first half of my class. A lot of the class deals with the transition from page to screen, and two directors who wrote substantially about their processes of doing that, Sidney Lumet and Edward Dmytryk, are focused on.

Lumet’s easier – he wrote an excellent book on his films and there are more great films to choose from. He’s also great to examine since “auteur” signatures can be discerned, yet Lumet hated to be thought of that way. So the commonalities are way more subtle than a Hitchcock, or Burton or Kubrick.

Dmytryk started out as an editor and wrote a great obscure book on editing, portions of which I’ll use since he goes into some decent detail on translating script pages to the screen. He also had an interesting career arc – originally part of the Hollywood Ten, Blacklisted, went to England to find work, and then got back into Hollywood by naming names  – not as prominently as Kazan or others, but it got him back into low budget material that he built upon, and then regularly working into the 1970s in more mainstream features.

After Kazan named names, he made On The Waterfront as a personal statement about loyalties, criminal association, and conscience.

When Dmytryk returned to Hollywood, he made a film I’ll add to my class – The Sniper (1952), a low budget job focusing on a lone gunman psycho shooting at brunettes in San Francisco. It explores the psyche of the killer (Arthur Franz) without giving us blatant cause-and-effect flashback scenes or Simon Oakland speeches about Freud to explain why he’s nuts. Franz is very good here, the police procedural material handled very well, along with an early Richard Kiley performance as the police profiler/psychiatrist assigned to the case. The thing that makes it stand out is the reality of the characters, and Dmytryk’s signature anticlimactic ending. His love of underwhelming endings hurts some of his films, but not here, in what could have been a standard formula ending for 1952.

I already show Crossfire (1947), a great film about a military investigation of a murder committed by the always wonderful screen villainy of Robert Ryan. Crossfire came out the same year as Kazan’s Gentlemen’s Agreement, and both are the earliest films to deal with antisemitism. It’s also one of Dmytryk’s only social message films – did the Blacklist experience chasten him? Or is it simply the material he got handed? The original material of Crossfire had to do with a man murdered for being homosexual, Hollywood changed it to a Jew to make it less controversial for 1947.

I’ve also shown what I think is still the best adaptation of Chandler to film, Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet from 1944, based on Farewell, My Lovely. The plot gets cleaned up a bit & the brothel gets exised, but the essence is still there, and Dick Powell is terrific as Marlowe. I think only Hawks’ The Big Sleep comes close to it.

The other Dmytryk I show is probably his best, 1954’s The Caine Mutiny, a wonderful movie about loyalty, betrayal and duty that came out the same year as Kazan’s Waterfront. Dmytryk’s book is very good here in sections where he describes how he reblocked the action from the stage play into something that could be opened up more cinematically. Great performances all around here from Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray playing yet another weasel, Jose Ferrer and especially Bogart as Queeg, one of his most memorable performances. I can’t think of many tough-guy actors who could play weakness so convincingly.

So what didn’t make the cut?

Well, I also screened The Juggler (1953), an interesting film with Kirk Douglas as a concentration camp survivor, a former German vaudeville star, trying to make a new life for himself in the newly formed state of Israel. He has a trauma flashback and attacks an Israeli cop, and then spends the film on the run from them before confronting his demons. While parts were interesting and Douglas certainly got in touch with his inner & outer Jew (and even learned to juggle), it moved kinda slow and seemed a little draggy.

The Left Hand of God (1957) features Bogart again, this time as a priest in China caught up in fights between warlords and commies back in the revolution. Lee J Cobb plays a Chinese Warlord, need I say more? It never quite worked. Bogart is good, Gene Tierney and EG Marshall play decent supporting roles, but once the mysteries in the plot are revealed, it only feels like formula.

Warlock (1959) is a pretty decent and interesting western Dmytryk did, with Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn playing guns-fer-hire brought in by the town of Warlock to deal with some marauding cowboys. But it gets more complex than that – one of the cowboys (Richard Widmark) gets a guilty conscience and decides to become the actual law in town, putting him at odds with the law-of-the-gun Fonda. There are other complications over love interests all around. You can’t have Dorothy Malone in a movie without men fighting over her, after all. And it’s got DeForest Kelley in it! It becomes an interesting movie in that it’s an anti-machismo western, with the anticlimactic ending that Dmytryk loves so much. I liked it, found it interesting that someone had made a 1970s style “anti-western” back in the ’50s. although I thought it ran a little long.

Obsession (1949) also known as The Hidden Room, one of the movies Dmytryk made in England during his Hollywood exile, is a nice crime/noir shot in bombed-out London. A jealous husband takes his wife’s lover prisoner, makes it look like he’s simply vanished, and then plots to kill him. Parts are very well done, other parts (again) simply drag too long. Bonus for geeks: the victim is played by Phil Brown, who played Uncle Owen in Star Wars. So, I guess eventually he WAS murdered.

Mirage (1965) is a cold war era thriller with a chunk of the case & the screenwriter of Charade all trying to recapture the vibe of that film’s successful capture of the Hitchcock vibe. After all, Hitchcock had lost his mojo for making spy movies by the 1960s, with both Torn Curtain and Topaz coming in as disappointments. Stanley Donen’s Charade is a great film, but the follow-up, Arabesque, is just a mess. So inbetween we have Mirage, with Gregory Peck (from Arabesque), George Kennedy, Walter Matthau and screenwriter Peter Hunt (from Charade), with Jack Weston, Kevin McCarthy and others thrown in for good measure. This one starts out pretty well – with Peck as an amnesiac not sure of where he’s been for the past two years – but (of course) with ALL SORTS OF PEOPLE TRYING TO KILL HIM! It goes along with good humor & briskly, even with Peck who always acts as if he’s got an ironing board up his ass… but dear GOD, is the ending bad. We get a lethal combo of the anticlimax AND a silly flashback that defies reality. If you walked out a half an hour early, you’d think you missed the end of a great film. I would rather have taken this approach.

So, in the end, I think it’ll be a re-show of Murder, My Sweet, along with Crossfire, The Sniper, and The Caine Mutiny. It was a lot less work to add a Lumet – it basically came down to The Verdict and the one I went with, his version of Murder On The Orient Express (to add to 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon and Network, if you’re curious).

Up next, some youtube finds and <GASP> an actual trip to the theater.





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