Posted by Greg Ferrara on November 7, 2012
As a small boy, years ago, three decades removed from the impending 21st century, I began to nurture my love for film in ways that far exceeded simply watching movies. I read about movies, I studied published scripts, I analyzed the careers of actors and writers and directors and, yes, watched as many classic films as I could find on late night television and PBS. And when you develop along such familiar cinephilia lines, it’s common to engage in all the big stuff first: The movies called the greatest on all the polls and in all the film books, the movies so popular they became a part of our collective memory and the trendsetters in Hollywood history. But after that first spasm of taking it all in, you begin to recognize things that the books aren’t telling you and you begin to notice actors that haven’t won any Oscars and you take pride in it. Eventually, you begin to collect the names of cinema artists you appreciate that you think no one else does. They’re your first “discoveries” and like a budding John Hammond, you begin to introduce them to anyone who will listen.
Of course, they’re all famous and appreciated but you felt like you came to them first. That happened to me with Michael Curtiz. Sure, he’s as famous as they come in classic Hollywood but in my day, film books never mentioned him except in passing as the director of Casablanca. Sometimes I’d also see his name in a chapter on Elvis movies (King Creole, 1958) but that was about it. So when I discovered he’d co-directed The Adventures of Robin Hood and solely directed Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk I started seeking him out any chance I got. It wasn’t long before I found Doctor X and The Mystery of the Wax Museum along with the classics Yankee Doodle Dandy and Mildred Pierce. Holy cow, I thought, what couldn’t this guy do?! How come no film books gave him any real mention? I spent years telling people my favorite director was Michael Curtiz (he wasn’t, although he is definitely a favorite) just so I could hear them ask, “Who?” and then I’d roll off an answer that mentioned as many different genres and classics as possible so they’d be just as impressed with him as I was.
Years later, my early obsession with Curtiz proved it had become hard-wired into my neural network when my wife and I flipped on the tv and The Kennel Murder Case was playing. Neither of us had ever seen it nor did we know what we were watching. The movie was more than halfway through when we came in, we watched a few minutes, saw the quick edits and swing-around camera moves and I said, “boy this movie really has a quick pace for what looks like the early thirties. Almost like Michael Curtiz directed it.” It didn’t take long to pick up that William Powell was playing Philo Vance and only a little longer to look it up and discover, yep, it was directed by Michael Curtiz. Now I’ve seen it a few times and even own the DVD. I don’t much mention Curtiz anymore but I still love his movies and his quick and efficient storytelling. And speaking of Michael Curtiz…
When I first discovered Glenda Farrell it was like meeting the coolest, fastest talking dame you ever did know and she was all yours because no one else had ever heard of her. Like all my other “discoveries,” she was already mega-famous in classic circles but what did I know? Again, she hadn’t been mentioned in those film books (boy, those film books of mine were pretty useless, huh?) so when I saw her in The Mystery of the Wax Museum it was a revelation. Who was she and how could I see her other movies? Well, it turns out, I had seen her in other movies but she wasn’t fast-talking dame Glenda Farrell in those movies, she was dull, serious-actress Glenda Farrell. To wit, I had seen and loved I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang more than once before I saw The Mystery of the Wax Museum and long before seeing any of her amazing Torchy Blaine portrayals but that Glenda Farrell wasn’t particularly memorable. She wasn’t used according to her real talents which were, essentially, completely dominating the screen. Pushing Glenda into the background with a bland part was like making Elvis sing backup to Andy Williams: He’d be fine but you’d be missing out on what he could really do. The fast-talking Farrell, on the other hand, was an amazing find. I still love and tout her to the uninitiated any chance I get.
But that’s directors and actors, what about writers? All the famous ones were in the books (Ben Hecht, Nunnally Johnson, Paddy Chayefsky) but when I watched The Lost Weekend and Ninotchka and noticed the same writing names on both, I became intrigued. Everyone knew Billy Wilder but who was this Charles Brackett? He not only co-wrote so many great movies with Wilder, he wrote a few more on his own, including the terrific dark thriller, Niagara. If I saw Brackett’s name on the credits, I knew the movie would be good.
It’s odd, in a way, but film history deals with the directors, actors and writers first, usually in that order, just as I’ve done here. Odd because film is a visual medium and we usually pay less attention to the person who shoots the film than the other artists involved. And so it should come as no surprise that despite all the great camera work done in the classic era of Hollywood by such greats as Gregg Tolland, James Wong Howe and Stanley Cortez, it wasn’t until movies of the seventies that I really started noticing and following certain names of cinematographers. One of the first was Conrad Hall. Early on in my film education I saw In Cold Blood. It was (ahem) more current than classic when I first saw it on commercial television in the late seventies (yes, back in the day, watching an edited, commercially interrupted version of a movie was sometimes your only method of ever seeing it) but I’d already heard tons about it. I watched it for true crime story and got the name “Conrad Hall” from it as well. I still think the framing of the rain reflection on Robert Blake’s face is incredibly moving.
I began to see his name more often as I saw Cool Hand Luke, Marathon Man and Day of the Locust, a movie I love and have written up here at the Morlocks. Pretty soon, Conrad Hall was a name I sought out and knew even if I didn’t like the movie, it would be framed perfectly. Take one of my favorite films of all time, Fat City. It’s the perfect example of how Hall, such a master of composition, never let photographic beauty dominate the story or characters. Fat City is about losers and lowlifes, people living on the fringe and barely surviving. As a result, Hall’s photography frames each shot in a direct and ordinary way that somehow evokes a beauty in its hopeless desolation. The story demanded the photography be non-glamorous and non-showy and Hall obliged but still gave it a look that took you inside the characters’ worlds like few other cinematographers could do.
There are plenty of other artists in the movies whose names I got to know, from editors to costumers, but was happy to simply know the name and possess the ability to rattle off a list of their credits should the opportunity arise rather than feel a need to follow their work. The artists listed above, on the other hand, inspired me not just to seek out new movies to fill in my classic movie viewing gaps but to seek out new individual artists and let their credits lead me to even more movies, many of which were unknown to me until Michael or Glenda or Charles or Conrad led the way. Like all things important to the soul, it led to a deeper understanding of both the cinema and myself and for that I will always be grateful. And it all happened when I first noticed, and then remembered, a name.
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