ON PAIN AND ANGER
IN THE FILMS OF JOSEPH H. LEWIS
"There seems to be danger all around here."
Joseph H. Lewis is frequently praised for his dazzling camerawork, but this praise is often accompanied by two caveats. One is that he was all style, and lacked a theme of his own, and the other that he never got to be anything but a low-budget filmmaker. Two examples of this view are Jim Kitses, who once wrote that ‘Lewis is essentially a stylist without a theme’, and David Thomson who once wrote that ‘Joseph Lewis never had the chance to discover whether he was an “artist”.’
Whether having a theme should be needed of course goes to the heart of the discussion about auteurs, but it seems to be regarded as something important, at least in order to be classified as an artist. But I am not sure that these two caveats are justified or fair. Why is it that only American directors are treated in this way? Probably because only in Hollywood does the concept of B-movies exists. Critics and historians are not in the habit of suggesting that for example Robert Bresson never ‘made it’ because of budget restrictions. It is not explained why, say, The Big Combo (1955) would have been a better film with a bigger budget, or The Halliday Brand (1957), to name two of Lewis’s greatest films. They should be judged based on their own qualities, and whether they were shot on tight budgets or not should be immaterial.
But this article is not about budgets but about content, and to argue that Lewis’s films were much more than ‘just’ style. When watching his films, such as Bombs Over Burma (1942), The Undercover Man (1949), A Lawless Street(1955), or The Big Combo, what is actually striking is not only the camerawork but the sentiment that this camerawork conveys: the deeply felt anguish and sadness, coupled with anger, which permeated so many of the films. These are not cheerful or happy films. They are cris de coeur, regardless of their setting, and this feeling is expressed both by dialogue and by the visuals.
It is questionable whether style and content can ever be separated. It is rather the case that a finished film is the style in which a story has been told. The script is the story, the film is the style, and anything related to the finished film, from music to acting, from use of colour to use of flashbacks is part of its style. Consequently, style is in constant negotiation with story since the stylistic choices illustrate how a filmmaker thinks about a particular scene, and what meaning he or she wants the audience to take from it. This then of course influence how that scene will be interpreted. There is no such thing as just style, style always means something, and this is definitely the case in Lewis’s films too. One obvious example from his films is the way he often frames his shots through something, such as, famously, a wagonwheel. But it can also be a fence, an iron bar, a window, and this way of staging his shots underscores the feelings of entrapment and claustrophobia that his films are filled with and which is related to the pain and anger that his characters feel.
But there is more than just a feeling of gloom; there is an existential dread that runs through the films, which is related to place, a place which is usually a city. In one of Lewis’s Westerns, A Lawless Street, Calem Ware (Randolph Scott) looks out the window in the morning, and says to his woman companion: ‘This town is like a wild animal in chains Molly. It doesn’t fight back right away; it just lies there and snarls, waiting for a chance to pounce on you.’
That is something that could have come from most of Lewis’s films. They are rumbles in the urban jungle, and the wonderful title sequence of The Big Combo is another illustration of this. It begins with the camera flying over the city at night, accompanied by David Raksin’s music, a melancholic tune albeit filled with energy. Eventually the camera comes down on a busy street (a real street, not a studio street), where people are queuing to watch a boxing fight. And it is with a shot of the two boxers in the ring that the actual film begins. There is something telling about the fact that the camera, after watching over the city, focuses on place of boxing, which is nothing but a form of organised violence. This organised violence seems to be something that the whole city is infected by.
The Big Combo does not let anybody off the hook. Everybody is either shot or severely beaten, and the facial expressions are either that of fear, anger or pain. In a particularly fine scene Lt. Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) comes to visit an old hoodlum (Ted de Corsia). At the knock of the door he first mistakes Diamond for an assassin, come to kill him. He calmly lies down, just asking for it to be quick having spent the last seven years just waiting for death to catch up with him. It is a sad, understated scene, but it sums up the world in which The Big Combo is set.
In The Undercover Man, the pain on the face of Treasury agent Frank Warren (Glenn Ford) is one of its most memorable aspects. The violence and loss that he has to deal with eats him from the inside. The film is easily paired up with The Big Heat (1953), Fritz Lang’s film where Ford plays Dave Bannion, a policeman battling organised crime. He could be Warren a few years later and after a promotion, where hatred has been added to the pain.
In the beginning of Bombs Over Burma there is a long sequence in a school. The film is set in China during the Second World War and the opening sequence is in Chinese only, and we are introduced to the teacher (Anna May Wong) and the kids. One kid in particular, a cute but mischievous boy, stands out. Then all hell breaks loose as a Japanese bombing raid begins, destroying the school and killing the cute boy. That sets the tone for the film, which remains gloomy and cruel, including the end with a traitor killed on a field by Chinese peasants armed with pitchforks. This is an example of how in his earlier film, pre-dating his breakthrough with My Name Is Julia Ross (1945), the combination of pain, sadness, anger and violence is already foregrounded.
It has often been emphasised that sex has a powerful presence in Lewis’s films, and how sex and violence is linked, like in Gun Crazy (1949) and The Big Combo. But sex is not nearly as common as this pain and anger, palpable in most of his films, including the late films The Halliday Brand and Terror in a Texas Town (1958). In the later film a man is shot dead in front of his young son, something that also happens in The Undercover Man only here a father is killed in front of his young daughter. These acts of violence lead to outbursts of death-defying anger. What is interesting with the killings in Terror in a Texas Town is that the man who commits them, the hired gun, is filled with self-loathing and anger, which he projects on everybody around him, including his victims. He is a man to fear, yes, but also to pity. He does not like what he is doing any more than we do, and he is consumed by it.
Lewis once said that 'In every film I ever directed, I had the sense I could see something beyond the script and beyond the story. It's as if I'm pulling up something out of a place I really don't know anything about.' This could be why his films are so rich in depth and nuance. He also said once that ‘[t]he written word is only a road map. You don’t have to take that road. You may take a more scenic route.’ That he always did. But even if it would be enough to enjoy the films of Joseph H. Lewis just by the exhilarating camerawork (with the camera sometimes moving around as if it was unconstrained by the laws of physics), it is the combination of the camerawork with the powerful emotions that make his films so extraordinary. Contrary to Thompson’s claim, quoted in the beginning, Lewis was always an artist, and very much aware of the fact that he was. He had a way of seeing life, and a particular way of showing what he saw.
Line from Boys of the City (Joseph H. Lewis, 1940)
Kitses, Jim, Gun Crazy, (London: BFI, 1996). p. 14
Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, (London: Andre Deutsch, 1995). p. 443
I have said nothing about Lewis’s later work on TV, but that is only because I have not seen enough of it to be able to discuss it. Suffice to say that what I have seen I have liked.
Gelder, Lawrence van, ‘Joseph H. Lewis, 93, Director Who Turned B-Movies Into Art' New York Times 2000-09-13 http://www.nytimes.com/2000/09/13/arts/joseph-h-lewis-93-director-who-turned-b-movies-into-art.html?scp=1&sq=%22Joseph%20H.%20Lewis%22&st=cse (retrieved 2012-10-30)
Nevins, Francis M., Joseph H. Lewis Overview, Interview and Filmography, (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 1998). p. 38