JOSEPH H. LEWIS: BORN INTO B-MOVIES
The B-movie was born in the 1930s as a way to prolong the moviegoing experience, providing an entire evening’s entertainment for cash-strapped Depression audiences, sometimes with added contests and giveaways of dishes and even boxes of food. The big studios like MGM and Warners would supply both an “A” movie with recognizable stars and visible production values, accompanied by a “B” feature, usually not exceeding an hour in length and sporting second-hand sets and actors that were either on the way up or (all too often) on the way down.
Below even this “B” level, more modest popular cinemas offered a steadily-changing diet of exceedingly minor westerns and horror films, aimed squarely at audiences of pre-teens and action aficionados of all ages. At this level, Hollywood’s so-called Poverty Row studios such as Mascot, Monogram and PRC (and numerous others) fed product into third-run cinemas, often in rural locations, that had no big studio connections and always needed features for Saturday morning kiddy shows.
Almost the only director to emerge from these lowest reaches of basic filmmaking and still build a reputation as a visual stylist, Joseph H. Lewis is now usually remembered for two cornerstones of film noir (both remarkable though quite different)—Gun Crazy (1949) and The Big Combo (1955). Starting in the 1930s, Lewis pursued a career positioned at the crossroads where the rise of film noir, the rise of the modest “sleeper” hit, and the rise of the auteur director, all converge.
Almost unique as a maverick operating comfortably at all levels within the system, Lewis worked in a variety of genres--including a musical, a costume adventure, a courtroom drama and a fantasy-- but his films enjoyed no talismans of elite culture success such as Academy Award nominations (let alone winning Oscars themselves), no major box office successes to his credit, and no control over prestigious projects with major stars. To deliver the story as strikingly as possible, using his undeniable flair for incisive framing and making room for the imaginative participation of the viewer, his aim was to wring the best from his collaborators, not to climb the ladder of Hollywood success.
Born in 1907, Lewis belongs to a cohort of film artists born within several years of one another, all germinating in the silent period to sprout into directors during the 1930s and 1940s, including Jacques Tourneur (born 1904), Edgar G. Ulmer (1904), Anthony Mann (1906), Joseph Losey (1909) and Nicholas Ray (1911). All of these directors contributed classics to the film noir canon and most eventually enjoyed a breakout hit that identified their talent publicly, but Lewis’s most enduring production was a dismal failure in its 1949 release, both under its original title of DEADLY IS THE FEMALE and its equally unsuccessful rebirth eight months later as GUN CRAZY (indeed, he was arguably more commercially successful in his final decade, directing episodes of television westerns, than in his silver screen career, and largely artistically notable as well).
By no means an intellectual to be entrusted with temperamental screen stars and high prestige properties, the untutored Lewis scrambled for a position in the industry, starting at the humblest level of “gofer” and using his instincts to graduate to rough-and-tumble Poverty Row serials and westerns, featuring animal stars like canine Rin Tin Tin and stunt men turned leading men (Lewis later remarked that “You didn’t have actors; you had cowboys who owned a horse”). From his commercially reliable work adding visual flair to minor horse-operas like BORDER WOLVES and SILVER BULLET, Lewis graduated to marginally bigger budgets in various series productions until he made a strikingly original horror debut in the murky and bottom-budgeted INVISIBLE GHOST (1941), guiding Bela Lugosi through a disjointed plot that incoherently stitched together disparate elements from various earlier shockers. What now seems powerfully original in the film—the deployment of the camera in surprising movements, the inventive angles and the tour-de-force creativity—did not, however, impress those contemporary reviewers who deigned to notice such a far-fetched and prestige-deficient production.
Indeed, largely ignored in his own time as a maker of low cost genre product, Lewis’s still rising reputation proves the value of rediscovery. Younger cinemagoers now, expecting a wax museum display of old-fashioned clothes and haircuts, instead are startled by an energy that shoots through the screen, with unpredictably bold visuals, often of baroque complexity, in an exhilarating camera style that still look surprisingly fresh. While Lewis contributed to most of his scripts without taking a credit, it was the originality of his directorial personality.
The sleeper hit, a phenomenon that emerged in the 1940s, describes a modest, unheralded production that had such a compelling story or unusual quality that it attracted critical support and paying audiences beyond expectations. Lewis directed one of the first, the fast-moving if improbable MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945). Shorn of excess solemnity and certainly not sentimental, it hums with energy and a youthful spontaneity, as the notably sharp-toothed and feisty heroine fights evil British villains conspiring to drive her mad. People used to evaluating directors by the literary quality of their subject matter were instead distracted by the energy of the presentation. A surprise box office success, this marked new attention for Lewis from bigger studios, as the budget and advertising plan were personally approved by Columbia’s master, Harry Cohn.
Aspiring to another sleeper success, the undeservedly ephemeral SO DARK THE NIGHT (1946) pursues shades of self-discovery by a Parisian detective before locating the fundamental problem within. As he wrestles with inner knowledge, the facts begin a bracing undertow of danger, revealing to him what he doesn’t want to hear. With no interest or intention to divide reality into crude polarities of good and evil, the film finds both living in equal proportions in one protagonist. Despite the elaborate and unignorable camera moves and deliberate artistic effects, Lewis shapes the impression of feverish experimentation rather than self-consciousness, though contemporary audiences refused to take the bait of a film boasting no stars whatsoever and a plot that could not be described without major spoilers.
Lewis spent the next year, with Harry Cohn’s blessing, working on his sole top-dollar production, the spectacular (and largely fraudulent) THE JOLSON STORY (1947), a costly but fabulously profitable biopic of singing mega-star Al Jolson, star of the first talking picture. Ironically, this major assignment rarely receives acknowledgment for Lewis’s work since he shot the 29 musical numbers only, leaving the dramatic scenes to the more routine setups of longtime studio workhorse Alfred Green. Yet the theatrical scenes still merit attention as the work of an ingenious visual stylist, juggling images of Technicolor beauty just as inventive as Vincent Minnelli’s, with passionate attention to line and form.
As a reward for remaining in the background, in 1948 Columbia gave Lewis THE SWORDSMAN, a Technicolor costume adventure set in 17th century Scotland, complete with hand-designed tartans, that nevertheless featured elements and even entire scenes borrowed from Lewis’s early westerns. While the action scenes remain effective, the less than commanding players restrained any breakout success, but the director’s pictorial lyricism was allowed to develop in full, set in a brilliant spectrum of reds and yellows, with fluttering snow-white doves improbably anticipating their decorative use in Stanley Donen’s musicals like BELLE OF NEW YORK (1952) and FUNNY FACE (1957).
To finish his Columbia contract, Lewis undertook one of his finest films, THE UNDERCOVER MAN (1949), which proceeds from Senator Estes Kefauver’s then current fact-finding hearings on organized crime in the US, which vied for public approval (and indeed publicity) with several iterations of the reactionary House Un-American Activities Committee, notable for its destructive investigation of supposed communist infiltration of the Hollywood film industry, which occurred at the same time. Intrusive and politically fueled investigations were bestriding the American continent, forcing close examination of people’s past activities, casting doubt over any certainties that a man possesses about his own personality and presumed fate and then overturning them (a theme seen equally among characters in SO DARK THE NIGHT and THE BIG COMBO). Structured as a variant on the government procedural thriller, like Anthony Mann’s T-MEN (1947) and Henry Hathaway’s CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (1948), the narrative functions as an exposé of the corrosive forces of crime, emanating an air of societal menace from the reigning spheres of corruption, not least in the blisteringly emotional scene of a loving father gunned down in the street in front of his young daughter. Vibrantly alive in both script and direction, and making shrewd use of Glenn Ford’s unique mix of delicacy and intensity, this is an auspicious film that deserves study.
With GUN CRAZY, Lewis moved to an independent studio and beyond Hollywood’s oblivious postures and simplistic notions of the world, undermining them from below with sharpshooting lovers. Their criminal tendencies receive no persuasive explanation, but we see that they are locked together by sexual tension, with the heroine displaying considerably more aggression, both in their relationship and their exploits. With tabloid energy, Lewis shows their criminal progress in fast, inventive sequences, until the tragic finale, where both exhausted lovers, wreathed in mist and lost in a swamp, find no exits from their dilemma. Perhaps the B production with no marquee names discouraged the moviegoing masses, or maybe it was the determinedly downbeat resolution, though both these factors arguably add to the film’s interest to today’s filmgoers.
Even when he moved to the wealthiest Hollywood studio—Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer—it was during the television-threatened period of industry downsizing which left Lewis with high-end B projects like A LADY WITHOUT PASSPORT (1950) with a bona fide star in Hedy Lamarr but less than stellar trappings.
Opening with a memorable contrast of smudgy darkness and brilliant white light as the platinum blonde heroine runs to escape her pursuers, THE BIG COMBO introduces the power game rivalry between a detective and a gang boss for her favors, uniquely rattling taboos among American films of the time by presenting sex as a connector of complexity and pain, including a pair of gay thugs devoted to one another. The criminal’s s hold on the luminous Jean Wallace is as much rooted in psychological coercion as in supplying economic privileges, and Lewis clearly shows that his chances are cemented by the oral sexual attention he provides, just offscreen. More than half a century later, there is still nothing quite like it for its biting cruelties and its extravagant lighting: it looks as shockingly original as on the day it was released, revealing society’s underbelly where crimes are routinely committed in the shadows and tensions are never really released.
After returning to the western genre for three modest films, Lewis undertook the proto-B tale of a Scandinavian sailor appearing in a dusty cowtown to claim an inheritance, TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN (1958). In this striking and still surprising narrative, with the seaman striding down the main street wielding a huge harpoon, Lewis said goodbye to the cowpokes and gunfighters that first gave him the opportunity to break into directing, at the same time greeting a new era where he would continue to work in television for the next eight years, in the era’s media equivalent of the old B movie.
His career began and ended with westerns, but comparing Lewis with more aristocratic masters of cinema like Hawks, Minnelli and Welles is serious and justified, for Lewis’s achievement should be regarded with the same respect and honor, no matter the budgetary deficiencies of his output.
A word of advice: when studying any screen master, though especially one so rich in visual textures, the medium definitely matters. The precision of the DVD image has its undeniable attractions but clearly loses the warmth of actual 35mm projection, which is reliably preferable when possible.
For diverting details about Lewis’s early Hollywood years and his minor titles plus directions to a complete listing of his feature films, see my career article in Senses of Cinema: http://sensesofcinema.com/2006/great-directors/lewis_joseph/
In addition, a new collection of academic essays examining individual Lewis films has just been published by Wayne State Press: http://wsupress.wayne.edu/books/1167/Films-of-Joseph-H-Lewis
The best and still the most entertaining exploration of low-budget filmmaking during the studio era is B Movies, by Don Miller, still available at http://www.amazon.com/B-Movies-Don-Miller/dp/0345347102
[Robert Keser is the senior lecturer in Cinema Studies at the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts in Jordan, and an Associate Editor at Bright Lights Film Journal]