Cinema Station

Authentic American Primitives: Joseph H. Lewis | April 14, 2010

Authentic American Primitives

The term “authentic American primitives” was coined by French New Wave filmmakers in admiration for their Hollywood heroes.  Here we revive it and will occasionally write about American directors who paved a tradition in a country’s pictures.  These films are not perfect in the typically sophisticated way of looking at art and literature.  They are sophisticated in their own manner, by their own rules.  When I think of the American tradition established by these directors, some of these words come to mind: crude, unfinished, cheap, robust, and like the French said, not only authentic but primitive.

Joseph H. Lewis

Nickname:  Wagon Wheel Joe

“I carried a box filled with different wagon wheels. Whenever I’d come to a scene which was just disgraceful in dialogue and all, I’d place a wagon wheel in one portion of the frame, and make an artistic shot out of it, so by the time the scene was over you only saw the artistic value and couldn’t analyze what the scene was about.”

Terror in a Texas Town

OPENING: A Norwegian whaler, come West to see his father, stomps the streets of the small town, its inhabitants follow timidly behind. He has nothing but a harpoon on his shoulder.

The camera picks up at the waist of a man in black clothes with two black guns.  We follow him into the street where he and the whaler stand off.  He asks the whaler if he’s close enough to throw the harpoon.  The whaler says nothing.  The gunfighter tells him to come closer.

The titles come up: TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN

After previews of the film he directed, My Name is Julia Ross, on being called into the top producer’s office:

He said, “Please, sit down, sit down.”  He had a huge office, and I can’t tell you why, but I sat on the floor.  So he came around from his desk–his associate producer was with him–and they sat on the floor with me and crossed their legs as I did.  He said, “Tell me, Joe.  What kind of technique do you have?  I’m bamboozled by your technique… You have celluloid running through your veins, not blood.  Every foot of film has your name on it, every frame your signature… How do you approach a film? Tell me about it.”  I said, “I don’t know.  I really don’t know.”

-From Peter Bogdanovich’s book, “Who The Devil Made It”



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