Robert Totten (1937-1995)
Bob Totten is someone I wished I had gotten to know better than I did. We met in 1994 under somewhat curious circumstances that went something like this…I was teaching film studies here in Arizona at ASU (Arizona State University) when I got involved with a couple of guys who were trying to get a low budget movie project off the ground. This was a film entitled Cry Vengeance based on a screenplay that I had written which was in turn based on an idea by one of the producers. The idea was to make this a local production with that same producer playing the lead and utilizing all local talent behind and in front the camera. After the script was written the two producers became extremely enthused about its possibility and put all their energies into seeing it come to fruition. Somewhere in the course of a lot of conversation the question as to who would direct this epic came up. It was suggested that I should consider it. I was at least qualified as some of the other names mentioned. I had been to film school and had directed several shorts. So I told them I would think about it and after about a week I said yes. The reason for my reluctance is that I was teaching and would have to miss a semester in preparation for something that might never actually get off the ground. But I took the chance and said yes. After all it was my screenplay so why shouldn’t I direct?
After that decision was made the producers started to move forward aggressively with their preproduction activities. Meetings were held, conference calls were made and all kinds of production initiatives were being implemented. But I noticed that with each plateau they arrived at the budget for this mini budgeted film increased to the point where in a year and a half it accelerated to more than ten times the original figures. When this happened suddenly it was no longer a “local production” anymore. Now the guys were making trips to LA and talking to industry figures. Through some connection they had now they were talking to the execs of some big studio about financing our film, which was now budgeted at seven million dollars. That is small by Hollywood standards but enormous in terms of where we began.
The first thing they were told was that they had to get some name actors attached. This meant that the producer couldn’t play the lead as planned. He said fine. He was more interested in producing anyway. So they contacted some TV level names that said they would commit as soon as the financing was in place. The next thing was the director. If the suits were going to take this project seriously it had to have a director with some established credentials. The guys sheepishly came and told me about it and I agreed right away. I knew it was coming so I wasn’t surprised. In fact I was even grateful because the scale of the production had outgrown anything I thought I could handle so I was more than happy to pass the burden on to someone else. Of course I didn’t say anything about that. I just said I understood and left it at that. The next couple of days they spoke to a few guys and then in came Bob Totten. I had never heard of him but when he started listing some of the things he had done I became very interested. Especially when he mentioned that he had been the first director on a film that ultimately became Death of a Gunfighter (1969). That’s when I jumped up and said: “Oh my God, you’re the original Alan Smithee.” He looked at me and said: “Oh so you know that story, huh?” … “Some of it.” Then I pushed him to tell me more. When the interview was over I invited him for a drink and started asking him all kinds of questions about directing and working with Glenn Ford, Ben Johnson, LQ Jones, Jack Elam, Mercedes McCambridge and Ruth Roman and all the others who were in the cast of The Sacketts (1979). Those were legendary actors to me and I wanted to hear all about them. I remember him looking at me at one point and saying: “You were the one scheduled to direct this film weren’t you?” I told him yes. “So I’m effectively taking away your job.” …I told him I didn’t care. He laughed and said: “There I was thinking that I would have to be dealing with a potential enemy. But you are in fact a fan, aren’t you”…”Yes!” I told him with the joyous glee of a teenager. We sat there for maybe two hours more drinking and talking. Actually him talking and me listening. He was a wonderful raconteur and I heard all the stories about the various actors, their quirks, their idiosyncrasies and their special gifts that made them so effective on screen. Right then and there I decided that I wanted to write a book about him. But I didn’t want to propose the idea at the time. After all I had only just gotten to know the man. What I would do is befriend him and after we had gotten to know each other better then I would broach the subject. By this time the producers had decided that this was the man for the job and I had lobbied for the job as his assistant. So we would have a lot of time to get to know each other on the shoot. Well, to cut to the chase, the film never got made. The funding never came through and the project was abandoned. But I kept in touch with Bob. We talked on the phone and he was always pleased to hear from me. I told him about the book that I wanted to do and he was flattered. I said that I would visit with him in Sherman Oaks where he lived when the school semester ended . We would talk, I would take notes and start the process from there. He mentioned that he had been ill. But he was full of plans for a TV project he wanted to write, produce and direct. It was a remake of the John Ford film 3 Godfathers (1948)…The last conversation we had was one morning when he called and told me that he was getting a western heritage award at a conference of some kind and invited me to attend. I looked at my schedule and realized I couldn’t make it because of my school obligations. About a month later I read that he had died of a heart attack.
I was sorry about this not just because of the book project. I had looked forward to spending all kinds of time listening to the interesting and amusing stories he had to tell. Bob was an interesting man but a fun guy too. I’m sure he is missed by those he was close to. But I miss him as well.
Frank Sinatra Dined Here
In spite of the title this essay really has nothing to do with Frank Sinatra. He’s really a minor player in the proceedings. This article is really more about human perversity as I perceive it.
Many, many years ago I was working as a waiter in a rather upscale restaurant on the east side of Manhattan. One night this guy came in and was seated at a table and was given a menu from which he ordered a drink and then dinner complete with appetizer and dessert. When it came time to pay the bill he told us that he was down on his luck and didn’t have any money. Upon closer inspection he did look a bit ragged and somewhat worse for the wear. The question was; why was he seated in the first place? But that didn’t matter anymore. He had been and now he couldn’t pay the bill.
We took the situation to Jamie, the ex-football player who owned the place. He went over to the guy who by this time was out of the dining room and standing by the coat check counter close to the door, and asked what was his story? The guy told him what he told us. That he was sorry but that he had no money. “Who put you up to this?” Jamie asked and the guy said no one. “So why’d you do it? Why did you come into my place and eat when you know you had no money?”… “I was hungry.” the guy said and for some reason that answer and the amount the guy ate seemed to infuriate Jamie so much that he grabbed the guy by the lapels and started shaking him. And probably would’ve punched him if we hadn’t intervened and restrained him…The guy was thrown out with the warning to never come anywhere near the premises again.
Some four months later Jamie got word that Frank Sinatra and his then new wife Mia were in town and for one reason or another planning to come to his place for dinner the following Tuesday night. It had been arranged by some publicist Jamie had hired. And Jamie who was a huge Sinatra fan was beside himself with excitement. The night before Sinatra was due in I heard him say that he was closing the place to other customers. When we asked him why he said: “I don’t want any Yo-yo’s bothering Frank and Mia when they’re having dinner.” We also watched him select the right cut of meat for Frank and his bride. Prime rib was our house specialty.
I didn’t work that night. But from what I heard everything went as it was supposed to. Sinatra and Mia showed up, Jamie and his girlfriend joined them, the food was cooked to perfection and Mr. Sinatra was pleased. When he reached into his pocket to pay for the dinner Jamie stopped him and said: “You can’t pay for anything in my place, Frank. Please allow me this courtesy.”… And Frank did.
When I was told this story the next day by the waiter who served them I remember thinking: “Isn’t that interesting? Jamie wanted to beat up that poor guy who came in and ate without money because he was hungry. But Frank Sinatra who could afford to buy the place ten times over he let eat for free. In fact even begged him..”
I think I learned something that day about life, people and the magic of being a celebrity. I also learned something about the perversity of society’s values too.
Paradise for Hire
In the mid 1950s the island wasn’t the tourist destination it has now become. Five or six tourist ships a month were average and there was really only one major hotel to accommodate those who wanted to come and spend a few days in the sun. So anyone who stayed longer, that is any American generally white, who stayed more than 3 to 4 days stood out. And that’s how it was with that trio that arrived, they stayed at our big hotel (The Hilton) and was here for about two weeks walking all around, asking dozens of questions and taking pictures all over the place. They were a friendly group, especially the tall thin guy who seemed to be in charge. There was another man and an attractive blonde woman. Both seem to be in their mid thirties somewhere while he looked to be about ten years older. As a trio they were so conspicuous that after a while everyone was wondering who they were and why they were here. That mystery was quickly cleared up by a story in our local paper accompanied by a photo of them wearing sunglasses and sun hats. The man who seemed to be the leader was Rodney Bennett* or RB as he preferred to be called, a television producer. The other two were Ben and Gail, his assistants. They were on the island scouting it as a possible location for a TV series he was planning to produce called Paradise for Hire. A weekly series about three young detectives (two guys and a girl) who solve crimes and get into all sorts of adventures both romantic and comedic. “But we’re just looking now nothing is settled. We’ll be looking at other islands as well. But I have to say one thing; your island is absolutely beautiful and unspoiled. That’s makes it so attractive.”… One day later they were gone.
Two months later they were back but only two of the original three. Gail wasn’t with them. Instead they were accompanied by Boyd Evans, a familiar looking character actor who mostly played villains in westerns. In life he was tall and quite impressive to encounter. This time they weren’t staying at the Hilton but at The Hampton House an older but equally luxurious hotel. Almost immediately RB called a press conference to announce that he had chosen us as the primary location for the series and that Boyd Evans would be playing the owner of the detective agency. “He’s going to be the anchor of the series and will show up in virtually every episode giving out assignments or actually participating in some of the adventures himself.” Then he went on to elaborate about all the plans they had for the series and how it was going to put on display every week all over the nation the natural beauty of this fabulous island. A large room at the Hampton House was designated as the command center for the production and a buzz was in the air. Everyone was excited. A high profile TV series would be shooting on our streets, all sorts of name guest stars would be visiting and a lot of the local people would be involved in order to supply local color. For businesses this could be a bonanza and a real boost to our tepid tourist trade as well. RB could be seen everywhere shaking hands and asking questions. Parties for all three guys were hosted in several places including Government House where the Governor personally welcomed them. The actor Boyd Evans was a friendly and outgoing guy who told all kinds of fun inside stories about the stars he worked with which endeared him and the company to everyone.
The buzz, the hosting, the wining and dining went on for more than a month but no stars or cameras had arrived as had previously been announced. There were “logistical issues” RB explained and his assistant Ben was dispatched to deal with them. A week later Boyd had to leave due to a prior commitment but promised he would be back. Another month went by and RB was still around assuring everyone that things were still in place. “We just have to get those bastards at NBC and Warner Brothers off their ass and move on this thing.”
Now by this time he had been staying at The Hampton House for nearly three months and apparently signing for everything including large tips for waiters and room service personnel. The management began to get anxious and started demanding payment. RB had promised that the production would take care of everything out of its budget but now the hotel was getting skeptical about the whole thing. Finally they evicted him with a public announcement in the paper declaring him a fraud and urging local merchants not to extend him or his bogus production company any more credit…RB quickly moved to another hotel and announced that his company was legitimate and that the series was going to be shot here. There were just some legal delays, that’s all. But he also announced that he was suing The Hampton House, its owners and management for defamation of character and doing damage to his professional reputation. He also accused them of illegally listening in all his long distance phone calls and said that they would pay dearly for invading his privacy in such a low down, shameful, criminal manner. He was accompanied by two lawyers who said that they had the goods on the Hampton House and was proceeding rapidly with the lawsuit. That they had an unimpeachable witness who would testify to their illegal practice.
Well it turned out that that “Unimpeachable witness” was a middle aged Latino woman who had been working as a switchboard operator at the hotel. Apparently unbeknownst to anyone she had been having a clandestine affair with RB and I guess told him about the electronic eavesdropping. Upon mention of her name she was fired by the hotel and named as a co-conspirator with RB in defrauding the hotel of its services. Unused to this kind of publicity she went into hiding but couldn’t avoid the harsh glare of publicity as RB and the hotel hurled accusations and insults at each other with her as the central figure while lawyers drew up briefs and called for motion after motion in their so-called million dollar law suits.
Then one morning the whole thing came to a halt when the woman was found dead in her house by her daughter. She had committed suicide leaving a note that said she couldn’t take the pressure any more. Her death put a chill on everything and quietly, without any noise or fanfare the suits and counter suits just seemed to evaporate. RB left the island and was never heard about or seen again. And it was never ever verified if he really was a legitimate producer or a con man just trying to make a score.
More than 20 years passed before a TV series was shot there and it wasn’t called Paradise for Hire or any such name. The show lasted for one season and was gone. And the only thing left from that sorry episode, at least in my memory is how an unsophisticated woman forfeited her life for something that was never going to be in the first place.
There are glorious aspects to motion pictures and movie making, this wasn’t one of them.
* Note: All the names used in this article are fictitious.
Saturday Night at the Movies in the Caribbean
Saturday night was the night to go to the movies when I was in my upper teens. My parents and every decent person we knew avoided the Center Theatre on Saturday nights. This was when the place was taken over by “street scum” and “gutter rats”. And that’s why we liked Saturday nights best of all. You saw all kinds of things and got lots of laughs that you could talk about all week until the next Saturday night came along.
Now by this time I was working as a waiter and later bartender at a night club and was making about fifty dollars a week. An incredible amount for a boy of seventeen in the mid fifties. My parents of course made me put away more than half every week for my education. But the rest of it was mine to spend as I pleased and sometimes I lied about what I was making so I often had more than they knew about.
The routine was, you started getting ready about five o’clock in the afternoon for the eight o’clock show that night. All the guys were going to be dressed up sharp and you wanted to be the sharpest of all.
You got to the theatre about an hour before just to make sure you got a ticket before they sold out because they always did. Then you spent the rest of the time just hanging out in front of the theatre talking and making sure that everyone, especially the girls, saw how sharply you were dressed. In some months before there had been a newsreel showing Louis Armstrong, whom they were calling “The Ambassador of Jazz” playing his trumpet all over the world. The thing that caught our eye was the fact that he carried a knotted handkerchief which he held between his fingers while he played. And when he stopped or took a rest he would smile with that wide satchel mouth of his and wipe his forehead. But he didn’t really wipe it he patted it slowly and stylishly. We thought it the coolest of the cool things anyone could do. So we all began to carry a long white handkerchief and all throughout any conversation we had we would periodically stop to grin and wipe our necks and face in the Armstrong style. It used to make my father crazy. He would ask me why I was doing that nonsense and I would tell him because it was cool. He would just shake his head and walk away convinced that he had sired a retarded son I suppose. But I didn’t care. My friends and I knew it was cool so that was enough for me.
Inside the theatre was divided into three sections. This wasn’t a formal designation; it was just how things had evolved. The section down front close to the screen was called “The Pit”. This was where the lowest of the low went to sit, eat candy, throw the wrappers at each other and call out to friends across the way, make noise, fart and smell up the place. These were the Neanderthals and the cave men from the country side who weren’t sophisticated like we were and only came into town on Saturday night.
The last two rows of the orchestra was where the so called “decent people” sat if they were foolish enough to go to The Center Theatre on a Saturday night. Often they couldn’t help it if the theater was playing a movie they wanted to see because this was the only time to catch it.
Then there was the stadium where people like myself sat. Guys who had a little money from hotel or restaurant work, who were also educated enough to read the fan magazines like Modern Screen and Photoplay and knew something about the private lives of the stars. Guys who knew how to dress sharp and carried their handkerchiefs Louis Armstrong style. Guys who knew how to impress the women by calling them “Baby”… “Sugar Pie”…”Angel”…and “Doll”. In other words weren’t yokels like those people in “The Pit.”
The movie started at eight and we were let in at seven thirty in order to see and be seen. And there were a parade of characters everyone waited for. There was Carmen Jones named for the movie of course. She was a pretty black girl about twenty five, handsomely proportioned in all the right places. She would wear the tightest red dress she could find, put a flower in her hair like Dorothy Dandridge did in the film and bright red lipstick on her mouth. When she entered she would mount the stadium steps one at a time in slow motion and guys would call out: “Hey there Carmen”…”Talk to me Mama”…”Give me a smile, Baby”…or “Shake it but don’t break it, Angel”. Others would rise and tip their hats hoping that perhaps she would give them a smile or some form of public acknowledgement. But Carmen, whose real name was Andrea Hendricks, would take it all in stride and if she felt in the mood would give you a smile or a whispered hello. If she did it would mark you as special and you could boast about that for the rest of the week.
Another was Mister Valence. Valence was what we called a “He/She” or anti-man. Today of course we would call him “Gay”. Valence was a flamboyant character who didn’t care who knew what he was. In fact he advertised it in the way he talked, dressed, waved his hands and threw his head around. He could also roll his eyes as good as Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. Everyone appreciated his style and when he came in would call out “Howdy Miss Valence” to which he would reply “How are you darling?
Someone else would call out “You looking pretty tonight Baby.” And he would answer: “Beauty for most is only skin deep but mine goes right to my soul.” My father said “A man like that should be whipped and locked up. He’s making a mockery of things and that’s nothing to laugh at”. So I couldn’t laugh at his antics when my father was around which is why I had to go to the movies on Saturday nights.
Another character who always showed up on Saturday nights was “Captain Ahab”, named after the Gregory Peck character in Moby Dick. He had a beard and the same kind of way of tilting his head as Peck did in the film. When he came in we would call out “Where’s the whale, Captain?” And he would usually point and say “Thar she blows!” But if he was in a bad mood for one reason or another response would be: “Under your mother’s dress, look there and you’ll find it.” So you had to be careful when you called out to Captain Ahab because if he slammed you like that you were the laughing stock for the week. We also had The Durango Kid, Red Ryder and our version of Hopalong Cassidy. When these guys made their entrances in full western regalia about two minutes to eight we would applaud them, then tell each other what idiots we really thought they were for dressing up like that and wait for the lights to dim. When they did we would settle down into our seats and the wonderful world of the movies would begin.
Now I need to tell you about Mister Rhumbay. Rhumbay lived in a section called “The Point” or just plain “Point” as most locals referred to it. Point was a swamp area where only the poorest of the poor lived. It wasn’t only a ghetto it was a disgrace and a tragedy. It doesn’t exist anymore. A year after I left the island the whole area was razed by the government, the swamp was filled in and an attractive low cost housing project took its place. But in those days The Point was a world unto itself. As kids in high school we would often walk through there because they said Point Girls were easy and wore less clothes. This wasn’t necessarily true but we believed it right into adulthood.
Rhumbay came out of The Point and had more muscles than any human had a right to have. He had so many muscles that we used to say that he had strong man muscles in his eyeballs. He wasn’t tall but he was strapping and his skin was black. Not brown or dark but black, jet black. Word had it that Rhumbay hadn’t worn a shirt in fifteen or maybe twenty years. That’s the reason they said why his skin was so black. Rhumbay was so strong and visually fearsome that when he was drunk and disorderly the police wouldn’t try to arrest him. They were afraid that he would break some part on one of them or pick them up and throw them in a tree or something. So they would just let him do what he was doing until he got tired and fell asleep.
Rhumbay never went to any school as far as anyone knew. I have no idea if he could read or write. Rhumbay was a caveman and everyone knows that cavemen have no need for education, so that was that. What he did for a living was also something of a mystery. Occasionally he farmed some property he had up in the hills. Other times he worked for the West India Company unloading and packing freight. I’d also seen him posing for tourists who would take his picture and give him money. Beyond that I don’t know what else he did.
Rhumbay loved movies and Saturday night was his night. He would sit in The Pit and talk all through the picture in a loud voice and no one ever told him to shut up or keep it down.
One night after the movie was over we heard that there was some excitement on Pier 6 which was not too far away. So we all went to see. It was close to midnight and there were lots of flashing lights and police cars and Hospital ambulance vans and stuff. And a great crowd of people were there. Word was that a man had fallen off the pier and drowned. At the time there was a whole lot of dredging going on because they were getting ready to make a waterfront out of the area. There were signs all around warning people not to go out on those piers because the boards were rotten and the due to all the dredging the bottom was deep and sticky. Still people went out there for one reason or another.
The big Coast Guard boat was there with people talking over loudspeakers telling everyone to keep clear while the rescue mission was in operation. The sea looked as black as ink and a strange mood hung over the crowd. The cloud of death was in the air and everyone was strangely quiet waiting for them to find the body. The search went on for what seemed like hours although it was probably only fifteen minutes to a half hour. The search appeared to be futile. The night was too dark, the sea was too black. Rhumbay came on the scene pushing his way through the crowd.
“Wha going on?” he asked.
“A man drown down dey.” He was told.
“Who? What man?”
“A man name Georgie, Georgie Lanclos.”
“But that a mi friend.” Rhumbay said. “That a mi fucking friend.” And with that he went to the edge of the pier and dived in before anyone could stop him. He was gone so long that people thought that he too had drowned in that black murky water. Then he came up took a deep breath and went under again. This time when he surfaced he had Georgie’s body with him. Georgie was dead; there was no question about that. But no one could believe Rhumbay had done such a feat. Dived into hell without fear or hesitation and came out victorious with his dead friends’ body in his arms.
I have seen many courageous things done in movies but I have never seen anything to match what Rhumbay did that night. And after that people stopped calling him a caveman or even “Rhumbay”. After that he became “Mister Rhumbay” man of distinction, and deservedly so.
It’s more of a question: Is Noir dead? And the answer that keeps pestering my optimism is a reluctant and bitter yes.
The Noir I mention is pure unadulterated Noir. I could provide a list of qualifications (as Gus did in a previous entry on genre) but to mention a few movie titles might do better. Detour directed by Edgar G. Ulmer is Noir. Double Indemnity directed by Billy Wilder from a screenplay by Raymond Chandler is Noir. Night and the City directed by Jules Dassin is Noir. A combination of sex, deception, jazz, double-cross, murder, desperation, money, and a moody atmosphere… Noir.
It thrived in the 40’s and 50’s along with the Pulp literature from which it came. In the passing decades it has ruptured into so many sub-genres that the meaning of Noir is corrupt. For instance, we have “Country-Noir” with this year’s back-woods crime story Winter’s Bone. The Nicolas Cage-starring Red Rock West is sort of “Western Noir”. Films like No Country for Old Men pass as Noir, and I ask why. Is any movie that includes crime and dark shadows Noir? Even Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential, as good as it is, isn’t Noir. It’s more police procedural than anything. And these corruptions apply to the classics of Hollywood as well. For instance, some might call Sunset Boulevard a Film Noir, but for what reasons? Because it has dark Black & White photography and demented, fated characters? Any genre might possess those elements.
As Gus once told me, the crime genre (in writing and movies) is a house with many rooms. The gangster story, the Cozy, the court-room drama, the who-dunit, the caper and others.
Imagine if someone were to call Agatha Christie’s work Pulp in the same vain as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Cornell Woolrich. Such a suggestion would be laughable but that’s the same mistake that has been made concerning Noir.
Of course, there have been examples of pure Noir, at least by my standards, since the 50’s. The Arthur Penn-directed Night Moves with Gene Hackman fits the bill. So does Chinatown. Body Heat though disgustingly imitative of Double Indemnity makes most, if not all, the right moves. The Hot Spot, directed by Dennis Hopper, is maybe the best of its era. Even a movie like Phoenix (a forgotten crime gem with Ray Liotta) comes close but misses the genre.
And to be fair, there is nothing wrong with the creation of the above-mentioned sub-genres; in fact, the evolution of genre is necessary for a living cinema. Still, it’s important to remember where these terms came from, what they once stood for and possibly still can.
Is pure Noir possible in current cinema? In a world where jazz isn’t as popular, where the detective is more an icon of the past than a hero of the present… What would pure Noir look like in a modern setting?
Would it have pornstars instead of lounge singers? And Meth dealers instead of thieves? It might resemble something like Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant; the German director’s depraved-cop yarn, full of drugs and Iguanas, is the closest I’ve seen anyone come to the genre in recent years. Herzog seems to think that New Orleans (a place torn-up by crime and natural disaster) is the perfect location for a resurgence of Noir.
Maybe he’s right. Perhaps the genre has just been asleep for too long.
When I was a youngster as far as I was concerned anyone who did more than one thing on a film was a genius. For example, if you wrote and acted you were a genius. If you directed and acted in the same film you were a genius. If you produced and just acted, the same thing. We would often say “And he produced the film too, you know.” With a little bit of awe in our voices. Of course we had no idea what producing a film entailed but nevertheless we were impressed. But as you can see there were qualifications. If you wrote, produced and directed, maybe….The jury was still out. If you produced and directed forget it. What you did behind the camera didn’t count for much. You had to act. I had to be able to see you. Ida Lupino for example with a film like The Bigamist (1953) which she directed and starred qualified her as a bonafide genius. Jose Ferrer with films like The Shrike (1955), The Great Man (1956) and I, Accuse (1958) qualified as well. Now today everyone does it so as you can see, there aren’t any geniuses anymore. The minute everyone starts doing it genius goes out the window.
Orson Welles was of course everybody’s definition of a genius in motion pictures at the time. He wrote, he produced, he directed and he acted so I accepted him as one. Also I was being constantly told that he was by the media and the press, especially the fan magazines like Photoplay and Modern Screen that I read with fanatical devotion. But secretly I didn’t buy it. I had seen Citizen Kane (1941) and it struck me as confusing. And a film like The Lady from Shanghai (1947) was incoherent to my fourteen year old mind. Still I accepted the fact that he was a genius because everybody said so. But in my heart of hearts he was just an overweight guy with a deep voice. Looking at the situation over from every possible angle I ultimately figured out that one of the prerequisites of being a genius was that you had to be fat. Of course you also had to act, direct, produce and write etc. But first you had to be fat or at least overweight. So Peter Ustinov who did all three sometimes qualified.
Now to me at the time the real genius in films was a guy nobody in the press or even in my circle of acquaintances was calling a genius. His name was Hugo Haas (1901-1968). No one remembers Hugo Haas today but he made films in the 1950s mostly with an actress named Cleo Moore (1928-1973). He was fat, had a mustache and sat most of the time in his pictures. But the credits always read: written, directed and produced by Hugo Haas. And somewhere else it would also say: Starring Hugo Haas and Cleo Moore.
Cleo Moore was blonde, well endowed and kind of pouty looking. She projected a cheap, available aura that us boys found so exciting that we would talk about climbing up on the screen and doing things to her. At the time she looked to be about twenty six in those films. Hugo Haas was somewhere in his mid to late forties, maybe even fifty, which to our young minds meant that he was disgustingly old. He was also fat, ugly and I think he may have even had bad teeth. I know that on the sound track you could hear him breathe all the time. That made him extremely dirty and perverse. We liked that a lot…Here was this filthy, dirty old man and he was always trying to get himself intimately, sexually involved with this young, pretty and obviously tarnished woman. All his films revolved around plots like that. He was always the old guy with a good job like a banking official of some kind. A job where he had access to money. Big money that belonged to some government agency or some large corporation. Along Cleo would come to tempt him with her curvy body and her “sly come hither” smile. The woman was clearly a strumpet but he didn’t know it although we, experienced teenagers that we were, could’ve told him so. Still he would fall for her, leave his plain older wife, steal the bank or corporation’s money and make plans to run away with her to Mexico or some island in the Pacific. But of course she had other things on her mind. She would have a young muscular guy that she loved in the background. These guys always wore jeans and a black T-shirt. And they would always be photographed standing or leaning in some doorway. When Cleo passed the guy would just grab her arm, pull her to his chest and kiss her. If she balked at being handled like that the guy would slap her and she would beg him to kiss her some more…The plan naturally was to kill the old man, take the money and live happily ever after. But something would go wrong; the old man would find out about their plans and turn the tables on them. He would call the police and confess but they never believed him, so he would have to go after the couple himself and more often than not, kill them. Sometimes he would get killed himself in the process. The pictures always ended with some biblical quote printed on the screen pointing out the moral of the story.
My friends and I absolutely loved these films. They were the closest things we could get to genuine pornography. The unspoken possibilities of the plots and the possibilities of Cleo Moore sent our teenage minds searching into all kinds of forbidden corners. And the best part of it was the fact that we weren’t restricted from seeing these films by the Catholic Legion of Decency, an organization that rated the films that we could and couldn’t see. But they didn’t know from Hugo Haas. I think it was because the budgets of his films were generally so low, and the production quality across the board (acting, sound, photography etc.) was so miniscule that they didn’t even look at them for rating. Subsequently the films got a general release, mostly on double or triple bills and disappeared from view right after. That was great for us because we went to see them searching every inch of the screen and listening to every line of dialogue for something prurient that we could expand on. We were never disappointed.
One particular favorite was a film whose title I don’t recall anymore. Anyway, in that one Hugo owns a bar and is married to Cleo. Imagine the obscene possibilities of that. Periodically he would demand his marital rights and she would go into the bedroom with him. But it was always clear that she didn’t want to and was doing it with great reluctance. Now these films never showed any sex scenes or anything even near that. I don’t think I ever saw young Cleo Moore kiss old Hugo Haas on screen. Her kissing stuff was saved for the young guys. With the old guy she would go into the room and the scene would fade. Our imaginations did the rest.
Now working behind the bar was another dirty old guy. This guy was skinny but he also had bad teeth and didn’t seem to like shaving. He would make suggestive remarks to Cleo who was working as a waitress. She would tell him off; Hugh would find out and run the dirty bastard off the premises at gunpoint. In comes a new bartender played by either Richard Egan or Vince Edwards, who later became Dr. Ben Casey on the TV series Ben Casey or some other low rent hunk of the time. But he’s young, good looking and oh yes, muscular. They fall in love but decide to be moral and not touch each other although we know that they’re dying to. Hugo seeing them together, suspicious bastard that he was becomes paranoid and jealous and starts accusing her of things she hasn’t done and even starts beating her too. Of course the stud bartender comes to her rescue and in a fight on a rooftop Hugo misses with a club he’s wielding to bash the bartender with and falls to the ground breaking his neck. But just before dying he looks up at Cleo and says something like: “I’m sorry, please forgive me.” The camera then moves to an overhead shot of the street as the police and the emergency people converge on the scene. The biblical quote comes up and then: The End.
An incredible film! Incredible philosophical observations about life, love and morality. A masterpiece of motion picture art and no one was recognizing it. I was outraged, really outraged that they were calling Orson Welles a genius when the real genius of the cinema was there for all to see. Didn’t they know that? Couldn’t they read? The credits said: Written, Produced, Acted and Directed by Hugo Haas.
I thought the world a truly unfair place and I still do. If it wasn’t Hugo Haas would be listed among the giants of motion picture masters. Retrospectives and festivals of his work would be annual events worldwide. Books and thesis projects would constantly be on display, and his name would be synonymous with a certain kind of high quality achievement in cinema. This hasn’t happened yet. But I’m sure it will when the critical assessment of film appreciation deepens and matures. Hugo will be right up there with Bergman, Fellini, Hitchcock, Ford and the others. But until then, Hugo Haas, wherever you are know that you have one fan. And he’s sitting right here singing your praises.
The Glenn Ford Suit
In the late 1940s and early 50s Glenn Ford was an actor who gave my friends and me a lot of thrills at the movies. Now I know that the 1950s is a long time gone but from the vantage point of age and memory (mine) it seems like only a few weeks ago when my friends and I would go to The Center Theater to watch one of his films and talk about it all week after school. For one thing, in those days he rarely played the good guy. He was always the character on the edge so that you never knew until close to the end which way he would go. He was always ambiguous which was nice because his characters always kept us guessing, always kept us in suspense.
In the plots of many of the films he was always in some intriguing place like South America, Central America or the Caribbean (Gilda-1946, Affair in Trinidad-1952, Plunder of the Sun-1953, Appointment in Honduras-1953). At the time such locales were somewhat exotic. But the truth is that they were all shot on a sound stage at Columbia Pictures Studios. But on screen they told us it was South America or wherever so we believed them. Plus there were always a few mustachioed guys speaking with accents and several dark haired women with flashing eyes and nicely rolling hips to convince us even more. Ford always played an American expatriate down on his luck. Sometimes he was a gambler or a guy on the run from the Mob or a disgraced detective or cop. Once in a while he might be a CIA agent just posing as a wastrel. But we didn’t find that out until the end.
Early in the picture he would wander into some nightclub looking disheveled and unshaven. He rarely shaved in those movies. He always looked handsomely dirty and roughed up. Not so much that he looked derelict. Just enough to look reckless and sexy. He would enter the club in the middle of a song being sung by a sultry singer who would of course be played by Rita Hayworth looking for all the world like mortal sin personified. Their eyes would meet and you knew right then and there that trouble was in the air. Man/woman trouble? To quote Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men (1992) “Is there any other kind?” Glenn would ask for the boss and the barman would point him to the back. He would go but not before making some smart remark to Ms. Hayworth who was at the bar calling for a drink. When he made the remark some underling would tell him confidentially; “Watch your step. That one belongs to the boss.” The boss was usually played by George Macready a quite good character actor who spoke with what sounds like a British accent although he was born in Providence, Rhode Island. The trick with the accent is that it made him sound both cultured and corrupt and maybe even decadent. Macready was older and had a long squirrelly face with a scar so you knew right away he was a bad guy. He would look at the disheveled looking Ford and tell him; “I need a man like you.” And hire him on the spot to do some menial job around the club. But that was a cover for what he would really be doing. Often smuggling diamonds, running guns or selling US secrets to some foreign government.
On the personal front Ford would find out that Rita not only belonged to the boss but that she was in fact his wife. So messing around with her was definitely out of the question given the morality of the times. Still we could sense that they had eyes for each other so it was only a matter of time when all their suppressed emotions would erupt in a frenzy of passionate kisses and florid background music. This is when Rita would say; “I can’t stand him touching me. I can’t even stand him looking at me.” Of course the question then becomes, if she feels that way why did she marry the man? “He was a friend of my father and after Dad died he brought me up. So I felt that I owed him something.” Or; “He took me out of the gutter and made me respectable and not looked down upon or spit on.” And indeed the marriage did seem to be a curious one. Rita and Macready never kissed on the lips, only on her cheek. And this was as it should be. They were visually incompatible. He was old and corrupt, she was young and sensuous. The idea of such a marriage was an aberration and we in the audience knew it. She was meant for Glenn and somewhere in the middle of the film it’s going to hit her like a ton of bricks. In the meanwhile Macready keeps her on a very short leash. Outside of letting her sing in his nightclub he kept her a virtual prisoner in the house. The only other thing she seems able to do is sunbathe in the back garden or by the pool looking fetching in some brief outfit. And Macready always had some underling spying on her every move and reporting it back to him.
“We’ve got to get you out of here.” Glenn would tell her between kisses. “We’ll go tonight.”
But of course Macready knows of their plans because of his underling’s report. “How dare she do this to me after all I’ve done for her?” He would mutter to himself. “She’ll pay for this. And he’s going to pay too.” That’s when we knew the double cross was in. In today’s movies people don’t double cross each other anymore. They lie, they betray, they cheat each other but they don’t call it “double cross”. I liked it when they did. There was something more underhanded and evil about the act.
Macready would try his double cross and it would backfire on him. Ford or someone else would kill him in a fight and Rita, a free woman now, would run into his arms. And it was precisely at this moment that we would find out that Ford wasn’t the unkempt piece of gutter scum everyone thought him to be. In fact he was quite the opposite. He was a Treasury agent sent by the government on a special assignment to break this Nazi ring that was smuggling counterfeit dollars into the US.
Ford was an okay actor in these films. Later on he became a very good actor. But in those early days he was competent and not too much more. But the thing that thrilled us about him was the way he dressed. It seemed that he wore the same suit from movie to movie. So much so that we called it “The Glenn Ford Suit”. And since the films were in black and white we had to guess at its color. No problem there. We figured it to be dark brown or rust with blue lines about an eighth of an inch all through the fabric. In real life they were hideous looking but on Glenn Ford they looked great. So great that we all wanted Glenn Ford suits. There was an Arabic man named Ahmed who had a men’s store on Main Street. So we went to him and showed him a photo of the suit from some fan magazine then told him we each wanted one just like that. “I can order them for you.” He said. “But it will cost twenty five dollars each.” Twenty five dollars for a suit! Even to look like Glenn Ford that was pricy for our teenage pocketbooks because none of us had any money except what we earned from some part time jobs we had. But when he said we could pay it off on installments a deal was struck. We got our suits and all was right with the world.
When we put them on the suit fit us like a second skin. That Saturday we wore them to the movies and everyone thought we looked cool. Particularly the girls. You could see their eyes just sparkle when they looked at us. And whenever they were close they were always reaching out and touching not us but the suit.
Another thing about the Glenn Ford suits is they didn’t just look good on you. They had a way of making you stand with your legs apart and your eyes squinting. If you smoked you blew smoke out in a kind of stylish way that made the smoke curl in interesting patterns before evaporating. It also made you listen with a kind of smirk on your face that said you were ready to punch the talker if he said something you didn’t like. And if you were talking to a woman you knew how to look in her eyes and burn her down with your crinkly smile. And if you didn’t like what she was saying you blew smoke in her face. None of us really smoked. I still don’t. But in my Glenn Ford suit I smoked. It was a prop that went with the suit.
You also knew how to talk when you wore that suit. For example if you walked into a club and asked “Who owns this joint?” and the bartender asks; “What’s this all about?” You would look over the place, take a draw from your cigarette, blow out the smoke and say; “I don’t talk to men who wear aprons. Let me see the boss.” And if he hesitated you would pull him across the bar, slap him a few times and he would run to do your bidding damn quick. It never ever came to that but we were always ready.
Friends said we looked great in our Glenn Ford suits but our mothers said we looked like idiots. “Those suits and your skin are exactly the same color. From a distance with those stripes you look like lizards.”
They didn’t see anything resembling Glenn Ford about us. But we weren’t surprised. Mothers never knew anything about what was cool and what wasn’t. Because if they did they would recognize they were the parents of the coolest guys in town. Or in the world for that matter. All thanks to one thing; Our Glenn Ford Suits.
In 1957 John Cassavetes came to St. Thomas to make a film based on the moderately bestselling autobiography by novelist and screenwriter Rob White called Our Virgin Island. His co-star in the film was Sidney Poitier. Both had appeared together before in Martin Ritt’s searing drama Edge of the City (1957).
At the time of their arrival both were well known to young movie goers. Poitier because he was the first African American actor to work consistently in movies playing dramatic roles. Cassavetes because he had played a number of disturbed juveniles and thugs on TV and in films. Three of his films The Night Holds Terror (1955), Rumble on the Docks ((1956) and Saddle the Wind (1958) along with Edge of the City were well known to us. Cassavetes was part of a group of young rebels who were invading the screen. The cycle started with Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones (1953) and became very popular with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). After that it seem that every studio jumped on the bandwagon producing films with titles like Dino (1957) and The Young Don’t Cry (1957). Sal Mineo, James Darren and Cassavetes were often tapped to act in these films and I liked them a lot. For me he was the quintessential thug-hero. There was something lean, hungry and feral about his looks and his acting that gave the characters he played an authenticity I never got from Dean or Brando. Both were good actors playing their parts, but with Cassavetes I felt I was seeing the real thing. His eyes in close-ups seemed to suggest that he was haunted by hardship and deprivation. He also seemed to be possessed of an inner rage that I found compelling and irresistible.
At the time when he came to the island I was working for our local radio station where one of my jobs was to interview any celebrity who visited the island. This was an agreeable gig and one that I took seriously because of my love for movies and anything having to do with them. My qualifications for this job were nonexistent. I had no experience in reportage or radio work and my accent was so thick that it was unintelligible to all but other islanders. Still I was given this job and was paid a fat fifteen dollars a week for my efforts.
As soon as Cassavetes and Poitier arrived I approached them for interviews. Both said yes right away. When I did my interview with Cassavetes he was intrigued that one so young (I was 16 at the time) had such a job and talked to me at length about it. And of all the movie celebrities I had interviewed he was the one who seemed to be most interested in who I was, what I aspired to and what my life was like living on the island. As we sat and spoke all the violence and rage I had seen in the movies were nowhere in evidence. The man I was eating with and talking to was relaxed and full of jokes and high spirits looking at the beautiful scenery around us and marveling at it. I enjoyed our conversation greatly yet when it came to doing our interview on the air I was inexplicably nervous. So much so that I began to stutter and the paper I was holding with my questions was shaking.
I remember him smiling gently and taking the questions from me as we talked. Then he started asking me the questions I had intended to ask him. And after I answered he would then connect my response to something from his own background. This was the way we did the whole interview and it was great. He had managed to put me at ease and things flowed smoothly after that. At the end he clapped my shoulder and said;”Good job. This was one of the best interviews I’ve ever done.” I walked away from that session with my head in the clouds.
Years later as I watched his career develop as an idiosyncratic actor and filmmaker I wasn’t at all surprised. The quicksilver alertness and generosity of spirit that he became well known for had always been a part of who he was as far back as 1957 when we did that interview together.
It is always being said that because of his grace, gallantry and impeccable dancing skills Fred Astaire always made his partners look good. Well I think that the same could be said about Cassavetes. Of course in a different area of cinema. He has been gone for some time now but his reputation as a filmmaker and as a warm and giving person is still on the rise. Again I’m not surprised. I knew him for only a brief moment but it remains as one of the bright spots in my life.
The first movie star I ever saw in person was Richard Widmark. He had appeared in perhaps a dozen movies that I had seen mostly playing a bad guy who seemed to take great delight in not just being evil but unspeakably so. Therefore when at the end of the movie and he got his comeuppance it was not just satisfying but cheer inducing.
He was thin and sly. His smile was crooked and it quickly turned into a sneer. He couldn’t be trusted even when he was being sincere. You could tell that from his eyes. They were always darting about searching for corners or dark places. Other performers had strong steady eyes, Widmarks’ was always flashing around nervously. He kept us on the edge of our seats with those eyes because you never knew what he was up to. He was unpredictable and dangerous. But our favorite part was not his eyes but his hair. It was blond and sat relatively lifeless on his head until he was punched or slapped. Then it would come alive. It would fly like a wave breaking over a rock and that would tell us that the blow really hurt. This bad guy was finally getting what he deserved. And if the guy administering the beating was big and beefy as Victor Mature then we really went crazy. “Hit him again!…Slap him, slap him, make his hair fly!” we would scream. And invariably the movie would grant our wish. The hero would punch and slap him, cowardly Widmark would whimper and whine and we loved it. We loved Richard Widmark, loved him more than we loved our own parents and went to see every movie he appeared in.
It was a Saturday afternoon and the sun was as usual high and bright in the sky. We kids were standing in front of The Center Theatre waiting to go in and see the triple bill of action films they were playing when someone, one of our other friends said: “Hey, you know who down on the waterfront?”
“The movie star man. The one who does do the giggle.”
“Who you talking about?”
“Richard Widmark man. Don’t you know nothing?”
“Richard Widmark?! Oh my God!”
And with that we took off running all three of us.
And there he was. There he was in sunglasses wearing a sport shirt with tan slacks. Richard Widmark, our favorite bad guy and God. He was standing there talking to some people and pointing to something out at sea. He wasn’t physically that big but he looked like he looked in the movies kind of wiry and hard. He was saying that he was just on the island for the day and that the island was beautiful. We didn’t want to hear any of that. We wanted to hear him giggle that evil giggle of his. But as he stood there and talked to the small crowd that had gathered around him it was clear that he wasn’t going to unless someone had the daring to ask him. And even then he might not but somebody had to take the chance and ask.
“You ask him……No, you ask him…..Why me? No, you ask him!” We kept pushing each other and quarrelling. Then for reasons I don’t remember it fell to me to do the asking. I couldn’t have been more than eleven or twelve at the time. None of us were. It was a tough job but someone had to do it. I borrowed a pen and a piece of paper and asked him for his autograph. And while he was signing his name I said quietly: “Sir, you think you could do that laugh for us?”
“The one you does do just before you beat a woman or kill a man.”
“ You want me to do my evil laugh, huh?”
“Yes, yes that’s it. Your evil laugh.”
“Well”, he said “Heh…heh…heh…heh…heh…heh. I can’t do it for you because it’s in my contract that I can’t laugh unless it’s in a scene and a camera is turning. You follow?” And then he did that incredible giggle again. And we just froze where we were standing, we practically wet our pants because he had taken off his sunglasses and was looking straight at us while he was doing it.
He left after a few minutes because he had someplace to go I suppose but we just stayed there. We forgot about the movie we were going to or that we had already bought the tickets. This was better than any triple bill could be. Richard Widmark standing there talking to us and doing his giggle. We spent the rest of the afternoon going minutely over everything that was said right up to the moment when he did his laugh. For weeks and months after we recreated word for word the whole episode for our friends.
In the course of a long career Widmark did some wonderful work in films and also on TV and not always as the villain. He played many a hero and men of integrity but we liked him best as a villain.
He died in 2008 at the age of 93 and I whispered a quiet “Thank you” that I hope he heard. It went something like this. “Thank you Richard Widmark for your talent and career. And thank you particularly for that Saturday afternoon giggle. You’ll never know what years of pleasure you gave to those three West Indian boys that day.”
Cinema Magic is Ageless:
The Black Shield of Falworth
When I grew up on a small island off the East coast of Africa, there were no television channels. There were also no theaters. For six years, I was cut off from the influx of new movies, until I returned and sought out the dark movie houses and the shelves of movie rental joints (whose catalog I eyed with wonder, marveling the films of Harrison Ford and others like him that I never heard of).
On the island, we only had tapes. We had 300 VHS tapes to be exact. My father spent time before we left the U.S. recording everything he deemed worth watching. There were three films on every tape. We even made an alphabetical catalog of everything we had and it was family practice to inhabit the living room after dinner and put a tape into the VCR.
No matter how many great movies I have seen since, it is the ones from those days that define me and my love for movies. It was my education but really it was something more than that, it was the beginning of a love affair.
I remember the affect of watching Errol Flynn burst through the palace doors with the king’s deer on his shoulders. The music roared, the corrupt nobles dropped their mutton. This kind of moment is movies to me. The swashbucklers of the Hollywood Studio days never seemed cheesy; they just knew how to have fun, how to revel in the magic of cinema.
The one I liked the most is called The Black Shield of Falworth. I recently found a DVD copy and watched it after many years. I was hesitant, it seems that what I perceived as a child has so often changed, become distorted, silly or even corrupt. The Black Shield of Falworth remained the same.
It stars Tony Curtis. He plays a fiery peasant boy who seeks shelter with his sister in a castle after a scuffle with soldiers in his village. In his possession is a ring, the symbol on it is a red lion on a black background. He knows somehow that this ring connects he and his family to some secret history. When he shows the ring to one of the lords of the castle, he is hushed. You see, Falworth his father was considered a traitor and the black shield cast away from the nobles.
As a squire, Curtis starts to train in combat. I didn’t remember how hot his temper was, because in almost every other scene, he starts a fight with the snobby knights-in-training who taunt him with insults. Soon though, he becomes one of them, favored by the stern eye-patched teacher played by Torin Thatcher.
I love the montages: Curtis getting used to his armor, too heavy and bulky to allow him to get up when he falls, his lessons in manners where he learns when to toss his leg of lamb on the floor, his joust with master Thatcher. I love the scenes when he and his friend sneak over a wall to interrupt the croquet between his sister and beautiful Janet Leigh. Most of all, I love the final battle, an underdog fight of squires versus soldiers.
The Black Shield of Falworth is romantic, not just in its love story, but every frame, every movement. This kind of bold romance has gone out of style, but as I have recently learned, its power over me cannot be extinguished.