Monday, 31 August 2015

ROOM AT THE BOTTOM: LAURENCE HARVEY AND FILM NOIR




“I’ve never been able to like you”, Sam Houston (Richard Boone) to Col. William Travis (Laurence Harvey), The Alamo (1960)

“Get down off your high horse, Travis”, Col. Davy Crockett (John Wayne)


Some of the best things British are named Harvey: crime writer John Harvey, Harvey’s Shooting Sherry (very dry and sadly no longer available), London’s venerable Harvey Nichols department store, and The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, so far ahead of its time that time’s still running to catch up.   

Then, of course, there’s Laurence Harvey, a man who many people disliked and some despised, both as an actor and human being.

It’s true that Harvey could be a bit of a cad, though that’s probably being too English and polite about it. Harvey was cold, arrogant, conceited, and ruthless in his climb to the top of the heap as an actor. He preyed upon and wed older women (actress Margaret Leighton and studio mogul Harry Cohn’s widow, Joan Perry Cohn) and had affairs with others so as to advance his career and support his expensive tastes. He also bedded men when it suited him for the same reasons and many who knew him well enough believed him to be homosexual.



As for his acting ability, some were unimpressed. British character actor Joss Ackland said, “Americans seemed to think that Harvey was some sort of great actor, which his colleagues certainly did not”. Dame Judy Dench who’d appeared with Harvey on stage spoke of being bewildered at how he never looked at her during his lines. Jane Fonda, who later starred with him in Walk on the Wild Side, 1962, said, “Acting with Laurence Harvey is like acting by yourself”. Others who worked with him are on record as saying that they didn’t like him much:  Shirley MacLaine (Two Loves, 1961), Capucine and Barbara Stanwyck (Walk on the Wild Side, 1962), and Kim Novak (Of Human Bondage, 1964) to name only a few.  In his autobiography, Knight Errant, actor Sir Robert Stephens, once heir-apparent to Laurence Olivier, describes Harvey as “an appalling man and even more unforgivably, an appalling actor.” And British film critic, David Shipman, author of the best-selling The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years, wrote of him, “Laurence Harvey’s career should be an inspiration to all budding actors: he has demonstrated conclusively that it is possible to succeed without managing to evoke the least audience interest or sympathy and to go on succeeding despite unanimous critical antipathy and overwhelming public apathy. His twenty year career of mainly unprofitable films is a curiosity of film history.”

Yet Harvey was not without his supporters, admirers and friends. When he befriended a co-star like Elizabeth Taylor (BUtterfield 8, 1960), John Wayne (The Alamo, 1960), John Ireland (The Good Die Young, 1954), or Frank Sinatra (THe Manchurian Candidate, 1962), those friendships were for a lifetime. Sinatra, always a champion of the underdog, was quoted in valet George Jacobs’ autobiography, Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra as saying, “Harvey has the handicaps of being a homo, a Jew and a Polack, so people should go easy on him.” (Harvey was born Ziv Mosheh Skikne in Lithuania). 



Michael Craig who co-starred with Harvey in The Silent Enemy (1958) said that off-camera Harvey was relaxed and could be wonderful to be with but in front of the camera he “became stiff and started to act”.  Daniel Angel who produced one of Harvey’s early films, Women of Twilight (1952) thought he was “a bloody good actor” and Jack Clayton who directed Harvey in Room at the Top (1959) was delighted with him and his performance. Harvey also was nominated for the 1960 Oscar for Best Actor and the 1959 BAFTA Best British Actor Awards for Room at the Top, as well a nomination at the 1960 BAFTA’s for his part as an oily talent agent in Expresso Bongo (1959). He was icily effective as the brainwashed Raymond Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate and then again as a double agent instructed to kill himself in A Dandy in Aspic (1968).

It’s not too much to say that few actors ever hit the screen with more impact than Laurence Harvey did in 1959’s Room at the Top, a film that would define both a career and the emergence of a new British cinema that eschewed the quaintness of the past in favor of the gritty vérité of postwar Britain. His performance as an ambitious and amoral social climber who leaves a wake of emotional destruction was central to the movie’s finding its international audience. It also opened the doors for Tom Courtney, Albert Finney, Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton and a generation of others who breasted the New Wave as working class heroes ready to embrace success at all costs, including self-betrayal.



Joe Lampton made Harvey a star for a while on both sides of the Atlantic, though he appeared to drift back and forth to Hollywood out of no clear conviction. He was able to find a perfect role in The Manchurian Candidate , though the soulless quality of the character seemed to echo Harvey’s own emotionless core and his performance was more admired than liked. Returning to the UK after the poorly received Walk on the Wild Side and disasters-to-follow, The Ceremony (1963) and Martin Ritt’s The Outrage (1964), Harvey reprised Joe Lampton in Life at the Top (1965). Directed by Canadian Ted Kotcheff, the film turned out to be a respectable sequel, mostly due to the continuities that Harvey brought to it. He also got a brief re-bound from John Schlesinger’s Darling (1965).

After that, his career spiraled down as he drifted through a string of forgotten and failed projects for nearly a decade before dying in 1975 at age 45 of stomach cancer. His only child, Domino, a daughter with third wife model Paulene Stone, followed a troubled path, going from model to bounty hunter before her death from a drug overdose in 2005. Her life story was highly fictionalized by director Tony Scott in Domino (2005) with Keira Knightley in the title role.   



In all, Laurence Harvey both on and off the screen was not what some would have liked. However, as they say, he was who he was and never appeared to be uncomfortable with the fact. The image that he fostered was not far removed from the roles he played. “I’m a flamboyant character, an extrovert who doesn’t want to reveal his feelings”, he once said. “To bare your soul to the world, I find unutterably boring. I think part of our profession is to have a quixotic personality.” He went on to say, “Once someone asked me, ‘Why do so many people hate you?” and I said, “Do they? How super! I’m really quite pleased about it.”

In life and death, Laurence Harvey held a fascination for both public and press. Strikingly handsome, he was for a period one of the most exciting and watchable movie stars there was. We admire some actors because we see in their performances something of their true nature that captivates us – which why the comment, “He’s just being himself on screen” often makes little sense. Call it type casting but it’s often all we want from certain actors.

In Harvey’s case, it’s precisely the iciness, the arrogance, the conceit, the snobbery that attracts. He could express more with just a look than many actors can with words. There was anger about him, a bloodlust. He was always ready to do battle. There was that Harvey look, all bared teeth and arched cheekbones. Creases would appear on his forehead and the area around the eyes would tighten, whether suggesting nastiness or a sure attempt to appeal. There’s a boldness and urgency that often makes one want to side with him even when he’s the villain of the piece. Which when all is said and done, made Harvey an ideal fit for film noir. After Room at the Top, he too often found himself cast in roles for which he was unsuited, unlike earlier on in his career before encumbered by stardom. Below are ten of those ‘before’ films, all of them bracing crime dramas or thrillers, some more deeply noir-stained than others, in which Harvey featured. Several are among his best films, some were just best for him. But all are a true reflection of one of the most compelling actors ever to star in classic British film noir.


HOUSE OF DARKNESS (1948)



In his first film after graduating the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), Laurence Harvey begins as he intends to go on. He plays an arrogant, egomaniac Francis Merrivale who believes that he’s been cheated out of his inheritance by his two step brothers, John and Noel. John suffers from a weak heart and Noel from a paralyzing weakness of mind. Francis causes John to have a fatal heart attack and Noel to vacate the family home by convincing him it’s haunted, leaving Francis as master of the house. However, Francis slowly descends into guilt-induced madness as he begins to believe that the house is cursed with the ghost of the vengeful John.

Though on release House of Darkness was viewed as a horror film, it’s really more a psychological thriller and easily qualifies as a period film noir. The story’s familiar but the film is singular, with a literate script by John Gilling and a darkly ‘haunting’ musical score by George Melachrino, whose orchestra rivalled that of the better-known Mantovanni. The movie features Melachrino who recounts his fictional visit to the ‘House of Darkness’ which inspired one of his symphonies (part of the movie’s orchestration). 

The movie also has Laurence Harvey who as Francis is something to behold in his infantile petulance and fury. His brother John, accuses him of being, “a little egotistical tin-pot Cromwell, puffed up with a delusion of grandeur” while Noel dismisses him as an, “insufferable, conceited cad”. Harvey’s performance also conjures up Bela Lugosi in films such as Dracula (1931) and White Zombie (1932). He would have made an impressive Count Dracula. His malign and chilling presence now memorably inscribed in House of Darkness, Harvey was on his way.


THE MAN FROM YESTERDAY (1949)



The head of an English country estate, Gerald Amersley (John Stuart) invites an old friend from India, Julius Rickman (Henry Oscar), to stay with him. But Rickman, a believer in spiritualism, exerts a baleful influence over the family. Amersley’s wife (Grace Arnold), is wary of Rickman while admitting that that he possesses “some secret fascination, at least to women”.  Amersley’s daughter, Doreen (Gwynneth Vaughn) thinks that Rickman is “unwholesome” and a “malignant spirit” but becomes romantically, if not sexually, involved with him. And Doris, Amersley’s sister, whose lover, Cedric, died under uncertain circumstances, begs Rickman to connect her with Cedric’s spirit. Rickman says to Doris he believes Cedric was murdered and that Gerald may have been responsible.

Doreen’s fiancée, John Matthews (Laurence Harvey) has his own suspicions about Rickman’s motives. When he sees Doreen about to succumb, he tells Rickman, “the poison is sometimes harder to identify than the symptoms of the poisoning” and orders him to leave. Rickman refuses and things go from bad to worse.  
          
With a stodgy direction from Oswald Mitchell and an uneven screenplay by John Gilling, The Man from Yesterday is held together by its excellent performances, especially that of Henry Oscar as the repellent homme fatal, Julius Rickman. For his part, Laurence Harvey is more a presence than a protagonist in this one. He nevertheless asserts himself in what would become a familiar manner, being never quite likeable and always too much in love with himself. 
   
MAN ON THE RUN (1949)



Cpl. Newman (Kenneth More) wanders into coastal pub and recognizes Peter Burden (Derek Farr), an army deserter working behind the bar. Burden bolts to London and needing money for rent, decides to pawn his service revolver. As he goes to show the gun to the store keeper, two armed crooks burst in, assault the jeweler and kill a police constable in the getaway. Burden, now on the run is taken in by a war widow, Jean Adams (Joan Hopkins) who believes his story, both in regard to the robbery and the circumstances of his desertion. Burden is sure he can recognize one of thieves and Joan agrees to help find him. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard officers Chief Inspector Mitchell (Edward Chapman) and Detective Sergeant Lawson (Laurence Harvey) are on the hunt for Burden. They’ve become suspicious of Joan and pick her up for further questioning. But Burden has managed to trace the thief and his partner who abduct him with the intention of doing him in before fleeing to Belfast by boat. The race is now on for the police to track them down before they kill Burden and escape.

Man on the Run is an atmospheric and well-paced thriller, given elegant and expressive direction by Lance Huntington (Night Boat to Dublin 1946, A Voice in the Night 1946, The Upturned Glass 1947 and Mr. Perrin and Mr. Trail 1948). The film suggests some sympathy for the post-war plight of deserters, who in being criminalized are forced to live the rest of their lives as criminals. However, it doesn’t go so far as to advocate amnesty (though the German theatrical release came to a different judgement). 
      
Everyone in the film is excellent, with Laurence Harvey in a nicely unmannered performance as the deferential and sympathetic Detective Sergeant Lawson.


CAIRO ROAD (1950)



Cairo Road, exotic in setting and evocative in detail, is a procedural noir set in Egypt with most of the filming done in Cairo, Port Said, and along the Suez Canal. Col. Youssef Bey (Eric Portman) and his subordinate, Lt. Mourad (Laurence Harvey), recently arrived from Paris with his wife Maria (Maria Mauban), are in charge of Egypt’s Anti-Narcotic Bureau. Mourad is mustard-keen but finds Bey difficult and conservative in his methods. His mantra is, “Let’s keep the facts tidy in our minds, never mind the theories.” But Mourad soon falls in as they follow a thread of inquiry that leads from a murdered man in a dingy Cairo apartment to a drug smuggling ring operated by Bey’s nemeses, the fabled Pavlis brothers.

Unfortunately David MacDonald’s (Snowbound, 1948, Good-Time Girl 1948, The Big Frame 1952, Tread Softly 1952) too leisurely direction never allows the excitement to rise quite to the level of the film’s flavorful settings and story. However, a film beautifully shot in deep etchings of black and white, Cairo Road wins on other counts.

Acting honors go to Harold Lang, a distinctive British character actor who appeared in any number of Brit noirs. Lang plays Humble, a glibly charming Cockney importer who is not who he says he is. Lang as usual invests his character with streetwise insolence and shrewdness and a fey, sexually ambiguous menace. Eric Portman’s gift for playing rigid and repressed authority figures is well exploited while Laurence Harvey with his maturing good looks and presence imposes himself nearly every scene as the talented but fallible Mourad.


SCARLET THREAD (1950)



Freddie (Laurence Harvey) is a down-at-the heels London street hoodlum who one evening attempts to pick the wrong pocket belonging to an urbane jewel thief, Marcon (Syd Tafler). But Marcon, needing an accomplice for a job to come decides to take Freddie on, despite doubts about his boorishness and womanizing. Along with getaway driver Sam (Harry Fowler), they pull a smash-and-grab at a jewelry shop in Cambridge but things go wrong when Freddie shoots a bystander and Sam drives off, leaving them to escape on foot. They end up on the grounds of one of the university colleges where they encounter Josephine (Kathleen Byron), the Master’s daughter. Marcon introduces himself as a visiting graduate of the college, which intrigues her but not nearly much as Freddie whom Marcon passes off as his American guest. Josephine is weary of college life and yearns for more and Freddie soon gets around to giving it to her. Eventually, things fall apart for the thieves but even more so for Josephine who realizes she's been wronged in a far more terrible way than merely having been seduced and abandoned.

Scarlet Thread is a movie hobbled with improbabilities, especially the notion that two desperate criminals could concoct such a charade and get away with it. However, there’s still much to enjoy in the film, particularly Kathleen Byron, whose English matter-of-factness and restraint, like that of Deborah Kerr, don’t entirely conceal the flesh-and-blood beneath. Josephine’s desire is palpable and arousing.  Laurence Harvey has a harder time of it, trying to model himself on a Hollywood version of an American gangster. This provokes some unforgiveable overacting, but Harvey’s growing star shine is evident.


THERE IS ANOTHER SUN (1951)




Dare-devil ‘Wall of Death’ motorcycle rider Eddie ‘Racer’ Pleskett (Maxwell Reed) needs a new bike to get back onto the racing circuit after being thrown off for killing another rider. He forces his pal, Mag Maguire (Laurence Harvey) to help him steal the money. Pleskett is a plain villain while Maguire is a decent guy and an up-and-coming fairground fighter hampered only by a misguided loyalty to his only friend. Lillian (Susan Shaw), a chorus girl they meet in a gambling club, is attracted to both though it’s clear to her that Racer is using Maguire. When Racer nearly kills his boss and steals his car, she’s had enough. Bratcher, a police detective who knows that Maguire is just a chump, then enlists Lillian’s help to both get to Racer and help sort out Maguire.

A somber morality tale of greed and betrayal, the film conjures up a particularly grim portrayal of post-war austerity in Britain and the tired sleaziness of provincial carnival life. Stylishly directed by Lewis Gilbert, best known for his stories of wartime heroism in films such as Reach for the Sky (1956); Carve Her Name with Pride (1958) ; and Sink the Bismarck! 1960), Wall of Death reflected early on Gilbert’s affinity for noirish narratives, later to include Cosh Boy (1952) and Cast a Dark Shadow (1955).

Especially good here is the beautiful and forthright Susan Shaw, the only English actress of the time to go blonde and not be written off as a tart. After her husband, American actor Bonar Colleano was killed in a car accident, Shaw fell to pieces and later died addicted and destitute.

Laurence Harvey is impressive in his first real starring part as the handsome, weak-willed hero, Maguire. He’s also not bad in the ring and looks like he might have trained to get there. More to him for that.”


A KILLER WALKS (1952)




Laurence Harvey in his first top-billed role plays Ned Harsten who, along with his younger brother Frankie, works his grandmother’s farm. Ned is fed up with everyone and everything except his girlfriend, Joan Gray (Susan Shaw) who unfortunately is fed up with him. Ned’s perpetually moody and hostile, going nowhere fast, and needs money. Susan is attractive, brassy and has her eye on a roadhouse pianist, Tony (John Ainsworth) and Ned knows it. He can’t see any way out but to do away his gran in order to get his hands on the farm and frame the emotionally vulnerable Frankie for the murder. However, Ned’s not as smart as he thinks; nor is he able to deal with the aftermath of the killing and the pressures of the investigation.

A penetrating psychological thriller, A Killer Walks is lushly photographed and orchestrated. The film’s claustrophobic setting, an old rural estate house, is gothic and the atmospherics, dark and oppressive. Much of the movie is shot in the fog-shrouded nighttime. There is a sense of dread and the anticipation of unspeakable evil, particularly around Frankie, a sleep walker obsessed with knives. Just as alarming is the selfish, narcissistic Ned whose own mental state deteriorates as the anger and resentment towards his overbearing grandmother grows. It’s enough that she holds his financial fortunes in balance but more than he can take when she tells him that Joanie, his hoped-to-be-bride, is “indecent.”

Susan Shaw, stunningly glammed-up in A Killer Walks, is actually an accidental femme fatale who really wants nothing of Ned other than a future. It’s Ned who takes it further. Laurence Harvey is terrific in the part, with all promise being fulfilled in this inspired little B noir. It’s a brilliant coming out.


TWILIGHT WOMEN (1952)



Laurence Harvey’s character, Jerry Nolan appears in only two scenes in Twilight Women but his presence hangs over the movie like a stench. Nolan is a louche lounge lizard and self-absorbed parasite who’s taken his pregnant girlfriend, Vivianne Bruce (Rene Ray) for everything he can get. When Jerry is arrested for murder of another woman, Vivianne, a fool in love but not in other ways, is forced to take shelter in a boarding house run by an unscrupulous Helen ‘Nellie’ Alistair (Freda Jackson) who takes in desperate unmarried mothers and single pregnant women thrown out by their families or ditched by their boyfriends. Alistair and her assistant, Jesse (Visa Hope) cash in by shorting the women on their rations, refusing them medical care because of the cost and forcing them to put their babies up for sale. As Vivianne becomes more involved with the boarders – an assortment of tough gals, tramps and frightened innocents – and more aware of the criminal exploitation, she confronts Alistair, who then and there decides that Vivianne must be gotten rid of.

Both a blistering social drama and horror-filled crime melodrama, Twilight Women is adapted from a 1951 play, recently restaged in London.  However, the film by no means feels stage-based and in no way a ‘weepie’. It cuts straight to the bone in its depiction of a world where there are no heroes or heroines, just those who survive and those who don’t.

Twilight Women was controversial when released, both in its subject matter and by the fact that that it was the first film to receive a newly-introduced ‘X’ rating by the British Board of Film Censors. However, what has never been in dispute is that Laurence Harvey is as hateful in Twilight Women as he would ever be in a movie. 
 

THE GOOD DIE YOUNG (1954)



Harvey moves up the ranks in The Good Die Young, sharing the marquee with Richard Basehart as Joe Halsey, a American war vet hoping to rescue his wife Mary (Joan Collins) from the emotional clutches of her mother; John Ireland as Eddie Blaine, a US Air Force officer who goes AWOL when he suspects his wife Denise (Gloria Grahame) is having an affair; and Stanley Baker as Mike Morgan, a boxer who’s fought his last bout and whose wife Rene Ray) has spent their nest egg to bail out her no-good brother. Harvey stars as Miles ‘Rave’ Ravenscourt, a callous lay-about whose wealthy wife (Margaret Leighton) has cut him off, weary of his gambling and extravagant living (art imitating life?). The four men, having met up in a pub, become friends and find solace in their shared despair. Rave suggests they pull a job, a Royal Mail van heist. The film opens with them driving on their way to the robbery, then flashes back to how each got to be there.

The movie is mostly concerned with what has led each man to desperation, leaving the heist itself – even though sharply constructed – to be done and over with in a hurry. However, the denouement where things get messy leads to some high noir drama, much of it due to the strikingly textured black-and-white cinematography of Jack Asher. 

Most everyone is good in The Good Die Young, especially Stanley Baker in a emotionally demanding performance; also, Harvey, who relishes his signature role as a monstrous cad whom his father, played by Robert Morley professes, to “loath and detest”. Rene Ray is moving as Baker’s fraught wife and Margaret Leighton gives a polished, realistic portrayal. The one off-note is Gloria Grahame who looks to be winging it as the lascivious starlet and her coy off-handedness is uncomfortable and irritating. However, as the film's director Lewis Gilbert later said of her (arguably), “It wasn’t that Gloria was a great star or actress. She’s remembered in films because she had extraordinary style. Most actresses fade into the distant past but somehow or other, one always remembers her”.


THE SILENT ENEMY (1958)



A rousing true-life adventure, The Silent Enemy is the story of Lieutenant Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb, a British naval bomb disposal officer assigned to Gibraltar to destroy an Italian command center carrying out the deadly placing of limpet mines on the hulls of allied ships. The Italians, operating out of neutral Spain, appear to be using underwater chariots to conduct their stealth missions.

Though Crabb (Laurence Harvey) has no diving experience, he takes to it readily under the guidance of a plucky NCO Sidney Knowles (Michael Craig). Much of the film centers around operations and preparation for the underwater assault to come on the Italian base station and is is organized like a heist movie in which Crabb first assembles his feisty crew, among them stand-up character actors Sid James and Alex McCowan. Then comes the serious business of training and hands-on defusing the explosives that night after night are being set by the Italian frogmen.

The film includes some remarkable underwater action scenes including a to-the-death encounter between the British and Italian divers. Though the movie is based in fact, The Silent Enemy is an enormously entertaining film – atmospheric, filled with action and drama and a sense of men going about a dangerous, arduous and thankless job with a quiet sense of duty.

Lionel Crabb had no time for nonsense and was a leader that anyone would want to follow. He was a courageous officer and a true independent spirit in a naval service that tolerated individuality and independence and Harvey does a terrific job of capturing that spirit. Crabb had a dazzling wartime and subsequent service career; however, in 1956 he disappeared while making an underwater reconnaissance of a Russian cruiser moored in Portsmouth harbor.  The circumstances of the disappearance are still a mystery.

The Silent Enemy is Laurence Harvey’s finest hour before taking on the role as Joe Lampton. With a blonde crewcut and naval beard, Harvey for the first time was able to step out of what would remain his character forever, though at least the haircut went with him to Room at the Top.

Gary Deane

Thursday, 6 August 2015

GIL BREWER, HUBERT CORNFIELD, AND THE IRRESISTIBLE LURE OF THE SWAMP



"No, nobody knew, but I told him. As I watched while he sank into the quicksand, I told him, and was it sweet"  



Gil Brewer wrote pulp fiction and a lot of it – hundreds of short stories and more than fifty novels, most of them with sensational titles like The Vengeful Virgin, Nude on Thin Ice, The Bitch, Backwoods Teaser, Appointment in Hell, and So Rich, So Dead.

Brewer’s often violent, always sexually fraught tales of male lust and feminine wiles, the seductive power of nothing left to lose and the fatal pursuit of delusions of success are the stuff of pure noir. However, in Brewer’s twisted world, the fated and romanticized Everyman (or just Average Joe) gives way to a lineup of losers and lowlifes, suckers and stooges, the ever resentful and the easily angered, suffocating under the heat of the Florida sun and the weight of their fevered yearnings and sweaty desperation. 


Like many of his hard-writing peers, Brewer hoped for a career as a serious novelist. But by the 1950’s, he’d found himself with little choice as a fiction writer but to follow the money – which meant the meaner world of paperback originals and second-tier men’s magazines from which he was never able to find a way out. Brewer continued to write his hard, heated prose on through the ‘60’s and 70’s – though progressively less of it and for a fading audience. He’d fallen victim to changing times and tastes, as well as his own disillusionment and eventual descent into mental illness and addiction. He died of alcohol poisoning in 1983. But at least Brewer has since found critical appreciation as the writer he believed himself to be with publishers such as Hard Case Crime and Stark House Press re-printing many of his best novels and stories. 

On the other hand, Brewer's books, unlike those of many of his pulp contemporaries, eluded adaptation. The violence, sexual mayhem, unrelenting despair, and breathless, headlong pace of his writing would leave him out in the cold as far as radio, television or film versions of his stories were concerned. Brewer also was younger and hipper than most of his better-known peers and was as basically uninterested in Hollywoodland as it was in him.



That said, Brewer’s lurid, disquieting stories haven't gone entirely without notice from film-makers, among them renegade French director Jean-Pierre Mocky, long enthralled with American pulp culture, particularly noir’s darkest corner of it.  Over a career spanning more than five decades, Mocky adapted Horace McCoy’s, No Pockets in a Shroud (1974), Fredric Brown’s, Knock Three Two One (1975), and then Brewer’s A Killer is Loose (1986) and 13 French Street (2007), based on the most popular of the author’s cherished Fawcett Gold Medal titles.Sadly, none of Mocky’s films did real justice to the books upon which they were based. 

Even less successful in bringing Brewer to the screen was American indie director, Scott Ziehl who took Brewer’s 1954 novel Wild to Possess as a starting point for 2004’s Three Way, a slick but dreary ‘erotic thriller’ starring Dominic Purcell, Joy Bryant, Dwight Yokam and Gina Gershon. Three Way fails Brewer’s story by overcomplicating not only what was straightforward about it but also what was already complicated enough, turning Brewer’s Gold Medal trash into so much bad rubbish.


Bu even as untouchable by Hollywood as both Brewer and his novels were generally considered to be during the writer’s most productive and creative period, two of his best-selling paperbacks actually did manage to get optioned – The Brat, which was never filmed, and Hell’s Our Destination, which found its way onto the screen in 1957 under the title The Lure of the Swamp.



The producing company was Regal Films, a smaller independent studio whose launch production was a title now well-known to film noir lovers, Andre de Toth’s Pitfallreleased in 1948 and distributed by United Artists. However in 1956, independent producer Robert Lippert bought a controlling interest in Regal Studios and immediately made production/ distribution deals with 20th Century Fox.  The bigger studio had been looking to make packages of low-budget films to compete with the success of recently-formed American International Pictures and its lucrative output of rock ‘n’ roll, hot rod, and horror movies. Lippert structured his association with both Regal and Fox so that he was able to do what he did best, lining up producers, directors, screenwriters, composers, and most of all, actors, willing to work on tight schedules for minimal pay.

Among the films produced by the studio during the first two years of its association with Fox were two that had been handed to a promising young director, Hubert Cornfield. Born in Istanbul, raised in France, Cornfield was the son of Albert Cornfield, a Twentieth Century Fox Studios executive. As a student abroad, the younger Cornfield had developed friendships with the modernist mavericks of the French New Wave including Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jean-Pierre Melville, sharing their affection for American popular culture but especially the hard-boiled tradition in fiction and film.

Returning from France, Cornfield continued his education in the Eastern U.S. and on the strength of the family connections and evident talent got himself to Hollywood where Billy Wilder, William Wyler, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz would sponsor his Directors Guild of America application. With card in hand, Cornfield got his first assignment, Sudden Danger (1955), the second of five police procedurals starring Bill Elliot as a Los Angeles police detective. Though the film was intended only as a run-of-the-mill programmer, Cornfield demonstrated a genuine feel for the material and equal facility as a director. The year following, Cornfield was tagged to direct The Lure of the Swamp, in which both his affinity for dark, aberrant crime stories and his skills as a filmmaker would be affirmed.

The Lure of the Swamp, an atmospheric, meditative rural film noir, is set in the eerie swamplands of South Florida. Simon Lewt (Marshall Thompson), a local guide is hired by businessman James Lister (Willard Park) to take him into the swamp so far and then stay behind while Lister continues on alone. Hearing gunshots, Simon follows Lister in and sees him tossing a suitcase overboard. When they return to town, Lister tells Simon he’ll be back and gives Simon a fifty dollar advance. However, Simon later sees a newspaper story about a $290, 000 Miami bank hold-up and a photo of Lister who’s been identified as the slain robber.

Days after, Simon is approached by an attractive female, Cora Payne (Joan Vohs) who introduces herself to him as a magazine photographer. Payne says she wants a tour of the swamps. Following, a man called Steggins (Leo Gordon) shows up and offers to hire Simon as a guide and asks if he’s seen a man with a suitcase. Then Simon returns to his cabin and finds another stranger, Henry Bliss (Jack Elam) waiting for him. Bliss claims outright that Lister sent him and unlike the other two, tries to talk Simon into becoming his partner and helping him retrieve the stolen cash. Simon at first resists any involvement but later succumbs to a now urgent lust, much loosened greed, and the ‘lure of the swamp’ into which he inevitably stands to be drawn.

The Lure of the Swamp is tawdry and eerily elegant at the same time. The film has a sinister languor, a function of its steamy setting and a script in which not very much is spoken and even less said. Though never intended by its producers as anything more than a cheapie B feature, The Lure of the Swamp captures the rudimentary, spectral poetry of Gil Brewer’s storytelling, both narratively and visually. Much of the credit goes to Cornfield whose best films, including the suffocatingly anxious Plunder Road (1957) and the darkly anguished The Third Voice (1960) all share The Lure of the Swamp’s dramatic irony and brutal determinism, as criminals fall to betraying each other and destroy themselves in the doing.

All three films also enjoy the presence of their actors. Cornfield was a sympathetic actors’ director who would meet at length with his casts, looking for certainty both in his performers and the script, adjusting as required and even arranging set-ups around an actor’s personally indicative movements. In The Lure of the Swamp, his first real test as a director, Cornfield gets mostly first-rate performances from his actors, especially from Marshall Thompson who earlier in his career had only ever been utilized as a boyishly charming and genial player. As Thompson matured, the boy-next-door persona gave way as he began to be cast in other roles,  including those as a conflicted and sometimes lethal young man in a series of noir-stained B productions such as Mystery Street (1950), Dial 1119 (1950), The Basketball Fix (1951), The Tall Target (1951), and Crashout (1955).



IThe Lure of the Swamp, Marshall Thompson gives one of his most convincing performances as a complacent-at-best, fatalistic-at-worst backwoods loner whom everyone calls “Simon”, in such a way as to infer that “Simple” is part-and-parcel.  Though Simon has a girlfriend (Joan Lora), the spunky daughter of the local shopkeeper, it’s clear he views domestic life as just another dead end inside his already closed existence. It’s also clear that it won’t take much for Simon to fall prey to the breath-takingly treacherous femme fatale, Cora Payne.

Joan Vohs, a Radio City Rockette at age 16 and then a high-fashion model had a sporadic and abbreviated career in Hollywood and looks in the early going to be giving the least effective performance in the movie. From the outset, we’re skeptical that Payne is who she says she is. However, the question is, is that because Vohs is just an unconvincing actress or rather, is she subtly conveying that Cora isn’t all she says she is? By the end, it’s become clearer and in the meantime, Cora continues to stalk and move in on the woeful Simon Lewt.



Persuasive beyond doubt are tough-guy actors Jack Elam and Leo Gordon, each as threatening as the other in his own way – though Gordon is surprising as a character who for much of the movie never reveals who he is and where he fits in to the film’s deeply-layered scheme of things. In fact, The Lure of the Swamp never really stops surprising. The B-list film noir continually catches us off guard and works us over like a clever counterpuncher, ultimately ending the bout with a jarring knockout blow. 




Hubert Cornfield’s handful of low-budget but vividly noirish genre pieces still stands up today, recalling Noel Coward’s remark about the terminal potency of cheap music. We’re still struck by everything from the murderous treachery of The Lure of the Swamp to the heart-stopping ending of Plunder Road (1957); from Edmond O’Brien’s feverish impersonation of a dead man by ‘phone in The Third Voice (1960) to Mercedes McCambridge’s lusty performance as a jealous obsessive in Angel Baby; from the resistant intelligence of Pressure Point to the unsettling, dream-like narrative of Night of the Following Day All of Cornfield’s movies are thrillingly detailed, with the action and dialog edited with the skill of a diamond cutter and needing little or no music accompaniment to force the pace.

Along with Stanley Kubrick, Cornfield was one of the most innovative and enigmatic filmmakers of post-war Hollywood. Andrew Sarris, in framing his taxonomy of American auteurism, pigeonholed him in the category of ‘Miscellany’, declaring that Cornfield had a “European sensibility”.  Too intelligent for exploitation formulas, Cornfield’s films raise the concept of fate in film noir to true existential and cosmic proportions.

However, as singular and inspired as his films could be, Hubert Cornfield struggled to keep a career going in Hollywood. Too often and in too many ways, Cornfield was his own worst enemy. As his friend, Los Angles film journalist F. X. Feeney said of him, “Hubert could go from charming to belligerent in a heartbeat. He demanded one’s attention, always, with a child’s sense of entitlement. He fought with all his friends, sooner or later, always loudly and often over trifles…Such regal self-importance hurt his career when he was young and his Casanova recklessness when it came to sleeping with the wives and mistresses of backer and allies never helped”. But Feeney also confesses, “These were traits easy to forgive in a friend: he was so open, so honest, I couldn’t help but love the man”.

Unfortunately, Cornfield was seldom as agreeable or forgiving.  Few, if any of his films went smoothly during or following production. In what was to become a familiar refrain, he accused the studio of sabotaging The Lure of the Swamp by cutting the print without telling him. He repeatedly referred to Plunder Road as Blunder Road and was perpetually at odds with principals during production, be they producers, crew or cast members. On the French location shoot of Night of the Following Day (1968), the director’s biggest assignment, conflicts between Cornfield and Marlon Brando got so out of control that Cornfield had to leave the picture, with actor Richard Boone stepping in to complete it.

By this time, Cornfield was already living in France having retreated there in the mid-‘sixties after his career in Hollywood had come to a halt. While in France, his success was limited to a single film, Les grands moyens aka Short and Sweet (1976), a dark, noirish crime comedy.

However, following the breakup of his marriage, Cornfield returned to Los Angeles in the late ‘seventies. Still unable to find work in the film industry, Cornfield supported himself by house painting. He lived and slept for a time in his van among the paints and solvents which it’s believed may have caused the throat cancer that nearly killed him. However, after surgery and a period of recovery, he bounced back as strong-minded and irrepressible as ever. Cornfield led a solitary but active life in Hollywood, walking, skiing, working on scripts and other projects, and going to the movies, including special screenings of Plunder Road and The Third Voice at the American Cinematheque at which he was a guest.

 Cornfield passed away in June of 2006 and in the following August, a memorial and tribute to him was held at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. A year later, the Cinematheque Francais in Paris held a special Hommage à Hubert Cornfield at which several of the director’s films were screened. Included was The Lure of the  Swampthe favorite of French audiences among the handful of violent and stylized films noirs for which Cornfield, the auteur was revered. 

In that way, time finally had rewarded Cornfield, as it had Gil Brewer. Though Cornfield and Brewer came from polar opposite backgrounds (Brewer being a high school dropout raised in relative poverty in Upstate New York) and were of different temperaments (Brewer was a gentle, sensitive man who felt too deeply and cared too much), both men shared similar creative ambitions and sensibilities. Whether it was to be writing or filmmaking, each hungered to create something of depth, beauty, and meaning and each produced works rich with raw emotion, genuinely portrayed and felt. Their stories are hauntingly surreal, filled with pervading menace and terror, functioning on mood from which the plot and sex issue like steam from boiling water.

The creative lives of Gil Brewer and Hubert Cornfield intersected just once, via The Lure of the Swamp. But perhaps they’d meet up later, in whatever noirvana awaited them, and together take on all those who'd slighted their respective gifts and aspirations. That would make for some dark and stormy nights indeed.



Written by Gary Deane