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Wise Guys 

A virtual roundtable with three American filmmakers of an extremely rare vintage

Wednesday, Apr 24 2002
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Andre de Toth, Budd Boetticher, Jules Dassin: In the nearly 300 years (combined) on Earth, the 20th century put more than a few tripwires in their paths. Their imprint on modern culture, with nearly 150 films to their collective credit, is incalculable. They’re independent filmmakers -- not by today‘s definition, but within the confines of the old Hollywood system -- and time has been kind to their reputations, transcending the snobbery formerly visited upon genre entertainment: Westerns, gangster movies and detective thrillers. While many “important” pictures now seem dated, the best of Boetticher, Dassin and de Toth’s work is still vital in its approach to the ugly truths of human nature, painted in shades of gray.

Born in Illinois and adopted as a young child, Budd Boetticher, 85, was a world-class bullfighter and bullshitter. “I think it‘s a great idea to start your article by saying this isn’t going to be completely truthful,” he told me by phone from his home near San Diego. The truth is that Boetticher‘s pictures, from the legendary series of late-’50s Westerns starring Randolph Scott, spare and poetic tales of honor and vengeance, to his corrida movies Bullfighter and the Lady (1951) and Aruzza (1972), remain strikingly fresh today. (Filming the latter over seven years drove Boetticher to divorce, bankruptcy, and brief stints in a mental institution and a Mexican prison.) Boetticher also made propaganda films in the South Pacific during World War II.

At 90, Jules Dassin‘s renaissance is flourishing with the deluxe DVD re-release of his diamond-hard French heist caper Rififi (1955). Raised in Harlem, Dassin cut his teeth as an actor and playwright in New York in the 1930s. His seminal ’40s films noir Thieves‘ Highway, The Naked City and Brute Force bristle with intellect and tension. His stateside career was derailed by the runaway train of the Hollywood blacklist, only to be reborn in France in the mid-’50s. Together with his wife, Melina Mercouri, he made the groundbreaking international smash Never on Sunday (1960) and a handful of passionate productions thereafter, including 1962‘s Phaedra (with Anthony Perkins) and the 1964 Rififi redux Topkapi. Although his wife passed on in 1994, Dassin continues to reside in Athens.

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Don’t tell Andre de Toth -- a witness to the Nazi disembowelment of Poland and a survivor of three broken necks, one gunshot wound, seven wives and 19 children, not to mention a near-century of directing movies with the same ferocity with which he‘s lived his life -- that his pictures are “nice.” “Scabrous,” “brutal,” “unsentimental” and even “humanistic” are more like it, and will get you a smile -- maybe. From the battlefields of the frontier West (Ramrod, Day of the Outlaw) to the battlefield of marriage (Pitfall, Slattery’s Hurricane), de Toth‘s flawed but empathetic characters prowl a world of outright treachery. His prophetic None Shall Escape (1943) anticipated the outcome of World War II and the Nuremberg war tribunal. Living in Los Angeles and still working as a script doctor at age 101, 91 or 88, depending on the source -- de Toth admits to all three -- he is as famous for making the world’s male population envious by marrying actress Veronica Lake as he is infamous as the one-eyed man who directed the best 3-D picture ever made, House of Wax (1953).

NOTMANYDAYS after September 11, 2001, I sat over coffee with de Toth, a friend for many years now, under a shady elm at his home near Riverside Drive. I wondered aloud how we had all been changed by the recent cataclysmic horror. “You walk down the street and there‘s a dead man stretched out,” he told me in his thick Hungarian growl. “He’s been hit by a car, it‘s a big shock. But if you see that same man as he’s being hit by the car, it leaves a deeper impression. That immediate information changes us.”

Many weeks later, as the bombs rained down on Mazar-i-Sharif, I spoke to Budd Boetticher by phone. (“I don‘t know why the hell these people would do such a terrible thing,” he said. “I really don’t have much to say about it.”) Then, recently, I was on the phone again, with Jules Dassin, speaking from Athens. (“Most of the world understood and united against Hitler, against fascism. With great sympathy, most of the world has united against this horrible action in the States,” he said. Then, after a long pause, “I was raised in New York, and it hurt very much.”) What emerged from these and other conversations was a virtual roundtable discussion, three motion-picture mavericks talking about culture, war, violence and the movies.

L.A. WEEKLY: In Hollywood‘s golden age, writers and directors seemed to have lived intrinsically interesting lives -- be it as bullfighters, journalists or soldiers -- and to have made their pictures from those experiences. Whereas today, movies are mostly a composite of other movies, not born from real life.

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