Death came so quietly for my friend Hubert Cornfield on June 18 that it astonished even the nurse who was bringing him his breakfast. Such a departure was completely in character.
If you knew the films he’d directed — including such marvels of film noir as Plunder Road (1957), The 3rd Voice (1960), Pressure Point (1962) and The Night of the Following Day (1968), which starred Marlon Brando — you might argue that such an exit was even true to his style as an artist: He always liked to end his tales with a breathtaking twist. If, on the other hand, you simply knew or loved Hubert, then you knew that his sheer appetite for life forbade him to linger long in the semicomatose, hospitalized state in which he’d found himself since January, close to his 77th birthday. Up to that point, he’d been an active, avid skier (his license plate read “SKIEUR”); for years, he’d been jogging up to two miles every night. He’d lost his voice box to cancer back in the late 1970s, and a piece of his forehead to the same disease more recently. But his energy was unstoppable.
He cold-called me out of the blue, in 1996. He was campaigning to restart his filmmaking career after years away, and wanted to see if the L.A. Weekly was interested in publishing chapters from his autobiography, which he was then just starting. He gave it an alluring title: Beyond the Imaginary Line. Not enough of these fragments were complete at that time for me to be of much help, but I jumped at the chance to meet him. He’d said the magic words: “I directed Pressure Point.” That film is a superb study of the psyche of an American Nazi, with Bobby Darin outstanding as a rabid racist, alternately taunting and baring his poisoned heart before the urbane prison psychiatrist (Sidney Poitier) who’s fighting some powerful demons of his own.
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A friendship grew out of our first encounter, and as Hubert’s other films became staples of the many film noir retrospectives at the American Cinematheque, I came to appreciate the innate power of his talent. Plunder Road centers on a band of crooks who steal a gold shipment, melt the stolen bars and recast them as the bumpers for a large sedan, which they plan to drive out of the country. The “how to” of this clever scheme is as thrillingly, authentically detailed as the criminality in Dassin’s Rififi or Bresson’s Pickpocket, so much so that Cornfield needs little if any music to accelerate the viewer’s pulse. His own uncanny timing does this: He edits action and dialogue with the skill of a diamond cutter. The same goes for The 3rd Voice, in whichEdmond O’Brien murders, then assumes the identity of a millionaire by flawlessly impersonating his voice over the phone, ordering wire transfers of enormous sums from bank to bank as he himself moves incognito through a Mexican resort city. The use of the black-and-white CinemaScope frame is elegant — one can feel the fates closing in on this man, as if materializing unseen in the surrounding air. There is also one oddball poetic touch: A toucan (a beloved pet of Cornfield’s at the time) flies from place to place with O’Brien, as if stalking him on fate’s behalf.
Hubert could go from charming to belligerent in a heartbeat. He demanded one’s immediate attention, always, with a child’s sense of entitlement. He fought with all his friends, sooner or later, always loudly and often over trifles. When I didn’t hear back from him in January, I assumed he was furious with me over some perceived slight. These were traits easy to forgive in a friend; he was so open, so honest to his marrow, I couldn’t help but love the man. But such regal self-importance no doubt hurt his career when he was young, and his Casanova recklessness when it came to sleeping with the wives and mistresses of backers and allies certainly never helped.
To the moment of his final collapse, he was a font of creative energy — forever sculpting, painting, fashioning collages, above all writing. His last screenplay, Outburst, reads like the work of a much younger man, in the best sense: It treats the historic uprising at the Nazi death camp Treblinka with the electric suspense and how-to intricacy of a heist picture, a film noir akin to Jean-Pierre Melville’s recently rediscovered Army of Shadows (1969), in which the plotters are not mere outlaws, but outcasts, scheming to steal freedom from their persecutors. We know these inmates are doomed, but they know they are just as doomed if they don’t try. This they share with Hubert Cornfield himself. He no doubt knew that he would never get Outburst produced under his own direction, but he refused to say die, and the life-giving vitality of what he got on paper was its own reward.
On August 5, the American Cinematheque will present a tribute to Hubert Cornfield. See www.americancinematheque.com for the full schedule.