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Wise Guys

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.

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.

 

BUDD BOETTICHER: Well, what people made pictures about in those days were good scripts, good stories and practically no sabotage of the English language. And we were ladies and gentlemen, we were educated and it showed. It used to be an art, now it’s a mess. And you can quote me. It‘s just shit.

JULES DASSIN: The “golden age”? [Laughs.] Whatever that is -- I only know about the Greek golden age. I’m a little unhappy, though, about seeing special effects taking predominance over everything. I like films about people, not magic stuff you can do with digital tricks.

You mean you don‘t like movies starring action figures?

DASSIN: [Laughs.] There’s so much talent in Hollywood that could be put to finer use, but what the hell.

ANDRE DE TOTH: There was a lot of crap in the “golden age” too. It depends on the individuals. But even now, there‘s experience in every minute of film, and you notice it if you notice it. You can learn how a headache feels not only if I hit you over the head with a baseball bat. You have to have senses, you have to have vision, you have to have probing. And not everything and everybody goes according to your glasses.

It sounds like you’re saying two things, that understanding is important . . .

DETOTH: More than important. Understanding is everything, okay? Can I have a coffee?

[Laughs.] Sure. Some films reflect a truth about our lives -- how we love each other, how we betray each other. Do you think the culture today is less interested in such honest depictions?

BOETTICHER: I can‘t answer that in five minutes.

How about four?

BOETTICHER: [Laughs.] Well, in the first place, we’re another society right now. I became a full-fledged director in 1944 -- and society has changed. There is no society. a It‘s trash. Today it’s usually a story that has a lot of glamour, a lot of color, but the story is a bunch of lies. You don‘t give a damn about anybody. If a building blows up, so what? If the leading lady blows up, “Gee, isn’t that a shame.” You‘re supposed to care about the leading lady.

DASSIN: With cinema and television, never in the history of the world has there been such potential for doing good and raising the cultural level of people. When I say “raising the cultural level,” I mean we have people who live their lives without looking at a painting or listening to Mozart. Of course, they’re probably never told how interesting this is, or how valuable it is.

The marketers don‘t see any money in it.

DASSIN: Well, the fact is there is money in it, the idiots. Shakespeare has had a long, long run. They’re just not offering it to the mass audience.

DETOTH: People are stupider today, okay?

I‘d like to ask you about resilience. [To Boetticher] You were gored by a bull.

BOETTICHER: It just took out a chunk of my spinal column. Oh, it was a mess. I should have died, but I didn’t. And I refused to, for years.

That‘s a good thing.

BOETTICHER: Yeah. That was 1940, and the first bull I killed was in 1938. But that’s a long time ago. There‘s not many people around . . . well, there’s not any who were doing that.

But that didn‘t put an end to your bullfighting, or your career.

BOETTICHER: Hell no, just the beginning. Once you live through a thing like that, it’s like during the war -- it was always the guy next to you who was going to get killed. It was never going to be you. It just really got me started. The best years of my life started after that.

[To Dassin] Can I ask you about the blacklist?

DASSIN: Sure. It was a bad idea.

[Both laugh.] I found a quote of yours. “The American movie public never created a blacklist. It was always a fraud, an extraordinary fraud.”

DASSIN: I still believe that. We were told that Rififi, Never on Sunday, a lot of films that I made would be boycotted in the U.S. with organized pickets and so on. There was none of that. It was a sickness that got out of control, that most people were either ashamed of or indifferent to. I don‘t think they believed the people who were declared enemies of the Republic really were enemies of the Republic.

 

It’s wonderful that you‘re not bitter about it. At least you don’t seem to be.

DASSIN: No, I‘m not bitter. But there’s an unhappiness for so many lives destroyed and for the effect it had on movies that were made, for a long time. When you create an atmosphere of fear, it‘s bad stuff.

You had children to feed . . .

DASSIN: That’s right, that‘s right. And when you say to a guy, “Think this way,” or “Betray this friend, otherwise you won’t work.” Well, they get you right in the balls.

[To de Toth] In Poland, in 1939, you were forced to shoot propaganda footage for the Nazis.

DETOTH: Yes.

They wanted to show themselves as humanitarians, feeding the Poles.

DE TOTH: What was so terrible was they lined up the starving people and whipped them like dogs. Then the cameras rolled, with the Nazis shouting, “Laugh! Smile!” And the people smiled, and they gave them the bread. Then they stopped the cameras. “Enough!” And the soldiers took the bread away. They showed these things all over Germany, all over the world. “Look,” they said, “we‘re not so bad.”

Then you escaped . . .

DETOTH: I shot that footage out of focus. Then, you see, I had to go, because it took about three weeks to send the film to Berlin to develop. [Pause.] And three weeks to find out that a dead horse’s flank, if you cut it up and put it on the fire, it‘s very good. Or you don’t eat.

After something like that happens, how does it affect you? I know you savor every day.

DETOTH: You cannot get away -- knowingly or unknowingly -- from the various effects of the life that you went through. Just look at it as it is. Don‘t make it a drama, and don’t diminish it. I‘m always learning, growing. You have to. There’s no patent on tomorrow, man.

Real violence, fictional violence, is marketed to us every day. And to some degree we like watching it. Why the fascination?

BOETTICHER: It‘s everywhere, and it’s just awful. Mary and I stay home and sit in our bed and flick channels. When there‘s some truth to it, that’s different. I mean, I can tell you word for word The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. [Laughs.]

DASSIN: I wish I knew. There‘s a difference between brutality and violence. We can go back to the American Revolution. We took up arms. Violence served our cause, and we were right to use violence. That’s one thing. But to show Schwarzenegger as glorious, as a hero, with a triple somersault he gets off the shot . . .

DETOTH: Life is violent. To depict it truthfully can show us what not to do. Make us look at our ugly faces in the mirror. You can go from a duck pecking on another duck in the yard, to two dogs fighting -- there is a certain amount of cruelty in everybody. People are the same, but we are much more intelligent, so we hide it. Look at the Roman gladiators. We‘re going the same way.

The point being, our history is violent, so when we embrace it, it gives us what?

DETOTH: The point is, as human beings we don’t know a goddamn thing about ourselves. Go ahead, say something . . .

* * *

It‘s strange interviewing two men you’ve never met, and one of them you never will. Budd Boetticher died on November 29, 2001, of multiple organ failure. Our interview went unfinished. It was his last.

Sitting at an outdoor cafe, days after his memorial, I share my sadness about his death with de Toth. His blue eye watches me closely. “Memento homo qui pulvis est et pulvaram reverteris,” he replies in Latin. “Remember, man, you are from the dust and to the dust you will return.”

I look at my friend, 60, 70 years my senior. With a smile, he tilts his coffee cup: “Such a lovely day. Let‘s have another one before we go.”#

Patrick Francis is currently making a documentary film on the life and career of Andre de Toth.

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