‘Hollywood Exiles in Europe’: Feeling alienated and anxious
Most everyone knows about the Hollywood blacklist of the late 1940s, about how it drove progressive filmmakers into self-imposed exile in Europe. What happened next, what those people did once they settled in overseas, is considerably less known, and the films they made while there can be almost impossible to see. A significant new series from the UCLA Film & Television Archive is poised to change all that.
“Hollywood Exiles in Europe,” a 14-film retrospective starting Friday at the Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater, shows us a selection of these films, some as familiar as the Jules Dassin noir double bill of “Rififi” and “Night and the City,” yet most unheard-of and rarely screened, and all of them benefiting from being viewed in the context of the fraught personal situation of their key creators.
For whether they were genre classics like the Dassin films or wore their social consciousness on their sleeves, these films were infused with the expatriate experience of the rootless outsider looking in, searching for a home. As often as not studies of desperate men under desperate circumstances, these efforts came by their fear and anxiety honestly and found it very hard to shake.
As detailed by series co-curator Rebecca Prime, whose fine new book on the era shares its title with the series, these pictures were independent of necessity and, well before it was trendy, the product of the rough-and-tumble world of low-budget European co-production.
Just as their creators often worked under pseudonyms because powerful pressure groups such as the American Legion worked hard to keep their output off U.S. screens, many of these films had two and even three titles, reflecting different language versions and market concerns. Even today, prints are difficult to come by.
John Berry’s amusing French-language “Je Suis un Sentimental,” for instance, a wised-up genre exercise of the “That Man From Rio” variety that stars Eddie Constantine (later immortalized in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville”), is being shown in an English-dubbed version called “Headlines of Destruction.” And the only available print of Joseph Losey’s preferred cut of his 1962 “Eve” comes with Finnish subtitles. Go figure.
If nothing else, this series is a welcome chance for a big-screen viewing of Dassin’s tip-top crime dramas. The fast-paced “Night and the City” was made first and stars Richard Widmark in one of his trademark performances as a desperate, feckless loser in 1950 London who is always looking for an angle and finally thinks he’s found one.
Made five years later and set in Paris, “Rififi” is a driving, compelling piece of work, drenched in human frailty and fatalistic doom and called by Francois Truffaut “the best film noir I have ever seen.”
Peopled by hard guys who stick together no matter what (an echo of the expatriate experience), “Rififi” is most celebrated for the wordless half-hour it spends on the late-night burglary of a high-end jewelry store, a scene that provides a master class in both filmmaking and breaking and entering.
Among the discoveries of “Hollywood Exiles” are earnest, deterministic films, the passionate work of true believers. This is especially true of the series’ opening-night presentation, “Christ in Concrete,” created by the blacklisted trio of director Edward Dmytryk, writer Ben Barzman and actor Sam Wanamaker.
A lushly melodramatic film that mixes politics with a stab at poetic realism, “Concrete” stars Wanamaker as an Italian bricklayer who is torn between self-interest and a broader vision. As one of its characters pointedly asks, “How much he earns, is that the value of a man’s life?”
With five films in the series, Losey is the director most represented. That wide selection of work pairs better known productions with more obscure items, often to the advantage of the lesser known films.
Seen today, Losey’s angst-ridden “Eve” and its story of masochistic love seems like a quintessential 1960s art house effort, though what a contemporary critic said about star Jeanne Moreau still holds true: “a blazing piece of star acting every inch of the way ... five times larger than life.”
More involving is co-feature “Time Without Pity,” written by Barzman, a pip of a psychological crime drama in which an alcoholic absentee dad played by Michael Redgrave has 24 hours to prove his imprisoned son is not a murderer.
Though 1963’s “These Are the Damned” and its anti-nuclear plot of radioactive kids kept in hiding for use during a future apocalypse is the film that helped make Losey’s British reputation, the film that is playing with it, Philip Leacock’s 1955 “Escapade” (written under a pseudonym by Donald Ogden Stewart) is the series’ biggest surprise.
With a craggy John Mills starring as an especially belligerent pacifist, “Encounter” centers not on this self-centered zealot but on his idealistic teenage sons who plan on launching a kind of children’s crusade to alert the world to the horrors of war. Unusual and unexpected, it really is the kind of film they don’t make anymore.
The most interesting Losey double bill pairs 1952’s “Stranger on the Prowl” with 1956’s “The Intimate Stranger.” The former stars Paul Muni as “the man,” a generic individual falsely pursued through a town in Italy (an unnamed Livorno) for a crime he did not commit, who only pauses to befriend a boy and say things like “I have a right to eat, I have a right to life.”
Of all the movies on offer, “The Intimate Stranger” (sometimes known as “Finger of Guilt” and written by Howard Koch under a pseudonym) deals most directly with the exiles’ plight. Richard Basehart plays Reggie Wilson, a former film editor who fled to Britain because of “a little trouble, a scandal I think you’d call it. ... In Hollywood I’m still on the bad boys list.” All is going well at Wilson’s new job at a British studio until a series of letters arrive blackmailing him about his past. Losey and Koch threw all the paranoia and anxiety of their situation into this, and the dislocation that Wilson feels is palpable.
Besides Losey and Dassin, the only director with more than one film is the pulpy Cy Endfield. His “Impulse” presents Arthur Kennedy as a henpecked American husband whose chance meeting with a sultry London chanteuse changes his life. “Hell Drivers” makes long-haul trucking as dramatic as Le Mans.
In an extended career interview that dealt in part with the making of “Hell Drivers,” Endfield nicely summed up the sensibility involved in the entire “Hollywood Exiles” series.
“I was still an American when I made the picture, looking with a fresh view,” he said. “People should see with an alienated eye, seeing things that others saw only as ordinary and therefore not worth delineating.” An alienated eye indeed.
‘Hollywood Exiles in Europe’
Where: Billy Wilder Theater, the Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: “Christ in Concrete” at 7:30 p.m. Friday, “Rififi” and “Night and the City” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, “Hell Drivers” and “Impulse” at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 1, “The Intimate Stranger” and “Stranger on the Prowl” at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 4, “These Are the Damned” and “Escapade” at 3 p.m. Aug. 9, “Pardon My French” and “Headlines of Destruction” at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 13, “The Victors” at 3 p.m. Aug. 16, “Eve” and “Time Without Pity” at 7 p.m. Aug. 17
Information: (310) 206-8013 or https://www.cinema.ucla.edu
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