The Siren’s longtime, all-time best friend is David Leonard, debonair bon vivant and man-about-town, as well as a film editor. There, that’s David’s first full-name shout-out here, with an IMDB link and everything. We’ll see if he spots it, since sometimes he reads the Siren, and sometimes he amuses himself by greeting her with “Hey, are you still writing that thing?”
David cut two films by Raymond De Felitta, Two Family House and City Island, and through David the Siren has gotten to know Raymond, also a sophisticated chap, and also possessed of the occasional impulse to rattle the Siren’s cage. An example being the night she saw City Island, when the Siren yapped on at length about thematic overlap between it and Two Family House, which was set on Staten Island, and wrapped up by telling Raymond that what he needed next was Roosevelt Island. He folded his hands and said pleasantly, “I can honestly say that none of that ever occurred to me.”
As far as the Siren is concerned, that exchange was what cemented our friendship.
Raymond has a wonderful blog, Movies Til Dawn, that chronicled his own classic-film and jazz and historical obsessions until it was taken over by extensive blogging about the making of City Island and, in need of a break, he let it lie fallow for a bit. But he’s back now, with posts like this two-parter about his two encounters with the late, great, much-lamented Sidney Lumet. And, further to what goes below, Raymond also has a post coming up about his conversation with George Stevens Jr. about his distinguished pop.
The Siren recently got an email from Raymond about her James Agee post. That led to a back-and-forth about screenwriters and directors, which was a lot of fun, since Raymond is both. The Siren asked his permission to post our musings, and was granted it. So here, edited slightly for grammar, continuity, and a couple of indiscreet asides, is what we said.
I've been meaning to write to you about your James Agee piece...Both my Agee volumes got lent out and lost. I reacquired Vol. 1 recently and had a great time re-reading it. I kind of love his one-liner reviews where he covers a pile of movies--partly for his wit and partly for thinking of Agee sitting in dark movie houses for hours and hours watching scads of things that he dismisses in a few words (my fave is his Give My Regards To Broadway review: "Vaudeville is dead. I wish to hell someone would bury it.") Volume 2 I never cared about because I didn't really like his scripts--I find African Queen one of the more boring famous movies ever made--but I also got the sense that as smart, deep and swinging as his critical writing was, his dramatic writing was quite the opposite--square, earnest, filled with the desire to speak through film but not the gut instinct of a dramatist.
This leads me to wonder if you've read many older scripts and what, if any, your feelings are about them. I spent a good deal of time at both the AFI and Academy libraries when younger reading scripts and found that--no surprise--the best movies were right there on the page, with little ambiguity and with almost all scenes/dialogue largely intact. Dudley Nichol's Stagecoach script was masterful, as was Phillip Dunne's How Green Was My Valley. In a strange way I began to identify with the frustrations of these writers with the directors who grew famous as they faded into obscurity. How much work did John Ford really have to do to make those movies great? Preston Sturges’ scripts (which I'm sure you know are available in collections) ring out much like Coen Brothers scripts do. And a number of noir scripts actually read better than the films made from them--specifically The Dark Corner which is a great read but only an okay movie--and which supports my feeling that Henry Hathaway was really quite a mediocrity, somebody who didn't truly deserve much of the material that came his way.
Thanks so much for reading the Agee piece, which was a labor of love for me. I also love his short reviews; he really excelled at them. Loved his take on Paris Underground: "Good performance by [Constance] Bennett except in actions requiring a heart."
I haven’t read that many classic screenplays, I'm sorry to say. I'm sure you're aware of the controversy about Agee's African Queen and Night of the Hunter scripts, but apparently what is on screen in terms of dialogue is all there in his scripts, it's just that he wrote more than could be filmed. I agree that the scripts are much less swingin' than the criticism, although I like them both very much. But what's good in the scripts is more like what's good in A Death in the Family or Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Your reference to screenwriters’ impatience with their place in the pantheon reminds me of the bitterness in Ben Hecht’s memoirs, for some reason. For the hardest of hardcore auteurists, the screenwriter scarcely exists except a spur to directorial genius. So it's interesting to hear you, a screenwriter and director, pay such tribute to the scripts you've looked at. Hmm, may I quote you sometime--avec name or not?
All the best,
Ben Hecht's memoir is spectacularly LONG, but I'm not sure I find it bitter--sardonic and in need of making short shrift of the work for which he's remembered but for which he didn't have a lot of respect. But he has his own version of Hollywood and professionalism and didn't wind up "drunk under a table at Lucy's" (Wilder on Chandler). He wrote novels and plays in the twenties and early thirties and certainly nothing was keeping him from continuing, but movies became his focus and what he's ultimately remembered for. I quite like a novel of his from the early thirties called--get this--A Jew In Love. It's a roman a clef about the Broadway producer Jed Harris--who was later roman-a-clef'd again in The Saxon Charm where he was played by Robert Montgomery. It bears interesting resemblances to one of his and McArthur's arty New York movies, The Scoundrel. Hecht was famous for rewriting himself and many claim to see big similarities between Front Page and Gunga Din, though this mostly eludes me.
Anyway, as far as hardcore auteurists go, they simply don't have the equipment to make these pronoucements, as they've mostly never made a film. There's not much you can do on the floor with a scene that doesn't work or a story that isn't interesting. A lousy screenplay has never been turned into a great--or even very good--movie. Great directors--Hawks, let's say--can take a medium-warm piece of material and give it their own spin, filter it through their interests and come out with something better than it might deserve to be (To Have and Have Not is, for me, the best movie ever made from the weakest story/screenplay). And oftentimes not--Man's Favorite Sport? anybody? To my point about Hathaway, the script of The Dark Corner (by Jay Dratlert and Bernard Shoenfeld--two middle-level hacks with a couple of good credits each) had the stuff for a terrific film noir and falls short because of Hathaway's mostly uninspired direction. So yes, a better director would have taken it to a better place. I nominate John Stahl. Or maybe Manckiewicz in his noir-y Somewhere In the Night/Five Fingers phase.
But I'm bored with the assertion that screenplays are "blueprints". The good ones are fully realized plans with maps, guidebooks and suggested stopovers along the way attached. Phillip Dunne's script for Last Of The Mohicans is so good that no less a hardheaded auteurist than Michael Mann fully admits "basing" his script on Dunne's because it was "a terrific piece of writing" (this from an interview that I read but no longer can remember where). Ford squeezed every drop of juice out of Nichols' great Stagecoach script and could do little with Nichols' Mary of Scotland script. In other words, if Nichols was having a bad day, so was Ford.
You may "jot the above down on a slab of marble" (Welles to Bogdanovich, natch) or simply quote it whenever you feel like it.
I did find Hecht's memoir bitter, in that he spends a great deal of time slamming the profession he excelled at, to the point that it becomes wearisome. No one wants to spend all that much time hearing how you spent life perfecting a craft that was ultimately beneath you. Of course, my beloved George Sanders did the same, but there is less bile to Sanders on acting, and more pure exhaustion. I sort of see The Front Page/Gunga Din comparison, but like all great writers, when Hecht stole, even from himself, he knew how to cover his tracks. And yes, it's refreshing to read a literary memoir that doesn't involve extensive liver damage.
Now I am trying to think of a great movie with a truly bad screenplay, and I can't do it either, unless you're willing to spot me Titanic. I hesitate to blame Dudley Nichols entirely for Mary of Scotland, which really is bad even if it's good-looking in places, when he was taking on Maxwell Anderson's blank verse. I value good dialogue a great deal, but you can have problematic dialogue and get past it, as I think Cameron’s Titanic does.
But a really bad screenplay would also have poor pacing and structure, exposition hanging out like washing on the line, inscrutable characters, poor transitions. Very hard to overcome that on set, I should think, even if you happen to be a genius.
Auteurism is clearly a useful way to look at a lot of great directors, and often essential. But the dogmatic variety wearies me when it's used to devalue other contributions, such as yes, the screenwriter, but also the actors and the editors and many others; and most of all I dislike the whole ranking compulsion that occasionally springs from auteurism, that notion that Man's Favorite Sport? is as interesting as Shane, because Howard Hawks was a greater director than George Stevens.
I don't get a sense that most directors themselves do that, by the by--correct me if I'm wrong. A good movie is a good movie. It's accepted that a mediocrity may have a splendid movie or two in him, that the vagaries of the business may hold some back more than others, that in the words of Wile E. Coyote, even a genius can have an off day. To go back to Stevens--whom I don't consider a mediocrity--the first time I saw McCabe and Mrs. Miller, I was struck by how much the callous murder of Keith Carradine's character echoed a similar killing by Jack Palance in Shane. Altman was an auteur if ever there was one, but he clearly didn't say to himself, "nah, can't use an idea from George Stevens.”
I found this from a Michael Mann interview around the time of Mohicans' release: "’Dunne's screenplay was very good,' Mann said. ‘[My] actual story structure, maybe half of it, is from Philip Dunne.’ “ About a 1936 movie. Come to think of it, I did like Mann's Last of the Mohicans, and it was because it had classic dimensions. I know, I'm predictable.
But maybe not completely predictable. Further to Hathaway: Grudgingly, through clenched teeth, I hereby admit that the Coen Brothers' version of True Grit is superior to Henry Hathaway’s on almost every count, save Wayne/Bridges where I am declaring a draw on the grounds of different approaches. One reason, I submit, is that the remake has a superior script. However, I couldn't help noticing that the Coens quote Hathaway a lot.
Best as ever,
No, I can't think of any bad scripts that made good movies either. An interesting excercise (which I've been doing ever since I thought of To Have and Have Not as a great movie with a weak-ish script) is thinking of great movies that would have been mediocre in lesser hands. To Have... directed by Archie Mayo is a two-and-a-half star movie at best--directed by Hawks its genius. I have a feeling that It Happened One Night, directed by, say Eddie Sutherland or Allan Dwan, would be a pleasant but forgettable old comedy. It's Capra who really makes it go and somehow gets his stars so feisty and loose and charming that the damn thing is still irresistable.
One for the list that actually almost happened is Giant directed by Gordon Douglas (think of it! both much shorter and much more boring). At one point that possibility was actually discussed by Jack Warner and Steve Trilling, as Stevens was so over-budget and out of control they actually thought of having Douglas finish up the movie! Oy.
Herman Manckiewicz--even though he didn't write a memoir--was even more bitter than Hecht (he was also a big drunk), and look what he left behind. In general, all these guys thought that movies were a stopover until they got their "real" work done and suddenly--poof!--their careers were over.
I guess bitter is fair for Hecht--though the tone that mostly comes through to me in his book is the wise-ass, out of the side of his mouth Chicago newspaperman who he immortalized in Front Page. Any man who can write, "Tell him his poetry stinks and kick 'em down the stairs," can only be thought to cherish bitterness as an art form...