Essays: B-movies |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]


by Peter Bogdanovich

They say television replaced the B-movie, but it's not true. The reason why the "second feature" was so often able to achieve such vigour and interest is that it was made, so to speak, while no one was looking. Never taken very seriously by critics, and even less so by the studios (as long as cost and schedules were closely observed), the B-movie director could many times work in a freer atmosphere than some of his higher-budgeted contemporaries. TV production is so closely supervised by networks, sponsors, advertising executives and producers that any sort of personal expression becomes almost impossible. Actually, the only relation between television films and the old B-movies lies in their similar budgets – whence the B-picture acquired its name in the first place.

However, even an exceptional TV film like Tom Gries' and Truman Capote's The Glass House was budgeted at over twice what the average B-movie director usually had to work with. That's one of the main reasons why they were required to be far more resourceful and imaginative in achieving their effects that the fellows with A-budgets. In need of an exotic location, they'd have to find a way to shoot it in Griffith Park. Want a city block, a small-town square, a western street? Check the back lot. Sam Fuller, making a New York story like Pickup on South Street, had to figure out a way of disguising downtown L.A. to look like Manhattan and Brooklyn. Allan Dwan once did a whole film in ten days on the sets left standing from Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons. That was the other thing -- they had to work fast. Ten, fifteen day schedules. I can't imagine how they did it and made the films look so good. One of the most absurd questions I've heard – and several producers, in discussing one or another man who has only worked under those circumstances, have asked it: "But do you think he can handle a big budget?" I never could figure out why time and money should be considered more difficult to deal with than speed and poverty. If you want a particular kind of sunset and you can afford to wait till it comes along – they say David Lean has been known to do that – where is the problem?
The fact that several of these directors not only did their films "at a price," but also made a series of movies that form a cohesive personal vision is nothing less than remarkable. Sam Fuller, Don Siegel, Budd Boetticher come to mind. Also men like Edgar G. Ulmer, Joseph H. Lewis, André de Toth, Phil Karlson, Allan Dwan (in his sound period). If they were sometimes defeated by their assignments or their casts – Siegel with Spanish Affair or No Time for Flowers, Fuller with Hell and High Water, Boetticher with almost everything before 1955 – they nonetheless brought their considerable craft and distinctive styles to even the most lamentable material. Almost all the work falls into the action genre – westerns, gangster films, thrillers (though Dwan made a delightful group of low-budget comedies in the Forties: Brewster's Millions, Up in Mabel's Room, Getting Gertie's Garter, Rendez-vous with Annie); these are things American directors have consistently distinguished through the years and for which little critical recognition is ever received.
Don Siegel, for example, has managed, often against stifling odds, to bring a disquieting ambiguity as well as a unified viewpoint to assignments which, in other hands, could easily have been routine. Schooled in the tough no-nonsense Warner Bros tradition of Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks, his films are unpretentious and as precisely executed as they are unconventional in their implications. (His recent escalation to sizable budgets has not dimmed his energy nor diminished his bite.) Invasion of the Body Snatchers, despite its pulp title and its tacked-on opening and close (studio cold feet) is, along with Hawks’ The Thing, the best and most terrifying science-fiction movie ever made. A cautionary fable about the world’s relentless movement toward a lack of feeling, it retains a special meaning today, even though it was made while America was still reeling from the McCarthy era’s assault on sensitivity. Riot in Cell Block 11 is still the finest prison picture to come out of the U.S. (the best from Europe is probably Jacques Becker's eloquent and little-known Le Trou), just as Hell Is for Heroes remains one of the only war films to examine the inherent psychosis of a man, brave in battle, whose most antisocial behavior actually becomes heroic in the abnormal circumstances of war. Siegel's best police movie, Madigan (he has made at least two others), is particularly interesting in its examination of the easy corruptibility of lawmen, at the same time as it reveals the squalor and misery of their daily life. On the other hand, he has looked at the underside of the underworld with chilling incisiveness in Baby Face Nelson, The Lineup and The Killers (1964 version); as Andrew Sarris has pointed out, his hero – whether within the law or not – has always been "the antisocial outcast" in a world of pervasive corruption. A bleak vision perhaps, but free of cant in its depiction and marked by a vigorous gift for visual storytelling.
Even a casual look at the final chase sequence in The Lineup puts to shame some of the more publicized recent examples of the form, and the fatal shootout at the end of Madigan is among the most brilliantly shot and cut pieces of action I've ever seen. It never fails to move me, not simply because of the poignancy of its outcome in the story, but even more for the excellence and clarity of its direction. Howard Hawks, a master of action, has summed it up: "That stuff's hard to do," and indeed it is something not to be taken for granted in a medium that has, for twenty years, been steadily losing its sense of craft.
Having himself been a bullfighter, it is not surprising that Budd Boetticher has made the best pictures on that subject: The Bullfighter and the Lady, The Magnificent Matador (he dislikes those B-movie titles as much as anyone would) and his latest, Arruza, which took him fourteen years to complete and an incredible series of disasters to overcome, at least two of which almost cost him his life. The story of the making of Arruza is, in fact, a testament to the dedication and indestructibility of the B-movie director at his best, often having little at his command but guts and determination. Between a disquieting little thriller called The Killer Is Loose in 1956 and an effectively perverse gangster film, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond in 1960, Boetticher made an extraordinarily consistent and evocative series of seven Randolph Scott westerns that forms one of the high points in the history of that much-maligned genre. Even less well known than the comparable, though higher-budgeted, series of five that Anthony Mann did with James Stewart during roughly the same period (Winchester 73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country, The Man from Laramie), Boetticher's films were never noticed by critics – except in France and, later, in England – but taken separately, or as a whole, they are far more beautifully directed and considerably richer in their implications than Sam Peckinpah's much-acclaimed Ride the High Country (with Scott and Joel McCrea) which actually concluded the cycle, and which Boetticher was not free to do because of his involvement with Arruza.
Beginning with Seven Men from Now and ending with Comanche Station, the Boetticher-Scott westerns, all made very quickly and inexpensively, explore, without pretense but with considerable humour and energy, the often ambiguous relations between heroes and villains, as Scott is pitted against such imposing adversaries as Lee Marvin (Seven Men from Now), Pernell Roberts (Ride Lonesome), Richard Boone (The Tall T), Claude Akins (Comanche Station). If Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone and Westbound are less memorable, it is mainly because the casting of the "heavies" was not on as interesting a level – just one of a B-film director's many limitations. That Boetticher was able to transcend these more often than not is just another indication of his ability.
Sam Fuller is probably the most explosive talent ever to blast its way through Poverty Row. Eccentric, iconoclastic and in the tradition of tabloid journalism (Fuller began as a reporter and one of his most personal films, Park Row, deals with early New York newspapering), his pictures all bear the same vibrant individualistic stamp. One of the only low-budget American directors who has consistently written and produced most of his films, he has had to compromise on his material less often than any of his contemporaries, though still having to be content frequently with inadequate actors or schedules. In Fuller's case, however, he has generally been able to turn even the most crippling restrictions into an amazingly consistent, exciting style. His films abound with meaningfully inventive camera work and unusual, complex cutting patterns that are nothing if not bold, as well as being uniquely his own. Several books have been written about his work in France, England and Germany, but American recognition is long overdue. His westerns – I Shot Jesse James, Run of the Arrow, Forty Guns – are as different and against the grain as they are filled with a kind of pugnacious authenticity. Similarly, he has made the only war films that look like they were made by a man who lived through a war, which he did as a member of the 1st Infantry ("The Big Red One") during World War Il. The Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets, China Gate, Merrill's Marauders, Verboten! are completely free of the sentimentality or piousness that informs most films about men at war; you get the feeling that this is really the way it was –amoral, totally destructive, unbearably intense and claustrophobic.
Similarly unnerving are Fuller's crime pictures, the best of which, Pickup on South Street and Underworld, U.S.A., are riveting classics in the genre, and reveal, along with the others, The Crimson Kimono, Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss, a decidedly unglamorous, often scabrous side of modern American life. (House of Bamboo took his seamy Americans to Japan for a similarly relentless view.) Often extreme, his vision of the world is reflected in broad, expressionistic strokes, and belongs entirely to the movies; he has brought his feisty, uncompromising zest for pictures into every frame he has ever shot.
A good-sized book could be written chronicling the impressive accomplishments of these men and others in this largely unheralded tradition (and now just about defunct in the new boom-or-bust movie industry). Classics in the field like Fritz Lang's The Big Heat, Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, Joseph Losey's The Prowler, Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground, Phil Karlson's 99 River Street, The Phenix City Story and The Brothers Rico, Joseph H. Lewis' Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, Gerd Oswald's Crime of Passion, Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour are only a fraction of the work that has been produced with little means and considerable talent in a style the French have named "le film noir." They conclusively prove that the quality of a picture can never be measured by its cost – that, in fact, some of the best work in Hollywood has been done without fanfare, encouragement or much hope for reward. The achievements themselves have most often been their makers' only real satisfaction. Television has a long way to go to measure up.
September 1972