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Harsh Master 

Films by Andre de Toth

By Fred Camper

The availability of films on video has caused a major shift not only in viewing habits but in aesthetics. Certain aspects of a film--story, script, music, sound effects--do come through reasonably well on cathode-ray tubes. But what do not translate are the complex visual and emotional effects of compositions and camera movements--the qualities that, for a diminishing few viewers, make cinema an art.

The subtle psychological effects of Andre de Toth's camera movements, the way he changes the degree of depth and surface texture of his compositions, are almost completely destroyed by video's peculiar fluorescence. But those who care about cinema have a rare chance to see eight films by this extraordinary artist this month at the Film Center, all but one in 35-millimeter.

De Toth, known mostly for his westerns and films noirs of the 40s and 50s, was largely passed over during the auteurist reevaluation of Hollywood filmmaking that began in this country in the 60s. He isn't mentioned in Andrew Sarris's original catalog of American auteurs in Film Culture 28, published in 1963, and he merits less than 100 words as a director in the "Expressive Esoterica" category of Sarris's 1968 book, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1928-68. The 1984 International Directory of Films and Filmmakers pronounces de Toth "yet to be fully discovered and analyzed." But the last few years have seen several retrospectives and the publication of his autobiography, Fragments: Portraits From the Inside, as well as an interview book, De Toth on De Toth, by Anthony Slide. The director was at last report alive and well, probably in his late 80s, though he refused to tell Slide his age.

Sarris's blurb in The American Cinema gets us off to a good start: he writes of de Toth's "understanding of the instability and outright treachery of human relationships....Assorted villainies seem more like the natural order of things than like mere contrivances of melodrama." To Slide, de Toth decried filmmaking based on formulas and advised future directors to "let your characters behave like real people would under similar circumstances in life"; he responded to Slide's observation about the "negativity" of his World War II desert film Play Dirty (1968) with: "I wanted to rub our noses in the mess we have created and how we shy away from our responsibility to clean it up."

De Toth's great theme is betrayal--not single betrayals by individuals but networks of betrayal that implicate most of his characters. In de Toth's moral universe, the majority are susceptible to compromise, and the minority who remain pure--such as the rabbi who exhorts his fellow Jews to fight the Germans in None Shall Escape (1944)--wind up dead or otherwise ruined, their lives altered forever by the treachery they've survived. Indeed, the phrase "None Shall Escape" could serve as a motto for de Toth's entire oeuvre. Born in Hungary, de Toth directed several films there and elsewhere in Europe before emigrating to the United States in 1940--on a ship, as he recalls, that sank on its next voyage. It's hard to know how his worldview originated, but perhaps it had something to do with coming of age amid the complexities of Europe between the wars, and having witnessed and filmed the 1939 German invasion of Poland.

De Toth brings his vision to life in imagery that can vary from the starkly entrapping to the more subtly incriminating. A crowd of enraged townspeople is seen marching on a Nazi schoolteacher's home in None Shall Escape in a brief montage of images that grows steadily more oppressive--yet no image is more terrifying than the first, in which the crowd appears as a tiny dark shadow through the teacher's window. The rhythm of these images is a regular staccato, almost like the raps of a judge's gavel, culminating in a shot through an outside stairway of legs. It seems they will give no quarter--and these are the "good guys," since the teacher is a rapist. The camera movements in the last section of Day of the Outlaw (1959) are far subtler, slowly reframing fleeing bandits against an unchanging landscape of mountains and snow. But their cumulative effect is if anything even more entrapping, as each twist and turn of the camera and trail reveals not the sought-for pass but only more snow.

None Shall Escape, de Toth's second American film, has been praised for its sensitivity and its prescience: the plot anticipates the Nuremberg trials. Set after the war's end, the film is structured around the trial of a Nazi butcher, Wilhelm Grimm, in Poland; flashbacks illustrating the prosecution's testimony form the bulk of the film. From the outset, though, de Toth's complex, fluid camera movements in the courtroom link accusers, accused, and judges, not so much creating a moral equivalence--Grimm's murders are too overwhelming for that--as suggesting how each person has affected everyone else. The plot's tangled web reiterates this theme, as we gradually learn the ways in which Grimm's brother, one of the witnesses against him, also suffered from his crimes.

Measured against today's standards of film violence, de Toth is more of a humanist than even Jean Renoir, but there is nonetheless a subtle sadism, an undercurrent of brutality, running through his work. The massacre of Jews in None Shall Escape is filmed partly from the position of the German gunners, and the Allied team in Play Dirty meet so many hardships that one begins to feel the filmmaker is enjoying their fate. Tight, intense montages like the one in None Shall Escape recur in Ramrod (1947), in which a ranch burns in the surprise arson that begins the film's range war, and Last of the Comanches (1952), in a brief, quietly spectacular montage of a retreating band of six soldiers. Preparing to stop for the night, they're depicted in near silhouette against the sky; their featureless figures diminishing their individuality, they're represented as the pursuing Comanche might see them: as the faceless enemy.

This montage is echoed throughout the film in images of soldiers' graves: marked by a hat on a bayonet, each solitary human sign in the stark desert landscape stands for all that's left of a unique person--a hat, a weapon. At the film's end, these images are reprised in a montage of individual graves showing the human toll of the action--characters we've come to know are reduced to hats on sticks. (In keeping with the racist conventions of the time, the Indians killed are not commemorated.) Compared to the mega-explosions of current films these may seem tiny nuances, but that's the point: de Toth's artistry lies less in the presentation of outward actions--the "content" that survives translation to video quite well--than in a subtle visual dialectic between two extremes, the human being as a unique individual and as an anonymous actor in a preordained drama of brutality, betrayal, and decimation.

Ramrod, the first of de Toth's many westerns, is key to understanding the others. Here he couples richly individuated characters with a sub-rosa, "none shall escape" determinism. Connie (played by de Toth's then wife, Veronica Lake), a headstrong woman whose husband flees a fight with the local land baron, stays behind to fight him herself, assisted by her new foreman Dave (Joel McCrea), an ex-drunk. Connie, morally in the right, won't follow Dave's wish to stay within the law despite her romantic attraction to him; to trick him, she persuades his friend Bill to stampede her own cattle. This is depicted in a stunningly powerful dissolve that connects her treacherous embrace of Bill with the stampeding herd: a passionate moment becomes the violence of rampaging animals.

But Ramrod's heart lies in its subtler camera movements limning less obvious connections. The camera pulls back slightly from a close-up on a pair of bar doors just before some characters exit; through the now-open doors, the camera reframes them by moving closer. The movements can be justified by simple functionality--the camera pulls back to show the characters' exit adequately. But there's no practical reason to begin filming with the doors and continue in a single take; by doing so, de Toth connects inside and out, suggesting that neither offers refuge and that actions in one realm will alter life in the other. Here and throughout the film reframings link characters to one another, to the rooms they inhabit, and to the land in new ways, creating the feeling that, despite the film's depth effects, everything is part of the same continuous surface.

Links between inside and outside occur regularly in de Toth's work, generally articulating and expanding on the narrative's threats. In the most spectacular scene of his taut, intense film noir Pitfall (1948), errant husband John Forbes (Dick Powell) is seen waiting at home for a deranged ex-con. When the man comes, Forbes goes outside to meet him while the camera remains inside, and we see fragments of their confrontation through the living room windows. Leaving the viewer in the home with Forbes's wife and son, de Toth makes it seem a vulnerable refuge, unable to protect the family from the world's intrusion--an intrusion brought on largely by Forbes's infidelity. Near the end of Ramrod, Dave and Bill are seen inside a cave in a long take that sets their figures against the cave's opening, framing the bright landscape from which their pursuers will emerge and impinging on their forms, seeming to entrap them.

A general sense of connectedness pervades de Toth's best work. The variety of the visible world is an illusion, he seems to say, merely figures in a mediocre frieze or shadows imprisoned by the same twisted continuous surface. In Last of the Comanches, the unchanging scrub and stone of the desert are raised to a kind of poetry by de Toth's pans, which make a tapestry of the landscape. That connectedness receives its most explicit expression in one of the most spectacular camera movements in all cinema, a single take in Slattery's Hurricane (1949). When Will Slattery (Richard Widmark) resumes his affair with Aggie (Linda Darnell), now his friend's wife, his girlfriend Dolores (Veronica Lake again) collapses and is taken off in an ambulance. After a close shot of her through the ambulance window, the camera pulls back while seeming to follow the ambulance on a parallel path, moving rapidly, then turns about and changes direction to follow Will and Aggie driving off together in a convertible. The spatial whirlwind created has a familiar de Toth purpose: to link betrayal to its effects via a warping of space itself.

Arguably de Toth's greatest American films are two of his last, Day of the Outlaw and Play Dirty. The mission in Play Dirty becomes an exercise in futility, while de Toth gives us one of the few truly intelligent, cinematically articulate uses of the new pan-and-zoom style just then becoming common: his zooms into and out of the stark locale have the paradoxical effect of destroying depth, heightening the pervasiveness of surface.

The neglected, low-budget Day of the Outlaw--the director's last western, made little more than a decade after Ramrod--has the stark all-encompassing quality of a late, fully developed style, reminding me of such last films as John Ford's Seven Women and Raoul Walsh's A Distant Trumpet. The red-herring beginning, showing the complex relationships in a small town, seems about to lead to a Ramrod-style fight between Blaise (Robert Ryan) and another rancher, but at the very moment the shooting is about to begin, when a bottle hits the floor of a bar, Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) and his ragged band of bandits burst in, plunging us into a bleak, almost undifferentiated landscape of despair. A few of the more reckless outlaws become a threat to the tiny town's four women ("We only want to borrow them--we'll give them back"), so a "dance" is organized to keep worse from happening. de Toth films this event in circular pans around the room, following couples locked in embraces against the women's will, leaving one couple to effortlessly pick up the next. Max Ophuls was famous for filming dances in long, deliriously romantic pans that seemed to suspend space and time. De Toth's pans here are the brutal opposite of Ophuls's: hard, cold, and relentlessly physical, they emphasize the trap in which everyone is caught.

De Toth told Slide that what interested him in this film was "the bizarre situation of a group of outlaws on a getaway...becoming equally [with the townspeople] the prisoners of a white silence in the middle of nowhere." When it appears that Bruhn, who's been keeping his men in check, may die, Blaise offers to help the outlaws escape through the mountains. But before they even leave we learn that there is no trail, and Bruhn learns it too, though he keeps it from his men. They ride off to die--as Bruhn tells Blaise, "I guess every fool has his reason"--and the very absence of suspense is part of what makes the film's final 20 minutes so powerful, as one by one they do die. Instead of spectacular camera movements and stunning single compositions, de Toth gives us an almost droning song of snow and sky, of movements of flight that turn back on themselves. (De Toth resisted his producers' pressure to shoot this film in color, which he told Slide would have created inappropriate feelings of "safety" and "warmth.")

At the film's end, the journey's two survivors--the two "good guys"--have made it back to town and enter a building while the camera remains outside. When the glass door closes, the stark mountain landscape is suddenly reflected in it, followed by two stunning pans of the landscape so hard, cold, and absolute in their regularity and high contrast that they seem to exclude the very possibility of human warmth, of human life. The characters may be inside and warm, but our attention is focused on the mountains and on the frozen men buried there.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Last of the Comanches film still; Day of the Outlaw film still.

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