On September Fifth of this year, the filmmaker Edward Dmytryk would have turned one-hundred. (He passed away in 1999). As I mentioned yesterday, this milestone went by–as far as I can tell–virtually unnoticed, unreported and un-cared about by even the hardest-core cinema buffs; and they should care. Dmytryk was virtually one of the inventors of noir–that most potent of film styles–witness his still magnificently stylish “Murder My Sweet”. “Crossfire”, made in 1947, was in a sense the “Brokeback Mountain” of its day–the movie that had the nerve to attack a subject that everybody knew existed except in the movies–in this case, anti-semitism. (It’s also a terrific noir in its own right–terse, dark, moody and morally ambiguous in strange ways). Dmytryk was nominated for an Academy Award for “Crossfire” and should have been at the peak of his career–he was then thirty-nine years old. Instead, he got caught in the whirlpool known to history as the “Hollywood Ten”–a group of Hollywood professionals who had, at various times, belonged to the Communist Party and who became the subject of intense focus by a congressional committee seeking to expose Communist influences in Hollywood.
I’ll cut to the chase, since this Wikipedia article tells the whole tale of the Hollywood Ten better than I can. Eddie was a man who I had the honor of knowing my whole life–my father worked on several movies with him (the one that was made, “Anzio”, was my first experience of filmmaking–I was barely four years old when we went to Rome where the picture was being shot while my father was rewriting it on the spot…still the most glamorous filmmaking experience I’ve ever had for Chrissakes…)…but knowing Eddie was a complicated and life-changing thing for me–as I think it was for just about everybody who knew him. And this has much to do with why, I think, his centenary hasn’t bothered to be noted by anyone. For Eddie was most famous for being a turncoat, a “rat”, the one of the ten who decided to inform and name names for the committee. He was hardly alone in this distinction–later, as the Communist investigation widened, there were many other “friendly witnesses”–Elia Kazan, Jerome Robbins, Budd Schulberg to name just a few. But I believe Eddie was the first and thus shouldered a special burden: he made it okay to defy the street code to never rat out a “friend”. He did, went back to work, continued his career…and suffered a peculiar and never to be satiated hate/lust by many many people who considered him a pariah for his position. Thus his accomplishments, which were many, were largely overlooked. And he couldn’t really go just anywhere in life without knowing that the subject could suddenly rear its head. I witnessed this several times–social occasions which suddenly turned ugly and difficult because somebody heard he was in the room…once, at the AFI where he was teaching while I was a student, another student raised his hand in the middle of Eddie’s lecture–presumably with a question. Eddie took it. It wasn’t a question, it was a statement: “Mr. Dmytryk, how can you take money from this school under the pretense of teaching filmmaking when your actions put so many filmmakers out of work?” I cringed. There it was again. But Eddie was perversely able to deal with these moments–in fact, he bore his burden with an odd amount of pride. Without so much as a pause, he said (I paraphrase): “If I had eight hours, I’d be glad to give you the history of the Communist Party in this country, the lies that we as members were told in support of Stalin’s regime, the double-dealing of the movie industry in its so-called support of us and my own clear conscience in having renounced the whole mess. But I don’t have that time, so lets keep the questions about film directing instead.” And that was that.
But his feelings about this issue were, of course, mixed. How could they not be? He hadn’t wanted a life defined by a membership card that he took out in a political party that he’d never been all that invested in to begin with; as I was writing about the other day, these “obit-defining” moments are the scariest part of our existence. No matter what we want to be noticed for, it’s often something else entirely that defines our time on earth. Eddie was a creature of Hollywood–he actually began as a projectionist at Paramount in the silent era–who grew up in the studios and graduated to the ultimate job; by thirty he was a director. And he stayed one, working at all the studios, for thirty years. When Hollywood as a place made sense–when it was a company town–Eddie achieved–starting from scratch–the ultimate position. But it was not what fate had planned for him. Instead he was subjected to a lifetime of ignominy and humiliation–and many will say that he deserved every moment of it. How can we know, though, what we do in extraordinary circumstances? The revulsion that people still have for him and the other “informers” strikes me as learned behavior rather than genuinely thought out in most cases; when Nick Nolte refused to stand up and applaud Elia Kazan when he received his special Oscar, all I thought was: “without ‘On The Waterfront’, you wouldn’t have even thought of becoming an actor”. And Nolte wasn’t the only one on that sad night who preferred to side with an old political piety.
Eddie wrote several books, none of them–in my estimation–really up to what he was capable of until the last one. It’s called “Odd Man Out” and tells–in as plain, honest and unslanted a way as possible–the entire sorry tale of his life with the Hollywood Ten and his subsequent life as an informer. He pulls no punches in this book and doesn’t ask for forgiveness; what he asks for is a HEARING. And even when the book came out, he was denied this. It went unnoticed, unreviewed–as if our culture is still capable of willing away a point of view it can’t accept. I highly recommend the book–especially if any of you reading this have strong feelings about the subject. Click here to read a superb interview conducted with him at the time of the books miniscule release.
My earliest memories of Eddie were as a director; and in a sense I never really saw him in another light. Perhaps there wasn’t one. He was small, handsome, terse and always absolutely certain of whatever he thought. He wasn’t truly argumentative because he didn’t see another side to things–a fault, to be certain, but what a relief to meet somebody with that confidence! I’m sure he did as well as he did with the many complicated actors he worked with because of this quality–actors love certainty. Eddie may not have been the deepest guy that Monty Clift or Spencer Tracy or Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum ever worked with, but he was absolutely sure of what he wanted. And he feared nobody. No situation seemed to scare him. To this day, when I realize I’m headed for some sort of confrontation with somebody, I steel myself by thinking of him and his assuredness; “Eddiedmytryk!” I repeat a few times to myself, as a mantra. That, by the way, is how he said his own name–in one short, confident blast. Apropos of the above list of actors, Eddie once said to me: “I got all the drunks. They always gave me the drunks, for some reason.” As I was laughing (and he was too) he listed every famous drunk in Hollywood–and Eddie had worked with them: “Clift, Bogie, Bill Holden, Gable, Tracy, Richard Burton…Jesus, I worked with every great drunk in Hollywood”. Funny as this was, later I gave it some thought and realized that every director had their specialty and perhaps Eddie was onto something; his own assuredness (and he didn’t drink either) mixed with a patience and respect for actors made him the ideal “drunk-handler”…his temper was always available and visible but rarely was unleashed–rather it was a lion that was tamed but nonetheless standing by. Perhaps that’s what these great drunk actors needed–a good, sober, tough counselor who would forgive them the occasional lapse and thus for whom they would try to be good boys…
After Eddie’s testimony as a “friendly witness”, he went back to making movies–becoming a reliable fixture on the wide-screen, fifties, star-laden studio circuit. The prevailing attitude of cinema historians, though, is that none of these films live up to the promise of his earlier noirs–and that this has something to do with his having “lost his soul” as a result of his turncoat status. To me, this has the whiff of the old “tuburculosis happens to sensitive artists” mystique. It’s a convenient but somewhat fruity look at what, instead, was a reality of the time; though noirs continued through the fifties, directors had (and still have) two choices; do what you started by doing, or graduate to something bigger. I know from experience that the making of any film is so taxing that just to get yourself up to the task again you need to conceive of doing something you haven’t already done. Whenever I talked with Eddie about the directors he admired, they weren’t his fellow noir-makers. They were William Wyler, David Lean, George Stevens…these were the fellows whose company he wished to be in. So it made sense for him to pursue movies such as “Caine Mutiny”, “The Young Lions” and “Raintree County”–he wanted to work on a bigger, more mass-appeal scale. Was he up to this material? That, I think is a fair question, and I fear the answer is: not quite. Good as he was, he was not somebody–like Lean or Wyler–willing to wait days for the perfect take, performance, sunset etc. Eddie prized organization and efficiency above all–and this kept him aesthetically just below the bar he wished to cross. Still, so many of these films look so good today–especially “Young Lions” and “Caine Mutiny”– that it seems churlish to criticize them. The style of filmmaking prevalent at the time–the somewhat stilted use of the wide-screen and the almost always lethargic pacing–were hallmarks of their era, not deficiencies on Eddie’s part. He wasn’t an innovator; he was a member of a club. And that brings me back to the decision that defined his life and why I always understood and accepted it; his club–which he’d grown up in–was the American movie industry, as practiced in Hollywood California. There was no other place for him. Politics be damned. He belonged where he belonged and he wasn’t going to let his own misguided political convictions deny him the life that he worked his way up and into.
Before I got obsessed with films and filmmaking, my first love was jazz (and it continues to be my other great passion). Eddie loved jazz too and I have a feeling, looking back, that that’s part of why this quite unsentimental man developed an interest in me as a kid–he was taken with how much I knew, at a young age, about the jazz that he had loved his whole life. He even made it possible for me to meet his friend Jess Stacy–the great pianist who was immortalized at Carnegie Hall in 1938 playing the haunting solo that concludes Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing”. On a certain level, Eddie let me know as I grew older that I was only asking for headaches by shifting my interest from music to filmmaking–yet he was happy to be available to me as a mentor. I asked him a lot along the way. His answers were always terse and memorable. My favorite piece of advice of his that I remember to this day was about cutting. “Always cut the scene shorter than you think it should be. Whenever I watch my pictures again, I wish I could get my hands on a print and cut them in half again!” He also had a streak of bleak self-awareness that could be quite shocking and memorable. My parents once asked him to sign a petition (can’t remember what it was for) and Eddie just laughed: “You don’t want my name on your petition. I’m the kiss of death!” And his laughter was both dark and painful, as was ours.
The last time I spoke to Eddie Dmytryk was a few months before he died. We’d had a falling out (I don’t want to get into it but it was over my graduate student film at the AFI and his not very pleasant handling of it) and hadn’t spoken in a few years. It was just after the Kazan Oscar telecast and I was genuinely upset at seeing half the audience sit on their hands for that great filmmaker. So I called Eddie and we talked for awhile. We forgave each other our own mutual hot-tempers (I’m probably more like him than I’d like to think) and he congratulated me for having pursued my dream and made a couple of movies. Then I brought up Kazan and how disgraceful I found the whole attitude. As usual, Eddie didn’t flinch. He didn’t want sympathy or forgiveness. He just wanted his opinion to be heard. He cut me short and said, “You don’t understand, Raymond. What I did, what we who told the truth did, was spit on their religion. And you’re not allowed to spit on people’s religion. That’s what I did that they’ll never forgive me for.”