Hugo Fregonese Comes to MoMA
Some thoughts on the series of films that will run Sept. 1 to Sept. 14
The14-film Hugo Fregonese retrospective at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna this year was a smash hit. All festival-goers love the idea that they are hip to a new discovery. For this fresh view of Fregonese as an important director, we can thank Museum of Modern Art curator Dave Kehr, who programmed the Bologna series with Ehsan Khoshbakht, the director of Il Cinema Ritrovato.
Fregonese’s most admired and frequently revived films are the 10 he made in the U.S. from 1950 to 1954, and a strong selection of those forms the backbone of the 11-film series “Hugo Fregonese: Man on the Run,” running from Sept. 1 to Sept 14 at MoMA. But as Dave pointed out in Film Comment in 2012, Fregonese’s “American films account for less than one third of his career, which was otherwise spread across Argentina (where he was born in 1908, and where he died in 1987), Spain, England, Italy and Germany.” He doesn’t fit neatly into any one tradition, but is rather “a director without a country.”
Fregonese’s work as a whole has seldom been examined in depth, and before he died, he didn’t get the vrai auteur treatment. It seems no young critic sat at his feet and requested the story of this film or that shot. Should you have the bright idea to look up whether a star mentioned Fregonese (aside from the one he married), good luck, although I did get a hit in Joan Collins’ Past Imperfect: “The director [of Decameron Nights], Hugo Fregonese, was cold and treated us casually.” And that, my dears, was that for Dame Joan Collins’ reminiscences of Fregonese. Joan Fontaine, the star of Decameron Nights, didn’t mention him at all.
So, because I’m a giver, here’s a rundown on what I saw at Il Cinema Ritrovato this summer, in hopes of encouraging anyone who can make it to MoMA to do so. This is a rich series, and my advice is to see everything you can. (The complete MoMA schedule and film descriptions are here.) At Bologna, I encountered numerous folks who’d caught one Fregonese film and immediately filled their dance card with all of them. But even in the context of a festival, I couldn’t do that, and you probably can’t, either. Let’s start with what I plan to see myself.
The Fregonese film I most regret missing, and intend to catch this time barring catastrophe, is the newly restored Apache Drums (1951), producer Val Lewton’s swan song. It drew raves from my friends for its stunning color design and is, according to Dave, one of the two best films Fregonese ever made. (The other being Black Tuesday, which I discuss below.) I also plan to see Decameron Nights from 1953, which has but one screening and is shown once in a blue moon; the cinematographer was the great Guy Green.
I don’t want to miss Saddle Tramp from 1950 (busy year for Our Hugo), with Joel McCrea “weaving himself into exactly the kind of community Fregonese’s usual protagonists would literally kill to escape” (Dave’s brief for this one is delightful). I’m also intrigued by Wanda Hendrix, so wonderful in Robert Montgomery’s 1947 Ride the Pink Horse. Finally, there’s Blowing Wild and its terrific cast: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Anthony Quinn.
I did see Apenas un delincuente (Hardly a Criminal), the tough, cynical and quite violent 1949 film noir that became Fregonese’s calling card in Hollywood. Nick Pinkerton did an excellent job describing its virtues when he wrote up a prior MoMA event that sported my favorite-ever film-series title: “Death is My Dance Partner: Film Noir in Postwar Argentina.”
I can’t be the only person who saw the twisty, genre-spanning One Way Street, from 1950, and thought about one of the few times this director’s personal life made the gossip columns. Faith Domergue was a ravishing teenager (16, although some sources claim she was even younger than that) when she met Howard Hughes and became his latest obsession. She was already under contract to Warner Brothers. Hughes bought out that studio’s interest and signed her to RKO, where Domergue spent years miserably attempting to make one lousy picture, Vendetta. In the meantime, she was kept away from friends by her “father lover” (her disturbing phrase for Hughes, who in turn called her “little baby”). Faith’s social life shrank to daytime acting lessons and long dull nights at the villa Hughes had built for what amounted to mistress-storage. Despite having locked his princess in the tower, Hughes claimed the right to carry on with any beautiful actress who crossed his path, and he crossed a lot of paths.
Eventually, Domergue had had enough, and in 1946 she eloped with bandleader Teddy Stauffer, a “get out of jail” marriage that unraveled after six months. By the time she met Hugo Fregonese, she was still only 23 years old; he was 39. They told the papers it had been love at first sight. The couple were married in Mexico, hours after Domergue’s quickie divorce, in October 1948, and eventually got married in the U.S. as well. Faith and Hugo had two children, but the marriage lasted barely a decade. Still, it had to beat the hell out of Life With Howard. Domergue’s lonely years with Hughes helped inspire at least one masterpiece, Max Ophuls’ 1949 Caught (with, intriguingly, James Mason as the conflicted doctor hero who tries to rescue the trapped wife). Ophuls, of course, got the chance to observe the Hughes/Domergue dynamic up close during his stint as the first of several directors on the blighted Vendetta.
Why am I telling you all this? Due to a key aspect of One Way Street—25-year-old Swedish actress Marta Toren, a brunette beauty very much in the style of Domergue. Toren plays Laura, the “girlfriend” (read: obvious mistress) of Dan Duryea’s unstable and paranoid gangster, John Wheeler. Wheeler, we are told, took over Laura’s life when she was just 14, and has never loosened his grasp. She’s plainly scared to death of her “protector.” When James Mason (aha) appears as the mobbed-up fed-up Dr. Frank Matson, and robs Wheeler and his gang of their loot, Laura runs off with the doctor with scarcely a moment’s hesitation, though she knows this will drive Wheeler even crazier than he already is. Together, Laura and Matson escape … across the border to Mexico.
I don’t want to overemphasize this, in part because Fregonese didn’t write the script; it’s by Lawrence Kimble. But the whirlwind romance of Faith and Hugo had been all over the gossip columns. And Hughes was famous as a ruthless, dare we say gangster-like businessman, and also famous as a nutcase. These correspondences do, I believe, enrich the film’s romance, in the empathy shown for Laura (she’s the purest-hearted gangster’s moll you’ll ever encounter), and also the push-pull between freedom and entrapment, exhilaration and desperation, that informs this unusual movie. The long middle section, set in a remote Mexican village, has the feel of a western, as the couple pray they won’t be found by their pursuers. And there is also medical drama, as Dr. Matson learns to ply his trade for ordinary people in need. You start to wonder if you’re really watching a noir, until the ending erases all doubt. This was Fregonese’s first picture for Universal, and it foretold better things for his career, if not necessarily for his marriage.
Seven Thunders (1957), made after Fregonese left Hollywood, is a U.K. production, set in Vichy Marseille, about two British POWs (Stephen Boyd and Tony Wright) who have escaped from a German prison camp. The complex plot includes a local doctor (James Robertson Justice) whose offers to assist people on the run are not what they seem to be, as well as the disintegrating marriage of local fixer Emile Blanchard (Eugene Deckers) and his embittered wife (Rosalie Crutchley). The staircases and crumbling streets of wartime Marseille enable some brilliant vertical effects from Fregonese, and historical footage of the Old Port’s destruction is extremely well-integrated. Oh, and George Coulouris shows up as a Vichy official; there is a great deal to recommend this one. The problem is that the supporting characters are more interesting than our British POWs, and there’s too much of Stephen Boyd and the relentlessly elfin Anna Gaylor as his mandatory French love interest. I wanted the subplots to be the plot. But it all comes together in the end with great aplomb, and the good scenes are excellent.
Man in the Attic (1953), the fourth version of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ deathless Jack the Ripper tale, The Lodger, was my least favorite of the series. I thought most of the roles were miscast, especially Jack Palance as the Lodger, since in Belloc Lowndes’ conception, people at first are lulled into thinking he’s harmless, and my lord, would you rent a room to Jack Palance? How dumb can you get? Plus, I didn’t buy Frances “Aunt Bea” Bavier as a London matron. The performance I did like was that of the tragic Constance Smith as Lily, though her character has been made notably less savvy and she is saddled with a full-scale 20th-Century Fox Gay 90s musical number. I also liked Leo Tover’s cinematography, in which the London night is truly dark (not just backlot-dark) and frightening.
On the other hand, not everyone was crazy about My Six Convicts (1952); Dave uses the deadly adjective “conventional,” and it also has the dreaded Stanley Kramer as producer. But I thought it was kind of swell. Shot mostly on location at the notorious San Quentin, the cast includes Gilbert Roland as a Mafia don, Millard Mitchell as the prisoner most adept at working the system, and Harry Morgan as the one true psychopath among the group. It’s Blackboard Jungle before there was Blackboard Jungle; the first section of the movie is even concerned with how to get the prisoners to take an assessment test. Sad to say, John Beal, as the psychologist who tries to reach out to the inmates, is even less charismatic than Glenn Ford. The film is often loose and conversational in tone, with Mitchell providing most of the laughs. My Six Convicts is one of the only films in the series with a sequence that nearly qualifies as farce, as unlikely as that sounds. Maybe I was nostalgic for the notion that minds can be changed, and for a less punitive world where at least some in power are interested in saving lives, not just throwing them away.
The first line that 1954’s Black Tuesday gives the great Edward G. Robinson—as Vincent Canelli, a gangster on Death Row—is addressed to Peter Canning’s (Peter Graves) attorney. The lawyer says he might have a few tricks up his sleeve, and Canelli snarls, “The only thing you’ve got up your sleeve, shyster, is your filthy hairy arm.” That’s one of the mildest things that comes out of Canelli’s mouth, courtesy of Sydney Boehm’s unsparing, even shocking script—Canelli’s reply to “They'll kill innocent people!” is an indifferent “That’s how it goes some days.”
Canelli has enlisted his loving, no-longer-young girlfriend, played by Jean Parker with a depth of feeling you seldom see in this type of part, in a plot to crash out. The plan is for Canning to reveal where he has stashed the $250,000 (almost $2.8 million in 2022) that he robbed before killing a cop. Canelli and Canning stage a bloody escape, while taking hostage a reporter, a guard’s daughter, a priest and a doctor. Together with members of Canelli’s gang, the group holes up in a warehouse, offering Fregonese a chance to use his unique feeling for confinement and how people behave when they’re trapped. This series will surely cement Hugo Fregonese as one of cinema’s greatest bards of prison and prison escapes.
It was Edward G. Robinson’s last hurrah in a gangster role, and he’s magnificent. Canelli is “not a hero in any sense,” Robinson told a reporter in 1954, “but you will know that while he’s not crazy, there’s a reason for his cold-blooded killings.” And besides, the actor added, “I have to play a gangster occasionally so my imitators will have something new to work on.”
Canelli flaunts his indifference to other people, yet somehow the “nice” characters, especially Sylvia Findley as the guard’s daughter, are even less appealing. And while it’s no one’s idea of a social drama, Black Tuesday can be seen as anti–capital punishment. The system dehumanizes everyone it touches, from the guard taunting “Fine night for a burning,” to the chuckling, wisecracking reporters there to watch.
Unlike some other films in this series, Black Tuesday hasn’t been all that hard to see—that is, if you enjoy frame-bouncing, constant splices, murky audio, and dupey images that mimic the effect of cataracts. Gloriously finicky Stanley Cortez was the cinematographer, and showing him Black Tuesday on Youtube would have given the man a nervous breakdown. The new 35mm print being shown again at MoMA is a knockout, with Cortez’s signature deep-black shadows given their full due. Put it this way: I have every intention of seeing this one again in New York
The Raid (1954) involves a historical event that you can read about here. This provocative film opens in a New York State prison camp, where a group of Confederate prisoners led by Major Benton (a chillingly focused Van Heflin) break out. Their aim is to cross the border to Canada, and from there they will mount raids aimed at stealing funds and forcing the North to deploy troops in self-defense. And there’s another motive; these Southerners seethe with resentment at how the war is ravaging their home states and farms, while so much of the North lies all but untouched. Slavery and the beliefs that spawned the war stay offscreen; what’s left in The Raid is festering hate.
Soon Benton arrives in the beautiful New England town of St. Albans, accompanied by his crew in various disguises. Lee Marvin, already typecast by 1954, plays an alcoholic soldier with a bad temper—and in a nice bit of luck, none of the Confederate characters are overly hampered by Southern accents. Benton is now Neal Swayze, a well-mannered Montreal businessman unruffled by the bloodshed across the border, so long as it doesn’t preclude him making a buck. Benton settles in as a boarder at the home of Katy Bishop (Anne Bancroft) and bit by bit, he wins the trust of the townsfolk, Katy’s young son, and, possibly, the love of Katy.
These developments are typical of a behind-enemy-lines movie. But the next conventional step—where Benton rethinks his plan to raze the town and possibly kill those who get in his way, or at least he starts to feel bad about it—doesn’t happen. Oh all right, he does feel less bloodlust and he doesn’t like lying to Katy, but Benton’s primary change of heart is that now he wants Katy to understand why he’s doing it. Just as you’re starting to think that this Benton isn’t such a bad fellow, the film reminds you that yep, he’s still focused on ruining all these lives. The Confederates escaped prison, but not their fanaticism. The climactic raid of the title is authentically shocking, a series highlight.
In 1954, the New York Times loftily declared that “If one is satisfied with a shootin' and connivin' type of entertainment, The Raid probably will do.” In 2022, this film plays as the tale of a terrorist attack told mostly from the point of view of the terrorists. Once again, the screenplay is by Sidney Boehm (story: Francis M. Cockrell, based on the novel Affair at St. Albans by Herbert Ravenel Sass). In its way, it’s as ruthless a movie as Black Tuesday.
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