Jefferson, NC: McFarland Pub, 2009.
Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges
Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008
$26.95/Trade Paperback; $60.00/Hardcover
In Hollywood today, the director is king. Critics and film students alike revere mythic directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks, whose reputations have been enshrined in countless film studies texts. Comparatively neglected directors like Anthony Mann and John Sturges are cult figures whose reputations have suffered since Andrew Sarris dismissed them in his 1968 book The American Cinema, a cornerstone of contemporary film studies. Sarris snidely acknowledged Mann's "tough-guy authority that never found favor among the more cultivated critics of the medium" and blatantly disregarded Sturges's "strained seriousness," opining that "it is hard to remember why Sturges's career was ever considered meaningful." Authors William Darby and Glenn Lovell offer more serious and sympathetic examinations of these two directors, in Darby's Anthony Mann: The Film Career (2009) and Lovell's Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges (2008). Both books proceed from the premise of the auteur theory, illustrating the ways that the personal choices of these two men defined their films.
Anthony Mann is best-known for a string of westerns, beginning with Winchester '73 (1950) and ending with The Man From Laramie (1955), which reinvented Jimmy Stewart as a cowboy. Following a pattern set by his mentor Jeanine Basinger, Darby acknowledges Winchester '73 as the director's breakthrough film, but he prefaces this by devoting significant attention to a series of mostly-forgotten b-movies in the 1940s that show Mann developing his craft. Darby argues that the director was, from the very beginning, adept at telling tales of suspense, murder, violence and psychological anguish. Mann's most noteworthy early achievements were in the realm of film noir, a genre which allowed him to convey plot and character through visuals rather than dialogue. Darby examines those films one by one, focusing in particular on impressionistic lighting, symbolic imagery and foreshadowing in Strangers in the Night (1944).
Darby goes on to provide examples of the same technique in Mann's westerns, showing how the landscape of the filming locations defined the characters existing within those landscapes. Take, for example, this passage on The Naked Spur (1953): "Savage rock faces, narrow ledges, roaring rapids, and claustrophobic caves are all deftly used to augment the plot: the sheer difficulties of the terrain and weather (a coming rainy season) test the characters" (111). Throughout this section, Darby considers Mann's westerns two by two. It is an appropriate organizational scheme considering the director's obsession with moral duality, and reflects how the filmmaker's thematic focus waxed and waned between ideas of civilization and savagery. These westerns, the author insists, are timeless, universal stories of man at war with life itself—he compares The Furies (1950) to the Oresteia, Winchester '73 to The Odyssey, The Man from Laramie to Oedipus and King Lear. They are nothing short of visual poetry.
The most revealing section of Darby's book deals with the final phase of Mann's career, when he was making epics in the style of old Hollywood. His focus on staging, costuming, choreography and physical conflict made him a natural choice for larger-than-life films like Spartacus (1960), El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). Darby does an excellent job of summing up the genre of the historical epic, as well as the historical context in which these films were made, and he draws intriguing comparisons between Mann's work and other examples in/of the genre, proving the "thematic seriousness" the director. Unfortunately for Mann, the old Hollywood epic was a dying breed. The film industry was undergoing a radical transformation, and big-budget studio films were becoming as anachronistic as the Roman Empire. Mann made only one film that reflected the cynicism of New Hollywood—A Dandy in Aspic (1968)—before his untimely death. As Andrew Sarris observes, his career ended too soon for the new generation to discover him. Darby adds that modern film critics and scholars often overlook visual storytelling in favor of more overtly intellectual, political or sociological texts. Since film is, however, a visual medium, it seems only fair that Mann should get the kind of fitting reevaluation that Darby provides.
In Escape Artist, Glenn Lovell makes a similar case for John Sturges—another director known mainly for visual storytelling in the western genre. Sturges has been acknowledged as an influence by some of today's most famous commercial filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter, but he has rarely been the subject of serious study. Perhaps that's because, like Mann, his reputation is that of a filmmaker who crafts simple-minded, hyper-masculine action movies. Lovell delves a bit more into the psychology of his subject than Darby does, owing to the fact that he has intimate first-person interviews from which to draw. Thus, in the introduction, Lovell is able to peg Sturges as "the prototypical child of divorce who for the first half of his life seeks the approval and counsel of his mother and then, following her death, indulges an, if not stifled, at least suppressed, masculinity" (5). This is a revealing perspective—a bit too reductive, but nevertheless suggesting deep psychological issues underlying Sturges's films from the very beginning.
After a short stint as an editor at RKO—as part of a lauded trio including Robert Wise and Mark Robson—the young Sturges abandoned the film industry to go to war. It was in Europe, on the western front with director William Wyler, that Sturges honed his abilities as a filmmaker. When he returned to Hollywood, he was able to craft stories about men and war based on thorough first-hand experience. (At one point, Lovell keenly observes that all the best war films were made by those filmmakers who'd actually experienced war). Sturges went on to make his first western, a psychologically complex ensemble piece called The Walking Hills, in 1949. His second foray into the genre, Escape from Fort Bravo (1953), boasts one of the best action set pieces of the decade. Soon after, Sturges secured his reputation with the Oscar-nominated Bad Day at Black Rock (1954), a film that revolutionized the use of widescreen cinematography. Lovell's interviews with cast and crew suggest that Sturges was less concerned with the performances than with the setting. He obsessed about every little thing that appeared within the frame because he wanted to craft a sense of unreality. Sturges clearly understood that this was a mythic tale, rather than a realistic one.
After Bad Day at Black Rock, Sturges used his newly won fame to revitalize the floundering western genre. Lovell offers in-depth contextual assessments of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and The Magnificent Seven (1960), identifying the latter as the "forerunner of today's high-concept escapism" (214). More anecdotal are Lovell's behind-the-scenes glimpses at The Old Man and the Sea (1958), "the Waterworld of its day" (128), and Sergeants 3 (1962), which he cheekily refers to as the "Rat Trap" film with Frank Sinatra. Another chapter is devoted entirely to The Great Escape (1963), which Sturges says was constructed not according to a script but according to his sense of "why our side won [World War II]." His explanation: "uncontrolled, individualistic, do-it-your way form of life" (224). Again and again, Lovell's book reveals Sturges as a true American original, whose best films were shaped by the director's hard-nosed approach to life and unpretentious approach to art. This same stubbornness, the author points out, precipitated the end of the filmmaker's career—after turning down projects like Patton, Earthquake, Papillion and Das Boot, he made his final forays into hyper-masculine America with Hour of the Gun (1967) starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, Joe Kidd (1972) starring Clint Eastwood, Chino (1973) starring Charles Bronson, and McQ (1974) starring John Wayne as a "Slightly Soiled Harry."
What comes across in both William Darby's study of Anthony Mann and Glenn Lovell's study of John Sturges is a larger portrait of America as conceived by a particular generation—a portrait that has been eclipsed by the films and filmmakers of New Hollywood, who revolutionized the industry in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That generation all but destroyed the traditional western by making films that were cynical and ultra-realistic instead of mythic. The mythic components, however, have been carried over into other genres—most notably, science fiction and action hero movies of the 80s and 90s. The directors of the newer genre films frequently acknowledge Mann and Sturges as stylistic influences, but these two books make it clear that the style of Anthony Mann and John Sturges was also their substance. Their aesthetic choices reflect their personalities and their visions, which are present in their work, as well as in the works they continue to inspire. Mann and Sturges are alive in cinema today. And now, thanks to these two books, they have a better chance of staying alive in film studies.