He was one of the true pioneers of film noir, a favorite director of Humphrey Bogart’s, the only director among The Hollywood Ten and the man responsible for helming some of Hollywood’s most heralded stars in some of their most offbeat and in some cases, best performances. In spite of all that, Edward Dmytryk has never been included in the pantheon of great directors.
Maybe it’s because he quit making gritty noir masterpieces as soon as he could, or that as an incarcerated member of The Hollywood Ten he recanted and then named names. Perhaps it was because many of the films starring the aforementioned legends received lukewarm responses when first released and have remained in movie viewing limbo ever since. When was the last time cable or Netflix offered Clark Gable in Soldier of Fortune (1955); Bogart in The Left Hand of God (1955), Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot unlikely paired in the western Shalako (1968); or Richard Burton and a bevy of international beauties in Bluebeard (1972)? Granted, some of these titles are rather cringe-inducing but even the cringe-filled moments are at least entertaining. Whatever the reason for Dmytryk’s absence from perceived greatness, his body of work is certainly worthy of reexamination.
I was lucky enough to interview him as part of my ongoing research for my book, Lee Marvin: Point Blank a few years before he passed on in 1999. He and his wife, former actress Jean Porter, agreed to meet with me for lunch at the legendary Musso & Frank in Hollywood in September of 1996 and that which did not go in the book can be read below. As the reader will discover in part 1, what transpired were not the bitter rants of a disappointed old man but the fascinating reminisces of a life well lived.
Dwayne Epstein: Does your way of working vary by actor?
Edward Dmytryk: My way of working with an actor, I wasn’t…when I was a cutter on the set throughout the 1930’s, I worked with guys like George Cukor and people like that. They all worked in their own way. You give the actors…Let me put it like this, once a picture starts, they’re my closest collaborators. You see, I worked with good people. I was lucky. That’s how I looked at it. I worked with the best. I had the best people all the way around and I started that early in my career. I could do whatever I wanted to do. In other words, I sometimes would do things that would make the studio very angry. In Europe, I remember they wanted me to come home. So I said finally, “I’m tired of you asking me to come home all the time. Fire me.” I wanted to quit because I was having a terrible time in Europe with the crew, not with the actors. See, in France half of the crew was Communist and half of the crew was non-Communist. Well, to the Communists, I was an ex-communist. The Communists feel there’s nothing worse than an ex-Communist. They’re much more hated because he knows the truth. So they sent me a memo. After I sent them a wire, they sent me a 14-page telegram. I had never seen one like that before. It was apologizing, saying, “No, go right ahead and do what you want to do.” I gave them 2 or 3 opportunities to fire me and then I almost quit. In those days, particularly the studios, they hired a guy and they trusted them. They wouldn’t have let me go because they couldn’t replace me with anybody. It would have cost them a hell of a lot more money and maybe not be as good. With the actors, I worked very freely. I’m in control of the staging and the pace, particularly. Which is very important because actors really don’t understand pace. Particularly if they come from the theater.
DE: Well they can’t in terms of the film because they don’t know how it’s going to be cut.
ED: Yeah, and I cut all my own pictures. See, now as far as I expect of them…I expect Tracy, when he plays a scene, to do things with it that I had wished I had thought to do. To surprise me. That’s the wonderful part about him. … I give him a certain amount of freedom but I don’t let him wander all over. I don’t let him…we change lines all the time but the changing of the lines is under my control. In other words, I wouldn’t do what John Cassavetes did because actors would run on forever if you let them. I never liked John Cassavetes’ pictures because they were strictly they would run on and on and on. So, if an actor wants to ad-lib I’d say, “You think you can write better than the writer did? If you can, go ahead. If you can’t, don’t mention it anymore.” But I would change it. I’d change scripts like Young Lions as much as 50%. I could have gotten real credit of it. I don’t think I ever made a picture where I didn’t change something. You got to bring a picture to life. All the writers these days write dialogue. There’s nothing there about what to do and how to do it or how a scene starts or how it ends or goes from sequence to another smoothly and continues the flow of the story, that kind of thing. I’ve had cases several times where I’d come in on a set and I’d have a rehearsal with my cast and then I’d call the art director and say, “This won’t do. I can’t shoot this scene here. I got to have another set. Have the writer write another scene,” and walk out to take the day off and rewrite.
DE: What do you remember most about working with Lee Marvin on Eight Iron Men (1952)?
ED: He and Bonar Colleano had been out on the town the night before while we were making that one. They got along very, very well. They came in an hour late. That’s unforgivable. I gave them hell and I’ve never seen two such penitent guys. They were like kids with their heads down. They kept saying, “I know it’s wrong, I know it’s wrong. We’ll never do it again. Never.” And they never did. I never knew he had a reputation for drinking and I know he did drink but not on the set…Lee was interesting. I had a lot of interesting characters. That’s what I liked about the pictures I was doing, good actors.
DE: Speaking of interesting characters, how did you get along with Montgomery Clift?
ED: Well, yes and no. I got along fine with him. I had a lot of trouble with him on Raintree County (1957) because, well, after his accident he was on drugs and drinking so much he could never work an afternoon. He was in every scene so it took about 160 days on that picture. I thought I’d never use him again. Then when I got back right after that, I was sent what they had, they didn’t have a complete script yet on The Young Lions (1958). I read it and said, “Geez, there’s only one guy to play this part and that’s Monty Clift.” I called him on the phone and had sent him the script. He sent me a telegram a few days later just saying ‘yes.’ On that picture, he never indulged. He did in the evenings but he never missed an hour’s work. I was thinking last night, because I was running a scene for my class the day before yesterday, this one sequence where he brings Hope Lange home, that was the last thing we did. It was done at night, of course. Just before midnight, he started…He was little rough. I called midnight dinner and I said to him, “Monty, I don’t want to have come back tomorrow and do this again.”
DE: How did Montgomery Clift get along with the rest of the cast on Raintree County?
ED: Very well. Monty was a guy who liked everybody…. We started in New Orleans but then we filmed it in Natchez, all up and down the south. … I don’t remember Monty drinking with anybody, actually. I didn’t follow him at night. He drank. He took dope actually, first thing in the morning.
DE: He was in a lot of pain at that time, wasn’t he?
ED: Yeah, because he had his jaw broken in three places and it was wired up. The wires were out by the time we went back to work. Nevertheless, he felt a lot of pain. I think that was his excuse but I think he was drinking all of his life as far as I know. One of the things I did before the picture, because I had never worked with ever before, I didn’t know him, I got in touch with the people. What’s his name, with the Irish name?
DE: Kevin McCarthy?
ED: McCarthy was a very good friend of his. McCarthy said, “He’s a tough guy to be a friend to because he drinks so much. You just get disgusted with him. There comes a time when you have to say good bye.” So, I was warned. Strangely enough, at the beginning you don’t want to hear about this.
DE: I know it was a difficult movie to make, and the divergent cast and the accident and all, but in the scenes that Lee Marvin and Montgomery Clift had together, the characters were adversarial, I’m thinking specifically about the foot race. See, Marvin is much more physically imposing than Clift is.
ED: If it were an honest race, he could have beat Monty.
DE: When you watch it you see Marvin do the miraculous task of making Clift look like he beat him. How did he do that? Were there any little things you talked about before the shooting of it?
ED: No, he just knew that Monty had to beat him and he kept it so. As a matter of fact, for a little while, he was maybe a little bit ahead. He had a much longer stride than Monty did and he made it look like as though he was working hard. He could have slowed up his stride a little bit.
DE: In high school Lee Marvin was a track star.
ED: That I didn’t know.
Jean Porter: (Laughs) Now you find out.
DE: Do you recall when you first met him?
ED: No. But I can tell you that I would do with Lee is what I would do with all actors. People ask me about working with actors. When I first started teaching about 15 years ago at USC., one of the professors there was a professor of film but had never been on a set in his life. One of those academicians. He said, “Eddie, how do you get an actor to read a line the way you want it?’ I said, “I don’t.” He said, “What do you mean by that?” I said, “Do you think I’m going to tell Spencer Tracy how to read lines? That’s his business. That’s his art.” I’m a third-rate actor. If I told him, “This is the way to read a line,” he’d be giving a third rate performance. I never tell a good actor how to do lines, nor does any really good director that I know of.
DE: On The Caine Mutiny (1954), many of the actors are on record as saying Bogart was one of their heroes. How did they get along with Bogart on the set?
ED: Fine. I never had any trouble with anybody. Only one actor in my life I ever had any trouble with who’s name I won’t mention…We had a large cast in that picture with a very good cast right down the line. We got along like brothers and sisters. I never had any trouble. You mentioned Raintree County. Elizabeth, the only time Elizabeth was not on time is when she missed the plane for New Orleans. On the set she was always on time, she was always cooperative.
DE: Was she very protective of Montgomery Clift?
ED: They were very close. She helped him of course but he was a very, very good friend of his. Which was important. He would help her with her acting. He’d go through the script with her whenever we had rehearsals and he’d help here and there. She got a nomination for that picture, as you probably know.
DE: I’ve never been on a film set but I read that there’s a lot of hurry up and wait. What kind of things is done between set-ups?
ED: Play cards.
DE: What was the game of choice?
ED: We played poker. We played odd games. We played this one thing that sometimes I’d join them in. We played Chinese poker. It’s an interesting game.
DE: Was there a difference in rehearsal than what we would see on film?
ED: Not really. Sometimes there is. You see to me, rehearsal is where you make the thing. By the time you’re ready to photograph it, you’re just registering it, that’s all. There’s only one actor I knew who really wanted to go all out in rehearsal. You don’t encourage them to go all out because one of the things they have to do is to pace themselves. That’s another thing. When you do a scene finally, you have to be spontaneous. One of the things you don’t want to do is work too hard. That’s why I don’t mind changing lines to make it fit or for character’s purposes or anything of that sort. Take a line that’s literally in the script and make it a natural kind of thing that I guy in the street would say. I did it gradually. Sometimes I didn’t use the script but I did it rarely. You know, we’d be rehearsing and I’d say [to the actor], “Gee, you know that’s great. You did something great there. Do it again.” He’d say, “What did I do?” “Well, you took this trash here and you moved it over here.” He’d say, “Did I?” I’d say, “Sure you did. Don’t you remember?” Of course he didn’t do it. It was something I wanted him to do.
DE: That’s an interesting way to do it.
ED: Oh sure. You give them all the credit. The more credit you give them, the better they do for you, for Christ’s sake. Of course. You don’t say, “I’m the king. I’m in charge.” The auteur theory is the worst damned thing that was ever thought of.
DE: I’m in complete agreement because film is too collaborative.
ED: There’s that but you also limit yourself. I advice all my students, don’t make storyboards. A storyboard is a plot. You got it down there and once you got it down there you say, “That’s the way we’re going to do it.” Then there’s no more creativity after you’re on the set. I say, “You got to keep changing. You got to keep thinking about possible change.” You don’t necessarily change but possible changes occur right up to the time you shoot it.
Next Time: “Edward Dmytryk: A Worthy Examination” (Part 2)!
2 thoughts on “Edward Dmytryk: A Worthy Reexamination”
Dwayne, I love these interviews. So glad you did them as so many stories of the past greats would have been lost otherwise. Keep ‘em comin’
Glad to see the spotlight on the man who made THE CAINE MUTINY and MURDER, MY SWEET. People, myself included, should be familiar with his work.