Sunday, Dec. 21, 2008

Great Escape Artist.

By David Luhrssen
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When most film buffs hear the name Sturges, Preston pops to mind. But while director Preston Sturges masterminded such sophisticated and hilarious comedies from Golden Age Hollywood as Sullivan's Travels and The Miracle at Morgan Creek, it was the other Sturges, John, who shaped the future of Hollywood moviemaking.

In his book Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges (published by University of Wisconsin Press), Glenn Lovell persuasively makes a case for the Sturges overlooked by the founding generation of film historians from the 1960s. Sturges' western The Magnificent Seven (1960), with its band of hired desperadoes who end up fighting on the right side, has influenced more movies than anyone (except Lovell) would care to name. That The Magnificent Seven was Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai transposed to the U.S.-Mexican frontier testifies to Sturges' scope. He wasn't merely prolific and proficient, churning out whatever the old Hollywood studios and the new cabal of producers wanted. He doggedly fought, and sometimes lost, to make movies according to his own lights.

A daily paper movie reviewer by trade, Lovell has written a journalistic, chronological account of Sturges lacking in literary flourish but refreshingly free of academic cultural studies cant. He's a fan but not entirely uncritical. In later years Sturges passed on Patton and Papillon and opted for such forgotten flicks as Marooned and Richard Sahib. Increasingly out of step with an era whose inception he helped midwife, Sturges—a sensitive man's man, a maverick uncomfortable in any political camp—retired after angrily exiting The Eagle Has Landed (1976).

Occasionally Lovell strains on behalf of his subject's importance; mostly, he shows Sturges as ahead of developments, a bellwether for the more enigmatic or hard-edged westerns of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. As a master of kinetic action he inspired Steven Spielberg.

But unlike Jerry Bruckheimer and Quentin Tarantino, both of whom have paid homage to the man behind The Great Escape (1963) and The Magnificent Seven, his gaze extended beyond the box office or juvenile titillation. During an era when it was easier to overlook racism, Sturges addressed the problem frankly with Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and Last Train From Gun Hill (1959). In his film noir Mystery Street (1950), he cast Ricardo Montalban as a Latino police detective decades before Benjamin Bratt's stint in "Law and Order."

As with many other Hollywood directors downgraded in the critical canon, Sturges' sin in the eyes of historians was his versatility. Unlike John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock, Sturges wasn't associated with a particular genre but busied himself with costume dramas, Gothic romance and science fiction as well as western and war pictures. He was hard to peg and hence ignored by critics but not by filmmakers who drew from his work. Escape Artist will hopefully raise Sturges' profile.

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