Friday, Jan. 31, 2014

The Crime Films of Anthony Mann

Locating the Director’s Forgotten Years

By David Luhrssen
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Anthony Mann was admitted to the Hollywood pantheon for directing such acclaimed Jimmy Stewart westerns as Winchester 73 (1950) and The Man from Laramie (1955). Duly noted if underappreciated in accounts of his career are the films noir and gritty police dramas he directed a decade earlier. Mann would have it no other way. After achieving commercial success, he acted embarrassed by his past and dismissive of his early accomplishments.

Were he still alive, he might be infuriated by Max Alvarez’s book, The Crime Films of Anthony Mann (University Press of Mississippi). The film scholar, Milwaukee native (and onetime Shepherd Express contributor) illuminates Mann’s missing years, those beginnings he tried to dismiss, through exhaustive research.  Sweeping always the accumulated cobwebs of misinformation, Alvarez reconstructs Mann’s eccentric childhood, a Theosophical commune on the California coast where he was weaned on a weird formula of progressive social thought, mystical seeking and emotional abuse. He acted on the New York stage, directed plays for New Deal cultural agencies and—here’s a surprise—was one of television’s first directors at NBC’s New York station (1939-1940). With only 500 TV sets within range, the audience was negligible. And yet, he somehow made the leap to Hollywood, first to Paramount and then to low-budget Poverty Row with stops at RKO and M-G-M along the way.

Alvarez works film by film through Mann’s crime catalog, from the comic thriller Dr. Broadway (1942) through Side Street (1950), starring Farley Granger as a fugitive on the run in New York City, and The Tall Target (1951), a Dick Powell period drama about a plot to kill Lincoln. Alvarez argues for reevaluating most of these mostly forgotten films, many of them genre gems produced under tight constraints of time and budget. In the end, Mann might have grudgingly conceded to Alvarez’s upbeat assessment. Late in life, the director said his crime movies achieved “the maximum performance with the minimum means,” adding “the least shot had to contribute to the significance of the whole, the least gesture typed a character.” This artful command of the filmmaking craft went missing some time ago.

 

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