Director de Toth, man of many lives

April 28, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Andre de Toth, one of the Maryland Film Festival's most colorful tributees, has led three Hollywood lives.

He's notorious as the one-eyed director of the best 3-D movie, 1953's House of Wax. But he's also the auteur behind cult films like None Shall Escape (1944) and Crime Wave (1954), and the uncredited second-unit director on two wildly different epics, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Superman (1978). Combined, his 1994 memoir Fragments and his 1996 interview book, De Toth on De Toth cover all that -- as well as his youth and early film career in Hungary, his stint making Italian spectacles like Morgan the Pirate (1961), his many wives (including Veronica Lake) and a succession of unrelated broken necks. At the start of a phone interview with de Toth in Los Angeles a couple of years ago, I asked him why he downplayed his biggest "prestige" credit:

Q: You were nominated for an Academy Award in 1950 for co-writing the original story of The Gunfighter, an influential "revisionist western." But you hardly mention it in either book. Why?

A: The people who made it weren't dedicated enough to the idea. My idea was that gunfighters were stupid. Killing is ridiculous -- nature takes care of death, we don't have to help it. Gregory Peck is a lovely man, decent, but a professor! I would have wanted John Wayne, or Gary Cooper to play the gunfighter.

Q: You'd have wanted to take the hard sides of Wayne and Cooper even further than Hawks or DeMille did ...

A: That's right! And not let the gunfighter become a schoolteacher! How can a gunfighter give a lecture like the one Peck gives to that kid he left behind in town? If he'd been that smart, he wouldn't have been a gunfighter. It should have been the other way around, with the kid lecturing the gunfighter. Anyone who has kids knows kids lecture you. You can say what you want about my movies, but I try to portray life -- I may get it for only three or four frames, but I try to portray life.

Q: Even in a relatively conventional Western like your Springfield Rifle -- having Gary Cooper slice the buttocks of Lon Chaney isn't the kind of action every director would have committed to film, is it?

A: You know, Quentin Tarantino said one of his favorite pictures is Springfield Rifle. It's based on a true story; maybe some of the details got me on the right track. And there is a right track on a movie, you can't go any other way. If you think a movie can go one way or the other, both ways are wrong.

Q: How did you and Sam Peckinpah get along when you directed two episodes of his TV show The Westerner?

A: I liked Sam Peckinpah; we were friends. And again, we wanted to shoot life, truth. On those shows, there was no producer, no writer, no director. There was one picture-maker -- the two of us.

Q: There were some real movie moments in those TV shows ...

A: Movie? You never try to make a movie, you try to make a piece of life, and sometimes you get a piece of [garbage].

Q: You worked with the Kordas -- the producer-mogul [sometime director] Alexander, the director Zoltan, the art director Vincent -- on a number of classics, like The Thief of Baghdad. You took charge of the animals in The Jungle Book, and they really did become full characters. Did that require a lot of what you like to call "pre-vision"?

A: No. Animals are much more talented than movie actors.

Q: John Huston said the same thing after he directed himself playing Noah in The Bible ...

A: Huston was smart. The animals always did something fresh, they had something that civilization didn't kill in them -- instinct! I don't want to work with actors, I want to work with people who have the strength and imagination to transform themselves into It, this bit of the piece of life they have to be on the screen. I'm always looking for It.

Q: But you have had to work with actors -- even stars, who become their own corporations. You can't be happy about the acting-producing trend.

A: Right! Big stars become their own corporate undertakers. Look, I don't care how smart you are, you can't perform an appendectomy on yourself. They try, and they kill themselves.

Q: Today, when people go "on location," they often leave L.A. just to make present-day Toronto look like present-day New York. But when you did an L.A. thriller like Pitfall, you got a real on-the-street feeling of Southern California cities and suburbs. Are Hollywood directors still filing away sights the way you and your peers did?

A: I shot life. It was right there. I was capturing life forms. Directors today could still find it right there, but they're too damn lazy. How can you make your piece of life real when you build a grocery store and it costs $60 million? The problem here is with people who are gullible and afraid, who don't have the guts to take chances, who think that the cost makes it wonderful. You know, you drop a commando into the forest at night, he walks silent; you drop a kid in, he makes a lot of noise because he's scared, he doesn't know what's happening. These days we can't hear the truth from all the noise the kids are making.

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