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    Eddie Feels like 30 Again and Tries It Spence's Way

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Born 109 years ago today, Edward Dmytryk (1908-1999) had risen through the ranks of skilled studio directors via some attention-grabbing B-pictures like Hitler’s Children; superior films noir Murder, My Sweet and Cornered; and a number of A-level prestige drama and action items like Back to Bataan and Till the End of Time. Seventy years ago at this time, his daringly topical anti-Semitism-themed thriller Crossfire had just opened to strong reviews in mid-August and promising box-office business. Having three in-demand Roberts – Mitchum, Ryan and Young – in the cast was a considerable boost, yet the distinctive murder-case material (screenwriter John Paxton adapting a novel by Richard Brooks) and its tense, forceful execution carried the day even more. At that year’s Cannes Film Festival in September, Crossfire would earn Dmytryk the award for Best Social Film, and the later Academy Awards roundup for 1947 saw the film nominated in five top categories, Best Picture, Director (Dmytryk’s only such career nod), Supporting Actor (Ryan), Supporting Actress (Gloria Grahame) and Screenplay (Paxton). However, Dmytryk came home from Cannes to the delivery of a subpoena to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, became part of the blacklisted “Hollywood Ten” and faced a grueling career suspension over the next four years that would include jail time for contempt of Congress and committee testimony that ultimately led to his getting behind the camera again for producer Stanley Kramer on four films in succession, The Sniper, Eight Iron Men, The Juggler and the critical and commercial blockbuster The Caine Mutiny. Again floating on the headwinds of success and cachet, he next went to work for Twentieth Century Fox on Broken Lance (1954), which was, Dmytryk wrote in his 1978 memoir It’s a Hell of a Life but Not a Bad Living, “a very loose rework of an earlier Fox film, House of Strangers (1949), the story of a New York banking dynasty [adapted by Philip Yordan from a Jerome Weidman novel], which starred Edward G. Robinson and which was a financial washout. [Screenwriter Richard] Murphy had transformed it into an excellent ‘adult’ Western. (‘Adult’ signifies more of substance and less of six-shooters.)” The weighty cast boasted the formidable Spencer Tracy as the hard-bitten patriarch, “Katy Jurado as his Indian wife; Richard Widmark, Robert Wagner, Earl Holliman and Hugh O’Brian as his four sons; Jean Peters as Wagner’s sweetheart; E.G. Marshall as her father; and Eduard Franz as the Indian foreman.” 

    Dmytryk was charged by the opportunity. “For the first time, I was working with Cinemascope. I had tried to get Kramer to use it for The Caine Mutiny, since I thought it would serve the horizontal lines of ships and sea horizons particularly well; but the technique was very new, and Stanly is quite conservative. Ordinarily I prefer the ‘Golden Mean’ frame, but in semidesert Arizona I felt the old experimental thrill. The soft, distant mountains formed a low, broad horizon; men on horseback filled more screen horizontally than vertically; even the squat, spreading architecture of the American West suited the new dimensions perfectly. I was 30 again.” His greatest praise was reserved for Hollywood lion Tracy, an actor with a reputation for difficultly and fixed working methods, but not on this project. Dmytryk recalls: “At first, I had been diffident in working with Tracy, but as the film progressed, I found he was very receptive to changes in inference or emphasis. Once only, he resisted a suggestion of mine and in doing so exhibited what was one of his greatest talents. In studying a scene we were to do in a couple of days, I found one long speech that was rather stiffly written. I had reworked it until I felt it was more playable. ‘Look, Eddie,’ Tracy said, ‘I’ve already learned the words. Why don’t you let me try them the way they are. If you don’t like it, I’ll look at your rewrite.’ I agreed, and later we shot the scene. He hadn’t changed a word in the original speech, but he broke it up and played with it in such a way that it seemed the most natural scene in the world. That is a skill that few present-day actors have mastered. Faced with a difficult line, they will complain until it is simplified to their taste. But Spence had that ability which in jazz singing is called ‘phrasing,’ of which Louis Armstrong was the greatest master. Louis could make a ricky-tick lyric sound like poetry, and Tracy could make a leaden line sound like gold. The odd thing is that he felt it was nothing special – that it was just something that every actor owed his art.” That skill is in superb focus in Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray of Broken Lance, one of two powerful 1950s Fox Cinemascope titles on the label from today’s birthday honoree. The other is The Young Lions, a gripping tale of World War II combat soldiers on opposing sides, adapted by Edward Anhalt from an Irwin Shaw novel, and starring Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Dean Martin, Maximilian Schell, Hope Lange and Barbara Rush. Dmytryk shared a helluva few good stories in his book about working with some of these great actors as well, covered in this earlier blog entry from March 29: