European expatriate who loved the hard-boiled
If I told you I was going to talk about a director of Westerns who was born in the then Austro-Hungarian Empire, graduated from the University of Budapest, worked on silent movies in various European countries, including under Korda, then immigrated to the US and arrived in Hollywood, ‘Frenchifying’ his name, you might well think I was discussing Rudolph Maté, born Rudolf Meyer, the director of such oaters as Branded, The Violent Men and The Far Horizons, about whom I was waffling the other day.
Yet nay. Today’s director of sagebrush sagas is someone else, the chap who helmed no fewer than six Randolph Scott pictures, as well as Westerns with stars of the caliber of Gary Cooper, Joel McCrea, Kirk Douglas and Gregory Peck, a man who made twelve feature Westerns between 1947 and 1959, as well as episodes of four Western TV shows, who was also Oscar-nominated for writing the great Western The Gunfighter and was later awarded a Golden Boot. I am of course talking about a famous eye-patch wearing helmsman of Westerns – no, not John Ford, or Raoul Walsh either.
Sasvári Farkasfalvi Tóthfalusi Tóth Endre Antal Mihály wasn’t really a name that rolled easily off Hollywood tongues, so we have come to know him as André De Toth.
Perhaps best known for helming the 3D horror flick House of Wax in 1953 (strange, really, because with only one eye he couldn’t appreciate 3D at all), De Toth was nevertheless a significant player in our noble genre. He was also quite a Hollywood celeb, marrying big star Veronica Lake (he would be married six other times and have a total of 19 children).
The IMDb bio of him says, “He was known for his tough, hard-edged pictures, whether westerns or urban crime dramas, and showed no compunction about depicting violence in as realistic a manner as possible, an unusual and somewhat controversial attitude for the time.” De Toth once said, “Life is goddam black, and I photograph life.”
De Toth’s entrée to the world of the Western, a genre he loved, came in 1947 when John Ford, who was slated to direct the Harry Sherman production (Sherman’s first) Ramrod for United Artists, was too taken up with My Darling Clementine and suggested De Toth as a replacement. It was a golden opportunity, which De Toth grabbed with both hands. Based on a story by the great Western writer Luke Short, and very much in the late-40s tradition of noir psychological Westerns, it turned out to be an excellent picture. It starred Joel McCrea, big news for having recently starred as Buffalo Bill for William A Wellman and in the color remake of The Virginian, paired with the then Mrs. De Toth, Veronica Lake as Connie (actually her birth name), along with some very good Western character actors.
There’s lovely black & white photography of the Utah locations by Russell Harlan, with noirish tints that suit the plot admirably, and there is rather delightful Adolph Deutsch music, which plays variations on a theme of These Thousand Hills but without the cheesy 50s Hollywood angel choirs in the movie of that name. The picture benefits from the fact that a strong, independent woman was at the center of the story, not just an add-on as in so many Westerns, even if she comes across as a scheming siren. This was Lake’s only Western and it was abundantly clear that this glacial, neurotic, 1940s Hollywood lady did not suit the genre. They probably should have paired MCrea with Stanwyck (again).
Certain cinéastes, Martin Scorsese for one, consider Ramrod a masterpiece. Well, it may be. I’m no Scorsese, only a Western buff. All I can say is that I love watching it; it’s very, very good. But it’s just short of great.
De Toth’s second Western as director (having written the screenplay of the Henry King-directed The Gunfighter in 1950) was the first of the series of pictures he did with Randolph Scott, Columbia’s Man in the Saddle (1951), produced by Harry Joe Brown. The screenplay was by Kenneth Gamet from an Ernest Haycox novel. Gamet was a very experienced Western writer and like De Toth, he worked a lot with Randy. Of course Haycox is one of the towering giants of the Western novel and short story, so Gamet and De Toth had great material to work with, and Scott was just the man to lead. Charles Lawton Jr. photographed the movie in Technicolor, in some splendid Lone Pine locations, and he was outstanding at somber interiors, so visually the picture was excellent.
It wasn’t a great Western. The story is a pretty standard one of decent small rancher vs. ruthless cattle baron (Alexander Knox) who wants the whole valley, and this was done so very many times that it is hard to bring a fresh viewpoint to it. Still, there are some good scenes, notably the fight in the darkened saloon and the part by the waterfall in the snow. The story follows the Western conventions and the characters behave in a fashion appropriate to the genre. There’s a stampede and a burning wagon. There’s a nice Tennessee Ernie Ford ballad and not a bad score by George Duning. Love interest Joan Leslie has red hair and scarlet lips.
De Toth himself was rather slighting about Randolph Scott. He called Randy an “abacus” and said of Harry Joe Brown and Scott that “Neither of them knew much about stories. They didn’t fight about story points. They cared about money, all right, but unfortunately they didn’t care enough about films.” Perhaps this lack of electricity between director, producer and star led to a certain lackluster quality in the film. It didn’t stop De Toth doing five more Westerns with Scott, though.
Mind, De Toth was not the easiest to get on with. He belonged to the tyrannical school of movie directors. In a 1987 article in Films in Review Anthony Slide wrote, “Said one actor, ‘When you’ve made a film with de Toth, you’ve served your time in Hell’.” But De Toth cared, deeply, about the quality of what he was making. Slide again: “On the set de Toth never sits, never uses a director’s chair.” Energetic, passionate, determined, he was a director’s director and one who knew exactly what he wanted.
In 1952 Gary Cooper followed up the great High Noon with a much ‘lesser’ Western at Warner Brothers, Springfield Rifle, and De Toth was at the helm. Warners Westerns in the early 50s were often fairly clunky, I don’t know why. Springfield Rifle is almost a juvenile picture, certainly anyway a less than sophisticated Civil Warn skullduggery yarn which starts with Gary Cooper being court-martialed for cowardice, a very obvious unlikelihood. There’s bright color and nice Alabama Hills and Calabasas, California scenery that looks like Colorado. A few of my favorites have small parts: James Millican and Alan Hale Jr. are there and Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams is a sergeant. Fess Parker also has a tiny uncredited walk-on. I quite like this movie on its own terms, i.e. a Western for boys. It’s obviously watchable, having Gary Cooper in it, but I’m afraid that’s about all I can say.
Three more Randolph Scott oaters followed at the end of 1952 and through ’53, Carson City, The Stranger Wore a Gun (July ’53) and Thunder over the Plains (October). Carson City was a bright, breezy romp with a pretty standard plot but done with panache. Only two years after constructing the Canadian Pacific in Cariboo Trail, pistol-packing railroad engineer Randolph Scott was down in Nevada laying rails between Virginia City and Carson City. There’s a lot of action, well handled as usual by De Toth, including bar-room brawls (with a thrown chair breaking the mirror behind the bar, obviously), murders, landslides, and mucho chasin’ and shootin’. There’s a lot of energy in the picture.
The Stranger Wore a Gun, at Columbia, was another Scott-Brown production but perhaps wasn’t quite as well done as Carson City. It was another 3D movie and we see a torch thrown at the camera and then guns fired directly at us. Later, everything imaginable is thrown at the camera, a chair, a jug, the kitchen sink. Unfortunately, most spectators, then as now, saw the movie in 2D so they must have wondered what was going on. There is something about the plot which vaguely prefigures Yojimbo and its spaghetti reincarnations, as Randy plays two gangs off, one against the other.
De Toth wrote (in De Toth on De Toth): “I believe Randolph Scott could have gone further as a performer. But he did not have the ambition to step up, to be better in anything except golf.”
I think this was a bit rich coming from De Toth. Perhaps if he had made a better film, Randy might have “stepped up”.
In his excellent book The Films of Randolph Scott (McFarland, 2004) Robert Nott tells a couple of good stories about the making of this movie, such as a description by Lee Marvin of a burning stage hurtling by Randy, who was calming sitting reading The Wall Street Journal. There’s also an anecdote about Ernest Borgnine:
One day on the set De Toth asked Borgnine if he could ride.
‘Can I ride? Like the wind!’ the actor replied.
Borgnine mounted a horse and with a slew of other riders, did a scene in which they had to come riding down a hill fast. According to De Toth, Scott’s double, who was riding next to Borgnine, missed his mark.
‘Once more, please,’ De Toth said.
‘Why? Didn’t I ride like the wind?’
‘You did great. Ride like the wind again.’
‘Yeah?’ Borgnine replied incredulously. ‘Well, I have no idea what I did that was great. This is the first time in my life that I was on a damned horse.’
Thunder over the Plains was back at Warners. It’s a post-bellum story set in Reconstruction Texas, finishing with the patriotic readmission of the Lone Star state into the Union, in, it must be said, a slightly saccharine scene. The hero (Randy) is a Union captain in what is bluntly described as an army of occupation, but though a decent soldier and firm believer in the Union, he is a Texan, largely sympathetic to the oppressed peoples. These ‘oppressed’ are naturally white, and cotton growers, and the only black people shown are two cheerful fellows cheering the anti-Reconstruction rebels. Scott gives a rather subdued performance, a man knowing his sophisticated wife is unhappy in the West and a man who has to balance military duty with conscience. Randy was a much better actor than many people thought.
It’s in bright WarnerColor, with the Warner Ranch doing duty for dusty Texas. Shot by the excellent Bert Glennon, it’s attractive visually. You can see the hand of De Toth here and there. Some of the action scenes are very good, and if you watch this movie, look out for one scene where the informer makes his way through the darkened streets of the town, starting at every shadow (he knows he’s in for it).
1953 was also the year of a non-Randolph Scott Western by De Toth, Last of the Comanches at Columbia, starring Broderick Crawford. I have made no secret of the fact that I consider Crawford to have been unsuited to our noble genre, though he loved ‘em, and in this one too he is bulky and speaks in that unWestern quick-fire cop/gangster lingo he favored. The picture was nicely photographed by Charles Lawton Jr. and Ray Cory in Technicolor in Old Tucson, AZ locations. But the writing is pretty clichéd and plodding, and the acting ho-hum. The American Indians are just cardboard-cut-out savages (in fact the intro screen text talks of “Black Cloud and his savage followers”). The movie was a Western remake of the Zoltan Korda-directed Humphrey Bogart war film Sahara. The makers didn’t quite live up to the poster slogan ‘ten against ten thousand’; budget constraints must have intervened.
Two more oaters followed in 1954, the first, again with Randy, this time much better from Warners. Riding Shotgun (released in April) has quite a bit in common with Scott’s later Decision at Sundown, a Budd Boetticher picture. Apart from some first-reel location action, it’s set in town, with Randy holed up from 16 minutes in and for much of the rest of the picture in a ratty saloon (a barn in Sundown). De Toth handled psychological-claustrophobic town Westerns extremely well. Many Westerns feature cretinous mobs and/or pusillanimous townspeople who jump to conclusions and assume without evidence that a man is guilty, and they feel entirely justified in killing the fellow – often with a lynch rope but a bullet will do. Riding Shotgun takes this a stage further: it is in fact the whole plot. In this one the women are just as bad, being titillated by the excitement. The town should have known better. The man they are accusing is Randolph Scott. I mean, doh. Furthermore, a derringer not only appears but is central to the plot. So that’s a plus. It’s shot in nice bright color by Bert Glennon again, mostly on the Warners Western town set but with some nice rocky Californian locations too. There are some original and interesting angles and points of view, with De Toth and Glennon clearly playing around. The mirror in the saloon is used to good effect, in a Euro-expresssionist way. Definitely one of the better De Toth Westerns.
The second 1954 Western was The Bounty Hunter. It was not the best André De Toth/Randolph Scott Western but still pretty good. Randy was already 55 years old but he could still romance the girl and convince as an action hero. This was shot in 1953 and it too was designed as a 3D (the format was all the rage at that time but the craze soon fizzled) and thus has much aiming guns at the camera, and a sheriff’s hat shot off which whizzes into the audience’s face, but it was released in ’54 in standard format, which is how we all see it today of course. There’s some good De Toth action, though the fistfight is dealt with in a comic way unusual for the director. In any case it was the last time De Toth worked with Scott.
Next Kirk Douglas was the star. The Indian Fighter, released by United Artists in December 1955, was pretty good. Douglas was prone to overacting and often had a look-at-me style. He is very acrobatic and dashing in this one, and in fact broke his nose when doing his own riding stunts. It is said that John Wayne turned down the lead (and a payday of $400,000) and so Kirk took the part himself – The Indian Fighter was the first picture of his production company Bryna Productions (named for his mother) and this gave him control. He is brash man-who-knows-Indians, hero Johnny Hawks. It was a big picture, shot in Technicolor and CinemaScope in lovely Bend, Oregon locations, with a fair bit at Kanab Fort, Utah, by the talented Wilfred Cline. There are of course action scenes (aplenty) but De Toth goes for a more lyrical and bucolic approach this time, and there are even hints of John Ford. This was among De Toth’s best efforts in the genre.
There was a Western pause, then, before De Toth’s last – and for me very best – feature oater, Day of the Outlaw in 1959. This a very fine picture with a truly magnificent Robert Ryan (one of his best ever roles, and that’s saying a lot) as a ruthless rancher, hard as nails, determined to extirpate the johnny-come-lately small homesteaders who have dared to string wire on ‘his’ open range. That’s an ideal part for a tough-guy badman, of course. But in this movie he develops into something far more: a man of courage and grit, ready to sacrifice the woman he loves and even his very life to save the town he helped build. In a quirk – a deliberate play, I am sure – Ryan’s character has the name of the leading homesteader in Shane, Starrett. It’s a moving, gripping performance.
Ryan had the good fortune to have Burl Ives opposite him, as the outlaw chief “Capt. Jack Bruhn, United States Army. Formerly.” And Ives was also first class. Right from his dramatic entry nineteen minutes in (when the film suddenly lurches off at a tangent), bursting open the saloon door just as Ryan and the principal homesteader are about to draw on each other, he is like a whirlwind. De Toth starts it slow, establishing his characters and their relationships, and he gradually builds the tension. The last 23-minute sequence, when Ryan leads the gang out of town into the Wyoming winter, is as harrowing as it is tense. And De Toth drew superlative performances from all the actors concerned. Day of the Outlaw is a top-notch Western. What a way to finish.
It wasn’t quite the end, though, because De Toth turned to TV. He directed episodes of Sam Peckinpah’s The Westerner on NBC and he did a Bronco one, a Maverick one, and an episode of Zane Grey Theatre. The Zane Grey, Season 4 show, Episode 4, The Lonely Gun, first aired on October 22, 1959, was especially good. It starred Barry Sullivan, one of three Sullivan did for Dick Powell. It’s amazing really how they managed to establish and even develop characters in the very limited time available, and very few lines of the script too. It was written by experienced Western hand Richard Carr. De Toth gets tension in, and he and Sullivan managed an excellent portrayal of Sullivan as the lonely gunslinger.
De Toth’s last contribution to the Western genre was as producer on El Condor (1970), a spaghetti-ish pictures filmed in Spain and starring Jim Brown and Lee Van Cleef. It was directed by Brit John Guillermin, best known for The Towering Inferno and Death on the Nile. Probably the less said about this picture the better but hey, a Western’s a Western, right?
So there we have it. It was a respectable career, and occasionally better than that. Just for writing The Gunfighter and directing Day of the Outlaw André De Toth deserves plaudits and a place on the Western Mount Parnassus (somewhere up in the Rockies).