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Sunday, February 13, 2011

My Strange Love For Hal Wallis Noir --- Part One

This and later in the week's Part Two are Greenbriar's contribution to Ferdy On Films and The Self-Styled Siren's For The Love of Film (Noir), a fund-raising Blogathon whose mission is to rescue Try and Get Me, aka The Sound Of Fury, a dark gem too long out of circulation. Visit these sites for more info and links to many other writing participants (and go HERE to make donations).
The only time I held an Academy Award was when Hal Wallis handed me one of his. That's a story for later. I'd first better qualify Wallis as a ... maybe the ... producer who best refined Hollywood noir, putting a gloss finish on prototypes others tried, but hadn't got so polished as this most studio-committed of picture makers. It's easy to visualize Wallis' name coming just before Dean, Jerry, and Elvis on credits. True enough ... he made too many of those for his own reputation's good. Others took bows for so much else he did, Jack Warner most notoriously when he pushed past Wallis to collect Casablanca's Best Picture statue that by rights should have been the producer's (read WB memos and know Wallis was most responsible for that pic's vaunted status). JL's prerogative was said to be reason for HW leaving Warners in 1944. Latter would call it a lowest point in his long producing life. Moving to Paramount would allow Wallis to do things precisely his way. Very consciously, I made a series of melodramatic films with strong characters and situations ... I dealt again and again with the psychology of murderers, he said, laying out recipe for everyone's film noirs to come. I showed, and encouraged my writers to show, how frustration, poverty, and desperate need for money could drive people to psychotic extremes. This was hindsight expressed in his 1980 memoir, Starmaker, wherein film noir as descriptive term goes unspoken, though Wallis from beginning with Paramount saw shifts in post-war audience taste and used his independent projects to build foundation for what remains most popular of vintage film categories.

Wallis brought big studio sensibility to gritty topics others took to street location or shot on reduced budget. Not for him was harsh way of noirs done in a rush. His were planned to last frames and boasted elegance we don't associate with hard-boiled lives in the raw, and yet ... insurgency's afoot in The Strange Love Of Martha Iver's springboard of children sharing secret of a murder one committed and how said compact must be guarded even as it necessitates further mayhem once they become adults. I thought Ivers' a bold concept upon first viewing at age fifteen, and would inquire as to any other noir spun off a beginning like this. Martha Ivers would be followed by those again and agains Wallis referenced --- murderers under hot studio lamps, chess-moved within proscribed limit of sound stage and backlot pavement, as individual a cycle of "melodramatic films" as a single artist ever managed in Hollywood's corporate/compromising environment. Producer Wallis had a directing equivalent in Alfred Hitchcock, at least for the while HW pursued his lives of crime (profits off Martin and Lewis and moves for prestige would distract him later). We'd know and appreciate Wallis better if his noir cycle were under single ownership's canvass. As it (unfortunately) is, some are controlled by Paramount while others house at Universal. The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers loped into Public Domain decades ago, while I Walk Alone, The Accused, The File On Thelma Jordan, Desert Fury, and So Evil, My Love remain resolutely unavailable on disc in the US.

Hal Wallis jumped to Paramount for total autonomy he never had at Warners. The break was clean for WB settling with a lump sum ($750,000) profit participation HW had in pictures lately produced there, including Yankee Doodle Dandy, Casablanca, and Saratoga Trunk. Hit-making reputation garnered from these assured an eventual taker among companies vying for his shingle, the Paramount deal announced May 24, 1944 after Wallis flirtations with MGM and J. Arthur Rank, among others. No one outside DeMille enjoyed a Para berth so plush. There would be a separate corporation under Wallis (and lawyer/partner Joseph Hazen's) control. Projects were his to dictate, two to four a year, no studio interference clearly understood from signing. Paramount provided studio facilities and stood cost of distribution, while directors, writers, and players were Wallis' plate to fill. Toward that expense, he acquired a revolving fund of $2.5 million from the First National Bank of Boston, this alone tabbing HW as soundest risk among filmland lone wolves. A producer's fee came in addition to Paramount perks and there'd be equal sharing of profit from whatever pics Wallis delivered. Here was close as you could get to having an independent company without leaving protective studio walls.

The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers would cast-combine Wallis newcomers with fan-familiar sure things. Barbara Stanwyck being free-lance enabled a one-pic-a-year deal Wallis ironically shared with Warners. This actress would exemplify HW's noirish brand both in and out of modern dress (their memorable dark western being The Furies). Van Heflin as tough guy male lead was a loan from Metro, Martha Ivers first for the Academy winner following war service. I used to wonder why Wallis didn't use Alan Ladd for what seemed a natural fit, this before learning HW pulled own hiring talent weight and would have been obliged to borrow (and pay) for Ladd like anyone else dealing the star with Paramount. Fresh Ivers faces were Lizabeth Scott and Kirk Douglas. Both became stars for which Wallis could take lion's part of credit, his iron control a thing over which they'd bristle (Douglas, in fact, left for opportunity elsewhere). Martha Ivers' making reads like archetypal account of hands-on producer at odds with individual creators, each after product off convention's path, but not too far. Wallis splurged for best available behind-camera talent not bound to studio contracts --- writer Robert Rossen with uncredited Robert Riskin, director Lewis Milestone --- none here at career summit and mindful enough of that not to balk when Wallis vetoed creative moves. Like with Selznick, anything Hal Wallis produced bore boldest his signature, that of collaborators, however capable, writ in dimmer ink.


Blogger Dugan said...

Hal Wallis is the producer who demonstrates what a joke the director as auteur theory is. I don't think "Martha Ivers" has the best noir story in the world. the childhood murder thing seemed a little rocky as a device to hang a story on. However the film is very watchable and extremely entertaining.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Your BRIDES OF DRACULA banner is very fitting.

My "bride" and I watched it last night.

Co-feature was MARA MARU.

2:40 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Wow! --- What a neat combo!

3:40 PM  
Blogger The Siren said...

John, how you endear yourself to me (as if you needed to more!) with this post on Martha Ivers, which is one of my favorite noirs, with one of my favorite actresses. I mean, check out my banner! One small favor: given your large knowledgable readership, could you update to include the donation link? It would be a mitzvah. Here is the code:

Best regards to you & Greenbriar, as always!

9:05 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks Farran --- Have added the donations link and am much enjoying all the activity at your site today --- many fine links there already and here's hoping your Blogathon is a rousing success!

11:06 AM  
Anonymous Tinky said...

This is my first visit to your site. I really enjoyed your perspective, your breezy writing style, and that LAYOUT! Many thanks for a great post in the blogathon. Amazingly, I've never seen Martha Ivers; I'll obviously have to rectify that.

5:40 PM  

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