André de Toth

This interview was originally published in Film Noir Reader 3 on February 12, 2001. It is published here with permission.

André de Toth was born in Mako, Hungary on May 12, 1913. After earning a law degree in the early 1930s, de Toth, who had won acclaim for plays written while still a college student, acquired mentorship from celebrated playwright Ferenc Molnar and entered the theater scene in Budapest. From that involvement he segued to the film industry and worked as a writer, assistant director, editor and sometime actor. In 1939 he directed five films just before war began in Europe. Several of these pictures received significant release in the Hungarian communities in the United States. De Toth went to England, spent several years as an assistant to fellow Hungarian émigré Alexander Korda, and eventually moved to the Los Angeles. Based on his Hungarian films, the production work for Korda and writing he had done on American projects during earlier stints in Los Angeles, de Toth was given an oral contract as a director at Columbia from which he ultimately extricated himself by litigation. Because he preferred working as an independent, de Toth had no “A” budgets early in his career and had to supplement his directing income with writing assignments, often uncredited. Introduced to Westerns by John Ford, de Toth worked mostly in that genre throughout the 1950s, often bringing elements of noir style into those films. While he is often remembered as the director of the earliest and most successful 3-D film, House of Wax (1953), (all the more remarkable since, like Ford, Fritz Lang, and Raoul Walsh, de Toth had only one good eye), he was also responsible for two of the noir cycle’s most unusual examples: Pitfall (1948) and Crime Wave (1954). In 1996, he published his memoirs entitled Fragments – Portraits from the Inside (London: Faber and Faber, 1994) and lived, until his recent death on 27 October, 2002 at age 89, a stone’s throw from the Warner ranch in Burbank, California.

This interview took place at André de Toth’s home in Burbank, California in January 2000.

- AS

* * *

André de Toth: Dark Waters (1944) was my second film in this country—the third actually, but we don’t want to talk about the first one. Alex Korda called me about that picture, so I knew it was some special occasion. He wanted to ask me a favor. I was afraid he might want to borrow money, because he was up and down all the time, but I said, “Sure.” He told me that, although she was his ex-wife, he still wanted the best for Merle Oberon; but he had been offered a project for her that was horrible. He wanted to send me the script, to have me take a look and see what I could do with it. He proposed that if I would agree to direct the picture, he would let Merle act in it.

Well, I got the screenplay and, to that time, it was the biggest piece of shit I had ever read. There were seven producers on the picture, and none of them knew what they were doing. The only professional in the bunch, who was like an eighth producer, was Joan Harrison. They had only a short amount of time to fix this script and prepare this picture because of the financing contracts. Joan had a relationship with John Huston. John always needed money—he was very irresponsible in certain ways—so he agreed to do a rewrite; but he wanted one hundred thousand dollars. The producers were astonished. They had only spent twenty thousand for all the rights and screenplay drafts to that point; and the entire budget was only five or six hundred thousand. “Okay,” he said, “then pay me by the page.” It was an unusual approach, but I thought it was fine; so they agreed. Of course, John expected that by the time he finished, he would end up making more than one hundred thousand; and he got a substantial advance. So we went forward and started shooting [before the rewrite was done]. As we shot, John and I would get together and discuss which scenes we were going to do next; and somewhere between two hours and two days later, the pages would arrive. And, if I approved them, he got paid. Now as one weekend approached, there was a big day of racing scheduled for Hollywood Park, and John sent in 22 pages. I needed five pages. The next morning, on the way to the track, John was at my door with his hand out. So we compromised on the number of pages, and I paid him.

Alain Silver: Where did you physically shoot Dark Waters?

ADT: The producers wanted to go to Louisiana, but I wanted to shoot here. Which is what we did. We made the picture at General Services studio in Hollywood. I went to Louisiana myself. I had been there before, but I went to the bayous and ate some Cajun food and had a good time researching. I decided that the audience would already know about the locations, would understand that the bayous were dangerous, and that the actors, by association with that, would carry the threat. The trick would be that the actor who played the part of Mr. Sydney, Thomas Mitchell, would be transformed by the background. He looked ordinary but the background would make him dangerous. I wanted this subtle sense of danger from the beginning. I wrote one of the first lines, “Have you ever been at a funeral where the minister forgot the service?” The idea was that the audience should understand that things were not right from the start.

AS: Of course, film noir is not a term that was in use back then, but how did you characterize this movie at the time?

Dark Waters

ADT: It’s very funny that some writers about pictures discovered film noir. I must tell you, I never heard of it until years later. That’s fine, of course. Dark Waters was Gothic. Louisiana was just the right background to suggest that the house in the bayous was a Gothic prison. But that had to come out of the characters, out of the actors in the story not from any vistas of location. There were just a few shots of expanses, the car driving to the house, for example; but mostly I wanted everything to be tight on the people. Because, you know, in any film but especially in a dark film, a film of atmosphere, these pretty pictures of locations are just distracting. A little bit maybe, some real locations, some daylight here and there, so you wonder about it; but not much.

The character that Merle Oberon plays, Leslie, this character had been rescued after being in a lifeboat at sea for two weeks. So I didn’t want the usual glamour look. I wanted her to look as if she had had this ordeal. This was an important story point, she looked tired, worn down, and she was trying to recuperate both physically and mentally. On the first day of shooting with Merle, on the first set-up, I said, “Print” on the first take. It seemed like a good start. Merle turned to me and asked shyly, “Bundy, could I have it once more?” I always assume that actors are looking for the best performance, so, “Sure. One more.” We did it, “Fine. Print.” Then again from Merle, “May I have one more?” The crew looked at me, and I thought about it, and decided I would honor her requests this first time. We did 40 takes. I discovered that [her boyfriend, cameraman] Lucien Ballard was in a doorway and until he nodded to her, she wanted one more. So after 40 takes, I went over to the camera, opened up the magazine, and pulled out a hundred feet of film. I handed it to her saying, “You wanted this, Merle, take it home with you.” I had no further problems with Merle or Lucien Ballard after that. You know, the line on the set is a fine one. If you lose control on a tight schedule, you’re finished.

AS: How many days did you have to shoot Dark Waters?

ADT: I think it was about 25 days, which was not too short a schedule for that time and that budget. And Lucien Ballard understood what that meant. He wanted to protect Merle but he understood that, for the performance to work, she might have to look awful, like she was exhausted and helpless. And the picture had to be dark.

AS: Did you cast all the other actors?

ADT: Yes, only Merle had been cast when I came on the project. I had seen Elisha Cook, Jr. in a couple of things such as The Maltese Falcon; and he would give me what I needed on screen, a little, pitiful slime. We had two villains really, Mitchell and Cook.

AS: Franchot Tone was a rather unusual hero, rather ominous himself. The first time you see him, after Leslie faints at the train station, is a low angle and he seems almost menacing.

ADT: Tone was one of many people up for the part of the doctor. The producers wanted a happy ending. But I wanted something else. I did not think you could have a happy ending in a case like that. So I had to create an atmosphere, like an orchestrator, of anxiety, not just from Cook and Mitchell but also from Tone. I had imagined a final scene of them, [Leslie and the doctor], together somewhere else. She would be at the piano inside, and outside it would be snowing. A band would be playing carols, on the corner a man would be selling chestnuts, and Tone, [the doctor], would be walking home. And on the corner, a little girl and her mother would be buying chestnuts. And suddenly the little girl would run over to Tone, yelling “Daddy, Daddy.”

AS: You never got to shoot that ending, of course.

ADT: No. The producers had no guts. They wanted something safe. So I had to be satisfied with Mitchell. But with Mitchell’s white suit and his attitude, I did get something there, that sense of malaise.

AS: You made a Western, Ramrod (1947), that has a very noir or Gothic look.

ADT: Well, I think I told you that story some time ago. It must be a while ago because we were standing outside a theater, so it was before my wheelchair.

AS: Yes, I remember, if you mean about John Ford driving you over to Raleigh Studios?

ADT: From the “Garden of Allah” [the nightclub on the Sunset Strip] all the way to the producer’s bungalow without hitting the brakes.

AS: I’m not sure if I’m recalling it from when you told me in person or from your book, but then Ford introduces you saying, “This is André de Toth, but I call him ‘Tex’. I’m too busy to direct your picture, so he’s going to do it.”

ADT: Exactly. That was Ramrod, my first Western. Jack Ford (1) knew that I wanted to make a Western. But again, it’s not the boots or the “spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle” that make a character a human being. In the future, I know, we’ll be able to mix and match faces by changing them electronically. I would love to make a test picture, where everything is the same except one fact that you change electronically. It would be interesting to see the changes.

I often used to challenge actors to give me different emotional readings just by saying numbers. You start with nothing: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Then you change [pitch and cadence] to suggest surprise, anger, uncertainty: 1, 2…3, 4…5? 6, 7!

AS: So in a picture like Ramrod, your femme fatale may be in a Western period costume but behaves the way she does because….

ADT: Because it’s right. You can’t put characters in a box. If you have the right dialogue, the right jacket, the right gesture, the right angle—then it all works.

AS: And that’s how you decide about style?

ADT: Yes and no. The characters decide. I discover them, and they dictate the style to me. In Ramrod the key is not the femme fatale as you say, but the Joel McCrea character. He’s tall, strong, but he has a flaw, a weakness. She knows it and attacks that, but he’s the key. Sometimes I would shoot something differently to see the effect. Just putting a tree behind you, what difference does that make? You said you did an interview with Sam Fuller. I liked Sam, he was very straightforward, but I thought he was too interested in shock effects. He always wanted to hit people between the eyes. If the shock comes out of an emotion which you are feeling, which you share with the characters, that’s fine. But to use an angle or a cut for a shock effect—why?

AS: Pitfall is a classic film noir. How did you become involved with that project?

ADT: I was hired to do a rewrite. I had just finished a picture and was on my way to an office I kept at General Services. As I drove in, the guard told me, “Mr. Small wants to see you.” Edward Small was a very fine Executive Producer. You always knew where you were with him, you could count on his word. When I got to his office, he told me they were having trouble with a project. I knew about it, of course. They had purchased a book by Jay Dratler, but they could not get a script done. Dick Powell was committed to it, financially as another Executive Producer. I asked him about the time available, said I needed at least four weeks. “You can’t have that much time, we don’t have it.” So I told him to hire a co-writer, Bill Bowers, and that if we could do it in less time, we would. Bowers was a great writer (and a beautiful drunk). Bill was under contract at Universal, so we had to work on the weekends in Palm Springs. We flew down there in my plane, and we delivered it in four weekends.

At that point, Dick Powell liked the script, and he decided that, if I agreed to direct it, he would play Forbes. [Sam] Bischoff, the producer, had contacts at Warners, and he wanted Humphrey Bogart for the part of MacDonald. I said, “No”; and they all thought I was crazy. I was not looking for a Bogart picture. At times like that, a strong actor playing a character overshadows the whole picture. And I don’t want to make pictures, I want to photograph life, real characters, not movie stars who overshadow everything, because that can never be a true picture of life. But we couldn’t find a MacDonald that both they and I would approve. We went through all the standard heavies. So then the rumor was that I couldn’t make up my mind, that I was stalling because I wasn’t satisfied with the script. Finally one afternoon, the casting agent we were using came to my office. He was a little fellow carrying a satchel full of photographs, so many I’m surprised he didn’t get a hernia carrying it around. He opened up this satchel, and he couldn’t hold it upright, so pictures started to fall out all over the desk and the floor. It was a waterfall of black-and-white glossies. And as he gathered them up, I noticed one on the floor right next to my foot. That was Raymond Burr, And I said, “That’s him. That’s the one.” And he got the part.

You know, when it comes to actors, nobody is all good, nobody is all bad. Raymond Burr, I had never seen him act in any other movie, but he was the right look, a big guy, kind of handsome, but also a little scary. I couldn’t tell from the picture that he was a very nice guy—which, of course, did not matter—and very soft spoken, which was perfect. With a picture like Pitfall—or in the Westerns, too—if your villain is correctly cast, then you avoid a lot of trouble. Whatever your villain is supposed to do, murder a little kid, something not that bad but evil, if the audience cannot completely accept that the actor they are seeing could do that, then your picture goes out the window. But you cannot go too far either. The villain cannot be too much. It has to be just enough.

Pitfall

Then we had the next argument over the girl. I wanted Lizabeth Scott. I didn’t want some blonde with big tits. You had to believe that this girl was real. Even if I took one of these over-sexed types who could not act, it would change how the Powell character is drawn into the affair. Remember the point of the script was that he’s just a middle-level insurance investigator. He’s tired of his job, spending time in his little office with a drab secretary. So I could have made a different picture, with a prettier girl than Lizabeth Scott, and told the story of that girl, her problems; but that wasn’t this movie. That would make it phony, if you cast it with Marilyn Monroe, a type like that. I needed somebody real.

AS: In her interview, Lizabeth Scott remarked that when the woman she portrayed in Pitfall loved, she did it truthfully, she loved with enormous heart.

ADT: Yes, that is exactly the point. I liked her performance very much because she was professional, straight down the line. She lived the character. I wanted somebody whom Powell would be attracted to as a person, so that the audience can believe that as an adulterer, he is a “virgin,” he’s not screwing around all the time. I needed a woman who fit that, not a bombshell; attractive, yes, but more importantly, likable.

AS: Had you seen Lizabeth Scott’s pictures at Paramount, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Lewis Milestone, 1946), I Walk Alone (Byron Haskin, 1948), or Desert Fury (Lewis Allen, 1947)?

ADT: No, I don’t remember seeing those; but I must have seen something because I knew I wanted her. For a while I got the same line from Bischoff: we need a bigger name, someone hot. By then, Powell was committed to doing the part, so I said, “Why do we need a name. We’ve got Dick Powell.” Since Powell was backing the picture, they couldn’t argue with that.

AS: You did a lot of location work in Pitfall.

ADT: As I said, I like to show real life, which means I like to work on real locations.

AS: But not on Dark Waters.

ADT: The exception that proves the rule. Besides, like I said, I went on location and absorbed the real life from the bayous then I put it in the picture. But on Pitfall, it wasn’t Gothic. You would call it noir, of course, I would call it a true-to-life story, with true emotions, the same as people have today, the same as they have always had. For that, you should evoke the everyday.

AS: Did you have any problem with the overt adultery in Pitfall? It was one thing for villains to commit adultery, but for the protagonist….

ADT: In Pitfall, we did have problems with the ending before the Hays [Office and the Production] Code would approve.

AS: Because Forbes, the Dick Powell character, is not really punished at the end? He gets a lecture from the District Attorney, but that’s the extent of it.

ADT: Yes. You couldn’t commit adultery. You couldn’t say dirty words. For me this was always ridiculous. Like I told you, I want to photograph life. Film noir, Westerns, whatever kind of picture, I wanted real life. What costumes the characters have on doesn’t matter. What’s coming through the clothes is what counts. I like to show people naked in front of the camera. And this is the reason, the fringed jacket of a cowboy or the business suit of an insurance investigator – they might as well be the same.

When the Hays Office looked at the script, they said no, no Code Seal. Now of the five honchos at the Hays Office, there were two whom I knew had “lady friends.” So I called them and said, “I would like to take you to lunch, just to thank you for trying to get us approval. We’ll go ahead and shoot it and try again when you see the finished picture.” Both of them were cowards and did not want to promise anything later; but a free lunch is a free lunch. But at that lunch, I also invited two lovely ladies whom they knew, and two jaws dropped on the table. Later on, when the picture was done, I didn’t hear any argument.

AS: And that’s how you got your Code Seal?

ADT: My lips are sealed.

AS: Crime Wave?

ADT: I was supposed to do some project for Warners. I wasn’t under contract, because once you’re under contract they can move you around, take you on or off a picture, dictate how you will work, period. So I had a one picture deal. And I wanted something that, how do you say it, did not fit their rubber stamp…

AS: Didn’t fit the mold?

Crime Wave

ADT: Yes. I got this script for Crime Wave which was quite interesting. But again they wanted Humphrey Bogart…and Ava Gardner. Or if not her, somebody like her, a star. This was all wrong. And for the cop, I needed somebody that walked the line between enforcing the law and breaking the law, that had enough strength to survive in either sphere, but not completely tied up in knots inside, someone who has a warm spot inside.

AS: That wasn’t Bogart?

ADT: I thought that Sterling Hayden in every way would be a better fit. He had a certain rumpled dignity. He wasn’t bigger than life like Bogart. When I wrote the story to The Gunfighter (Henry King, 1950), I thought at the time, they will probably only consider two people: John Wayne, who was big and stupid, or Gary Cooper, who had quiet dignity. How different would that have been from what they got with [Gregory] Peck? Better? I don’t think so.

With Bogart or someone like that, I had 35 days to make the picture. It’s not about film noir, I know, but I think I told you before the story about making Springfield Rifle (1952) at Warners. I wanted to shoot in Lone Pine. They had an attitude: this is Warner Bros. and Lone Pine is a B-picture location. I flew my plane from Mexico to Colorado brought back ten albums of location pictures—with names on the back so they couldn’t see them—and had Jack Warner and the producer pick what they thought was best. And, of course, they picked Lone Pine. That’s how the mind works at the big studios.

When I went to Jack [Warner]‘s office to talk about Crime Wave, he screamed, “What the hell are you thinking of? I offered you Bogart and Ava Gardner, the biggest names. You don’t want them?” I said, “No, thank you.” “All right, then,” he was through with me now: “Go ahead, Tex, and make the Goddamned picture with nobodies. Cut your own throat. But in that case, you’ll have to shoot it in 15 days. Go on, get out.” I was happy. I won. And I made the picture in 14 days.

AS: With the cast you wanted.

ADT: With the cast I wanted. You know, I never made any of these pictures to get reviews or make the studio happy. I made the pictures I wanted to make. It’s only in the last ten or 15 years that anybody has taken any notice of my pictures. Which I appreciate. But back then, I didn’t go to see my pictures in theaters. I was on to the next projects. I didn’t keep posters on the walls. My kids bought the posters in this room for me.

I think there is a reason that I never went in for pictures that cost money. Once you made your first picture and came in on schedule and on budget, they left you alone. From then on, nobody bothered me, nobody looked at rushes, nobody knew what the hell I was doing. After you brought in two or three pictures, you had that freedom. And for me, that meant more than another thirty thousand dollars in my salary or another two or three hundred thousand in the budget. Most of that would have gone to bigger name actors anyway. Perhaps it was my conceit, but I felt that I was creating the picture, so even if you did not like what I had done, if you thought it was shit, it was still my shit.

AS: So you preferred working in B-budget films?

ADT: Yes. At that time, I had worked in a range of budgets from two hundred or two hundred fifty thousand dollars up to six or seven hundred thousand; but no more. Why would I want to do a “million dollar picture”? I didn’t need a million headaches. With the lower budgets, most of the time, I was left completely alone.

AS: Crime Wave has a lot of night location work for a 14- or even 15-day schedule.

ADT: Yes, we shot most of it a night with the slower speed film of that time. But we knew what we were doing, how to light it quickly. And I never thought we needed more time. It’s like a painter staring at an empty canvas, I saw the picture and how much time I would need before I started. On everything I did, I could see what I expected to be on the screen before we started to make the picture. I really did not need more than 15 days.

AS: How did you pick your Los Angeles locations in both Crime Wave and Pitfall?

ADT: Actually I picked a lot of locations after talking with the local police department. Who better to tell you about what type of people live in which neighborhoods? That’s how I decided on where the house would be in Pitfall. On Crime Wave, I actually asked the police which physical lay-out would make a bank the easiest to rob.

The real is the simplest and the best. Why build sets or imagine locations to fit some sketches you did, I always laugh at people when they start to work with sketches. That’s not how to have a picture in your mind. When you can find a real place to hear real dialogue, isn’t that enough?

Endnotes

  1. Though de Toth is referring to John Ford here, all of Ford’s contemporaries, de Toth included, referred to him as ‘Jack’.