The word "auteur" gets bandied around a great deal in conversation among cineastes. Authorship is a sticky business in the world of cinema for reasons that have been examined far too often with an elitist form of vagueness, smugness -- and ultimately with little to no efficacy in outlining any conclusive "qualifying marks" for assuming definitive film authorship. But, in the cases I intend to illustrate, there is just cause to call the directors I profile auteurs in an unconditional sense. We can examine each individual director's ouevre and glean a defining sense of who they are as filmmakers. Thus, we can take into account when a film they make counters their trademark content and/or style in any way, shape or form. So with that in mind, have you ever taken into account that the last films of many pre-1960 Hollywood auteurs are always the most incongruous to the other films made throughout their distinguished careers? Many last films by big-name classic Hollywood directors sometimes even defined the word "anomaly" and often clung unerringly to their roots in melodrama. It is an ambition of mine to eventually write a book about this phenomenon, but for now, a blog post will do as a primer.
There are many theories I have as to why this could be the case. (1) These "auteurs" who worked within the confines of the Production Code were trying much too hard to validate their work within a liberated post-Code Hollywood and the efforts became too strenuous and hence specious, (2) they were able to perceive a nearing end to their career and felt the irresistible desire to experiment in different degrees to add spice to their grand finale, (3) they were striving desperately to survive within an industry that had unceremoniously declared them relics and had either relegated them to sub-par projects or surreptitiously searched for polite (read: expensive), roundabout ways to phase them out elsehow, (4) the directors were so larger-than-life that they wielded their reputation around as if they were still working in the halcyon days of their autonomy or (5) they just lost grip and self-destructed...or even all of the above. Thus, they were all forced into an evolution to which they were undoubtedly resistant, yet retained a stubborn remembrance of their former glory and deliberate ignorance of emerging vogues. In any case, here are thirteen case studies:
1. John Ford, who spent his career honing classic, milestone, daresay testosterone-driven Westerns like The Searchers, My Darling Clementine and Fort Apache, ends his career with a story about seven women, missionaries in China, appropriately titled 7 Women (1966). Who would have thought? For the longest time, I thought his last film was 1964's epic Western Cheyenne Autumn...until I chance-encountered this one. I was stunned to realize that, not only was it directed by Ford, but that it was also made after Cheyenne Autumn. But in the words of Orson Welles, "Who are the best directors? The old greats of course, and by that, I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford."
2. William Wyler, whose classic films include The Best Years of Our Lives, Jezebel and Ben-Hur, ends his career with a blaxploitation thriller/ melodrama called The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970). It's not a very good film, but Elmer Bernstein does a pretty mean score for it. Sterling Silliphant, on the heels of his Oscar for In the Heat of the Night, is the screenwriter of this race-relations drama/thriller, and the man for whom lightning did not strike twice in this particular case. But you can catch a young Lee Majors as a young newlywed lawyer new to the town where the film takes place, Barbara Hershey as Majors' wife (who curiously does not get much screentime in the film), Lola Falana, who is certainly never hard to look at, and a respectable performance from Roscoe Lee Browne in the title role. The film is not easy to see, but if you go to a number of underground video stores, you are likely to catch a DVD burned directly from the movie's only VHS release, available from Blax Video, a low-echelon company focused on releasing rare 70's black cinema.
3. Jules Dassin, one of the most deft noir directors in cinema history and one of the most artful orchestators of grit in 1940's and 50's American cinema, whose touchstone films include The Naked City, Night and the City and Brute Force, ends his career with a tepid and (depending on your sensibility) even surreal May-December romance melodrama entitled Circle of Two (1980), lensed in Canada and starring Richard Burton as an over-the-hill artist and lover to Tatum O'Neal's precocious teenager. Yes, the then 16-year-old O'Neal has a nude scene in this one, but Dassin thankfully doesn't go for the cheap thrill, but some stretches of this one sometimes might make you wish he did. It got to the point where, if one more character said something like, "She's a big girl now" and tried to rationalize the central relationship in a long-winded way, I felt like throwing the TV through the window.
4. George Stevens , director of Giant and A Place in the Sun, ends his career with a feather-weight sex comedy/drama called The Only Game in Town (1970), starring Liz Taylor and Warren Beatty as love interests, shot in a sound stage that doubled for Las Vegas. I really do not have too much to say about this one. It's okay. It's not horrible, but it's not good either. Frank D. Gilroy, who (in my opinion) often allows his dialogue to far too often verge into baroque prosiness across the board, writes a functional screenplay, but there is really not too much happening here...just a turgid romance with sluggish pacing. New York Times critic Vincent Canby put it best in the headline of his review of the film: "Major stars converge on a minor script." To quote from Canby's actual review, "Miss Taylor's face is still one of the great scenic attractions of our time, but the performance is awfully royal. Beatty, who can be an interesting actor, is required to deliver breezy, bad comedy lines that have the effect of making him look and act like George Hamilton. [George] Stevens's treatment of the romantic but not necessarily dishonest script is epic. Time passes in lap dissolves that are so long and portentious that one fully expects an army to materialize, instead of a head against a pillow." Ditto.
5. George Cukor, the almost unrivalled "greatest director of women talent in Hollywood history," who helmed The Women, The Philadelphia Story and 1954's A Star is Born, makes his "cinexit" with a self-consciously "hot" little number starring Candice Bergen and Jacqueline Bisset, a rather misbegotten remake of the Bette Davis vehicle Old Acquaintance, called Rich and Famous. I am not a fan of the film, nor was much of anyone when it was initially released. Many critics were rather vocal about their having difficulty with the image of the beloved 82-year-old Cukor, a well-regarded director of Code-era films, directing the kind of steamy sex scenes that were growing increasingly popular among the emerging directors of the early 80's. I don't really take issue with that as much. It's just the film itself that is rather bleh.
6. John Huston, whose The African Queen defined, for once and for all time, the great Hollywood romantic adventure movie and whose The Treasure of the Sierra Madre still remains gold standard, ended his career with not just one but a series of fascinatingly unusual "small" films, like the absurdist satire Wise Blood (1979), the nearly sublime Fat City (1972), the blackest of black comedies Prizzi's Honor (1985) and the spellbinding adaptation of the "unadaptable" novel Under the Volcano (1984). For Huston's definitive final effort, he turned to a labor of love, yet another adaptation of a so-called "unadaptable" literary work, of James Joyce's novella The Dead, the final story in the classic collection Dubliners. What we get from this final Huston film is Huston's "testament film" (although its status as anomalous to Huston's body of work is more or less uncontested. "Testament film" is a Cahiers du Cinema-coined term which defines a film which states a given director's philosophy of life and philosophy of filmmaking. It is perhaps the most overtly personal film of Huston's career.
7. Otto Preminger, a man who founded his career on American motion-picture taboo-breaking while tackling many of the major pervasive social issues of his time, ended his career with a morality-play in espionage-movie clothes. Based on a Graham Greene novel, the film was financed and filmed in Great Britain with a British cast and crew. As legend has it, the money ran out and no one got paid for the film. There are times when the limitations of the budget show, but the distinguished British actors on display are fabulous and Preminger proved that, at the latest stage of his career, he still had the capability of making a good film. However, considering the way the film was made, its non-topicality (relative to Preminger's other films) and where it was funded and shot, The Human Factor is yet another example of a director's most atypical work coming at the eleventh hour. And never will you see another Preminger film that builds so steadily at such a deliberate, even leisurely pace. After a series of flamboyant Preminger films like Skidoo (1968), Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970) and Such Good Friends (1971), it is fascinating to see Preminger return to a more mannerly mode of direction. Foster Hirsch, in his recent biography of Preminger, reappraises The Human Factor as one of Preminger's most important, personal and humanistic films.
8. Stanley Kramer , the Message Man, ended his career similarly to that of Preminger...with a drama heavy on the moralizing. Preminger and Kramer, it would seem, have a really great deal in common. Both were producer-directors, and showmen at that, whose name under the producer-director credit sold the film to audiencese, and filmmakers who were perhaps the most socially conscious and attuned directors in Hollywood, even if the label seemed often to be self-proclaimed and sometimes wanton, willful and/or arbitrary. Their respective filmographies have some wild, cosmic parallels. Quite often, both men were making the same kind of film at the same time. In any case, this is off-topic and perhaps grounds for another post. Kramer's final film (and films, plural, for that matter) was a bust. It is a forgotten drama about a priest who falls in love with a nun. Oy gevault! Fun, fun, fun in the sun! Kramer's latter films were all quite unusual. Look no further than to also consider Kramer's paranoia assassination-plot thriller The Domino Principle which opens with a vague designation and speculation, via a portentous voice-over narration, concerning a mysterious "them" who conspire towards something dastardly and dangerously unknown. Okay, good, Stanley, good...now excuse me, please, because I need a drink.
9. Alfred Hitchcock ended his career with an amusing treacle of a film. Following the great success of Frenzy, which was also Hitchcock's first go at taking advantage of the liberation of post-Production Code filmmaking, Hitchcock for his third consecutive film had forsaken the big-name stars for relatively lesser known actors (Topaz being his first experiment with this). Karen Black was popular at the time, as was Bruce Dern (albeit to a slightly lesser degree), but the back-up, which includes William Devane and Barbara Harris were excellent, certainly competent but second-tier for a director like Hitchcock. His eschewal of the star-system in his final three films is a point of fascination, because it shows that Hitchcock was somewhat conscious that the star-system, while never the least bit dead, was not the only road to travel in casting. As for the film itself, it is pleasant enough, and certainly many sequences demonstrate that the Master of Suspense has never lost his touch, but the whole affair seems frustratingly by-the-numbers a great deal of the time. And the climactic scene is not much of a climax, even though the final wink-wink, which is the only time Hitchcock breaks the fourth wall in any of his films, is certainly charming. In point of fact, "charming" might very well define the entire movie.
10. Vincente Minnelli , one of my favorite directors, ended his career with what most consider his worst effort, which is a bold statement considering his The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1963) wasn't so hot either. With that one, I personally had a problem with Glenn Ford playing a Latin Don Juan, but I suppose it is not all Minnelli's fault because MGM would not let him cast the more suited Alain Delon in that role. In A Matter of Time, he directs his daughter Liza, casting her against the immortal Ingrid Bergman, who in turn co-stars with her own daughter Isabella Rossellini. The film does have great appeal in more than a few scenes, but it is best to say that it is not what it could have been. Then again, being a Liza fan helps. I personally would have loved New York, New York more without her in the lead, but I thought she was astonishing in The Sterile Cuckoo. What is truly fascinating is that the film uses a familiar formula, the "makeover" story, in this case that of a poor maid to a contessa who is transformed into a great beauty of wealth and esteem. In this film, however, Minnelli uses the theme of memory and its near-tangibility to render the story all the more resonant. I am not saying this is an altogether successful film, but it is certainly better than its reviews would suggest. Incidentally, as well as being Vincente Minnelli's final film, it is also co-star Charles Boyer's final movie, playing Bergman's estanged husband (think Gaslight).
11. Anthony Mann became synonymous with James Stewart during a certain time in his career, and there was a long succession of pictures on which the two worked together, including Winchester '73, The Glenn Miller Story, The Naked Spur and Strategic Air Command to name just a few of the many. Mann also directed what many consider one of the finest Westerns in the history of the genre with The Furies. Mann was altogether one of the iconoclasts of the Hollywood "big genre" movie, helming actioneers, thrillers, Westerns and war films. His last film, a very civil 1969 British espionage drama (a parallel to Mr. Preminger), adapted from a Derek Marlowe novel, called A Dandy in Aspic, was completed by star Laurence Harvey when Mann died midway during its production. The film followed a time when Mann was the official director-for-hire on blockbusters for mega-epic impresario Samuel Bronston (El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire). So, Mann likewise ends his career on his most anomalous work, and thus maybe even on a head-scratching note. I personally enjoyed the film when I had the chance of seeing it on an old VHS, but most people possess a gross distaste for the film. How can you not appreciate an espionage film with a cast of character actors like this? In the leads, you have Harvey against Mia Farrow still in full emaciated-mode following Rosemary's Baby, but you also have Lionel Stander (perhaps my favorite character actor bar none), Per Oscarsson, Peter Cook (fresh off his role as The Devil in 1968's Bedazzled), Calvin Lockhart and Harry Andrews (as usual, sitting idly on the killjoy-overload button). I can understand why the film is disregarded and mostly forgotten, but it is just one of those oddities of the time. Quincy Jones provide the harpsichord-themed score (featured in an excellent Binderesque opening title sequence) and the tonal quality, while not really akin to Mann, is certainly a bold experiment for the man. And you get those 60's styles and that 60's flavor here, there and everywhere. Ahh...the days of the 60's potboiler espionage movie.
12. Billy Wilder, the very man who introduced Jack Lemmon to Walter Matthau on the silver screen in The Fortune Cookie (1966) ended his career with Buddy Buddy (1981), essentially an excuse for the fourth pairing of the beloved comedy team (the fifth, actually, if you count Lemmon directing Matthau in 1971's Kotch). Wilder had directed two of the Lemmon-Matthau vehicles previous to this one (including 1974's The Front Page). What makes this one so different? To start off, on display we have the incomparable Klaus Kinski co-starring as a sex-starved "love doctor" who runs a kinky desert sex clinic. The film is a remake of a French comedy entitled A Pain in the Ass (1977), starring Lino Ventura and Jacques Brel. I suppose you can guess which of them took over the Ventura role. Co-starring also is Paula Prentiss as Lemmon's grossly disenchanted wife who cuckolds him with Kinski's sexually liberated guidance. Every once in awhile you get flashes of brilliance (Matthau, in Catholic priest disguise, doing a faux Irish accent and giving hilarious last rites to a man just assassinated), but you can see and feel the strain placed upon Wilder in the days when the formula of a popular comedy team was growing rather tired. Only more than a full decade later would they reteam to great effect in 1993's Grumpy Old Men, but here we have yet another example of a fine director at odds with himself and at odds with a changing climate.
13. Howard Hawks ended his career in 1970 with an entertaining but deadeningly routine late John Wayne Western. Again, while the film is certainly passable, the film is certainly not worthy of great Howard Hawks cinema. Nowhere is a sequence that broaches the intensity of the prison break scene in The Criminal Code, the infectious energy of the yeehaw scene in Red River or dialogue that even begins to broach the brilliant rapid-fire rhythms of His Girl Friday. Still, as Ebert claims, "We go to see a John Wayne Western not to see anything new but to see the old done again," so maybe that is the point of the exercise. Nonetheless, I would have preferred a more significant coda for a director like Howard Hawks. On that note, a John Wayne Western was perhaps the last thing that was in style in a post-Easy Rider industry, particularly after Wayne came out in favor of the war in Vietnam. Old habits die hard, I suppose.
So there you have them, eleven case-studies of last films. To reiterate, it is my ambition to one day write a book about these films and others -- the films which ultimately became these legendary film directors last works all have unique stories as to how they came to fruition. Most were, in the great auteurist tradition, tailor-made for their sensibilities, but nonetheless, all are in one way or another astounding anomalies. The films themselves are head-over-heels fascinating documents of how old auteurs were forced into an evolution that started in mid-60's American cinema. Many remained stubborn but still forged curious journeys into new territories while still embracing their traditional approaches (e.g. John Ford, William Wyler), some self-destructed (e.g. Stanley Kramer, Jules Dassin), some were oblivious, tenacious or fell into routine (e.g. Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock) and some, but very few, made a final artistic coup to tidy up and summarize a lifetime of deeply rooted feelings about life and their chosen vocation (e.g. John Huston). In any case, I feel that all these results need to be taken into account to rationalize how many of these projects came to exist with auteurs of yore at the helm. For them, it was always, without a doubt, a question of adaptability.