Sidney J. Furie is Alive and Well and Living in Pictures: An Appreciation of an Unjustly Maligned and Marginalized Director

Around the age of eleven, I caught an afternoon showing of The Ipcress File (1965) on Bravo. Yes, I am speaking of Bravo as it was back in the day, when I could catch obscure gems like Albert Finney's Charlie Bubbles (1968) or Irvin Kershner's The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1964) after a sixth-grade school-day. In my mind, I romanticize those after-school sessions in front of the television watching largely forgotten works on Bravo as my first real film school — and this was, I might add, in an age before Turner Classic Movies came to be known for what it was to gloriously become. Around the same time, I had my first introduction to Antonioni's Blow-Up on the same channel, as well as Truffaut's The 400 Blows. It was a rather fortuitous education. All of the films I had seen on Bravo around that time helped to define and open the door to a brand of cinematic language to which I had not been accustomed prior.

I was struck at that age by a familiar name in the opening credits of The Ipcress File. "Directed by Sidney J. Furie." Even as a little kid, I always noticed the names of directors, even before I knew the first thing about what a director did.  Perhaps it was because their names were always ended the title sequences that belated the start of the movies. My only other reference for Furie when I laid eyes on The Ipcress File was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), which I had played to death essentially since infancy -- and The Ipcress File was leaps, bounds and eons from the likes of the grade-Z reputation that smeared the Canon Films production of Superman IV.  Unless you are a child genius, isn't it likely that, as kids, we would all feel that a movie like Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is the cat's meow? It takes age, which subdues easy wonderment, and a weather-beaten eye that has grown keen with film-watching cynicism, to quickly realize how poorly made and overwhelmingly ludicrous the last official sequel in the Christopher Reeve franchise appears.  My brothers used to torture me using Superman movie mythology (my next eldest brother was always General Zod) and I was one such kid who was reared on the original Superman films.  The original Superman The Movie is the first film I have any memory of seeing.  So, my very first introduction to director Sidney J. Furie was very early on, with perhaps one of his very worst films, and no doubt one of his his all-time career lows.  But every time of the many times I went to watch Superman IV as a tyke, there it was...that name which obviously meant nothing to me then, but would mean a great deal to me later.  I did not know until later that his name also meant something to the likes of Scorsese, Tarantino and Kubrick, who respectively have admired The Entity (1982), Hit! (1973) and The Boys in Company C (1977).  Yet, he has heretofore remained unwritten about, and as forgotten as many of the Obscuritan opuses I uncovered on Bravo when I was eleven.

I do not mean to play the apologist for the errors and absurdities of Superman IV, but I learned only later that last-minute mandatory script changes had compromised Christopher Reeve's original vision for the film as the "socially conscious installment" in the franchise, and that whoppingly drastic budget-cuts (from $36 million to $17 million) made the unfortunate Furie powerless to the will of the infamous Canon Films impresarios, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus.  My second encounter with Sidney J. Furie following Superman IV was with the Rodney Dangerfield family vehicle Ladybugs (1992). I decline comment here because I have not seen the film since its release (and truth be told, I'd rather not).  But when I completed my initial viewing of The Ipcress File, Furie was no longer just the poor "journeyman" schlub-for-hire who got suckered into directing the shoddiest entry in the my favorite childhood movie series. He was a director with a voice -- yes, perhaps an artist who (like many, sadly) found himself marginalized in the 1980's, when a mainstream film's commercial prowess reached the apex of importance over its artistic merit.  After all, working directors had to eat too, of course. Most of all, though, Furie is a man whose films are anomalies among their own kind and minorities within their own subcategories -- the audacious exceptions and never the rule.  The Ipcress File and The Naked Runner are the odd films out among espionage thrillers, Hit! is most definitely an anomaly among action thrillers and blaxploitation films, Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York is a consummately strange exception among romantic comedies and The Entity surely isn't your ordinary horror film.  I could go on.  The Boys in Company C is an incongruously dual-structured and matter-of-fact Vietnam War picture (of which Full Metal Jacket is essentially a remake, R. Lee Ermey and all), and both Lady Sings the Blues and Gable and Lombard capitalize on the 1970's trend of Hollywoodizing and pulpifying biography, and thus both films wind up as a commentary on this trend in biopics of the era.  As you can probably tell, Furie as a director has worked in most all forms and genres.  It is my intention in writing this to showcase a filmmaker who has been unjustly sidelined as a secondary talent...and thus forgotten, and rarely remembered. He is a filmmaker with viable trademarks who makes directors films, and I intend to explore that. And no, Sidney Furie is not Sid Vicious' slightly more tempered cousin, in case that crossed your mind.

My original exposure to The Ipcress File was in a version that had been pan-and-scanned from a Techniscope screen-size of 2.35:1 to the 1.33:1 television screen-size, but the atmosphere of the film alone, with the aged and degraded print quality, its gloomy color palette, and its creepily forlorn tonal quality, left me very much affected at that age. The whole film is shot on broodingly overcast days. Even the unsettling look of the approaching headlights of a truck driving right up to the lens in a dark, deserted parking garage gives one definite pause to consider its visual ominousness. It is a film that made me realize how integral every element is in the filmmaking art, and how a director can use and manipulate those elements to heighten it to a full-blown experience. I was finally able to see The Ipcress File in its original aspect ratio when I was in my early twenties. To that point, I was completely unaware it was a widescreen picture. Seeing it in this form was a revelation.  I finally was able to experience cinematographer Otto Heller's painstakingly scrupulous widescreen compositions and his alluring, painterly noir-like mood lighting, as well of the scope of Furie's vision as a distinctly visual director.  I remember that, in one of my first amateur film projects made when I was a teenager, I mimicked a shot from The Ipcress File.  It was undoubtedly the first shot from any other film to which I ever paid homage in my own work; it was the "eyeglass p.o.v." from the parking garage trade-off sequence.

Furie's main visual motif was certainly one of the most startling aspects of seeing Ipcress uncropped. In this uncompromised version, we realize that Furie chooses to shoot through objects, and attempts to fragment the wide frame in various patterns, outright penetrating the things native to the shooting environment with his lens. A notable scene involving a physical altercation outside of a science library in London's South Kensington chooses to shoot through the glass and dulled red steel beams of a London phone booth. He also begins a half-realized romantic conversation in a government office by shooting through the thin metal dials of a desktop paper-bin. A character in the backseat of a car is framed through the hood-ornament of the car.  An approaching figure is framed through the glass of a just-expired parking meter.  The revelation of a key plot-point is framed through the errant eyeglasses of a dead man (i.e. the shot that marked my first homage in my own filmmaking). As two odious characters approach Michael Caine and Nigel Green to make a clandestine deal at a concert of military music in a public park, Furie composes these miscreants through a drumset's cymbal crashing, in beat to the march that the band is playing. These are just a few notable examples, selected from many others, of Furie using his lens to penetrate local objects, in an effort to actively unnerve the audience.  The amazing thing is that this potentially tiresome device never comes off as irritating or overstated.  He often goes out of his way to establish this visual trope as a motif, to give the film a stylistic vitality and a sense of the ethereal that it would have absolutely lacked in the hands of a Bond director like Terence Young or Guy Hamilton.  The Ipcress File is an anomaly within the world of the espionage thriller. It is no small wonder that producer Harry Saltzman, producer of The Ipcress File and the early James Bond films, strongly disliked Furie's experimental shooting and directing style.

As the story goes, when Furie was shooting the above-mentioned key fight scene in The Ipcress File through the beams of the red phone booth, Saltzman screamed at Furie, "That's now how you shoot a fight scene. The camera should be over there right next to them!" The tempered and soft-spoken Furie, who was at war with Saltzman throughout the production, simply responded, "That's how you shoot a Bond fight sequence." Music composer John Barry commented that the basis of his unusual cymbalom score for the film was Furie's framing of shots and his otherworldly staging of scenes. The film went on to win the Best Picture at the British Academy Awards that year. The word on the street is that Saltzman claimed Furie's directing award, and never handed it off to him.  In any case, Furie had arrived, and was quickly handed The Appaloosa (1966), a Universal Western with Marlon Brando, as his follow-up.  Like The Ipcress File, it is a film that takes great risks with camera placement and once again exploits the immeasurable opportunity inherent in the wide frame; however, many critics dismissed that film as ostentatious in comparison to its brilliant predecessor.  It is still grossly unlike any studio Western of the 1960's, even Brando's own One-Eyed Jacks (1961), of which The Appaloosa is arguably a dramatic extension.  One critic took note of "Furie's mania for weirdly mannered camera angles," adding parenthetically, "you spend half the time peering round, over or under obstacles behind which the action is strategically placed."

In the intervening years following my initial viewing of The Ipcress File, I had come to see a great deal of Furie's other films, including The Leather Boys (1964), The Appaloosa (1966), The Naked Runner (1967), Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970), Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Hit! (1973), Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York (1975), Gable and Lombard (1976), The Boys in Company C (1977), The Entity (1982) and Purple Hearts (1984). All of these films left residues, including (and maybe even especially) two of his perceived "bombs," Hit! and Sheila Levine..., which both tanked upon initial release. The former is perhaps the only epic blaxploitation picture, following a "close-knit family"-like unit of American enforcers, ranging from Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor (truly excellent in one of his rare dramatic roles, a la Paul Schrader's Blue Collar) to the Robert Altman 70's stock company member Gwen Welles.  The cast also features Furie acting staples Sid Melton and Janet Brandt as the "classically Jewish" parents of an overdose victim, who have some unexpected "executive" experience.  Getting back to Pryor for a moment, Furie is really the only director saw Pryor's potential as a dramatic actor, and this is something that Paul Schrader would also realize and use to great effect years later in his own Blue Collar (1978). His use of him in Lady Sings the Blues (in which Pryor emerges as one of the driving force of the film, as Piano-Man) and in Hit! showcases his multifarious acting talents, demonstrating that his talent was always beyond that of just a stand-up comic who crossed over into movies.  There are moments of jazz in Pryor's performance.  As an actor, he is like a jazz musician who can spark such brilliant invention on a moment's notice, and Furie is like the bandleader who lets his wildly spontaneous jazz riffs breathe.  There is a moment of improvisation between Pryor and Gwen Welles before Williams catches a ferry to meet Melton and Brandt for the first time -- a moment that any other director would have certainly cut or advised Pryor against.  Furie not only retains it, but definitively lets it dictate a sustained tonality.  It is a blithely idiosyncratic film in this way.  A moment that was no doubt written in the script as "Nick exits the car" is hence pushed well beyond the ordinary and perfunctory.

The movie's "motley crew" band is out for revenge against the Marseilles drug smugglers who have indirectly killed substance-abusing members of their respective families. Throughout this hunt, these people become a family themselves. At 134 minutes, spanning continents and a large number of locations, Hit! is unlike any other action genre piece of its time...and perhaps any other time. Those seemingly few who have seen it (including critic and historian Robin Wood) argue that it might be Furie's masterpiece. Part of what makes the film extraordinary is that Furie uses a model of Samuel Arkoff and Roger Corman low-budget black action films, subverts it and totally turns it on its ear by adding peripheral characters and expanding it to a more epic length, and then appropriating the journey film paradigm to reflect on what the films that were the sources of inspiration were really saying about the culture and social construct they were set within. It is an extraordinary piece of work, complete with sometimes deliberately clumsy camerawork to always point back to its low-budget filmic godfathers. It begins as one kind of film, sets up an expectation, and ends as another kind of film. At two and a quarter hours, Hit! has a beautiful economy that is something to truly behold.  When the film is digressive, Furie makes his deep affection for the characters always known and perceptible, and that is enough to not just to carry the detours, but allow those detours to render the film thankfully idiosyncratic in only the best of ways.  It makes sense that Tarantino saw Hit! as an inspiration for Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction as a certain talkiness is force-fed into the action genre. The baby was fed spinach only to discover that it went down perfectly easily.

Upon its 2012 DVD release, Combustible Celluloid wrote, "Hit! is a slow, weird movie, but it tries so many things we're not used to seeing, as well as relying on some old comfortable staples, and it mixes this cocktail in such a cool way.  Richard Pryor is especially good, and is called upon to improvise some humor from time to time. Again, this is the kind of stuff that any director today would have cut in order to move the plot forward.  In Hit!, it provides the film with its true personality. It also has a welcome, grainy texture, which indicates how the film must have looked when it was projected way back when."

One can especially get a sense of a filmmaker's personal stamp at hand during Furie's tenure with Paramount Pictures, even though, on the surface, given a cursory look at the work, one could conjecture that these projects could very well have been helmed by most any studio-contracted journeyman (mostly because of Furie's eclectic choice of material and genre). However, a real case in point is the pulp-biopic Lady Sings the Blues, in which Diana Ross stars as Billie Holiday, in an epic biopic of the sultry-voiced jazz diva's stormy life and career. There are really three films in Lady Sings the Blues.  On the most basic level, there is the musical, the biography and the classic Hollywood melodrama.  But on a much deeper level, there is the film about the life of Billie Holiday, the film about the development of Holiday’s art, and the film that Furie is ultimately making.  The directorial strategy involves something like wrapping the film’s subject in its obvious biopic cocoon, then watching it act outside the confines of that cocoon. It's a music-biopic actively written in jazz itself, often rendered in a style that is simultaneously jazzy and wholesale-formalist.  A solid example of this point is the so-called "who's knocking at the door" scene late in the film, in which Diana Ross and Richard Pryor improvise an entire lengthy dialogue as the harbingers of the more formally written scene knock impatiently at the door ready to play a scene inclined more faithfully towards the dictates of the page.  You have this sense of Jazz in no hurry to answer the door to the Formalism...but eventually it does, and the scene plays on with both in harmony.  Furie discusses this scene explicitly on the DVD of the film.

It is Furie's sensitive treatment of his camera placement choices that most often sets him apart from other directors working over the same material. The stylistic choices made for Hollywood biopics usually proved deadeningly objective in terms of staging and camera placement, in American films through to the 70's and 80's. Two of the most notable early examples of subverting this model were Karel Reisz's Isadora (1968) and Furie's Lady Sings the Blues. The biopic would hit its stride and reach its pinnacle with Scorsese's Raging Bull nearly a decade later, and many would begin to rethink the potential of the biopic. One extraordinary scene in Lady Sings the Blues observes Billie Holiday in confinement during a period of painful drug detox, as her lover and her doctor tend to her shaking and trembling body in a padded cell. Furie does indeed choose to play this scene out in a master, which he holds for three whole minutes. But what would normally be an objective fourth wall view of the scene's events becomes a much more proactive view. The perspective becomes subjective with the simple use of a lurchingly slow dolly-in, gradually approaching the actors at this highly fraught emotional moment, becoming a proactive observer and taking the same concern in Billie as the two man standing over her do. With this long take, Furie allows space and respect to the performers, as well as the appropriate amount of time for the ambitions of his shot, which only augments the actors' contributions.

What is also worthy of note in Lady Sings the Blues is that Furie relegates traditional cinematic notions of race and color to the proverbial backseat.  It may sound a hackneyed cliché, but Furie later admitted while being interviewed about the film, "I wanted the audience to see Billy Dee Williams as a Clark Gable, rather than a black Clark Gable."  Yes, it all sounds nifty, but are these more than just ingratiating words?  Most certainly they are.  The question of race is certainly present but simultaneously ignored with good taste, good conscience, good judgment and artistry.  What would have been, at least partly, a heavy-handed tract on race in the hands of another director (most especially a white director in the 1970's) is, in the hands of Furie, taken for what it is: a drama that unfolds featuring actors and characters of darker pigmentation.  Even the "Strange Fruit" sequence, which exposes the so-called "strange fruit" of Billie Holiday's legendary social problem torch-song as a lynched black man hanging from a Georgia tree-branch, is thankfully matter-of-fact and not a point of heavy meditation that sinks any section of the picture in tired and mediocre philosophizing or hammy meditation.  It is what it is.  It passes as to open the film beyond an obvious element that most Hollywood filmmakers would exploit to be polemical and/or Stanley Kramer-esque.  It ends with no overwrought allegory or message-making.  Nothing in Lady Sings the Blues is mired in oppressive symbolism or shallow, capricious myth-manufacturing.  Its only sin, perhaps, is in its conception of the male lead as chivalrous, impenetrable quasi-matinee idol, however clear Furie's ambition with this was.  This sin fails to weight it down as the film exists as a deliberate "pulpification" of a true-life story.

One cannot really say the same for Gable and Lombard (1976), a film that so unabashedly plays with myth-making that it almost becomes a parody of itself.  In many ways, Gable and Lombard is Furie's least accomplished film of its time, ending the three-film cycle of having worked with producer Harry Korshak.  But the film does function in the way that Boom! (1967) and/or Secret Ceremony (1968) functions for Joseph Losey -- as camp whose awareness of itself as camp enriches it as a text that meditates on the very nature of camp and kitsch.  Shot in 1.85:1, Gable and Lombard is also curiously perhaps Furie's least dynamic in terms of visual style and camera placement, and not simply because of the scaling down of the width.  It makes an appropriate double screening with Arthur Hiller's similarly dry, campy and myth-manufacturing W.C. Fields and Me (1976).

In Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York, there is another Furie-directed scene that is played out in one impressively mounted -- but fundamentally simple -- long take, this one an unbroken master shot that clocks in at five minutes and eleven seconds, never once devaluing or diminishing the ebb and flow of naturalism in the interplay between Roy Scheider and Jeannie Berlin even by once using other closer coverage. There is a very cogent decision made in favor of one single shot, a five-minute master, that perfectly captures the awkward comic folly of their conversation. The scene never leans too narrowly on the editor's prowess, but rather on the shot and, wholly by extension, the actors. I would place Furie in the highest echelon against any other director in film history for his deliberate and gutsy use of the 2.35:1 Scope frame. In film after film in which he shoots in Scope, he very calculatedly and meticulously strategizes his use of the wider canvas, actively reflecting on the ramifications and possibilities inherent in plotting the inner workings and the mise-en-scene of this challenging aspect ratio.

In the scene just mentioned, in an effort to distance us unwillingly from Berlin and also to magnify the initial distance between Berlin and Scheider's characters, Furie places them on totally opposite and extreme ends of the exceptionally wide frame. This is no new concept, and it is an effect that was of course lost in the 1980's network TV version of the film (which I have also seen), which turns this single shot into a series of cuts between two fragmented and cropped "quasi close-ups" of the two actors on those opposite ends. What makes this particular instance stunning is the more precise division of screen space.  Scheider is permitted to assume nearly two thirds of the frame (counting feet on a coffee table), with Berlin ensconced uneasily and uncomfortably in the last of the thirds, at a discernible distance.  This speaks volumes in that, from Scheider's point-of-view in the scene, she is a specimen to him -- yet another go at a potential conquest.  Coming early in the film, the scene's camera placement and how it is sustained heightens our consideration of Berlin's vulnerability as a new arrival to New York City.  Her visual presence in the scene feels relatively microscopic compared to Scheider's. It is brilliant psychology in framing, and even more so that Furie remains on this same shot for a full 5:11.

There is yet another trademark performance long-take in the earlier Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970), a film that both Furie and star Robert Redford later wrote off as a failure and an embarrassment.  The long-take in that one lasts nearly four minutes, and features Redford and co-star Michael J. Pollard very naturalistically shooting the breeze sitting on the rear of a stalled pick-up truck, seemingly without feeling solely obliged strictly to advance the plot.  Some rumors make the claim that screenwriter Charles Eastman directed most of the final film, but the presence of this sequence certainly informs us that Furie did inject some of his own filmmaking DNA into what he deemed, in the final analysis, a failed film.  Personally, it is hard for me to totally dismiss the film out of hand.  There are some very effective things in it, including the adroit use of a Johnny Cash song score that puts John Frankenheimer's use of a Cash song score in I Walk the Line (1970, the same year) to shame.  There are also two excellent performances by extraordinary character actress Lucille Benson and 30's actor Wallace Beery's nephew Noah Beery, playing an eccentric parental tag-team to Michael J. Pollard.  The depiction of the fraught, contentious relationship between the two male leads is also particularly potent, and this relationship is central to the film's drama.  It is noteworthy to mention that, in 1970, Vincent Canby became one of the first critics to cite a thread and an auteurist sense of thematics in Furie's work, and he cited it in response to, of all films, Little Fauss and Big Halsy: "It is not so much a bike movie, or a movie about contemporary life styles, as you might believe from the ads; rather, it is another in a continuing series of betrayed male relationships that seems central to the screen career ("The Leather Boys," "The Ipcress File," "The Lawyer," etc.) of Sidney J. Furie."  This theme would reach its pinnacle in Hit! only three years later, but drop off the map in Furie's canon with the likes of Lady Sings the Blues, Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York and The Entity.

"The truth is that, whether your film is about a great mythological character or it's a little movie that nobody will probably ever hear of, you have to do right.  You have to approach it like it's the most important thing in the world.  But filmmakers are like gunslingers, and you don't win every duel."
    -Sidney J. Furie

Sheila Levine... was massacred almost unanimously by critics, and I have never quite understood why, as Furie handles the material, adapted from a bestselling Gail Parent novel, with a deft comic sensitivity that is rare in mainstream Hollywood literary adaptation of the 70's. Quite honestly, this film was Furie's critical Waterloo in its time. The humor, experienced nearly forty years later, is sensitive, broad at the right times, well-timed and seasoned with a welcome affection Furie possesses for nearly every one of his characters. I would venture to say that it is one of the most unfairly treated films of its time. Canby, who earlier made the first observation of thematic correlation between Furie's films, wrote in the New York Times, "Something disastrous happened to the heroine of Gail Parent's funny novel on her way to the silver screen.  Sheila, the Jewish girl from Harrisburg, the college graduate with a degree in epic survival, has lost her wit, her self-perceptions, her lucky way of failing at suicide or, rather, of having a pushy mother who knows just when to call the cops."  Pauline Kael, everyone's favorite imperious, petulant and impetuous New Yorker critic, a woman never known to mince words, was (needless to say) no kinder to the film: "Not only is this picture full of scenes that were clichés the first time they done, but Sidney Furie brings worse than nothing to them. Sheila is allowed to show vivacity only when she's clumsy or flustered or behaving idiotically; the more mature she becomes, the more slowed-down she is.  What's disturbing about the movie is that it exploits the self-hatred of so many women in the audience, who identify with Sheila because they feel that they too are not top-quality love objects.  I think they may also transfer their self-hatred towards an actress who plays this sort of role."  As of 2012, like both Little Fauss and Big Halsy and The Lawyer, Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York have never been released on any home video format.  Only the latter has been intermittently available for download.

Jeannie Berlin's broad comical portrayal of the quintessential homely bride was nominated at the 1972 Academy Awards for Supporting Actress, losing to Eileen Heckart in Butterflies Are FreeThe Heartbreak Kid was directed by Berlin's mother Elaine May. What Furie does is pluck that characterization from The Heartbreak Kid, stripping away the inherently victimized nature of the character in the previous film, hence making a romantic heroine of the classical type of "nice Jewish girl" that every good Jewish mother compels their son to marry.  The script was written by the original novel's author Gail Parent and her partner Kenny Solms, both of whom were prominent TV writers for "The Carol Burnett Show" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and as a result, the film in stretches feels like we have crossed over into skitty Mary Tyler Moore/Rhoda country.  That is part of its admittedly dated charm, however, and, as intimated above, this film represents perhaps what is the ultimate example during this period of Furie's filmmaking of Furie as a director holding such a deep affection for his characters to the extent where binaries are neatly broken down to open up the films beyond a general sense of traditional conflict. The characters' rivalry feels civil, almost quiet and never stated so explicitly in direct drama as to disturb a kind of equilibrium.  This runs parallel to the comedic elements, which can be very boldly stated.  But the civil, quiet implicitness of the drama is never stale, dormant or unconflicted.  This trend in Furie's work really began full-blast with Hit!, which is the only action film I can recall where nearly everyone Furie puts any effort into depicting fully is an affectionately realized concoction, right down to Zooey Hall and Todd Martin's bumbling Feds who operate against the curiously heroic team Billy Dee Williams assembles.  Furie does not aspire towards a Blake Edwards-like depiction of Hall and Martin as a pair of FBI Inspector Clouseaus, nor does he ever fixate on such an approach in developing the amusing hotdog-obsessed demolition man played by Paul Hampton.  Rather, these characters are depicted to accentuate a witty sense of idiosyncrasy that never tests the limits of believability nor does it dispel the effects of the build-up to its final action set-pieces.

Through Furie's shot choices, he is able to amplify and direct the audience's empathy towards Jeanne Berlin's Sheila Levine, even when the camera distances itself from her spatially. We often lose Sheila in vast urban spaces, behind a mountainous pile of items on a cluttered office desk, burrowed far away in a tight kitchen corner, pocketed in a bedroom doorway in a far corner of the frame. Psychologically, Furie attempts to establish this spatial distance from her in an effort to have us aspire towards more of a proximity with her, and also to meditate on what it is that the city itself is doing to our Harrisburg heroine -- i.e. making her more of an entity who is relative to her new environment as well as relative within her new environment.  For instance, the first long-take encounter with Scheider (in which she is placed far screen-right significantly away from the lens, versus Scheider's dominant screen-left) is followed immediately by three-minute long-take where Sheila is once again prominent in the frame.  He is also able to amplify the implications of the film's principal threesome by a consistent use of the misleadingly balanced "three-shot," often between Berlin, Scheider and Rebecca Dianna Smith.

Another element of note in Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York is then-newcomer cinematographer Donald M. Morgan's lighting and color palette. The film's texture is earthy, and the picture across the board is starkly lit and "Gordon Willis-esque" in the extreme. Characters often fall off completely into shadow and emerge from dark corners into the strategically placed eye-lights and kickers that marked Willis' most meticulous work. Faces emerge amidst murky New York urban spaces. It feels almost noir-ish on occasion, which I cannot help but think was a pertinent stylistic choice made consciously by Furie, Morgan and gaffer Larry Boelens.  Donald Morgan recounts a story of Sheila Levine...'s memorably tenebrous and shadow-strewn visual atmosphere: "Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York was probably the most exciting picture I’ve ever been on in my life, because Gordon Willis was shooting Godfather II on the stage next door; the pilot for 'Happy Days' was shooting on another stage, and Conrad Hall was shooting The Day of the LocustSheila Levine barely cost a million dollars, but I remember that it was really exciting. I was working on a Hollywood film with Sid Furie.  When we first started shooting, all the suits came down from their offices and asked Furie, ‘Does this guy know that he’s shooting a comedy? Its too dark’ Sid went nuts. He said, ‘Have you guys ever laughed at radio? You don’t see anybody’s eyes on radio!’ The next day, I kind of brightened things up a bit. We went to dailies and Sid started yelling, ‘They’ve ruined you! They’ve ruined you! Go back to the way you were working before. Don’t let those guys talk you into lighting brighter.'"

With Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York, Furie clearly wishes to experiment with exploring the elasticity of the romantic comedy by lighting for almost noirish moods and fall-off.  One can never really buy the film as a traditional work of its genre, because Furie sees a larger picture in this story.  In the way that Willis' camera in Klute (1971) surrounds Jane Fonda's Bree Daniels with the ominous foreboding in that film's urban shadows, Morgan's camera in the Furie film has us losing Berlin's Sheila Levine with spatial distance and low-light as the character becomes more urbanized and accustomed to her new environment.  What Pauline Kael noticed about Berlin's performance vis a vis "the more mature she becomes, the more slowed-down she is" is certainly true, in that the direction and performance works in total conjunction with, and as part and parcel to, the camera-voice.  They reciprocate each other.  The performance validates camera and lighting, and vice-versa, in a direct complement.

Arguably Furie's most dynamically formalist post-70's film is the allegedly fact-based 1982 horror film The Entity, starring Barbara Hershey as a woman who finds herself repeatedly raped, assaulted, abused and otherwise violated by a raging poltergeist.  The film's basis in being supposedly "based on a true story" lies in the fact that the account of the real-life paranormal disturbances of "Carla Moran"/Doris Bither remains, even today, the most famous case study in parapsychology.  Getting down to brass tacks concerning the film itself, however, The Entity is often much admired among those who have seen it, although it is rarely discussed as a director's film.  Martin Scorsese, for example, named it as number 4 on his "11 Scariest Horror Films of All Time" list.

It goes without saying that The Entity embodies some incredibly touchy material.  Rape, abuse and molestation for the purposes of entertainment, fact-based or not, especially in genre entertainment, is not just a tough sell, but also conceivably fatal in its potential for bad taste.  Indeed the film did find itself picketed by woman's groups upon its initial theatrical release.  However, the film's central figure, played by Barbara Hershey, is certainly one of the strongest and most independent female characters of 1980's mainstream American cinema, a true anomaly in a popcorn-littered era in which helpless and one-dimensionally imbecilic damsels in distress were fashionable in Hollywood; this character actually holds her own once she finds herself surrounded and waylaid by a virtual gaggle of oppressive and near-sighted male characters (including Ron Silver's irascibly condescending psychiatrist and, perhaps, the "entity" itself) who seek little else but to question her sanity and belittle her ability to take control of her unfortunate circumstances.  On this note, The Entity represents the first Furie film perhaps since 1970's The Lawyer to capitalize on the existence of victims and binaries in the narrative, after almost a decade in which Furie had put aside associations between good and evil.  Hershey is eventually cornered into becoming little more than a lab rat in a scientists' recreation of her own home.  One cannot help but think this was a blueprint for Todd Haynes' Safe (1995) over ten years later.  Yet, we the audience are with Hershey...and her alone.  That's what makes this film a departure from the previous decade of Furie's output.

Hershey's performance is so incredibly strong and Furie lends her presence extra fire from his trademark camera placement, which goes leaps and bounds to unnerve the viewer, almost to the point that, by the film's climactic confrontation with the entity, you might find yourself trembling. The film is of course shot once again in 2.35:1 almost entirely in Dutch angles, accented by all the Furie-ous visual stamps like the use of the cockeyed "unstable two-shot" and the misleading balance of a three-shot during key dramatic beats.  Scenes featuring Ron Silver's cruelly patronizing, quasi-concerned psychiatrist feature severe close-ups, as when Silver's Dr. Sneiderman confronts Hershey's Carla about allowing the parapsychologists into her home or when he urges her to forsake her scientifically manipulated lab-rat environment for some time in the nut-house.  Bedroom scenes featuring Hershey with a boyfriend played by Alex Rocco feature a camera teetering tremulously on its axis, which is particularly enervating during what is supposed to be a moment of intimacy.  Furie also provides the eeriest of aural cues that make us come to dread the entity's attacks.

Time Out critic Tom Milne writes, "The film's men are so uniformly creepy, and its heroine so strong and sympathetic, that apart from a couple of unpleasant moments the story often seems less like horror than feminist parable, especially when Hershey (giving a fine performance) is reduced to a laboratory object with her home recreated in the psychology department. It goes to show that commercial movies sometimes hit spots that more intentionally didactic efforts can't reach."  Furie himself says of The Entity, "I don't actually consider The Entity to be a horror film.  Horror is a convenient word that is often applied but I don't think horror is a genre at all. It's more of a term."

Sidney J. Furie is a Canadian by birth, born in 1933 in Toronto. He started out working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and was promoted to the coveted role of producer by age 25, helping to create the then-popular Canadian series "Hudson's Bay" in 1959.  He later graduated to low-budget independent feature films, launching his career with the 1957 low-budget independent feature A Dangerous Age (a picture seemingly on the M.I.A. list). His second feature, A Cool Sound from Hell (also inexplicably M.I.A.), also lensed in Canada, was screened as a double feature next to Karel Reisz's British box-office sensation Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960).  Sidenote: Does anyone remember seeing either A Dangerous Age or A Cool Sound from Hell, and do they still even exist? It might very well be the fact that Furie started off in the "wilderness" of early Canadian independent cinema that immediately puts him in my good graces. Like fellow Toronto-native director Ted Kotcheff, Furie emigrated to England in the early 60's from Canada, then emigrated from England to the U.S. soon after. Kotcheff originally found work in British television, then made a successful transition to feature-film directing, while Furie got his British launch with schlock horror and exploitation fare like Doctor Blood's Coffin and The Snake Woman.  Arguably, Furie's first break-out film was the bubble-gum Cliff Richard musical Wonderful to Be Young! (a.k.a. The Young Ones, released in 1961 with the two horror films). Even in his earliest films, Furie was working with the Scope frame.  Kotcheff worked with the BBC, only making his feature debut later with Life at the Top (1965) while Furie had just made a big splash with The Leather Boys (1964), for which he became a cinematic enfant terrible of the British cinema. Like Basil Dearden's Victim (1961), The Leather Boys dealt very directly with homosexuality in a startlingly straightforward way, and it was one of the first times this theme emerged with such frankness. Its treatment of this theme is decidedly more oblique when viewing the film in today's light, but its shock value was considerable in 1964.

Even with The Leather Boys, ostensibly a more "edgy" and independent venture than his later efforts, he chooses to shoot in 2.35:1. To me, each Sid Furie film is a lesson to me as a filmmaker as to how one should utilize this aspect ratio. A key early scene, shot at the Ace Café 's exterior, has Furie uses yet another one of his trademark master shot long-takes. In 1967, he directed the underrated Frank Sinatra espionage thriller The Naked Runner in which he, again, experiments in the framing of shots under the guidance of cinematographer Otto Heller. Sinatra hired Furie on the strength of his work in The Ipcress File. Incidentally, it was the first Sinatra film to enter into profit after a string of Sinatra flops, even though it crashed and burned in the eyes of the critics of the time. The opening scene of this film, featuring a phonograph playing, as a totally dark and obscured figure with an eye-light sits and contemplatively listens. I cannot help but think that this type of imagery informed the likes of Sin City decades later. Whereas a filmmaker like Tony Richardson would employ a manner of camera acrobatics in the same era (with films like Mademoiselle and The Sailor from Gibraltar), Furie's experiments were more restrained and arguably more successful in that they are more timeless. This is not to say that I dislike or disapprove of Richardson's more pronounced experimentation, but it is fair to assume that Furie did not have the freedom and prestige that Richardson had, so as to work beyond established models. Furie worked more in the genre picture than a Richard Lester or Tony Richardson did, therefore his experimentation had to appear more measured, disciplined and controlled. Perhaps, for that reason, they are more powerful and resonant in some way. Compare Furie's devices to someone like Lelouch's devices. Lelouch, a veritable cause celebre, was operating in France with the use of heavy camera acrobatics -- or, as one critic aptly called it, "shooting in long-hand." It is Furie's measured experimentation with the elements that seems to work more towards a timelessness.

Furie is interviewed in the five-part 1993 documentary Hollywood U.K. about his stint as a film director in England in the 1960's.  He is mentioned (by emcee Richard Lester) in this excellent and impressively comprehensive documentary as being among the ranks of Joseph Losey, Tony Richardson, Bryan Forbes and Lester himself as a key director in the development of the British New Wave.  The Ipcress File was credited as his key film and his crowning achievement during this creatively fertile period.

I recently told a friend that, if I were a film curator, I would program a retrospective of Sidney J. Furie's work, because I have grave doubts that anyone has seriously considered his artistic, directorial stamp until this article. If they have, no definitive materials exist. It is not hard to be an admirer of this sidelined auteur once seeing the fuller body of his work. Following his direction of the box-office success Iron Eagle (1984), he found himself streamlined into directing works that were not worthy of his talent, including many Dolph Lundgren actioneers and Rodney Dangerfield direct-to-video comedies. There was the occasional film, like 2002's Rock My World (a.k.a. Global Heresy, starring Peter O'Toole and Joan Plowright) that granted evidence of an earlier directorial voice at work again.  Nonetheless, I am hard-pressed to think of a more deserving director who has been as maligned and marginalized as he is. There are still many films of his that I have yet to see, including the major Paramount Era film The Lawyer (1970, which launched the TV series "Petrocelli"), but I do hope my writings here ignite your interest in examining these films specifically as director's pieces.

4 comments:

  1. Awesome post - you're doing the film community a great service with it. I've respected Furie more with each additional film of I've seen of his in the past 10 years. Very glad to realize I'm not crazy and that even major film figures like Tarantino and Scorcese recognize his great talent.

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  2. Wow,thanks-----I've never seen a look at this director's work ever, which is a surprise considering that some of his early pictures were innovative in some way,or an influence on others. Saw LADY SINGS THE BLUES more than once, and finally saw HIT! all the way through for the first time----there was a unique and individual style for both movies, which was intriguing to watch in the former. and the latter. Thanks for giving some props to this neglected director's work!

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  3. Thanks so much for this post! I worked as a producer on several low-budget films with Sidney and was immediately enrapt by him. He embodied complete focus and concentration on making the film. In addition to being the most practical director I've ever known, using common sense and wisdom to get the most out of every shot and location, he had a genuine love for the people who worked on the show, and no end of patience and encouragement for anybody who wanted to learn their trade. And he had absolutely no time for dilettantes. Just being able to work with him for a day was worth more than months of film school "book-learning". A master at every aspect of his craft, and a brilliant example of a gracious and dedicated human being.

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  4. I have wonderful memories of working with Sidney J Fury, while working on "The Naked Runner" as stand-in and double for Frank Sinatra, he is on his own, just a brilliant director and fantastic with the camera,

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