Friday, January 15, 2010

façade: richard quine, beyond columbia

Directing Lemmon and Novak in "Landlady"

Quine at work
Richard Quine never settled. Even as a house director at Columbia, where he was largely assigned work during the 1950s, he summoned an uneasy, idiosyncratic personal touch that made him a closeted auteur. Back then, he came in under the radar and, in some cinema circles, still does.

But he's a favorite of this site, not only because he coaxed the best, least mannered screen work out of Jack Lemmon (sorry, Messrs Wilder and Edwards), but precisely because his style was so uneasy and idiosyncratic - apparently, much like the complex, troubled man himself.

Lately, much has been written about Quine's work at Columbia. His name is invoked regularly on Dave Kehr's essential site, and he was the subject of "Richard Quine at Columbia," a mini-retrospective presented by the film arm of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in August of 2008.

His three main connections at Columbia were Lemmon (whose screen test was directed by Quine), studio head Harry Cohn (who put Quine under contract following Quine's years as an actor there) and Kim Novak (entrusted to Quine by Cohn to groom into an actress and a star).

Novak was Quine's muse-cum-fiancée, and when they made 1960's "Strangers When We Meet," a superior soap opera whose plot revolves around a swank Malibu home being designed for a writer, Columbia displayed its respect for Quine - and also support for his relationship with Novak - by building a real house for the film, which was to be given to them after shooting as a wedding present. But the couple part ways during the shoot and much of the anxiety in Novak's performance (her best) could directly stem from the real-life break-up.

Quine made his directing debut in tandem with William Asher on 1948's "Leather Gloves," whose cast included a young actor named ... Blake Edwards, and many of his Columbia films were made in collaboration with Edwards. Quine and Edwards, for example, wrote the script for the 1955 musical remake of "My Sister Eileen." (Perhaps not coincidentally, Quine had an acting role in Columbia's original 1942 version of "My Eileen Sister," playing along side Rosalind Russell.)

Working outside the axis of the Columbia lot on North Gower, Quine's work took on a different dimension. Early on, he did the Tony Curtis-Gene Nelson musical, "So This Is Paris" (1955) for Universal, but his extracurricular professional life really started in earnest in 1960 when he directed William Holden and Nancy Kawn in the film version of the Paul Osborn play, "The World of Suzie Wong" for Ray Stark and Paramount.

After directing Lemmon and Novak in "The Notorious Landlady" in 1962, Quine dove into three back-to-back comedies - "Paris - When It Sizzles" (1964), "Sex and the Single Girl" (1964) and "How to Murder Your Wife" (1965), for Paramount, Warner Bros. and United Artists, respectfully.

He returned to Columbia in '65 to direct Stella Stevens in the addiction drama, "Synanon," done verité-style; segued into Warners' "Hotel" in '67 and, the same year, had a reunion with Roz Russell directing her in his hugely idiosyncratic version of the Arthur Kopit play, "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad," for Paramount.

In 1969-1970, he did two solid Richard Widmark films - "A Talent for Loving" for Paramount" and "The Moonshine War" for MGM - neither getting much of a studio push. Quine's last two films, both disposable Peter Sellers vehicles, were Universal's "The Prisoner Zenda" (1979) and Warners' "The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu" (1980), which he started but never completed. Piers Haggard receives credit for "Fu Manchu."

Nine years later, Richard Quine would commit suicide by shooting himself, tired of waiting for offers to direct the kinds of films he wanted to make. Perhaps the kind he made his original home base, Columbia.

Quine did his best work there. He may have been that rare filmmaker who worked best as a hired hand, a contract director.

The standout among his final films is an unsung gem that is reminiscent of his "Pushover"/"Drive a Crooked Road" days working for Cohn. "W," a tidy thriller that Quine made in 1974 for Cinerama Releasing, fell through the cracks the minute it was released. It was barely noticed.

As he did with Kim Novak 20 years earlier, Quine nudged a credible, often appealing performance from Twiggy, cast as a woman hounded by a serial killer whose sole clue is the letter W left at the scene of each crime. It was her second film, following Ken Russell's "The Boy Friend" in 1971, and her sincerity at trying to give a valid performance is palpable.

I can't recall another performer who tried so hard to be so good - and much of Twiggy's drive here, I surmise, comes from having Richard Quine - and, yes, his uneasy, idiosyncratic touch - behind her.

BTW, "W" is available on DVD - but not as "W." It's been retitled for the occasion ... "I Want Her Dead." Yeesh.

Note in Passing: Richard Quine, the young actor, can be seen as Howard in S. Sylvan Simon's incredibly charming "The Cockeyed Miracle" (1946), in which he romantically pursues Audrey Totter. It airs on Turner Classic Movies at 6:30 a.m. (est.) on 20 January; it's Audrey Totter day on Turner. Frank Morgan, Keenan Wynn, Cecil Kellaway, Gladys Cooper and a very young Marshall Thompson round out Simon's game, happy cast.


Tim Rainier said...

Given that Lemmon worked so often with both Billy Wilder and Quine, I always wondered where Quine fell on the pessimism/cynicism scale. We all know where Wilder was in that regard. I sense that Quine was something of a pessimist and a cynic, although these two qualities never came through in his work. Nothing seems motivated by anger which is interesting as Quine obviously had less freedom than Wilder. It must have been frustrating for him, but I see neither complacency or cynicism in his work - although, I guess, there's a brand of easy cynicism in "Operation Mad Ball."

Kirt said...

Tim brings up a valid point. Compare Quine with Wilder asnd you see the difference. I like Wilder - love his stuff, in fact - but his attitude towards his characters is either complacent or dismissively contemptuous. I always get the idea that Quine liked the people in his films, flaws and all.

Chris Melford said...

I am a big fan of Quine's work, but I always thought of it as an attack the “cinéma d’auteur,” not part of it. But it will be interesting to examine his work again in light of this observation on your part. My suspicion is that his work for Columbia would qualify for the auteur tag but the stuff he made outside the studio seems to random and erratic. Wouldn't it be odd if this was the case - if Quine, unlike most filmmakers, worked as an auteur under a studio's thumb but not when he worked independently?

m. thiessen said...

Chris Melford brings up a compelling idea vis-à-vis Quine and auteurism. His work at Columbia definitely has a personal stamp on it that is pure Quine. But, from what I read, by the time he moved on to work as an independent for other studios, he had some personal problems which could have affected his flow and account for the erratic quality, as Chris puts it.

Alan Karnow said...

Joe, my eyes and yours see Richard Quine in much the same way. To me, he was a major director of minor films - and I don't say that disparagingly. He made small, compact films that have remarkable fluidity and pleasing characterizations. He may not be up there with Altman or Scorsese, but I'd definitely put him on par with Sam Fuller, Nick Ray and Anthony Mann. The only difference is that he made lighter films.

Ty said...

Quine has his fervent admirers–I recall a very careful analysis by Scott Foundas of his Columbia output. As for his work beyond Columbia, some of it may be crass - "Hotel," "Sex and the Single Girl" - but I’ll take a Quine film over, say, an Aapatow comedy (which I find repellent) anyday.