Monday, April 09, 2018

richard quine, at columbia and beyond

Richard Quine never settled. Even as a house director at Columbia, where he was largely assigned work during the 1950s and '60s, he summoned an uneasy, idiosyncratic personal touch that made him a closet auteur.

Back then, he came in under the radar and, in some cinema circles, still does. Case in point: The critic J. Hoberman. Still hanging on the coattail of the late Andrew Sarris, Hoberman incited mild rage when - in his 2014 DVD review of "The Moonshine War" in the New York Times - he wrote: "Adapted by Elmore Leonard from his novel, 'The Moonshine War' was directed by Richard Quine, a minor auteur described by Andrew Sarris in 'The American Cinema' as 'an inoffensive imitator of his betters.'"

Fair enough, I guess. Everyone has an opinion (particularly about movies), but Hoberman's is a second-hand one. Besides, Quine enthusiasts do exist.

Another case in point: The critic Dave Kehr. Quine's name was invoked regularly - and with some admiration - on Kehr's much-missed site, "reports from the lost continent of cinephilia." And then there's the intrepid Scott Foundas, who has reviewed for The Village Voice, Variety and Film Comment and who wrote a terrific essay for the LA Weekly when the director was the subject of "Richard Quine at Columbia," a mini-retrospective presented by the film arm of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art back in 2008. When Quine's wonderful ”It Happened to Jane” (1959) was screened in 2011 at the Colonial Theater, a rep house in Phoenixville, Pa. the recommendation came from Foundas.
Quine remains a particular favorite of this site, not only because he coaxed the most naturalistic, least mannered screen work out of Jack Lemmon (sorry, Messrs. Wilder and Edwards), but precisely because his style was so uneasy and idiosyncratic - much like the man himself, who apparently was complex and troubled. Foundas has keenly observed that Quine was attracted to "lonely, broken people ensnared by desire."

Richard Quine started out as a contract player at Columbia in the 1930s and '40s and, as an actor, is perhaps best known for his role as Frank Lippincott in the 1942 Rosalind Russell film, "My Sister Elieen." He made his directing debut in tandem with William Asher on 1948's "Leather Gloves," whose cast included a young actor named ... Blake Edwards.
Many of Quine's 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," which Quine directed. (In the remake, the role of Frank that Quine played in the original went to Bob Fosse, who also choreographed the film.) After "Leather Gloves," Quine worked on shorts for the studio before directing his next film solo - the 1951 Frankie Laine musical, "Sunny Side of the Street," his official directorial debut.

He broke out in 1954 with two terrific titles, "Pushover," a gem that starred Fred MacMurray and introduced Kim Novak, and "Drive a Crooked Road," which started a quite interesting collaboration with Mickey Rooney.

In addition to Edwards and Rooney, his main connections at Columbia were studio head Harry Cohn (who promoted Quine to director), Lemmon (with whom he made six films and whose screen test he directed) and Novak (with whom he made four films there). Novak was entrusted to Quine by Cohn to groom into an actress and, more to the point, a star.

He directed Judy Holliday in two 1956 titles ("Full of Life" and "The Solid Gold Cadillac") and three films that paired Lemmon and Ernie Kovacs - "Operation Mad Ball," a 1957 service farce that predates "M*A*S*H" with its irreverent humor (and featrues a wild turn by Rooney), 1958's beguiling "Bell, Book and Candle" (also with Novak) and the aforementioned "It Happened to Jane" (in which Kovacs does a wicked impersonation of Harry Cohn, who died during the filming of "Bell, Book and Candle").

Novak became Quine's muse-cum-fiancée, and when they made 1960's "Strangers When We Meet," whose plot revolves around a swank Malibu home being designed for a famous writer, Columbia displayed its respect for Quine - and also supported his relationship with Novak - by building a real house for the film and then giving it to them after the shoot as "a wedding present."

But the couple parted ways during the filming and much of the anxiety in Novak's performance in the film (her best) may have stemmed directly from the real-life break-up. Between 1948 and 1960, Richard Quine directed 17 titles for Columbia before leaving the studio when his contract was up. It was yet another parting after "Strangers When We Meet" which, by the way, remains Quine's masterwork. Arguably, of course.

Working outside the axis of the Columbia lot on North Gower, Quine's work took on a different dimension. Early on, he had been "loaned out" by Columbia (to Universal) for the Tony Curtis-Gene Nelson musical, "So This Is Paris" (1954), but his extracurricular professional life really started in earnest in 1960, the year he made "Strangers When We Meet," when he directed William Holden and Nancy Kwan in the film version of the Paul Osborn play, "The World of Suzie Wong" for Ray Stark and Paramount.

Quine returned to Columbia two years later in 1962 and reunited with both Lemmon and Novak for the superior comedy-mystery, ”The Notorious Landlady,” a clever, intricate take on Hitchcock. And then he dove into three back-to-back, star-powered comedies - "Paris - When It Sizzles" (1964), with William Holden and Audrey Hepburn; "Sex and the Single Girl" (1964), with Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood, and "How to Murder Your Wife" (1965), his final film with Lemmon - the three made for Paramount, Warner Bros. and United Artists, respectfully.

He made another return to Columbia in '65 to direct Stella Stevens in the addiction drama, "Synanon," done verité-style; segued into Warners' "Hotel" (starring Rod Taylor) in '67 and, the same year, had another reunion - with Roz Russell, directing her in the film version of the Arthur Kopit play/curiosity, "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad," for Paramount.

In 1969-1970, Quine did two solid Richard Widmark films - "A Talent for Loving" for Paramount" and the aforementioned "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 is credited for "Fu Manchu."

Nine years later, Richard Quine would die from a self-inflicted gun shot. His career had been winding down and, sadly, he never achieved the wide-spread recognition that his peer and friend Blake Edwards enjoyed. Perhaps he missed the kind of movie he made so easily at his original home base, Columbia, where - again, arguably - he did his best work.

Perhaps, he was that rare filmmaker who worked best as a hired hand, a contract director, and not as a transient free-lancer. Who knows?

The standout among his final films is an unsung title 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, barely noticed. And it is now forgotten.

As he did with Kim Novak decades 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 and drive to give a valid performance is palpable. I can recall only a few performers who have worked so hard and with such sincerity to be so good - and much of Twiggy's success in the film, I surmise, comes from having Richard Quine as her director.

I've a hunch that his uneasy, idiosyncratic touch inspired her.

Notes in Passing: Quine and Billy Wilder both served as "best men" at Jack Lemmon's marriage to Felicia Farr in Paris during the summer of 1962, when Lemmon and Wilder were there for "Irma La Douce" location shooting.

Kim Novak was there, too. It was during that same summer that "The Notorious Landlady" was released. And, finally, Quine served as narrator for Lemmon's 1961 service comedy with Ricky Nelson, "The Wackiest Ship in the Army."

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* * * * *
(from top) 

~Richard Quine directing Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak in "The Notorious Landlady" 
~photography: Bob Willoughby/Columbia Pictures 1962© 

~Studio shot of Richard Quine
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1958©

~Doris Day, Jack Lemmon and Sam the lobster relax during the shooting of "It Happened to Jane"
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1959©

~Betty Garrett, Jenet Leigh, Jack Lemmon and Bob Fosse in "My Sister Eileen"
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1955©

~Mickey Rooney in "Operation Mad Ball"
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1957©

~Kim Novak in "Strangers When We Meet"
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1960©

~Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis in a scene from "Sex and the Single Girl"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1964© 

 ~ Dust jacket for the RCA soundtrack for "Oh Dad, Poor Dad,  Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling so Sad"

~ Lobby card for "W" 

~Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak - in color! - in the otherwise black-&-white "The Notorious Landlady" 
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1962©


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.

Charlotte said...

Yes, Quine does have his fervent admirers. I also recall the 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 Apatow comedy (which I find repellent) any day.

Michael J. Fitzgerald said...

Great column, Joe... just great....

Brian Lucas said...

Joe- I believe that Alexander Mackendrick also worked on "Oh Dad, Poor Dad..."

Kevin Barry said...

I love Richard Quine and agree that Strangers When We Meet is his masterpiece. Novak always seemed at her most relaxed under his direction. I have fond memories of seeing The Notorious Landlady with my parents at the much-missed Beekman Theatre in NYC. I can still hear my mother's convulsive laughter at Lemmon chasing that wheelchair! Your pieces always jog my memory and put things into historical perspective. When you put all the elements of his career together, Quine's achievement is truly impressive.

joe baltake said...

Yes, Kevin, the wonderful Beekman, a very sophisticated house. I saw "Landlady" at the cavernous Criterion on Broadway, usually the venue for roadshow attractions. Those were the days of fabulous single-screen movie theaters. Now, we see films in what feels like concrete warehouses.

Marvin J Halpern said...

Joe, I seem to remember that the studio hated PARIS WHEN IT SIZZLES and therefore "shelved" it for a while; and when they did release it, the film just sort of dropped into theaters and was quickly gone. Might you or any of your readers be able to confirm if I am remembering correctly PARIS WHEN IT SIZZLES (or not, as the case may be). Many thanks! Marvin H.

joe baltake said...

Marvin- You are absolutely correct. Paramount had a bad reaction to "Paris - When It Sizzles" (perhaps based on lackluster test screenings) and treated the film horribly. It was indeed shelved, which gave the film a bad reputation. -J

mike schlesinger said...

I've always been a huge Quine supporter--especially given his mentorship of Edwards--and during my time at Sony pushed his pictures whenever I could. Thanks for the hat-tip to a grossly-underrated filmmaker.

Harriet andrade said...

Some of the films I love and could see countless times were Richard Quine directed. I am embarrassed not to have realized this. Sex and the Single Girl is a brilliant delightful comedy with sly social ctiticism. Strangers When We Meet is a great drama and portrays the sexual affair between Kim Novack and Kirk Douglas very frankly - even though there is no nudity! The World of Suzy Wong is an offbeat atmospheric love story that holds up well. I am grateful for Richard Quine and his legacy.

Archie D'Amico said...

I agree that STRANGERS WHEN WE MEET is Kim Novak's best and most relaxed performance. Her sadness comes through as it usually does. David Thomson said she looks like the camera "hurts" her. STRANGERS also presents the west side LA suburbs in a fresh lived in look. A beautiful movie.