Art on a Budget: Joseph H. Lewis

A look back at the long career of the man who made ‘Gun Crazy’

(First published on time.com and used with the written permission of the author and publication of first instance.)

By Ed Grant

“Two people dead – just so we can live without working!”
Gun Crazy (1949)

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“Wagon Wheel Joe,” they used to call him. His name is known only to hardcore devotees of B westerns and films noirs. But cult phenomenon Joseph H. Lewis truly had a flair for directing meagerly budgeted genre movies — a flair he demonstrated in two seminal noirs, some memorably poetic westerns, and a pair of unforgettably twisted thrillers.

Lewis died at the age of 93 on August 30, leaving behind a wondrous cinematic legacy. His biggest fans, not surprisingly, are filmmakers who started out as movie buffs — Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Bertrand Tavernier. His most noted films continue to turn up on college campuses and in repertory theaters, but his work is difficult (if not impossible) to find on television and in home video/DVD stores (his most celebrated film, Gun Crazy, is currently out of distribution.) An unfortunate fate for a man who lavished care on every one of his pictures, introducing kinetic visuals in even the most routine B fodder — Lewis is probably the only filmmaker to put artily composed shots into Bela Lugosi or East Side Kids movies!

Lewis began as a journeyman director (sample titles: Blazing Six Shooters, Bombs Over Burma). He let the nondescript nature of his assignments serve as a springboard for experimentation, framing shots in the most unconventional ways — and thus “Wagon Wheel Joe” was born. Lewis told Peter Bogdanovich in an interview that appears in the book Who the Devil Made It, I thought to myself ‘How can I distract the audience from this… I put a wagon wheel in front of the camera; you looked at it — it was an artistic shot — and before you could analyze the scene, it was over.'”

Lewis boasted of his accomplishments in the B-movie arena long after he left the film industry (he retired in 1958, returning to direct only a few episodes of TV westerns). Speaking at the Cinematheque Française in 1985, Lewis enlightened aspiring filmmakers with tales of his imaginative triumphs over pathetically low budgets. He told his production designer on a foreign espionage drama to concentrate on building a giant doorway so large and impressive that most of the action could be set around it, avoiding construction of tacky cardboard backdrops. He chose to juice up an incredibly staid courtroom scene in the luridly titled Secrets of a Co-Ed (1942) by combining a number of shots into one intricate 10-minute-long take, something unheard of in a “Poverty Row production.”

Though his visual style was frequently spectacular, the details of Lewis’s pre- and post-Hollywood life are decidedly mundane: Born in 1907 in Brooklyn, Lewis initially ventured to Hollywood in the 1920s to become an actor. After his brother Ben, a seasoned editor, encouraged him to go behind the camera, Lewis worked his way up in the industry until he obtained a slot as an editor in the early ’30s. He made his debut as a director in 1937 with Navy Spy; then came a series of westerns, and a stint in the Signal Corps during WWII (as did another cult filmmaker, Russ Meyer).

After the war, Lewis directed the two films that established his reputation, the thrillers My Name Is Julia Ross (1945) and So Dark the Night (1946). Both films are as richly atmospheric and suspenseful as anything Hitchcock produced in the 1940s — Julia Ross, in fact, plays like a shorter, creepier take on Rebecca — and both movies received critical accolades, a rare occurrence for a B feature. The tale of a young woman who is held captive by a crooked mother-and-son team who attempt to convince her that she’s the son’s mentally unstable wife, Julia Ross is distinguished by topnotch camerawork and George Macready’s over-the-top turn as the middle-aged mama’s boy who likes to play with his pocket knife. So Dark the Night, on the other hand, is a masterful little whodunit about a French detective who faces the biggest puzzle of his career. The denouement of this forgotten gem is so potent that it was later used as the climax to Agatha Christie’s last Hercule Poirot novel, Curtain (Christie never said whether she’d seen Lewis’s film).

In 1949, Lewis directed Gun Crazy, his most famous title and without a doubt one of the best lovers-on-the-run movies ever made. Inspired by the exploits of Bonnie and Clyde, the film offers up a “weak sister” who’s an expert marksman (Rope‘s John Dall) as he falls in love with a sharpshooting femme fatale (British actress Peggy Cummins). Upon its release, the film became an critical success here and in Europe, and has remained a cult favorite for the last half-century. The reason is simple: Lewis pulled out all the stops, letting his visuals convey a feeling of uninhibited youth — what critic Myron Meisel labeled “the dizziness of irresponsibility.” Gun Crazy also found Lewis collaborating with another misunderstood auteur — blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo wrote the script, submitting it under the name of Millard Kaufman, a fellow screenwriter who agreed to front for Trumbo.

The film provides a memorable lesson in creating tension with an incredible bank robbery sequence in which the camera stays inside the getaway car for the duration of the action. We ride with our young lovers (dressed in matching cowboy and cowgirl outfits!) as they enter a small town, and stop in front of the targeted bank. We wait impatiently with Cummins as Dall takes just a bit too long to complete his task — causing her to exit the car (while we remain seated inside) and slug a nosey cop. Once Dall is back inside, we flee from the police — not having eavesdropped so much as participated in the characters’ crime spree. By largely confining his characters’ criminal activities to a succession of cars — and virtually pinning them in the seats — Lewis succeeds here in not only creating tension, but also adding psychological and sociological depth to his twisted love story.

While Gun Crazy was Lewis’s own favorite of all his films, many crime-movie aficionados revere his superb noir The Big Combo (1955). The film contains absolutely exquisite visuals, courtesy of Lewis and top noir cinematographer John Alton, but its most distinctive quality is the way in which the bad guy, Richard Conte, perpetually outshines straight arrow Cornel Wilde. Conte is charming, determined (his credo: “First is first and second is nobody!”), and very, very suave as gangster “Mr. Brown,” whereas Wilde is a bore as his police detective nemesis. It’s no wonder then that Lewis loved to talk about the time Wilde (who also served as the film’s associate producer) attempt to have him fired from the film. Speaking at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1998, Lewis noted that Wilde was furious over a scene in which Conte kisses Jean Wallace (Wilde’s wife at the time) and then disappears down below camera range, resulting in Wallace looking especially aroused. In the end, Lewis kept his job on the film — but one can’t help but think that he included this bit of implied oral sex for no other reason than to infuriate his uptight star.

Before his retirement in 1958, Lewis returned to making westerns. His last film, Terror in a Texas Town, is a truly odd affair that, like Gun Crazy, unfolds with dream-logic. The unforgettable opening, for instance, finds Sterling Hayden striding valiantly toward a classically styled showdown — toting a harpoon on his shoulder. An unseen gunfighter mocks him for his choice of weapon, and the movie proceeds, in one long flashback, to explain how Hayden got into this strange predicament. Terror is not Lewis’s finest western, but it does stand as a fitting conclusion to his body of work. You see, there’s this one oblique view of the town’s main street and a big wagon wheel is prominently placed in the frame… Intended, one assumes, as a final farewell to the craft Joseph H. Lewis loved so well.

c. 2000, 2013 Ed Grant

Trailers:

One of the best sources for Lewis’s films on VHS/DVD is Movies Unlimited (moviesunlimited.com). Although some titles mentioned above were never issued on video, and Gun Crazy is currently unavailable, The Big Combo, Terror in a Texas Town, and a number of other Lewis titles are in plentiful supply. For information on Lewis’s career, the best places to go are Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Devil Made It and Francis M. Nevins Jr’s Joseph H. Lewis: Overview, Interview, and Filmography.