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A Letter from John Carpenter on “The Thing” – January 2, 1983

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

In 1983, shortly after the release of his film The Thing, I got a letter from John Carpenter about the film.

John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing is now considered a masterpiece, something I’ve always thought, but when it first came out in the Summer of 1982, roughly at the same time as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, audiences opted for the cute little Reese’s pieces eating alien over Carpenter’s relentlessly nihilistic vision of a visitor from outer space, and the film was almost universally reviled by critics – proving, once again, that when a work is ahead of its time, it can almost be assured of an uncomprehending, hostile reception.

Carpenter had argued with Universal, who produced both films, that pitting them against each other would have disastrous results, suggesting that the release be delayed to Halloween, which of course is the title of Carpenter’s iconic 1978 indie film, which was shot for roughly $300,000, and went on to gross more than $70 million worldwide. But Universal insisted on putting the two films out within weeks of each other, and Spielberg’s film took off, while Carpenter’s film languished.

As Carpenter told one interviewer about the film’s initial reception, “I take every failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit. I don’t think the studio knew what kind of movie they were getting. I think they wanted Alien, a crowd-pleaser. And it was way too ferocious for them. They were upset by the ending—too dark. But that’s what I wanted: Who goes there? Who are we? Which one of you is real? The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane.”

In the Fall of 1982, I was teaching film at Rutgers University, and as part of my fall class schedule, I wanted to run The Thing in 16mm CinemaScope format, but figured it was out of my budget range. Nevertheless, I called up Universal’s non-theatrical booking agency in Manhattan, chatted with a young woman there who was as enthused about the film as I was, and eventually negotiated a rental price of $100 – a fraction of the going rate – for the class screening.

At the same time, I mentioned to her how disappointed I was in the poor critical reception the film was receiving, and asked if I could have John Carpenter’s address so that I could write a letter to him in support of the film. In those much more egalitarian times, this was no problem, and she gave me Carpenter’s production company address, and I dispatched a letter to him giving my thoughts about the film, and various related topics, on December 15, 1982.

On January 2, 1983, I received a lengthy response from Carpenter, which I’ll quote most of here – with the note that for many years, I considered this letter lost, until it surfaced only a few days ago at the home of a friend in New Jersey, where apparently I had left it one evening. (Parenthetically, I’m a terrible archivist; I once had a signed letter from Orson Welles, no less, and lost that, too!)

But in any event, here is what Carpenter had to say to about the film, and horror films in general: “My favorite Gothic directors are Roman Polanski, Mario Bava (simply for style alone), George Romero, Terence Fisher and James Whale. Each of these directors brought a personality and a style to the horror film. I’ve always thought that Freddie Francis was a better Director of Photography. William Castle was more a producer / entrepreneur.

You asked me about the issue of cinematic violence, which is really, I feel, the issue of stylistic realism. Sam Peckinpah popularized the ‘too real effect’ in The Wild Bunch [1969]. Human beings don’t really die with little blood bag explosions popping out all over the place, but the effect soon became a kind of realism used widely in movies and even television; you shoot someone, you pop a couple of blood bags here and there.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even Halloween didn’t use this stylistic realism. The brutal, sadistic killings were suggested, sparing us any enjoyment of the sadism. We’re voyeurs, true, but there’s a point to which we want to be thrashed around in that dark corner of our minds.

The Thing was a monster movie, meaning simply that the protagonist was ‘an other,’ non-human alien. I felt that in order to convince the audience that The Thing was real, stylistic realism was in order. [Special effects artist] Rob Bottin came in to me with a concept of the actual visual manifestations that seemed to coincide with the amorphous, non-evil-acting ‘otherness’ reality that had to be a part of The Thing.

Systematic inclusion of graphic violence or sex or whatever may enhance a film, or may destroy it, or simply relegate it to pornography or exploitation. [That being said], there should be no restrictions, other than the intentions of the director.

Your idea of the ‘the icon’ is a sound one. Movies carry our mythology now [emphasis added]. Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster is as much as legend now as Prometheus. Perhaps The Thing could be seen as an examination of exactly what constitutes ‘humanness.’ The creature itself is just simply non-human, but like a cancer, it grows and takes us over, distorts, ravages. It isn’t gory, at least not to me.”

Carpenter closed with the thoughts that he was especially fond of the films of director Luis Buñuel, and the films The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, Invisible Invaders, The Big Sleep (the 1946 version, please) and Los Olvidados. I’ve always been grateful that Carpenter took the time and effort to type such a long letter in response to a total stranger at the time, and that he so carefully and perceptively articulated precisely what he was up to with The Thing, which was based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella Who Goes There?, and first brought to the screen by Howard Hawks as The Thing from Another World (1951).

Carpenter, of course, is a big fan of Howard Hawks, with excellent reason, and his first real feature, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) has distinct debts to Hawks which Carpenter readily acknowledges. Hawks’ version of The Thing is a brilliant film, but it has an upbeat, optimistic ending – as all Hawks films do – as a ragtag group of dedicated survivors pull together to defeat the threat of a hostile invasion from outer space. Carpenter’s film offers no such assurances, and as such is more in tune with the noirish temper of the present day era, in which “every person for themselves first” seems to be the governing principle.

So, if you haven’t seen The Thing, do so now, but only in the proper CinemaScope ratio; in addition to Bottin’s astounding and thankfully pre-digital special effects, the actors Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart and Keith David – superb performers all – have seldom had better roles. Then, too, Bill Lancaster’s astonishingly bleak screenplay and dialogue for the film make a distinct contribution to the proceedings. The production of the film was by all accounts grueling, but the end result is more than worth it. And so it’s nice to see this letter again after some thirty years (!!) and have a chance to share it with the readers of this blog.

A special thanks goes out to David Dutcher, who found this letter, and sent it on – thanks, Dutch!

Typical Script Detail at Universal in the 1940s

Saturday, April 1st, 2017

Even on the most minor projects, Universal in the 1940s paid attention to the smallest details.

Weird Woman was a modest 1944 release from Universal in their “Inner Sanctum” series, all starring Lon Chaney Jr. – here as Professor Norman Reed – many of which were directed by Reginald Le Borg, including this film. It’s about an hour long, and had a very short shooting schedule – but Le Borg manages to squeeze the most atmosphere possible out of the proceedings, even if Chaney Jr. seems a rather unlikely college professor (much of his dialogue is delivered in voice over, to heighten the claustrophobic feel of the film). But as even a cursory glance at the script page above demonstrates, on the most overtly commercial offerings from the studio during this period, a great deal of care was taken to make the film as precise and detailed as possible.

For an average shooting script, there’s a great deal of description – and even camera movements – spelled out in minute detail, so that the entire film is carefully pre-planned, and can be shot with maximum efficiency, without sacrificing quality. The budget for the film was somewhere in the $100,000 range, and Chaney Jr. at this point in his career was being used as the studio’s “clean up” man, tackling any role they threw at him – even in a western – with only a few complaints. Above all, during the 1940s, Universal was a factory, operating in a nation at war, delivering a product to audiences that satisfied genre expectations. The shooting schedule was at the most a few weeks, if that.

But even though the film is resolutely a program picture, it’s also enlivened by the skill of a gallery of gifted supporting actors, including Anne Gwynne, Evelyn Ankers, the always reliable Ralph Morgan, Elisabeth Risdon, and the ever-alarming Elizabeth Russell. Based on a novel by the gifted Fritz LieberConjure Wife – which was remade in 1962 as Night of the Eagle – this is a solid entry in the “Inner Sanctum” series, which everyone involved took seriously, even if the end result is somewhat threadbare, if only because of the circumstances of budgetary constraints, lack of time, and the ever present need for a “happy ending.” Still, it’s very much worth watching, and you can now see the whole film online.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the entire film.

Lois Weber’s “Shoes” (1916) Saved by Eye Museum, Amsterdam

Friday, April 29th, 2016

The EYE Museum in Amsterdam has restored Shoes (1916), a nearly lost film by director Lois Weber.

As the EYE Museum’s YouTube site notes, “the film Shoes (1916, USA, Universal Bluebird Photoplays), directed by Lois Weber, starred Mary MacLaren, Harry Griffith, Jessie Arnold, and William Mong. The film is a social drama about the dime store clerk Eva Meyer (MacLaren), who desperately needs a new pair of shoes. However, because her father is unemployed, Eva’s weekly earnings go into the household budget, bringing a new pair of shoes completely out of her reach.”

As historian Shelley Stamp writes of Lois Weber on the Women Film Pioneers Project website, “Lois Weber was the leading female director-screenwriter in early Hollywood. She began her career alongside her husband, Phillips Smalley, after the two had worked together in the theatre. They began working in motion pictures around 1907, often billed under the collective title ‘The Smalleys.’

In their early years at studios like Gaumont and Reliance, they acted alongside one another on-screen and codirected scripts written by Weber. Indeed, their status as a married, middle-class couple was often used to enhance their reputation for highbrow, quality pictures.

In 1912, they were placed in charge of the Rex brand at the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, where they produced one or two one-reel films each week with a stock company of actors, quickly turning the brand into one of the studio’s most sophisticated.

The couple increasingly turned their attention to multireel films, completing a four-reel production of The Merchant of Venice in 1914, the first American feature directed by a woman. Later that year they moved from Universal to Hobart Bosworth Productions where they were given more freedom to make feature-length films, among them Hypocrites (1915).

By the time the couple arrived back at Universal in 1916, Weber had emerged as the dominant member of the husband and wife partnership and, indeed, as one of the top directors on the lot. She was the sole author of scripts the couple adapted for the screen, and marketing materials and reviews singled out her work on the productions. Reporters visiting the couple on set found Smalley repeatedly turning to his wife for important decisions.

During these years Weber made a series of high profile and often deeply controversial films on social issues of the day, including capital punishment in The People vs. John Doe (1916), drug abuse in Hop, the Devil’s Brew (1916), poverty and wage equity in Shoes (1916), and contraception in Where Are My Children? (1916) and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917) [. . .]

Weber achieved the height of her renown during these years: her name was routinely mentioned alongside that of D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille as one of the top talents in Hollywood. In 1916, she was the first and only woman elected to the Motion Picture Directors Association, a solitary honor she would retain for decades.

While at Universal it is also likely that she helped to foster the careers of other actresses employed at the studio, many of whom she had directed, including Cleo Madison, Lule Warrenton, and Dorothy Davenport Reid, who would become directors or producers in their own right.”

Read Stamp’s complete essay on Lois Weber by clicking here – an essential figure in cinema history.

Download Millions of Feet of Newsreel Footage in Public Domain

Saturday, January 16th, 2016

Looking for a place to download millions of feet of free, Public Domain stock footage?

In the pre-TV era, people saw the news every week in their neighborhood movie theaters. Newsreels were shown before every feature film and in dedicated newsreel theaters located in large cities. Universal Newsreel, produced from 1929 to 1967, was released twice a week. Each issue contained six or seven short stories, usually one to two minutes in length, covering world events, politics, sports, fashion, and whatever else might entertain the movie audience.

These newsreels offer a fascinating and unique view of an era when motion pictures defined our culture and were a primary source of visual news reporting. Universal City Studios gifted Universal Newsreel to the American people, put the newsreels into the public domain, and gave film materials to the National Archives in 1976. Surviving materials from the entire collection are available at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland.

Here’s another invaluable free resource on the web – click here to enter the site.

The Universal Monsters Reboot Won’t Work

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

It won’t work because there’s the wrong talent in the room – and the wrong approach to the problem.

Lord knows, there are many more important things in the world today to discuss, and for the most part, I try to keep this blog positive, but the news – which has been trickling out for months – that Universal is trying to reboot the classic monsters that gave the studio its initial identity would be welcome – were it not for the fact that they’re going about it in precisely the wrong way. Looking at the Marvel universe films, which are enormously successful, Universal is trying to do the same thing with The Mummy, The Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, The Wolfman – and it simply isn’t working.

Look at the recent reboot of Dracula Untold – a complete commercial and critical failure, which came across as yet another knockoff of the 300 franchise, and not a horror film at all.  The recent revamp of The Wolfman – the same thing, complete with a switch of directors halfway through, and a new, grafted on ending that spoiled the entire premise of the film. As one observed suggested, “just re-issue the originals, save a lot of money, and give us some classy entertainment!” But of course, that’s not going to happen.

What should happen – but won’t – is that Universal finds some Gothic filmmakers who have a real connection to the genre and then turns them loose to create authentic, reimagined-from-the-ground-up reboots of the entire series, and scrap everything they’ve done in the last decade or so, starting with The Mummy, Van Helsing, and the other misguided attempts to bring new life to Mary Shelley’s, Curt Siodmak’s  and Bram Stoker’s creations, among other possible restarts – and go back to the source material. Not the films; the texts that inspired them.

In the late 1950s, Britain’s Hammer studios successfully revitalized the classic gallery of Universal monsters as essentially British, Gothic creations with Terence Fisher’s Curse of Frankenstein (1957), which took the storyline seriously, acted as if none of the Universal films had ever been made, and offered an entirely new vision of the entire Frankenstein mythos.

Universal fought Hammer tooth and nail during production of the film, accidentally doing Hammer a big favor by prohibiting them from using any aspects of the Universal version of the monster – so the look, the storyline, the pacing, the use of violence, everything about the film – had to be completely original, going back to the textual source material from 1818.

As Hammer correctly noted during production, the Frankenstein saga was firmly in the Public Domain, and so if someone could create a fresh version of the classic tale, then there was nothing to stop them legally. Hammer finished up the film, and offered it to Universal, but the studio, still incensed that someone else was “poaching” on what they considered was their domain, passed on distributing the project.

Hammer took it to Warner Bros., where Jack Warner pounced on it. The film opened worldwide, made a fortune, immediately rejuvenated the genre, elevated Peter Cushing (as Frankenstein) and Christopher Lee (as the Monster) to overnight stars, and finally Universal saw the writing on the wall. Universal had run out of ideas – or a vision of what they should be doing – and it took outsiders who could use nothing from the earlier films to make the genre new again.

Striking a deal with Hammer, Universal offered Hammer a shot at the entire gallery of their cinematic malefactors, and Fisher’s Horror of Dracula (1958) followed in rapid succession, and was an even bigger hit. Hammer then cycled through all the Universal monsters for an extremely profitable decade or so, until the genre finally collapsed under the weight of diminishing returns, just as Universal’s original series eventually wound up as a parody of itself with the “monster rally” films of the mid 1940s, and finally Charles Barton’s parody Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein (1948).

None of this is news to any film historian – everyone who knows the history of horror films know this. But it seems that Universal simply doesn’t get the message. The monster franchise is not a Marvel “universe” series – it needs a completely fresh approach, which none of the people currently involved can accomplish – they’re too caught up in the Comic-Con world to recapture the vitality and energy of the original films. What’s happening now is a complete mistake. I wish it were otherwise, but I absolutely guarantee you, this “Monster universe” strategy will not work.

Only an authentic “start from scratch” approach will revitalize this franchise.

How Universal Plans to Salvage Fast and Furious 7

Sunday, December 15th, 2013

Fast and Furious 7, and the franchise itself, is simply too lucrative to abandon.

As everyone knows, series regular Paul Walker was killed in a car crash two weeks ago, and since then Universal has been quietly trying to figure out how to save the film, and the series. Sara Nathan, writing in The MailOnline, reports that “Paul’s brother Cody, 25, who has worked as a stuntman, is set to take his place in the final scenes. According to a source close to the production, producers have been in-and-out of meetings since the star’s death, trying to work out a way to fill his void.’They soon realized they needed someone who looked like Paul to finish the movie and that’s when they approached his nearly identical brother, Cody,’ claims the source.’They can shoot Cody from behind and at distance and it it’s a shot they need Paul’s face in close up they can CGI it later on,’ explained the source.”

The death of a major actor during filming on a movie has certainly happened before — see this link — but what might be nice is if the script is reworked so that Walker’s character, Brian O’Connor, is sidelined by a minor accident within the film, and the team decides to call on his brother to help out with whatever scheme they’re up to in this episode. Cody Walker, an experienced stuntman, could easily adapt to a franchise like the Fast and Furious films, which is little more than nonstop action.

This would give Universal a chance to showcase Cody, with perhaps a scene in which Paul – through the extensive use of CGI – decides at the end to hang it up, walks away, and his brother takes over his slot in the series. That way, “Brian O’Connor” remains alive at the end of the film, just in retirement from the fast life, and reality isn’t allowed to intrude on what is essentially a fantasy series. It makes a great deal of sense – as when George Sanders handed over the Falcon series of detective thrillers in the 1940s to his brother, Tom Conway. I’m sure that Cody Walker will feel more than a little strange doubling for his brother, Paul, and I hope that he strikes a deal with the studio that makes him an instant multi-millionaire for his services.

It’s sad, but that’s Hollywood, where the bottom line is always a prime consideration.

The Unguarded Moment (1956)

Monday, August 6th, 2012

I have a new article on The Unguarded Moment in Noir of the Week.

Here’s the opening paragraphs: “Harry Keller’s The Unguarded Moment is a lost gem from the 1950s, which reveals the real dark side of the American dream, and the nightmare behind the seemingly pleasant facade of Eisenhower America. Esther Williams, usually more at home in aquatic roles, had just been dismissed by MGM, and was looking around for an interesting project to help her establish a new screen identity.

Universal suddenly, and unexpectedly, stepped in and offered her $200,000 to appear in The Unguarded Moment — more than $1.5 million in 2012, adjusted for inflation — which was more than MGM had ever paid her for any of her many films for that studio. The film was described to Esther Williams as a suspense thriller, which it manifestly is, and it was a complete change of pace from the roles she had spent her lifetime playing; essentially the same role over and over again, in a series of Technicolor swimming extravaganzas. Williams was sick of them, and sick of the genre as a whole; she wanted something different. Seeing the role as a challenge, Williams accepted the assignment.

Williams plays Lois Conway, a small town high school music teacher living in well-manicured suburbia — actually the Leave it to Beaver / Desperate Housewives street on Universal’s back lot — whose life is turned into a nightmare when one of her pupils, an unbalanced high school football star, Leonard Bennett (John Saxon, in a very early role) starts sending her love notes, physically attacks her after a football practice underneath the bleachers, breaks into her house and steals her possessions, all without leaving a shred of evidence against him.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Frame by Frame: Hollywood Movie Moguls

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see a brief video on the Hollywood moguls.

I have a new Frame by Frame video out today, directed and edited by Curt Bright, on Hollywood’s movie moguls of the 1930s through the 1960s, and how their era came to an end; it’s part of the work of my book, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, forthcoming from Rutgers University Press for Fall, 2012.

Death of the Moguls is a detailed assessment of the last days of the “rulers of film,” which examines the careers of such moguls as  Harry Cohn at Columbia, Louis B. Mayer at MGM, Jack L. Warner at Warner Brothers, Adolph Zukor at Paramount, and Herbert J. Yates at Republic in the dying days of their once-mighty empires. The sheer force of personality and business acumen displayed by these moguls made the studios successful; their deaths or departures hastened the studios’ collapse. Almost none had a plan for leadership succession; they simply couldn’t imagine a world in which they didn’t reign supreme.

Covering 20th Century-Fox, Selznick International Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, Paramount Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, Warner Brothers, Universal Pictures, Republic Pictures, Monogram Pictures and Columbia Pictures, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood briefly introduces the studios and their respective bosses in the late 1940s, just before the collapse, then chronicles the last productions from the studios and their eventual demise in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

I discuss here, and in the book in much more detail, of course, such game-changing factors as the de Havilland decision, which made actors free agents; the Consent Decree, which forced the studios to get rid of their theaters; how the moguls dealt with their collapsing empires in the television era; and the end of the conventional studio assembly line, where producers had rosters of directors, writers, and actors under their command.

Barry Keith Grant read several drafts of the book during its production, and wrote that “in this accessible and engaging history of the moguls who made the studios successful [. . .] Dixon does a terrific job of getting inside the heads of the bosses who built their studios into major entertainment factories.”

The book should be out in September, so you can read it for yourself then.

Son of Dracula (1943)

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

Louise Allbritton in Robert Siodmak’s Son of Dracula (1943); click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for the film.

I’ve been meaning to blog on this film for quite some time, but something always came up; in any event, Son of Dracula, one of the last of the truly serious Universal horror films of the 1940s, is a remarkable film in many respects, not least of which is the fact that it’s the first horror film to combine distinct elements of film noir with the Dracula legend, transported here to America’s south for the first time, and directed by the gifted noir stylist Robert Siodmak (at a salary of just $150 per week), from a screenplay by his brother Curt, both refugees from Hitler’s Germany who wound up in Hollywood, and brought their Expressionist style of cinema with them.

Son of Dracula’s plot begins in a fairly straightforward manner; Count Alucard (try spelling it backwards; persuasively portrayed by Lon Chaney, Jr.) shows up at the Dark Oaks plantation in New Orleans, invited by Katherine “Kay” Caldwell (Louise Allbritton), a wealthy young heiress with a disturbingly deep interest in the supernatural. In short order, Alucard dispatches her father, Colonel Caldwell (George Irving), and marries Kay, who seemingly dismisses her long time fiancé Frank Stanley (Robert Paige) without a backward glance. Kay soon becomes one of the undead, and it seems as if Kay and Alucard are destined for a life of brutal immortality, scouring the countryside on a nightly basis for victims.

But — and here is the twist that makes the film unusual, and also constitutes a spoiler, so be warned — Kay has only one plan in her mind; after becoming a vampire, she infects Frank, hoping to turn him into a vampire, as well, so that Frank and Kay can live forever, as soon as Kay destroys Alucard by driving a stake through his heart. In short, Kay is a stylish 40s femme fatale, whose true motives can only be divined more than two-thirds of the way through the film, and who dares to double cross even the Prince of Darkness himself to obtain eternal life for herself and her beloved.

Siodmak thought the script was junk, but he’s wrong; it’s a smooth, solid piece of genre craftsmanship, and the film served as his “trial by fire” at Universal, as he soon moved up to more prestigious assignments, such as The Spiral Staircase (1945), The Killers (1946), based on Ernest Hemingway’s short story, and The Dark Mirror (1946), all certifiable noir classics. In addition, George Robinson’s atmospheric cinematography brings out every last nuance of the dark, decaying mise en scene of the film, and John P. Fulton’s masterful special effects — the first time Dracula transforms into a bat on screen, or a trail of vapor in another memorable instance — adds much to the film’s overall impact, to say nothing of Hans J. Salter’s suitably sinister music score, one of many for Universal’s classic horror cycle.

But in the end, it’s Louise Allbritton’s performance — alluring, sensual, willful — that serves as the centerpiece of the film, and balances nicely off Chaney’s masculine interpretation of Alucard. Son of Dracula is a one of a kind movie, made just as the Universal cycle was coming to an end — it would collapse entirely in 1944 and 1945, with House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, respectively, but here, for one last time, with a top flight director who would go on to much greater things, and a serviceable cast that responds intuitively to his authoritative direction, the Dracula legend is taken seriously one last time, and the results are well worth watching.

Incidentally, I’ll post in a few minutes on Film Forum’s tribute to Universal and Robert Siodmak, an event those of you who live in or around Manhattan absolutely should not miss.

Roy William Neill

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

Roy William Neill’s passport photograph, circa 1920.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for Roy William Neill’s film Black Angel (1946), one of most interesting and atmospheric noirs of the late 1940s, and the last film he made before his untimely death at the age of 59.

From Wikipedia, All Rovi and other sources: “With his father as the captain, Roy William Neill was born on September 4, 1887, on board a ship off the coast of Ireland. His birth name was Roland de Gostrie. Neill joined the film industry in 1915 as an assistant to Thomas Ince, subsequently directing 40 silent films. He made one talkie for MGM before moving to Columbia Pictures, where he worked until the mid ’30s. While at Columbia, Neill directed the atmospheric period chiller The Black Room (1935), arguably the best movie that Boris Karloff made away from Universal in the ’30s.

In 1935, Neill moved to England, where better opportunities existed for American directors, and spent the next three years there, working for Gainsborough Pictures and later for Warner Bros.-First National. Among the features that he made while there was the 1935 drama Dr. Syn, starring George Arliss and Margaret Lockwood, about a local vicar who has a connection with a long-missing pirate, and who tries to save his village from the oppression of the king’s soldiers.

In 1936, Neill got what could have been the best picture-making opportunity of his career. In May of that year, screenwriter and future director Frank Launder suggested that Gainsborough Studios buy the rights to Ethel Lina White’s new mystery novel The Wheel Spins, which they did and assigned Launder and his longtime associate Sidney Gilliat to adapt into a screenplay called Lost Lady. The script was completed in August of that year and Neill was chosen as director of Lost Lady, and a film unit was sent to Yugoslavia to shoot some summer exteriors under an assistant director named Fred Gunn. Unfortunately, Gunn broke his ankle in an accident, and in the course of investigating, the police found his script and demanded to review the manner in which it treated their country.

The opening pages — which found parallels between goose-stepping soldiers and geese waddling — offended the authorities, and the entire unit was expelled from the country. By that time, both Neill and the studio had lost much of their original enthusiasm for the project, and it was shelved while Neill went to to other thrillers. A year later, as he was finishing up Young and Innocent for the same studio, Alfred Hitchcock was looking for another film and asked the studio if they had any screenplay on hand that would be suitable for him. What they pulled out was Lost Lady which, after a few minor rewrites, became The Lady Vanishes.

Altogether, Neill helmed 107 films, a remarkable accomplishment by any measure; he was known for directing films with meticulously lit scenes and carefully layered shadows, a style that would become the hallmark of film noir in the late 1940s. After working in Hollywood for Universal in the early 1940s, mostly notably on films in the long-running Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, Neill returned to London, and a house he had just built for his retirement, only to die on the doorstep of a heart attack on December 14, 1946. Neill was a conscientious craftsman as a director, but his signature style of high key lighting, and his smooth, luxurious tracking shots set him apart from the more quotidian directors of the era.”

As Bruce Eder comments, “according to Rathbone in his memoirs and other survivors of the series over the years, Neill — who was known affectionately to Rathbone as ‘Dear Mousie’ — was the final arbiter in all things Holmes-ian on the set of the Universal series. In addition to being a master directorial interpreter of the character, Neill also got a joint writing credit (with Bertram Millhauser) for the screenplay of The Scarlet Claw, which is arguably the best entry in the entire Universal series. Neill also directed and produced Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man — considered by many to be the last wholly serious entry in Universal’s classic series of horror films. An instantly recognizable stylist, Neill’s work is characterized by meticulously lit scenes and carefully layered shadows, with restrained but mobile camera movements.”

Neill was one of the slickest visual stylists of the classical studio era, and his work has long been under-appreciated.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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