Monday, December 10, 2007

Joseph Lewis

I watched Gun Crazy last night and was struck as always by the folk tale power of the story and the bravado with which it was directed. Mystery writer Mike Nevins has written a long and to me definitive piece-interview on Lewis' career and through it I came to understand Lewis' notion that to have suspense you first need to have characters who are slightly askew. You never quite understand their motives so you never quite know what to expect from them.

Most evaluations of Lewis' career speculate what he would have done with A picture budgets. He ended up doing a lot of TV work. He made a good deal of money but presumably wasn't as satisfied with his Bonanza stories as he was with his more personal work. He started in westerns and finished in westerns.

As for what he would have done with A-picture money...who knows. But there's at least a chance that he was most comfortable working with the money he was given. Hard to imagine that pictures as gritty as Gun Crazy and The Big Combo could have been shot the way he wanted them to be in an A-picture environment. These are films that took no prisoners and Hwood, especially in those days, wasn't real keen on grim movies.

I found this evaluation of Lewis by David Thomson, my favorite film critic:

"There is no point in overpraising Lewis. The limitations of the B picture lean on all his films. But the plunder he came away with is astonishing and - here is the rub - more durable than the output of many better-known directors...Joseph Lewis never had the chance to discover whether he was an "artist," but - like Edgar Ulmer and Budd Boetticher - he has made better films than Fred Zinnemann, John Frankenheimer, or John Schlesinger." - David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)


Martin Edwards said...

Ed, speaking of David Thomson, do you know his book 'Suspects', which makes innovative use of his love of film noir? It's a unique contribution to crime fiction, I think.

Ed Gorman said...

Fine fine book. Should be on every shelf. As should most of his books.

Anonymous said...

Anything like Kim Newman's THE NIGHT MAYOR?

Ed Gorman said...

Here's how Thrilling Detctive described Suspects:

David Thomson's Suspects
Characters from Private Eye and Noir Flicks included in David Thomson's Suspects

In his 1985 novel, film critic David Thomson assembles brief bios of over eighty famous movie characters, from classic films like The Big Sleep, Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard, etc. and imagines links between them, covering everyone from JAKE GITTES (Chinatown) to TRAVIS BICKLE (Taxi Driver).

Did you know that George, from It's a Wonderful Life, had a son, HARRY MOSEBY, from Night Moves. Definitely a weird, wonderful book for movie fans.

Jake Gittes, Noah Cross, Evelyn Cross Mulwray Chinatown (1974)
Ilsa Lund, Victor Lazlo, Rick Blaine Casablanca (1942)
Eileen Wade The Long Goodbye (1973)
Laura, Waldo Lydecker, Mark McPherson Laura (1944)
Walter Neff, Phyllis Diedrichson, Wilson Keyes Double Indemnity (1944)
Vivian Sternwood The Big Sleep (1946)
Brigid Shaughnessy, Casper Gutman, The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Jeff Bailey Out of the Past (1947)
John Klute, Bree Daniels Klute (1971)
Harry Moseby, Paula Iverson Night Moves (1975)

An added bonus is the filmography at the end, as fine a suggested viewing list as you'd want.

Juri said...

I've always thought that THE BIG COMBO (one of the best crime films I've ever seen, better than GUN CRAZY) was an A film. It's certainly not cheap. Also with GUN CRAZY, I remember it being said that it was "a cheap A film", not a B film. Isn't it too long to be a B film? I've seen some of Lewis's other films, some earlier than his two masterpieces, some later, and none come close.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Gorman,
This is the 100th Anniversary of Joseph H. Lewis (1907-2000). The wonderful book on Lewis by Francis M. Nevins you recommended is "Joseph H. Lewis: overview, interview, and filmography" (1998). Nevins knew Lewis personally, and interviewed him depth.
A good critical account of Lewis' films for theaters in by Robert Keser:
And my own long web article on Lewis, covering (so far) 84 of his 105+ films, is at:

This article opens with a checklist of Lewis' subjects and film techniques. The checklist forms an easy way to learn a lot about Lewis in a hurry.


Mike Grost
PS As one of the authors of the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, thank you for your kind review in EQMM.

Anonymous said...

I like the notion you cite: "to have suspense you first need to have characters who are slightly askew." I think "slightly" and "askew" are the key words. Too many writers and film-makers go far beyond "slightly askew." The result is then something awful.

Dan said...

Lewis' B-westerns are also worth a look. Amazing to see how much style he could put into a simple Charles Starrett or Wild Bill Elliott opus, and TERROR IN AS TEXAS TOWN is simply delirious.

Cap'n Bob said...

I'm confused. The George in It's a Wonderful Life was named Bailey, as was his brother Harry.