Monday, November 16, 2009

The Unknown Paul Wendkos by C. Jerry Kutner


Bright Lights After Dark

I just learned, via Peter Nellhaus, of the passing of one of America's most obscure-but-talented directors, Paul Wendkos.

Wendkos would be far better known today if his first film, the great low-budget noir, The Burglar (1956), were more readily available. The Burglar, an unabashedly arty film based on the David Goodis novel of the same name, starred Dan Duryea in the title role, and Jayne Mansfield as his ward (a serious acting role that preceded her "bombshell" period). A fatalistic heist film clearly influenced by Orson Welles, particularly The Lady From ShanghaiThe Burglar ends in a Coney Island [Atlantic City, New Jersey to be exact] funhouse where a loudspeaker proclaims, "We, the Dead, Welcome You!"

Wendkos directed several other films of interest, the well-known but atypical Gidget (1959), The Mephisto Waltz (1971), and two more stylish noirs, The Case Against Brooklyn (1958) starring Darren McGavin as an undercover cop, and the fascinating rural noir Angel Baby (1961) which stars Salome Jens as an Aimee Semple McPherson-like revival preacher, and has a terrific supporting cast that includes George Hamilton, Mercedes McCambridge, Henry Jones, Joan Blondell, and Burt Reynolds. Angel Baby's striking black and white cinematography, most of it shot in the Deep South, was by Haskell Wexler.

Eventually, Wendkos found his niche in television. He directed several episodes of the '60s right wing sci-fi series, The Invaders (in which aliens were equated with Communists). Of far more interest were a series of made-for-TV movies he directed (he was a pioneer of the form), including The Brotherhood of the Bell(1970), The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975), Cocaine: One Man's Seduction (1983), and the mini-series Celebrity(1984) - all of them distinguished by a paranoid world view communicated through unstable wide-angle compositions, and performances skillfully pushed to the edge of hysteria (Glenn Ford in Brotherhood of the Bell, Dennis Weaver in Cocaine ...).

If anyone ever published an interview with this *unknown* auteur, I would love to see it.

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