Sunday, May 18, 2008

Lewis, De Toth, Boetticher

Just over a year ago I wrote a little on this topic (the last graf), but I was going through some old files on my computer and come upon these comparative private notes from a couple years back inspired by some Randolph Scott Westerns directed by three auteurist favorites. There's no real reason for this, and I haven't seen a Joseph H. Lewis, Andre De Toth, or Budd Boetticher film in some months so it's not like the issues are fresh in my mind. But I figured that, since I wasn't doing anything soon with these notes anyway, I'd post them here with a touch of editing and let people comment if they found anything of interest.

(Tangentially, I suppose, De Toth's Randolph Scott-less Day of the Outlaw got a recent DVD release, and so more people are getting a chance to see one of my all time favorite films by one of classical Hollywood's most underrated directors.)

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Lewis is unusually fascinated with space and perspective: his films seem like they’re very concerned with pointing out the space between objects – between an actor and a table, from a bed to a dresser, from the saloon doors to the stagecoach. He likes to jut out an object, a head, a hand in the foreground even while our attention is focused in the background. What’s more, the ‘delineative’ streak in Lewis continues in his use of color, which tends to be exaggerated and bold, but is steeped within the particularities of décor: dresses and vests and rooftops are done in bright, distinct, solid colors.

De Toth likes to exaggerate color too, but for him these things aren’t organized by conceptual designation (“vest”); he acts as if the screen were a canvas and paints on it for the effect. Whereas Lewis is ‘theatrical’ and the colors’ meanings/effects are tied concretely to props and sets (i.e., the camera movement might not have any impact on the way we register color), De Toth is all about ‘painting,’ and thinks of color as one of many ways to present a flat rectangular moving image to the viewer – just as he thinks of motion and linear content in really striking terms that go above and beyond mere functional value.

Boetticher doesn’t strike me as distinctive, or at least as singular, as either Lewis or De Toth in terms of color and space. In fact, Boetticher strikes me as one of the most chameleon of directors – though I have an idea of a Boetticher universe in my head, it’s still not quite easy for me to reconcile Buchanan Rides Alone (energetic yarnspinning converging with smart genre irony), Decision at Sundown (feels like a taut minor De Toth), and Seven Men from Now (spare schematic methodical story with hints of the humor to come in Buchanan). Boetticher’s distinctiveness comes from attitude more than visual expression (though he’s no slouch with composition and pacing). I see Boetticher as standing back, amused, from his material, trying to poke it and rile it up through experimentation – he has a high-concept, highly intelligent streak like De Toth, but doesn’t invest himself emotionally and in upfront ways like De Toth does; so he shares an element of distance with Lewis, but Lewis (unlike De Toth and Boetticher) seems to be much more at home when he’s taking the emotions of his stories at face value: he’s the least critical of his material, and/or the least willing to be critical of it, of the three of them.


Anonymous said...

Great directors' TV work can be distinctive, too. I really liked a RIFLEMAN episode called "Duel of Honor." Lewis directed.

Having trawled the TV directory of DVD releases, I discovered the most underrated director of the '50s (IMHO): Jack Webb.


edo said...

I just watched "Day of the Outlaw" on this beautiful new DVD. Fucking great is all I can say at this present moment. I have to sleep...

Anonymous said...

Zach, I think you under-rate Boetticher, although not having seen his films for several years, I don't have anything off the top of my head to say about him, although I do recall his spacing of actors is most impressive.

There's an interesting thread on westerns, with an emphasis on De Toth, at Dave Kehr's website.


Anonymous said...

Didn't mean for my comment to be anonymous. This new fangled technology . . .

ZC said...

Jaime, yeah I've been meaning to get around to both Jack Webb and some Rifleman episodes for a long time now. Sooner or later.

Edo, glad you liked Day of the Outlaw. Once that bottle rolls down the bar one should know they're in for something special.

Damien, I don't think I'm underrating Boetticher--I think he's an excellent director! (And if anything I'd say I feel the least amount of enthusiasm for Lewis, of this trio.) I just haven't, at least at the time I wrote this, been able to figure out a specifically 'Boetticherian' sense of color or spatiality. (Can anyone else help me out on it? Feel free...) He's more chameleon, to me, in these respects, which isn't to say that (a) the resultant work is bad, or (b) he doesn't have consistencies elsewhere.