Fortunately, the original editor-in-chief of the e-zine retained much of the original content, and is able to provide us with another look at a lyrical, affectionate tribute that is (unfortunately) not replicated in the current essay. Hirsch, long-time film professor at Brooklyn College, also interjects a copious amount of film analysis into his account of Cornfield's life and career.
A Tribute to Noir’s Forgotten Auteur
by Foster Hirsch
On several occasions in the three or four years before his death in 2006, I had the pleasure of having lunch with Hubert Cornfield at Musso & Frank’s, the stately old restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard that has been in business since 1919. Despite the fact that his favorite and inevitable topic was the ill fortune that had seemed to trail him his entire life--he complained, with considerable justification, about his mistreatment in Hollywood during the 1950s and 1960s and the fact that he had not been offered a project in Hollywood since 1968--Hubert was a delightful dining companion. To earn a living he had become a house painter; breathing in paint fumes had given him cancer of the larynx. Hubert had to use a voice box, and the muffled voice it produced deepened the woebegone aura that trailed him. Nonetheless, he seemed life-affirming, and “poor Hubert” was by no means the response that he elicited. He had a devilish gleam in his eye and nifty timing, always managing to inject barbed comments at just the right moment.
I was touched by his gratitude to me when I told him that I was a fan of his work and that I would do what I could to see that it was revived. How I wish that Hubert had been alive to attend the screening of The 3rd Voice, his overlooked 1960 thriller, at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre during Noir City 2008. At the end, the packed, noir-savvy audience cheered, aware they had just seen what we are always on the lookout for: a gem all but unknown to the world at large.
Hubert himself, of course, was—and is—in the same category. His six American features and Les Grands Moyens, made in France in 1975, a dark comedy of revenge given the ironic English title of Short And Sweet that Hubert must have savored (which I regret I have not seen), remain largely unfamiliar even to many hard-core noiristas.
Five of Hubert’s American thrillers--Sudden Danger (1955), Lure Of The Swamp (1957), Plunder Road (1957), The 3rd Voice, and The Night Of The Following Day (1968)--are full-fledged noirs; the sixth, Pressure Point (1962), is noir-stained. (Hubert did uncredited work on Angel Baby , replaced by Paul Wendkos.) Hubert wrote or co-wrote the scripts of The 3rd Voice, Pressure Point, and The Night of the Following Day, but in subject matter, structure, rhythm, tone, all six films reveal a distinct authorial imprint, and a jaundiced worldview that, as I can attest, is authentically Cornfieldian.
Having been battered by life, Hubert had little faith in human nature; quite unlike Anne Frank, he did not believe in spite of everything that people are basically good at heart. He was in fact convinced they were quite the opposite: hard-boiled through and through, and driven by greed and lust. I saw no evidence that Hubert himself was greedy: indeed, though he was not doing well financially he always insisted on paying for his lunch. His lust, however, was second to none, and his tales of erotic conquests often took on an epic scale. Hubert was a man who loved (or at least desired) women--ravenously.
Cornfield’s first two films are the works of a novice with a taste for lurid pulp fiction. Sudden Danger, a below-the-radar Poverty Row programmer that “stars” a very deadpan Wild Bill Elliott as a Los Angeles detective in the Jack Webb mold and an aged, dissipated Tom Drake, the once-golden boy next door in Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), has a promising premise. When a blind man discovers his mother has been killed, he himself becomes the prime suspect. Sluggish pacing and a flat visual style quickly dampen the suspense, however. Nonetheless, there are a few sardonic Cornfield touches: a shadowy shot of two pairs of feet under the titles ends with a visual surprise when the second walker is revealed to be a dog. The motives of the killer, a rumpled, middle-aged man desperate for money to support his nubile mistress, surely struck close to home for the ever-libidinous director. But Cornfield would have found the redemptive ending--the blind man’s sight is restored; his mother’s killer is found--to be at best unsavory.
If only for its title alone, Lure Of The Swamp is a step up. The film, set in the labyrinth of an Everglades bayou saturated with the cries of birds and wild life, has atmosphere to spare. The story, however, about the search for buried treasure in a thickly vegetated wilderness, is little more than a sketch. While the gurgling ooze of implacable quicksand claims all the coarse-grained bad guys, along with the money, as in Sudden Danger there is a happy ending that must have rattled Hubert. Having been tempted by both the lucre and a predatory blonde bombshell, the boat driving ‘hero,’ a jungle guide (played by the extremely inexpressive Marshall Thompson), is saved from drowning at the last minute. The grim, tight-lipped final shot, a few stray dollars flapping on the top of the primordial bayou muck, provides a mordant reprise of Johnny Clay’s loot blowing in the wind at the end of The Killing (1956).
In his next two films, Cornfield fully realizes the promise displayed intermittently in his apprentice works. Plunder Road and The 3rd Voice are heist sagas that relish the twists and turns of team efforts to steal a lot of someone else’s money. With sparse backstories, the characters seem to have no lives apart from their participation in The Plan, and Cornfield has little patience for poking around for psychology or motive. In the hard-boiled world of each film, any signs of sentiment are potentially fatal. Messy emotion just gets in the way: all that really matters is dedication to the task at hand. As the conspirators construct, carry out, and then inevitably undermine their plots, Cornfield watches dispassionately.
Plunder Road opens vigorously with a virtuoso noir set piece: a group of silent criminals in a driving rain engaged in a masterfully orchestrated robbery, stealing a gold bullion shipment off a train. After the gang splits off with their stash in separate trucks, doom comes quickly. The crooks are brilliant at executing their crime, but pathetically unskilled in disguising it--at the first hint of suspicion from an authority figure, they give up. Only the group led by tough guy Eddie Harris (Gene Raymond) eludes capture and survives to the end. Harris, Cornfield’s quintessential hard-as-nails anti-hero, is a man of few words who betrays no visible response when he learns that his men have been arrested. His face and heart in perpetual deep freeze, he plods on impassively.
Cornfield’s authoritative film maudit ends with an image of indifference that must have cut close to the heart of Hubert’s own existential despair. As Eddie Harris’ plans unravel and he too flees from the scene, jumping from an overpass into the middle of a Los Angeles freeway thronged with traffic, the camera pans away in a tracking shot that seems to be heading nowhere except away from the story. It’s as if the neutral, panning camera, perhaps in search of another group of characters, another plot, is simply wiping away the story we have just seen. In what other movie is the central character eliminated so casually, forgotten so coolly?
As in Plunder Road, the staccato opening of The 3rd Voice thrusts us into the middle of an ongoing criminal scenario. We see a high-strung man (Edmond O’Brien) practicing a new voice, that of hard-bitten wealthy businessman Harris Chapman whom he will be impersonating in a plot devised by the man’s secretary, Marian Forbes (Laraine Day), a former mistress overthrown for a younger woman and now hell-bent on revenge. While Marian has both a back story and a motive, O’Brien’s character remains without either a name or a narrative (in the credits he is simply called The Voice). He is only the embodiment of his greed. But like the conspirators in Plunder Road, he cannot escape a noir-steeped destiny. A masquerader himself, he is himself undone by another masquerade, that of a faux-floozie he hooks up with in Mexico who is in fact the new mistress of the mogul he is impersonating (Julie London), who has been on to him all along. The bitter, mocking laughter of Marion (whom he tries to strangle once he thinks the plan has been accomplished) ends the film on a high Cornfieldian shrug: what fools we mortals be.
As in Lure Of The Swamp (boat rides into the jungle) and Plunder Road (trucks loaded with bullion moving through town and country), The 3rd Voice has many driving scenes that might seem overdone, or obsessive, to a new-to-Cornfield viewer. But the seemingly excessive or inessential driving scenes here, as well as in the earlier films, are strategic. Recurrent overhead shots of a car racing around the tortuous mountain roads in rural Mexico provide authorial comment, placing the director as a detached observer watching as his hapless protagonist drives to his inevitable appointment in Samarra.
A vehicle for Marlon Brando, The Night Of The Following Day, Cornfield’s only film in color as well as his most glossy, upscale heist saga, was also his unhappiest on-set experience. Brando, behaving like a vulture descending for the kill, defied the director at every turn; he changed his character’s motivation, tried to alter the end of the story and, for good measure, taunted Hubert by telling him he had tried (unsuccessfully) to seduce his wife. Hubert, who could give as good as he got, said he was flattered. At a certain point the out-of-control star refused to be directed by Hubert, and co-star Richard Boone directed the last scene in which Brando appeared.
Despite Brando’s disruptions, Cornfield succeeds in giving the seemingly ordinary material--at heart the film is no more than a conventional kidnapping story in which three perverse conspirators abduct an heiress and after imprisoning her in a seaside house spiral downward into a nest-of-vipers netherworld of betrayal and double-cross--an eerie aura. Surprises and twists, none of them audience-friendly, proliferate. Nothing quite adds up. The kidnap scheme is filled with gaps never explained. The action is punctuated by sudden bursts of sexual and physical violence. Motive, psychology, backstory, in the usual Cornfield fashion, are obscured, estranged from each other as the film plays out. The off-kilter pacing, the isolated seaside setting, the stylized predominance of red and blues, the persistent mist: clues proliferate that the story is actually iaking place in a parallel world, surreal and semi-abstract. (Cornfield claimed that Magritte was his primary influence.) In 1968 The Night Of The Following Day looked like a temperamental European art film. Forty years on, it still does.
In an ending that antagonized many viewers when it was released and that might well get the same reaction today, the story is indeed revealed as a dream, a premonition of the victim. The premise is undermined, however, because the young woman herself (Pamela Franklin) remains a cipher. For the dream to be credible, we need a stronger grip on the dreamer. It was Cornfield’s intention that the young woman would become infatuated with the handsome blonde-god chauffeur (Brando, looking trim and fit) who kidnaps her, but Brando refused to play it that way. Instead, he wanted to turn the film into a revenge saga in which his character hunts down and kills the double-crossing henchman played by Boone.
In a way, Cornfield won in his battles with Brando: in its exploration of the geography of a dream world, The Night Of The Following Day, is decidedly a director’s film, though one in which the most inventive of American actors gives a singularly impoverished performance. Defiantly trumping artistry, Brando attempts to sabotage the film and himself by emptying the chauffeur of any legible character at all.
A similar fate had befallen Pressure Point, a film unlike any other in Hubert’s truncated career. Cornfield was working for producer Stanley Kramer, and it now seems inevitable that Hubert’s mordant, “European” nihilism (Hubert was born in Istanbul) would chafe against Kramer’s feel-good liberalism. Kramer was welcoming at first, encouraging Hubert to write a dark story about the embattled interaction between a prison psychiatrist (Sidney Poitier) and a tormented inmate, a neo-Nazi (Bobby Darin) who chortles when he sees he is to be treated by a black man. Instead of the two antagonists growing toward mutual respect and admiration, the men become increasingly hostile toward each other. When the inmate convinces the prison authorities that he is cured and is released, the enraged psychiatrist is forced to confront his failure. In Cornfield’s unforgiving noir universe, redemption, uplift, transfiguration are decisively banished.
Not surprisingly, Kramer took the film away from Cornfield and added a frame story in which the director’s anarchy is bracketed by the producer’s affirmation. Twenty years later, the now-eminent doctor tells the story of his long-ago defeat with the racist to a young Jewish doctor ready to give up trying to reach a militant young black racist. At the end, the empowered young doctor is ready to go back to work. Kramer reconfigures Hubert’s nihilism into a narrative of potential racial harmony, a harbinger of the civil rights movement. Kramer himself directed the frame story.
Despite the backstage contretemps, Cornfield’s voice—hard-hitting, defiantly unsentimental, and unsparingly frank about race relations and sex—once again prevails. His direction, in both the realistic scenes between doctor and patient and the often wildly surrealistic depiction of the patient’s memories, is often astonishing. If he had been luckier, this would have been the film that catapulted him to the A-list. But no--like one of the thwarted characters in his films, this important film became enmeshed in controversy and misunderstood. It still awaits recognition.
Hubert clearly was drawn to toughened characters who were not quite tough enough to beat the heightened odds they took on for themselves. I suspect that this is how he saw himself, a renegade artist (and a subversive lover) who seemed to work best when operating in “twilight mode.” His incautious appetites may well have contributed to his marginalization, but he never lost his charm, even as the ravages of age and illness took their toll. He was resilient to the end, proud that he’d managed to support himself despite the hard hits he’d taken, and remained gregarious, with a flair for chatting up the ladies even when his voice was reduced to a coarse whisper. There was a tenacious animal energy that was with him always, drawing him out toward others. It was kinetic and palpable. Staying in touch with those who appreciated him was an ongoing ritual: at the end of every lunch we shared at Musso’s, he’d make sure to give me his address--3914 Lenawee Avenue, Apartment 1, Culver City--and phone number--(310) 837-9017--which remain in my book to this day.