Joseph H. Lewis’ reputation rests on two major contributions to the film noir canon, the transgressive and boundary-breaching Gun Crazy (1950), arguably the most enduring and influential of all lovers-on-the-lam thrillers, and the memorably intense The Big Combo, all striking chiaroscuro illuminating dark content. Indeed, Lewis presided over film noir’s classic decade that began with My Name Is Julia Ross (1945) – his “sleeper” hit about identity theft that foreshadows Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), though viewed through the woman’s eyes – and arguably closed with The Big Combo (1955). The director’s other noir-inflected dramas like The Undercover Man (1949), A Lady Without Passport (1950) and Cry of the Hunted (1953) all have their champions, though So Dark the Night (1946) – with its feverish protagonist discovering his divided self, its fatal romance and its unsettling expression through mirrors and windows and reflections – may well be the greatest film noir that few have seen. Indifferently received upon first release, a half-century later these dynamically visualised works resonate powerfully with new generations of critics and audiences, and have elicited homages from notable filmmakers, not least Jean-Luc Godard (Pierrot le fou, 1965), François Truffaut (Tirez sur le pianiste, 1960), Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967), Terrence Malick (Badlands, 1973) and David Lynch (Wild at Heart, 1990).
Prior to the 1970s’ renaissance of interest in expressionist style, Joseph H. Lewis was simply a B-movie director for hire who had made his way up the Hollywood ladder the hard way, with a hefty backlog of cut-rate westerns for Poverty Row studios. But Lewis widened his expressive range in other genres as well, his 38 features encompassing early low-budget experiments in horror (Invisible Ghost, 1941), melodrama (Secrets of a Co-Ed, 1942), musicals (The Minstrel Man, 1944), costume adventures (The Swordsman, 1947), comic fantasy (The Return of October, 1949) and combat dramas (Retreat, Hell!, 1951), capped by a final western that marks a surprising and specifically political act (Terror in a Texas Town, 1958). But not one of Lewis’ films can be dismissed as unworthy of viewing, not one lacks artistic imagination, and not one behaves completely according to the rules.
Like Alfred Hitchcock, Lewis worked on all his scripts (but only once took onscreen credit, for Bombs Over Burma, 1942). Typically, his characters find themselves trapped in sexual obsession (Secrets of a Co-Ed, Gun Crazy, The Big Combo) or conflicted identity (So Dark the Night, A Lady Without Passport, A Lawless Street ) or ethical crisis (The Undercover Man, The Seventh Cavalry , The Halliday Brand ). In line with other postwar thrillers from Gordon Douglas’ I Was a Communist For the F.B.I. (1951) to Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), his scripts often oppose private security to public duty, calling for citizens to testify against corruption, most obviously in The Undercover Man, The Big Combo and A Lawless Street. Again and again, Lewis finds fresh ways to advance the plot: thus, Silver Bullet (1942) opens on a cowboy holding up a stagecoach, yet he steals nothing but forces the passengers to roll up their left sleeves (he’s looking for a distinctive lightning-bolt shaped scar that identifies his father’s murderer).
Raised in the Columbia University neighbourhood of New York City but later relocating to Hollywood, Lewis “had grand illusions of being an actor. I sported a great big Adolphe Menjou mustache” (1) but changed his mind when he saw long lines of actors waiting at the studio gates for lowly jobs as extras. Thanks to his eldest brother Ben, editor of many MGM hits through the years, from Dinner At Eight (George Cukor, 1933) to Elvis’s Harum Scarum (Gene Nelson, 1965), Lewis instead became a humble gofer at MGM, the richest studio in town.
Allowing Mascot Pictures to think he was brother Ben, Lewis negotiated a job as supervising editor at the Poverty Row operation, where he worked on a 12-chapter adventure with Rin Tin Tin and “Rex the Wonder Horse”, a Clyde Beatty lion-tamer serial, seven Gene Autry musical westerns, and two early John Wayne oaters. Stamping these pictures with his inventiveness, Lewis attracted attention by fashioning a quick montage of the film’s high points under the opening credits. Winning a chance to direct, Lewis was soon shooting B-westerns in six days, ephemera targeted to rural communities to support double-bills. Lewis said, “You didn’t have actors; you had cowboys who owned a horse” (2). As his trademark, the young director devised a stratagem using wagon wheel shots:
I carried a box filled with different wagon wheels…whenever I’d come to a scene which was just disgraceful in dialogue and all, I’d place a wagon wheel in one portion of the frame, and make an artistic shot out of it, so by the time the scene was over you only saw the artistic value and couldn’t analyze what the scene was about. (3)
Nonetheless, these became a bone of contention with producers who preferred a self-effacing director with an invisible style.
Unlike his B-movie contemporaries Jacques Tourneur and Anthony Mann, Lewis never quite ascended to the A-class resources that reliably attract critical attention (except in Columbia’s lavish The Jolson Story , where he directed only the production numbers). As an avatar of cult cinema produced on a shoestring, Lewis ranks second only to Edgar G. Ulmer (4) (though it’s true, as James Naremore has argued, that Lewis’ noir productions actually enjoyed comfortable midlevel budgets compared to Ulmer’s existentially threadbare Detour . (5) Witness the crowded carnival fairway and jam-packed dance hall of Gun Crazy, which put to shame today’s under-populated indie movies, yet notwithstanding its adventurous script Lewis’ film still lacks recognizable stars or top-flight production values).
Trading A-movie polish for B-movie freedom, the director could risk flouting censors, breaking genre formulas and employing flamboyant aesthetic strategies. Even in his routine assignments, Lewis conveyed an exhilarating spontaneity, as if his style were being invented on the spot. Clearly he’s flexing his cinematic muscles when he opens Courage of the West (1937), his first solo directing credit, with an impossibly ambitious overhead crane shot that circles a conference table amidst a presidential cabinet meeting, ending on Abraham Lincoln himself. Or when he has cowboy Johnny Mack Brown punch his fist straight into the camera lens in Silver Bullet. Or when sinister housekeeper Minerva Urecal advances toward the camera until her jaw lies directly atop the lens, the better to capture her mad leer in the lowbrow Boys of the City (1940).
Products of a now extinct studio system, these films took indefensible shortcuts in acting and scripts (in Border Wolves , for example, the hero is saved all too economically at the last minute when a side character attests that “he’s innocent. I’ll tell you all about it later”). Yet Lewis’ rarely flagging invention makes these compact and fast-moving genre exercises exciting to watch, whether he chooses to leave the screen empty for a moment before two men crash into the frame fighting in That Gang of Mine (1940), or to impose a layer of emotional distance in Secrets of a Co-ed by showing a male courtroom prosecutor reading the titular secrets directly from a young woman’s diary, all while the author listens to his accusatory voice intoning her intimate confessions.
The breathlessly-paced Invisible Ghost marked the first sign that Lewis was an original voice who could sustain an entire film when handed a near-zero budget and a preposterous, barely coherent scenario that seemed to condense the most sensational elements from a clutch of lurid horror scripts. These include a living corpse, the unexpected existence of a twin, murder while sleepwalking, the crazy spouse hidden away, walking the “last mile” down death row and a face appearing at the window during a thunderstorm. Indeed, the narrative baffled The New York Times: “As best we could figure it out, Bela Lugosi suffers spells of monomania every ten minutes or so and chokes a member of his fabulous household to death” (6).
No one can witness the kaleidoscopic visual invention of this youthful director and miss his originality and confidence because, even at this early stage, Lewis’s films look like no other: Invisible Ghost opens on a framed portrait, but then the camera swings back some 90 degrees in a unique arc movement, boldly experimental for a Monogram horror quickie. Later, a scene shows Lugosi seated at a desk, his back to the camera; when a woman enters from the background and approaches, Lewis starts a baffling tracking shot behind Lugosi, so that she appears to his left at the beginning of the shot but to his right at the end, neatly suggesting his character’s dual nature. It may sound confusing, but Lewis makes it look organic, potent and meaningful.
Lewis’ wunderkind prodigality, his deliberate artistic approach, his baroque visual stylisation that transcends mere realism, his command of deep focus and long takes, his recurrent visual motifs and his players’ intense performances: all these paint Lewis as a kind of Orson Welles of the B-movie, though he rarely originated projects and never worked in theatre like Welles. An autodidact who completed only a month of high school, Lewis constructed his own aesthetic, making every film, sometimes every shot, a personal statement. Indeed, Invisible Ghost beat that other manifesto of directorial ambition Citizen Kane to the theatres by only five days. (7)
Demonstrating Lewis’ occasional playfulness, the wartime flagwaver Bombs Over Burma (which supplies plenty of bombs but takes place in China) opens on a classroom scene that unreels for four minutes in Chinese without subtitles. Just when the audience starts wondering if there’s been some mistake with the print, the teacher suddenly switches to English, leading the children in, of all things, a chorus of “Yankee Doodle”. The best scene follows soon after: as Japanese bombers fly overhead, the students are evacuated to a bomb shelter, except for one mischievous tyke who stays in the empty classroom, sheds the dunce cap he was made to wear, and gleefully throws papers in the air, enjoying the anarchic freedom of wartime (anticipating John Boorman’s British school kids romping through the blitz in Hope and Glory, 1987).
Despite little more than ten days to shape his micro-budget “B” movies, Lewis seemed almost incapable of filming a predictable or conventional shot. His style looks immediately distinctive, with strategic use of oblique angles and ultra-tight close-ups, deep focus and spectacular crane shots, actors composed in triangular configurations and actions staged in depth. In the contemporary tradition of Jean Negulesco’s giant brandy snifters in Humoresque (1946) and Hitchcock’s poisoned cup of coffee in Notorious (1946), Lewis also positioned meaningful objects in the foreground – a fist, an ear, a telephone filling the frame. Critic Myron Meisel observes that “For Lewis, the frame’s foreground is where we reach inside his characters, who in turn are tortured by forces reaching out from the hard-focused background” (8), though naysayers feel his camera overacts (Bertrand Tavernier found Lewis “too brilliant a technician”) (9).
Like Jean Renoir and Hitchcock, Lewis built intensity by unfolding the action in long takes, no matter how much the camera had to glide and swoop. A precursor to Gun Crazy‘s most spectacular and celebrated sequence comes in Secrets of a Co-ed, PRC’s vestpocket copy of MGM’s hit A Free Soul (Clarence Brown, 1931), reproducing the earlier film’s impassioned courtroom setpiece with a fist-clenchingly intense six-minute long take where the camera moves up, down and sideways, reframing into long shots and close-ups, as it follows a lawyer’s grandstanding speech to exonerate his wayward daughter. Lewis’ editing is no less striking, as in Bombs Over Burma‘s viscerally effective montage of implied violence, as patriotic Chinese encircle a treacherous spy, each shot showing another peasant wielding a pitchfork, or pointing a pickaxe, or advancing with another alarming farm implement.
At the brink of his mature period, Lewis undertook Minstrel Man, which served as an audition for The Jolson Story. Rarely seen today, and likely to stay that way thanks to its numerous blackface numbers featuring pickaninnies dancing amidst giant watermelons, the musical nevertheless has definite felicities plus a positively opulent production by the standards of the Poverty Row mainstay PRC, including sets designed by Edgar G. Ulmer and Oscar-nominated musical scoring. Aging but easygoing vaudevillian Benny Fields (a kind of portly Bing Crosby) stars in his only screen role as the burnt-cork minstrel who abandons his infant daughter to showbiz friends (“Keep her out of blackface!”) in grief at his wife’s death in childbirth. Taking an unexpected opportunity (during a compellingly handled montage of the Morro Castle sinking), he changes his identity, but father and daughter eventually reunite to bring back minstrel shows to Broadway. Lewis charges the theatrical space with assertive camerawork and engineers one unbroken crane shot that drops from a second floor landing to the first and then moves right onto a waiting birthday cake.
Following the glossy postwar The Falcon in San Francisco (1945), Lewis received extraordinary support for his breakthrough film, My Name Is Julia Ross, with Columbia studios boss Harry Cohn personally approving an expanded shooting schedule and showcase handling. The heroine, a feisty and determined American in England for medical care, gets caught in a scheme to conceal a woman’s death, but soon slaps one villain ready to throw her out a window, then refuses her medications (“probably poison!”) and explores a hidden passageway just in time to hear a man’s psychotic breakdown as he cuts the sofa to ribbons while re-enacting how he stabbed his wife. (10) When malevolent hands cast their shadow across Nina Foch’s body, Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922) seems to live again, though it’s a farfetched 64 minutes, with Lewis more alert than inventive.
Lewis spent half of 1946 directing the 29 sumptuous Technicolor musical numbers (from minstrel routines to the “Ave Maria”) in the The Jolson Story. Justifying its $2.8 million budget, the colourful if fraudulent biopic “performed cart-wheels at the box office to the tune of $8 million – the biggest grossing film in Columbia’s history thus far” (11).
While wresting warm dramatic performances from the cast (notwithstanding some severe caricatures), the director of record, Alfred E. Green, produces stultifyingly conventional compositions with foursquare camera placement. In contrast, Lewis’s more dynamic camera movements stand out, with crafty set-ups that catch peripheral detail, and distinct foreground/background separation. Even the typical decision to stay in closed-up on star Larry Parks seems radical given the extravagant gestures and facial signalling the actor employs. Thus, although “Mammy” presents as a solo number, it’s far from static, with Lewis shifting angles, moving higher than Green’s, then lower, then closer and finally more distant. Lewis’ “April Showers” number is especially noteworthy as Parks kneels on a horizontal runway, singing downward to Evelyn Keyes below, its geometry creating a thrilling moment that transcends the lines written in the script. One simple double exposure has Larry Parks’ singing head sail above the heads of his multitudinous audience, a surreal image that economically yet stunningly conveys the performer’s power over the masses (12).
At the opposite pole of budgetary profligacy, and finished in a mere 16 days, So Dark the Night announces Lewis’ maturity and fully realised ambition, a breathlessly directed outburst of expressionism, with tracking shots that sail right through walls, no surprise from the director of Invisible Ghost. In Tony Rayns’ words,
This is what Joseph H. Lewis is all about. The script is a perfunctory and frequently silly murder mystery… However, none of this matters. The film is directed like a million bucks [with] more cinematic ideas and effects per square foot of screen than any number of contemporary A features. (13)
Never mind the modest resources, Lewis explores his way toward a subtle and gradually unfolding form as his Parisian detective, edgy from overwork, immerses himself in a provincial town where the strangling murder of a local mademoiselle and her beau prompts a rash of poison pen letters à la Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943) and Otto Preminger’s The 13th Letter (1951). Unwittingly, the protagonist is moving toward his own destruction, and when a defining flashback image of himself appears over his own reflection, he must break the glass to release the accumulated intensity.
Too obscure to attract popular notice, So Dark the Night came and went without box office impact, yet Variety particularly admired Lewis’ economical visual ploy in one sequence where the restless innkeeper’s daughter sizes up the sophisticated older gentleman:
Cutting quickly between the man and woman, the camera softly plays upon the girl’s features then coldly shifts, not to the man but to the chromium fixtures on his expensive car, the hubcaps, the door handles, the car’s name, etc. The effect and meaning are startling in their clarity. (14)
In The Swordsman Larry Parks dons tartan kilts (Columbia commissioned specially designed plaids for the film) to settle the 17th century conflict between warring Scots chieftans. Handsomely mounted in Technicolor, it uses the lakes and pine forests of California’s Sierras as dubious stand-ins for the highland lochs, no more questionable than the cast’s effortful accents. Still, Lewis revels in lavish feasts and marching bagpipers, javelin hurling and flashing swordplay in exuberant open air action, fast-tracking alongside horses that gallop through sunswept vistas. The hoary plot of infiltrating a rival group had already served Lewis in Singing Outlaw (1937), The Last Stand (1938) and The Boss of Hangtown Mesa (1942) and the hero’s entrance by jumping onto a carriage was borrowed from his own Border Wolves, but the numerous strikingly poetic images are new effusions – a graceful love scene amidst fluttering white doves, a clansman walking through a storm of golden autumn leaves swirling in the air and a corpse seated bolt upright in a chair.
The Undercover Man dramatises the US Treasury Department’s pursuit of mobster Al Capone (here disguised under the generic term “Big Fellow”) for tax evasion. Conceived in postwar documentary realism, the script embodies what Dana Polan terms the Government Agency Film (exemplified by Anthony Mann’s 1947 T-Men), using standard elements such as display of modern technologies and reminders of the need for vigilance and testimony against evil-doers. At war with the dark forces disrupting the well-ordered life of the polity, Lewis’ T-men enter the tensely balanced hierarchy of the criminal underworld and the invisible networks that support it, seeking to re-establish law and order, though it seems less predictable that good will win out than Mann’s film.
One impressive sequence has upstanding Glenn Ford rendezvous with an informant in a movie theatre, as a smoke-wreathed shaft of light projects a Citizen Kane-like newsreel profiling the mob boss. The insider offers to sell a crucial list of mob accounts but gets gunned down outside the theatre, establishing how fear undermines the community, reiterated when witnesses decline to cooperate at a line-up: “If I talk to you, it won’t be me that gets hurt. It’ll be my wife” (neatly foreshadowing Ford’s conflict when he tries to resign out of concern for his wife’s safety). The shadowy upper echelon of criminals is represented through the beefy lawyer (Barry Kelley, who that same year embodied the other side of the law as the stern judge in Nicholas Ray’s Knock On Any Door). Busily buying off jurors, he acknowledges his position as a cog in the crime machine and argues, “If anybody cared, men like my client wouldn’t exist”, adding “How’s your wife?”
In an electrifying setpiece that spells out moral terror in the public space, one gangster is signing his young daughter’s report card when mob enforcers chase him through the pushcarts and shoppers on a crowded ghetto street as the helpless little girl runs after crying “Papa!” until her shocked face shows that she has seen him gunned down. A movingly intense scene follows, when the child and her Italian grandmother visit Ford, and the old lady recounts how people’s inaction allowed the Mafia to grow in Italy, noting that “these are evil days when people will not speak out against evil men…This is the same as when people see evil and run away”. With exemplary good citizenship, the immigrant who does not even speak English delivers the account ledger that contains all the crucial information to convict the mobster.
If The Undercover Man‘s sober investigations and emphasis on the citizenry exercising its own power embodied its historical moment, then the delirious Gun Crazy changed it. Not the first runaway criminal lovers picture, it was nevertheless the first to render the amoral excitement of criminality as sexual release, its profane energy rupturing Hollywood’s conventions. “This is a movie where a bank robbery is an erotic act – and the characters know it.” (15) Consciously intended as a film where the audience roots for the killers, this story could not be contained in one title: initially released as the lurid Deadly Is the Female, its commercial failure led to a still unsuccessful reissue eight months later as Gun Crazy.
With New Deal idealism left over from the 1930s Lewis basically stands firmly behind the social contract, but the definitive amour fou of lovers Bart (John Dall) and Laurie (Peggy Cummins) defies society with its naked thrill-seeking self-indulgence. Gun Crazy‘s structure pivots on the lovers’ rejection of the community (though Bart’s friends support and attempt to save him), but if the fatal selfishness of individuality is not a modernist message, Lewis remains modern in refusing to sentimentalise his characters or moralise about their actions. She’s an impulsive killer, he’s a weakling who lives for firearms but can’t bear to take a life.
Lewis appeals to neither economic nor social nor psychological explanations. Though an early courtroom scene dutifully offers some clearly inadequate finger-pointing (“he needed a man around the house”), Bart simply tells the judge: “Shooting is what I’m good at. I feel good when I’m shooting guns”. As Paul Schrader puts it, “There are no excuses given for the gun craziness – it is just crazy” (16). Laurie first invades the screen from below, preceded by her pistols blazing up into the frame, and spots Bart immediately. Using a carnival shooting challenge as foreplay, they circle each other in a mutual display of frankly physical attraction (the barker later chastises “the two of you, looking at each other, like a couple of wild animals”). In a marriage scene, she provocatively varies the traditional wedding vows, saying, “I want to be good. I’ll try. I’ll try hard”.
Gender roles seem surprisingly unsettled, with Laurie shooting a woman who criticises her for wearing pants. In fact, she is pure desire and need, and when she pulls on her dark stockings, she can’t help some sexual blackmail saying, “I’ve been kicked around all my life. From now on I’m going to kick back. When are you going to begin to live?” When Lewis floats his camera over Peggy Cummin’s freshly bathed body and down to her waiting mouth, we are not just inhabiting her lover’s viewpoint but find ourselves in some realm of abstract carnality. When Bart complains that “Everything’s going so fast… As if nothing were real anymore”, Lewis maximises the physicality in her reply: “Look at me lying beside you. I’m yours. And I’m real”.
In Paul Schrader’s words, “the superlative qualities of Gun Crazy are precisely those which only the director can give: a combined sense of pacing, élan, and dynamic composition.” (17) Lewis follows the escalating series of robberies and escapes and regroupings, each holdup staged with the care of a musical number, down to theatrical use of costumes, from long-fringed Wild West outfits, to sober suits and horned-rim glasses, to a military uniform and lab coat. The first and most celebrated bank robbery, daringly conceived as an elaborate unbroken long take observed completely from the backseat of a car, has the actors improvising their dialogue as they nervously drive in real time on unsecured city streets. They run out to rob a bank, knock out a policeman and jump back inside, riding high on the excitement as they flee. Impotently unable to shoot a pursuing police car, Bart aims for the tires instead (as the car very realistically swerves wildly left and right).
At the Armour meat-packing plant robbery, they race past the hanging carcasses, falling and dropping money while the alarms rings, while she finally consummates their fate by shooting two people. Planning to split up, they find themselves in a trance of bloodlust, their animal magnetism pulling them back together in a single shot where Lewis’ camera swivels as Bart abandons his car to rejoin her. Avowedly seeking to show that “their love for each other was more fatal than their love for guns”, (18) Lewis’ swamp Liebestod finale edges close to epic tragedy’s inevitability, as Bart cannot help instinctively shooting his lover to save his boyhood friends, who then proceed to shoot him down. (19)
Back at MGM for a trio of superior programmers, Lewis led each one to a wilderness climax, perhaps to mitigate the steam-cleaned look of the studio’s typical product: A Lady Without Passport ends in the Everglades, Desperate Search (1952) in the wilds of rural Canada, and Cry of the Hunted in the Louisiana bayous. Lewis appreciated MGM’s resources: “If you asked for a little clothes closet, they’d give you an eight-room house” (20), and in fact, his planned documentary about immigration morphed into a vehicle for glamour goddess Hedy Lamarr (playing a Buchenwald survivor) called A Lady Without Passport. Curiously all three films feel foreshortened and underdeveloped like TV dramas, perhaps a reflection of the studio’s downsizing while unintentionally mirroring television’s dawning aesthetic.
Variously termed “perhaps the loveliest of Lewis’ neglected works” (21), “the most unappreciated of Lewis’s major studio films” (22) and “minor but at times remarkable” (23), A Lady Without Passport follows an undercover US Immigration officer tasked with subverting an alien-smuggling ring in Cuba. Posing as a Hungarian refugee, he warns the heroine, “A little thing like an accent, a foreign name, can set you apart in the U.S.”. Though torn between his growing emotional ties to her and his public responsibility, he remarkably types a letter of resignation saying, “I am in love”. From its opening – Lewis sets another camera swivelling inside a moving car to record a street crime – the exceptionally adroit direction uses atmospheric tracking shots, foreground/background separation and deep focus staging, culminating in a spectacular aerial finale.
Cry of the Hunted also has partisans as a study of the moral equivalence of two men, a prison official and a star witness whose testimony promises to bring down a crime ring. Though Lewis immediately establishes their conflict with a fistfight in his cell, the post-skirmish cigarette they share indicates their unspoken emotional bond at opposite ends of the criminal spectrum (a theme recurring in The Big Combo). Parallels abound, both in rhymed physical actions and in their exceptionally sensual involvement with their wives, until all devolves into a primal struggle with gators and quicksand. Certainly the feverish style recalls Welles in Lady From Shanghai (1948), especially a hallucinatory dream sequence in a smoke-filled corridor, where explosions shoot bursting plumes of water, casting gigantic expressionist shadows on the wall. Less baroque but offhandedly witty is an incidental behaviour for the hero: hearing his boss begin a tedious golfing story on the phone, he shuts the still-yapping receiver in a drawer.
At the height of the Korean War, Retreat, Hell! submitted the leadership and resolve of American manhood to the “fight or flight” test, following a “soft” family man called back for reserve military duty alongside callow recruits, who all must relinquish their civilian identities. For his sole foray into combat films, Lewis’s intensity suits the project’s urgent mission to justify US military presence in Korea and solemnify the marines’ defeat at Changjin Reservoir. Still, the relentlessly grim withdrawal, with GIs risking frostbite to bear their wounded and dead through snowstorms and away from advancing Chinese snipers, makes a questionable recruiting tool. The menace is vividly brought home when Lewis sets us inside American tents as Chinese bayonets slash through the canvas. Lewis employs much vivid newsreel footage, and his sparing use of shot/reverse shot filmmaking concentrates the focus, as if there’s no time to spare for reactions.
Now recognised as a cult classic, The Big Combo represents Lewis’ most completely realised noir because, unlike Gun Crazy, it “does not break down in the memory into sequences and transitions” (24). From its opening credits, with David Raksin’s alternately rhapsodic and blowzy jazz score playing over an aerial overhead shot of Manhattan’s canyons of steel, the film soon descends into a closed universe that recalls the claustrophobia of Invisible Ghost: gone is nature, the outside world of swamps and mountains, even the naturalistic street scenes of The Undercover Man and Gun Crazy.
Instead, it’s a continuous stream of pain and brutality, designed in primal oppositions of darkness and light, as Cornel Wilde’s obsessive cop and Richard Conte’s crime boss track each other. Both men are hunters and both are hunted, the callously righteous detective driven by frustrated love for the gangster’s mistress, the ruthless mob boss manipulating relationships with the silky confidence and pragmatism of a corporate manager (“First is first and second is nobody”). He’s a philosopher-kingpin who loves to propound his principles for amassing power: “You think it’s money. It’s not”. Both actors also share a similar look – dark, lean and intense – with the criminal acknowledging their kinship: “The only thing wrong with you is you want to be me”.
Against the men’s darkness Lewis sets the radiant platinum luminosity of Jean Wallace, introduced in an opening chase where she runs through expanses of inky black punctuated by incandescent pools of light. As John Alton’s extraordinary lighting clothes the barren production values in darkness, so it associates her blonde neurasthenia with illumination, until she eventually directs a car beam onto a scene of violence to stop it.
Meeting the mobster’s half-mad wife who has withdrawn into willed amnesia, Wallace confesses “I’ve been Mr Brown’s girl the past four years. I’m not proud of it”. Mrs Brown asks, “Then why’d you stay four years?” Lewis answers with mainstream Hollywood’s first intimation of oral sex when onyx-eyed Conte invades Wallace’s feminine space (establishing a secret room in her apartment for hiding his ill-gotten valuables). First he caresses her, then moves down and out of the frame as Lewis’ camera advances closer on her face, illustrating his hold over her and enlisting us as voyeurs of her helpless pleasure.
Lewis also ruptures mid-century American sensibilities with his pair of tender gay-coded henchmen, as well as introducing a visceral new brutality (matching 1955’s other noir masterwork, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly). In one torture scene, a fist punches the cop from outside the frame, then the gang forces him to drink alcohol-based hair tonic while they shout and blast a radio into a hearing aid inserted in his ear. But Lewis coolly keeps his distance, refusing to allow the audience to share the cop’s point of view, which he reverses when henchman Brian Donlevy gets gunned down in silence without his hearing aid. With mischievous relish, Lewis keeps linking homicide to eating, cutting from a lethal box exploding to a lobster being cut on a plate.
The last phase of Lewis’ feature film career finds him back in westerns, two co-produced by Randolph Scott just before his fruitful partnership with Budd Boetticher. Peopled with veteran actors (who give the impression of a West run by aging greybeards), A Lawless Street offers Scott as a town marshal burnt out from public duty (“Each time it gets harder to kill”). Lewis creates an upstairs/downstairs polarity in the lawman’s two-story boarding house that matches Scott’s private/public split. Scott upstairs feels authentic, but only until he has to don his law enforcement uniform. Downstairs, social pressures emerge when he compares the community to “a wild animal in chains. It doesn’t fight back right away. It just lies there and snarls, waiting for its chance to pounce on you”. To escape his responsibilities, he seeks ways to withdraw from the community, ironically locking himself into a jail cell for a nap.
Dance hall headliner Angela Lansbury reveals his secret identity as her ex-husband, but Lewis skillfully visualises how villainous elements plunge the backlot western town into crisis, unleashing a kind of Walpurgisnacht of civil anarchy, complete with bonfires. Scott shoots a challenger while enjoying a shave in the barber’s chair, leaving a smoking hole in the cover sheet, but far from the bullet-proof cowboys of the B-westerns, he not only gets hurt but seems to die and then rise again from the dead to stop the evil, the denouement arriving when one character agrees to testify against the wrongdoers.
In comparison, The 7th Cavalry benefits from open air mountain locations as Scott’s cavalry officer returning to his outpost finds the fort almost lifeless in the wake of the Sioux Indians’ slaughter of General Custer’s troops at Little Big Horn. Lewis emphasises the gravity of the eerie situation as his camera sweeps 360-degrees around the empty structure but discovers only drunken survivors and embittered widows, all resentful of Scott’s absence while the army was being massacred.
After confessing his secret identity – he’s a reformed riverboat gambler – to his fiancée, he must testify about his own actions and defend the general during a military inquiry where one survivor debunks the heroic myth: “Custer disobeyed orders and hogged glory for himself. He was responsible for the slaughter”. This historical realism earns him a slug to the jaw from Scott, but the script loads its own arguments, making Custer’s critics either rigid militarists or moral reprobates (“Them Indians think they own the country,” says one without irony).
With only Custer’s courier (Harry Carey Jr., veteran of John Ford’s considerably more romantic cavalry westerns, notably She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1949) as an ally, he then chooses to prove himself through action by volunteering for a near-suicidal mission to recover US dead from the Little Big Horn battlefield, now declared a Sioux holy place by Chief Sitting Bull. During the long ordeal of his mission, Scott also has to fight insubordination, insurrection and assassination attempts in his own ranks. Though western fans were impatient that the film was half over before Lewis started the action, when the extended finale arrives, it distills Lewis’ years of B-western expertise, beginning with a furious horseback pursuit of a Sioux scout, as the tracking camera careens across the landscape.
Indian warriors line up in a horizon-spanning showdown, then ride to surround the soldiers whom they consider grave robbers, entrapping them in an ever-circling psychological siege, until the fortuitous appearance of Custer’s own horse pawing the ground and dramatically galloping past the warriors sends them fleeing, believing it a ghost horse ridden by Custer’s spirit. Spurious as history (though marginally less distorted than Raoul Walsh’s Custer glorification in They Died With Their Boots On, 1941), the film’s historical falsity made Lewis “genuinely embarrassed, even humiliated”, according to Peter Bogdanovich (25).
In The Halliday Brand, a highly regarded echo of Ford’s The Searchers (1956), anti-Indian Ward Bond incites a mob to lynch his daughter’s half-breed suitor, another intense example of the 1950s “psychological” western, this one consumed with varieties of family conflict.
As his final western, Terror in a Texas Town makes an admirably terse yet virtuoso summation of Lewis’s career. Opening with a preview of the climax, a nod to his Mascot westerns credit sequences, Lewis shows Sterling Hayden advancing down a dusty street, wielding an enormous harpoon as the villain taunts him to come “a little closer”, until the credits begin, glimpsed through a wagon wheel. All his earmarks are here: razor-sharp black-and-white, pristine deep focus, freshly conceived angles, actors composed into triangular formations. Faithfully reprising a single shot from So Dark the Night, Lewis’ camera moves from outdoors to inside a shed, then looks through the window outside again, while the tense climax hearkens directly back to his model gunfight in Arizona Cyclone (1942).
Meisel says the film “isn’t exactly good, yet it is marvelous: involving and colorful, personal and awful” (26) Upending Henry King’s classic The Gunfighter (1950), Lewis transforms the superannuated pistolero from weary hero to tragic villain burdened with a steel fist. Poker-faced Nedrick Young (so effortlessly effective in Retreat, Hell!) dons the black hat and black outfit of the classic villain, his character of Jack Krale described as “death walking around in the shape of a man”. Social change has arrived, so “the man with a gun can’t make it anymore”, and even his despondent mistress confesses that “I stay with him because no other man will have me. I see him and know, as low as I am, there is someone lower than me”.
Enter a whaling-ship sailor (Sterling Hayden with a Swedish accent) who claims an inheritance but finds himself beaten by the villain’s henchmen. Not even the sheriff will help him, though he boasts, “You’re not in some foreign country where a man has no right to justice”. Eventually the townspeople mobilise behind the Swede as he strides with his harpoon in a more detailed replay of the opening action. In Lewis’s most evolved style, “The elaborate rococo quality of the camerawork plays against the spareness of plot and production values, and similarly baroque emotional/sexual tensions,” as Richard Combs observes. (27)
Unfairly reduced to a poor man’s High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952), the film openly confronts the McCarthy era’s fear-mongering by calling for community solidarity against illegal power (Jack twice says: “Something rather remarkable I saw this morning: a man who wasn’t afraid to die”). Ned Young, Lewis’ longtime friend and blacklist victim, also contributed to the script uncredited (that same year he shared an Oscar for the screenplay for Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones). According to the director himself, Young warned him,
“… if you do this film, you might never work in Hollywood again.” You see everyone involved with it – Ned, Sterling Hayden, Dalton Trumbo, everybody – had had trouble with McCarthy. Ned said, “Would you be willing to take a chance, and make the breakthrough on this blacklist thing?” So I replied, “By all means”. (28)
As this project pre-dated Kirk Douglas’s blacklist-busting Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1959) and Otto Preminger’s Exodus (1960), which both openly used screenplays by Dalton Trumbo, Lewis was taking a substantial risk. Reflecting on his own behaviour, Lewis reported that:
I decided there was a time in my life when I had to become a man. I didn’t believe in what they were doing at that particular moment and neither did my producer and we both took a chance. As he said to me, “Joe, you’re sticking your neck out a mile because somebody can come along and chop it off and you’ll never work again. Are you willing to take that chance?” (29)
Whether from blacklisting or changing production patterns, Lewis indeed never made another feature.
By the mid 1950s, the western genre was migrating to television, where shows such as “Have Gun Will Travel”, “Wagon Train”, “Bonanza” and “The Big Valley” played with great success. After a major heart attack, Lewis decided to migrate with them, picking and choosing TV jobs, but rather than dwindling powers, Lewis’ small screen work shows evidence of a late flowering, of style refined to a new lucidity, that merits exploration. (30)
- Francis M. Nevins, Joseph H. Lewis: Overview, Interview and Filmography, The Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD, 1998, p. 6.
- Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It?: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1997, p. 651.
- Nevins, p. 14.
- According to Richard Thompson, Lewis’ South Sea Island horror tale The Mad Doctor of Market Street “operates on a zombie level between Ulmer’s perversely minimal Club Havana and Buñuel’s compulsively catatonic movies about people caught in the same room”. Richard Thompson in “Joseph H. Lewis: Three Articles, An Interview and Filmography”, Cinema, vol. 5 no. 1, fall 1971, p. 46.
- James Naremore, More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1998, p. 142.
- Invisible Ghost review signed by “T.M.P.”, New York Times, 8 May, 1941, 21:2.
- Lewis’ avowed idol remained William Wyler, especially for his use of indirection that involves the spectator by playing against the material. A dramatic scene in The Little Foxes, 1941, staged so Bette Davis turns her back to the camera throughout, demonstrated to Lewis the lesson of “allowing the audience to supply the emotion. That scene would have lost all its intent and content if she faced you”. Nevins, p. 12.
- Myron Meisel, “Joseph H. Lewis: Tourist in the Asylum”, in Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn (eds.), Kings of the Bs: Working within the Hollywood system: an anthology of film history and criticism, E.P. Dutton, New York, 1975, p. 102.
- Bertand Tavernier, “American director thumbnails”, Cahiers du cinéma, December 1963–January 1964, reprinted at “My Gleanings”.
- The plot was reworked in 1987 as Arthur Penn’s Dead of Winter, adding an evil crippled psychiatrist named “Dr Joseph Lewis”.
- Clive Hirschhorn, The Columbia Story, Crown, New York, 1989, p. 141.
- While he had no credited input into the script, The Jolson Story‘s ending hits a uniquely sophisticated note more consonant with Lewis’ films than Green’s. How many showbiz biopics make a happy ending out of a marriage breaking up and the wife walking out on the star? Even more surprising, both sides are portrayed as entirely sympathetic and this resolution as unassailably logical.
- Tony Rayns review in John Pym (ed.), Time Out Film Guide, 11th edition, Penguin Books, London, 2003, p. 1116.
- Gun Crazy review signed by “Brog”, Variety, 1949 Nov 02.
- Michael Covino, “Gun Crazy”, East Bay Express (Oakland, California), July 26, 1991
- Paul Schrader in Cinema, 5(1), p. 44.
- Schrader, p. 43.
- Released a month before Gun Crazy, Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night also follows a pair of misfit lovers yet its romantic melancholy seems the very antithesis of Lewis’ perverse energy. Ray’s innocents desire a respectable life “like real people”, though external forces defeat them, especially their lower class origins, where the boy witnessed his father’s murder and the girl’s mother’s desertion left her with her hopelessly alcoholic father. Ray’s only comparable suggestion of Gun Crazy’s sexual relationship held together by violence comes in a sole scene when Farley Granger kisses Cathy O’Donnell roughly as she smashes objects with his gun. Elsewhere, Ray’s nuzzling lovers are all peach fuzz and shiny eyes, bathed in softly lit romantic close-ups a far cry from Lewis’ trigger-happy duo, limned with what Pauline Kael termed “a fascinating crumminess”. In fact, Ray’s virginal Keechie could not be more opposite to the libidinal Laurie, in Lewis’ words “a cross between Annie Oakley and Lady Macbeth”.
- The shootout finale unfolds in an inexplicable mountaintop swamp, with the camera craning above the mist-shrouded reeds, like King Vidor’s shot rising above the dead lovers on the mountaintop in Duel in the Sun (1946). Actually, in Ruby Gentry (1952) Vidor would stage a similar swamp showdown, using Lewis’ photographer (Russell Harlan), though he was already reprising his bayou love murder from Hallelujah! (1929).
- Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It?, p. 683.
- Meisel, p. 92.
- Nevins, p. 41.
- Jean-Pierre Coursodon with Pierre Sauvage, American Directors, Volume I, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1983, p. 224.
- Thompson, p. 47.
- Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It?, p. 641.
- Meisel, p. 102.
- Richard Combs, Edinburgh Film Festival Notes, 1980, reprinted by Cinefiles.
- Geoff Andrew, “King B’, Time Out (London), 8–15 October 1986, p. 21. Reprinted by Cinefiles
- Peter Bogdanovich in Cinema 5(1), fall 1971, p. 51.
- Completing 51 episodes of “The Rifleman” over six seasons (employing lesser known players like Warren Oates, Lee Van Cleef and Martin Landau), Lewis ranged, according to Nevins, “from routine outings like ‘The Survivors’ (29 December 1959) to first-rate entries like ‘Panic’ (10 November 1959) and ‘The Hangman’ (31 May 1960), whose opening scene is as powerful as almost anything in a Lewis feature”. (Nevins, pp. 50–51). Worthy of special mention is “And the Devil Makes Five” (11 February 1963), with its rattlesnake inside a sleeping bag, comparable to Hitchcock in nerve-wracking suspense.
For “Bonanza”, Lewis directed an episode called “The Quality of Mercy” (17 November 1963) that portrayed moral agonizing over whether or not to reveal a secret instance of euthanasia , and a “Gunsmoke” episode called “Thursday’s Child” (6 March 1965) that brought Jean Arthur’s out of retirement, plus several segments of “The Big Valley”.
A complete Lewis filmography (compiled by Robert Mundy) can be viewed here: http://sensesofcinema.com/contents/00/10/lewisfilmo.html
Nicholas Christopher, Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City, The Free Press: New York, 1997.
Roberto Porfirio and Carl Macek interview in Robert Porfirio, Alain Silver and James Ursini (eds.), Film Noir Reader 3, Limelight Editions, New York, 2002.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Joseph H. Lewis Filmography compiled by Robert Mundy
First appeared in Cinema (U.S.), v.7, n.1, Fall 1971
Better than Good – A Tribute to Joseph H. Lewis compilation and translation by William D. Routt
Joseph H. Lewis by Rick Thompson
A slightly different version of this piece appeared in Cinema (U.S.), vol. 7, no.1, fall 1971, pp. 46–47.
Cinematexas Program Notes
Reviews from 1978 of Lewis’ films noirs.
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Links to online articles can be found here.
The Films of Joseph H. Lewis
Michael E. Grost, for the Classic Film and Television website.
The Big Combo
Article by Grant Tracey for Images no. 2, December 1996.
Click here to buy Joseph H. Lewis DVDs and videos at Facets
Click here to search for Joseph H. Lewis DVDs, videos and books at