“The films I most eagerly look forward to will not be documentaries but works of fiction, played against and into and in collaboration with unrehearsed and uninvented reality.”
– James Agee (1)
Helen Levitt (1913-2009) was a major figure in the street photography movement of the postwar years in New York City. Her name sits alongside Berenice Abbott, Ben Shahn, Weegee, Robert Frank and Garry Winograd, and her photographic work has featured in major exhibitions and in numerous book collections. Her filmic career has been less well explored but, nevertheless, any discussion of Levitt’s moving image photographic, editing and production roles across numerous films provides a glimpse into the vibrant New York City film culture of the mid-20th century and a career that included independent, sponsored and institutionally backed film projects made outside of the Hollywood system and with an emphasis on low-budget, small crew works created with friends.
On closer inspection the subculture which saw the emergence of this film culture holds a sensibility closer to modernism than social documentary utilising, a mixture of dramatic episodes, poetic, elliptical voiceovers, interviews, documentary street footage and flashbacks to create rough and raw documents of urban life in the postwar period. Jonas Mekas saw these works (writing specifically about In the Street  and The Quiet One ) as
films [that] dealt with realistic subject matter; both used non-actors; both were shot on actual location, often with concealed cameras. And they both had a spontaneity of action and camera that was very different from their documentary predecessors… interested in exploring their world in a more prosaic and realistic manner, right here and now. (2)
It is possible to extend Mekas’ comments to The Steps of Age (1950) and the singular The Savage Eye (1959), two films where Levitt, alongside her friends and collaborators, extended these working methods into an institutional and major production setting respectively.
Levitt’s involvement with the moving image began in 1942 with an introduction by Janice Loeb to, among others, Luis Buñuel, who hired her, based on her photographs, to help Helen van Dongen edit films for the Motion Picture Division of the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA) housed at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art (3). The OCIAA’s role was to distribute Spanish-language versions of US films to Latin America as part of the ideological war occurring at the time. When the US entered the Second World War, Levitt began editing films for the Office of War Information, a hive of documentary production, which as Jan Christopher Horak tells us, employed the cream of documentary filmmakers in the US – as occurred in many countries across the globe – brought together for the war effort. Filmmakers such as Willard Van Dyke, Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers, Helen Grayson, Irving Lerner, Joseph Krungold, Jules Bucher, Irving Jacoby and Alexander Hammid, were all involved with the Office (4). As Horak points out many of “these filmmakers have yet to be discovered, having fallen through a crack in documentary film history between Why We Fight and Cinema Verité” (5). Levitt, despite her considerable reputation as a still photographer, subsequently became part of this group of “undiscovered” filmmakers.
In the Street
In the Street can be seen as providing a juncture between the Farm Security Administration funded New Deal documentary film and photography – represented by the likes of Pare Lorentz, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn and others, and including James Agee and Walker Evans’ publication Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) – and the urban-based street photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Evans, Morris Engel, Berenice Abbott, Weegee [Arthur Fellig] and Ralph Steiner (as well as the words of Agee, Ralph Ingersoll, Alfred Kazin, Archibald McLeish and Robert Fitzgerald) (6). Originally entitled I Hate 110th Street, after an image of a sidewalk chalk graffiti that opened an early version of the film, Loeb, Levitt and Agee’s minor masterpiece emerged from the fervour for images of street life that characterised the culture of post-World War II New York City. The film was shot by Levitt, Loeb and Agee in 1945 and 1946 and finally cut together by Levitt and released in 1952. Initially the film is an extension of Levitt’s still photography of children and their graffiti that formed her first book A Way of Seeing, and which, Horak suggests, Agee proposed as an urban companion piece to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (7). Sandra Phillips tells us that Levitt’s interest in making images of street games such as hopscotch coincided with an interest in child psychology and in the psychological meanings of fairytales. Attending this was a serious interest in the nature and meaning of play as “an irrational, precultural activity”, as well as graffiti and children’s drawings that could be understood as “ancient, precivilised emblems of magical art” (8). Of course this was also the period where, for instance, Joan Miró began developing a “sign” language, abstract expressionists began exploring “calligraphic art” (it is also possible to see the images of mythic creatures in early Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock) (9).
Evans and Cartier-Bresson are two of the keys to Levitt’s work. Evans, a close friend and collaborator and Cartier-Bresson, someone that Levitt accompanied as he photographed the streets and docks on his visit to New York in 1935 provided Levitt with much of the inspiration for taking up photography. Cartier-Bresson’s maxim “the decisive moment” is a pertinent description of Levitt’s still photography and In the Street. A useful method in positioning this film is via James Mellow’s biography of Evans. Mellow situates Evans amongst a host a modernist literary and visual artists, forming an argument that runs against the notion of Evans as a social photographer, whose work was characteristic of the work being undertaken by the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration. Mellow’s Evans is a photographic artist greatly influenced by European sensibilities. Similarly Levitt has been name checked by people such as Stan Brakhage, who at one time placed In the Street amongst the great works of cinema such as Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein, 1925) and The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915). Ken Jacobs also said that it was In the Street that convinced him he could make films (10). Maria Morris Hambourg tells us that Levitt was particularly excited by Dziga Vertov’s Chelovek s kino-apparatom (Man With the Movie Camera, 1929), in particular the close shots of real people moving about the city unaware of the cameraman. She also cited Jean Vigo’s Zero de conduite (1933) and Jean Cocteau’s Le sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet, 1932) for their images of young boys “engaged in rebellious pranks” – such as the snowball fight at the end of the Cocteau film – as well as Nikolai Ekk’s Putyovka v zhizn (The Road to Life, 1931), a film about a gang of homeless children (11).
Levitt was accompanied by painter and photographer Janice Loeb and Agee to Spanish Harlem on the upper east side of Manhattan, not far from where the three lived (as did their friend Walker). Principally utilising a 180-degree viewfinder and the medium shot, this experiment was a revisitation of the methods used by Evans from as early as 1935 when he employed his girlfriend Jane Smith Nines “as a decoy, employing a right-angle view finder to capture the real subject while giving the appearance of taking a shot of Jane straight ahead” (12). This was also true of Levitt herself when she and Evans and travelled the New York subway taking candid photographs with a hidden camera, eventuating in the book Many Are Called (13).
In the Street was shot by the three friends and according to Cecile Starr, the earliest footage in the production was shot by Agee but included later in the film. These are straight on, direct, “camera provocateur” shots of children hamming it up to the camera, images that pre-empt the direct cinema of the late 1950s and early 1960s. It may have been that Levitt understood that method to be different to her own as she used a right-angle viewfinder, using Loeb or Agee to act as decoys to catch the street characters unawares. In many ways these images follow those contained in the books In the Street and A Way of Seeing; adults in conversation on stoops, kids playing hopscotch or under fire hydrants, people, young and old, at windowpanes. Like Levitt’s photography, the framing is remarkable, allowing figures in full flight to traverse the frame, or shift into the foreground in their games. Without containing them, children and adults live and breathe the street life, making their daily lives out of the interactions found there. Spanish Harlem is only a small part of the buzzing metropolis, and In the Street never understands itself as anything more than that. Siegfried Kracauer wrote of the film:
On the one hand, this film is nothing but a reportage pure and simple; its shots of Harlem scenes are so loosely juxtaposed that they almost give the impression of a random sample. A child behind a window is seen licking the pane; a woman with a terrible face passes by; a young man languidly watches the spectacle in the street; Negro children, intoxicated by their Halloween masks, dance and romp about with complete self-abandon. On the other hand, this reporting job is done with unconcealed compassion for the people depicted: the camera dwells on them tenderly; they are not meant to stand for anything but themselves. (14)
Due to Loeb’s connections at the Museum of Modern Art, In the Street was bought by the Museum’s library and subsequently shipped around the world to other libraries and film clubs including the Film Collection of the National Library of Australia (material which is now held by the National Film and Sound Archive).
The Quiet One
The Quiet One came about through a connection that Loeb had to the Wiltwyck School for Boys in Esopus, New York. She immediately turned to her friends Levitt and Agee to make the film that would help in fundraising for Wiltwyck. Later, it was felt that they needed a director for the performance sequences and Sidney Meyers was brought in. Meyers had previously worked for the Federal Arts Project for which he made People of the Cumberland (co-dir: Jay Leyda, 1937). Agee wrote the poetic narration and provided the initial voiceover but was apparently replaced by Gary Merrill, character actor from such films as Twelve O’clock High (Henry King, 1949) and All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), at the behest of the School Board, although it is rumoured that a print with Agee’s voiceover is still in existence. Levitt and Loeb chose to employ a fictional story, that of Donald Peters, a lonely Harlem boy whose plight is set in relief against the lights and vibrancy of city life. In his 1950 review, Vinicius de Moraes put it perfectly:
Donald Peters wanders on the sidewalks of Harlem in silence. The city’s sounds are separate from his constant cruel incomprehension. He is a prisoner of his unloved condition, and his feet, as he kicks them along the pavement, always carry him back to the vortex of his loneliness, to the hostile house where his old grandmother, herself desolate, offers him more than “duty without love” in Agee’s excellent phrase; where he is thrashed “in the same old hopeless confusion”, to find himself again in “the sick quiet that follows violence”, in an atmosphere of “rage and pain and fear and hatred” where he is nothing more than “a heavy burden for an old woman”. (15)
In Agee’s wonderful words Levitt and Loeb found the perfect compliment to cohere their images of urban Harlem, of stifling domestic dysfunction, rural New Jersey and the dramatic sequences directed by Meyers.
The Steps Of Age
Put together by the Mental Health Film Board (MHFB), initiated by Alberta Altman and Irving Jacoby, and produced for the Department of Mental Health, State of South Carolina, The Steps of Age was sponsored by the National Association for Mental Health. According to Jack Ellis, the Mental Health Film Board, in a series of films profoundly influenced by the theories of psychology that were wending their way into 1950s popular culture, shifted the focus of mental health documentaries to “persons in relation to themselves – their individual, interior lives – rather than on their relationships to society and to social problems” (16). Other films made by MHFB included Angry Boy (1951) by Jacoby and film pioneer Alexander Hammid, about a child caught stealing who is aided in his attempts to come to terms with his anxieties and anger. The Lonely Night (1954), again a Jacoby film featuring stage and film actor Marian Seldes in dramatic flashbacks triggered by fictional psychoanalytic interviews tracing the childhood experiences that led to her problems (17). The Steps of Age was produced by Levitt, written and directed by Maddow, and edited by Sidney Meyers. George Jacobson, who had worked with Maddow, Paul Strand and Leo Hurwitz on Native Land (Hurwitz and Strand, 1942), acted as cinematographer. The Steps of Age also features James Agee’s younger sister Emma in front of the camera. The film deals with the difficulties faced by a 62-year-old woman and her family when she is forced into retirement. Utilising a first-person narration and flashbacks to happier times, the film is representative of the mixed mode of address and formal characteristics of the sponsored documentaries of the era.
The Savage Eye
One of the more unusual films of its time, The Savage Eye represents an apotheosis of the 1950s mixed mode documentary film while looking forward to the observational cinema of the 1960s. Although released in 1959, just prior to the outbreak of direct cinema in the US, the film took many years to make with shooting undertaken on weekends across a loose production schedule. Levitt shot the location footage with Haskell Wexler, Jack Couffer, Sy Wexler and Joel Coleman, around which was built the narrative of Judith McGuire (Barbara Baxley), a recently divorced woman who arrives in Los Angeles and through her eyes, we visit the seedier sights of the city while she is in dialogue with “The Poet” (Gary Merrill, from The Quiet One). The Savage Eye was Wexler’s first major film and he went on to win Academy Awards for Best Cinematography for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966), Bound for Glory (Hal Ashby, 1976), as well as directing Medium Cool (1969) and Latino (1985). In “The Savage Ear of Kent MacKenzie”, Ross Lipman points to The Savage Eye as a “touchstone” for MacKenzie’s The Exiles (1961), with both films utilising spoken narration and “exquisite urban cinematography”. Wexler also helped out on The Exiles, while Robert Kaufman, MacKenzie’s cinematographer, was an assistant on The Savage Eye (18). In fact, the images in The Savage Eye are no less than startling in their clarity and depth, evoking the best still photography of Levitt and Evans, while depicting a desolate and unforgiving city (19).
Overtly literary in its tone – especially its clunky, jazzy voiceovers – The Savage Eye betrays co-creator Joseph Strick’s concerns. Strick commented that “our first idea was Los Angeles as seen by [William] Hogarth. The appurtenances have changed, but life is not so very different. Then we realized the parallel was too stretched for a film.” (20) Strick’s mention of the 18th century English satirist emphasises the manner in which the ironic tone is derived from images that are both “brutal and compassionate”, pre-empting much of the direct cinema movement (21).
Helen Levitt, following these various roles, went on to work for Emile de Antonio on In the Year of the Pig (1968) and John Cohen on The End of an Old Song (1973). But it is In the Street and The Quiet One, in particular, which remain hidden gems of this “movement” of documentary cinema.
- James Agee quoted in Jonas Mekas, “Notes on the New American Cinema”, Film Culture no. 23, Spring 1962, p. 7.
- Mekas, p. 6.
- Jan-Christopher Hoak, “Seeing with One’s Own Eyes: Helen Levitt’s Films”, The Yale Journal of Criticism vol. 8, no. 2, 1995, p. 73.
- Horak, p. 73.
- Horak, p. 73.
- James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1941.
- Horak, p. 73. Although the images for this book were contemporary with In the Street, the book, due to publication problems, didn’t appear until 1965 went it was published by Dutton in New York.
- Sandra S. Phillips, “Helen Levitt’s New York”, Helen Levitt, ed. Phillips, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, 1991, p. 31.
- Phillips, p. 31.
- Ken Jacobs quoted in Michelle Pearson, “Introduction: Ken Jacobs – A Half-Century of Cinema”, Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs, ed. Michele Pearson, David E. James and Paul Arthur, Oxford University Press, New York, 2011, p. 4.
- Maria Morris Hambourg, “Helen Levitt: A Life in Part”, Helen Levitt, p. 49.
- James Mellow, Walker Evans, Basic Books, New York, 1999, p. 237.
- Walker Evans, Many are Called, Yale University Press, New Haven; Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2004. The book features an Introduction by Agee.
- Siegfried Kracauer, The Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Oxford University Press, London, 1960, p. 203.
- Vinicius de Moraes, “The Making of a Document: The Quiet One”, Hollywood Quarterly vol. 4, no. 4, Summer 1950, p. 378.
- Jack Ellis, “American Documentary in the 1950s”, History of the American Cinema 7: Transforming the Screen 1950-1959, ed. Peter Lev, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2003, p. 265.
- Ross Lipman, “The Savage Ear of Kent MacKenzie”, Corpus Fluxus: Cinema, Restoration, Performance, Works by Ross Lipman: http://www.corpusfluxus.org/.
- The Exiles has received much attention since it was restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and released on DVD by Milestone Film and Video. We might hope that The Savage Eye, recently restored and touring film festivals, may receive similar attention.
- Joseph Strick quoted in Jonathan Rosenbaum, “The Savage Eye – Shadows”, The American New Wave 1958-1967, ed. Melinda Ward and Bruce Jenkins, Walker Art Center/Media Study, Buffalo, 1982, p. 29. Strick’s quote was taken from an interview with Judith Christ, New York Herald-Tribune 5 June 1960.
In the Street (1948/1952 USA 16 mins)
Dir, Phot: James Agee, Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb Ed: Helen Levitt
The Quiet One (1948 USA 67 mins)
Prod Co: Film Documents Prod: Janice Loeb Dir: Sidney Meyers Scr: James Agee (commentary and dialogue), Helen Levitt Phot: Richard Bagley, Jack Kling, Stanley Kotis Mus: Ulysses Kay
Cast: Donald Thompson, Clarence Cooper, Sadie Stockton, Estelle Evans, Paul Baucum, the Staff and Boys of Wiltwyck School, Gary Merrill (voiceover)
The Steps of Age (1950 USA 20 mins)
Prod Co: Film Documents Prod: Helen Levitt Dir, Scr: Ben Maddow Phot: George Jacobson Ed: Sidney Meyers
Cast: Rose Spencer, Harvard Sylvia, Emma Agee, Manny Kirschner
The Savage Eye (1959 USA 68 mins)
Prod Co: City Film Corporation Prod, Dir, Scr, Ed: Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers, Joseph Strick Phot: Helen Levitt, Haskell Wexler, Jack Couffer, Sy Wexler, Joel Coleman Mus: Leonard Rosenman
Cast: Barbara Baxley, Herschel Bernardi, Jean Hidey, Elizabeth Zemach, Gary Merrill (voiceover)