Ben Maddow: Affairs of the Skin
Never thinking he was following a particular career, Maddow, at first, considered writing for the movies merely a pleasurable way of making a living. When he didn’t feel like working, he was not beyond turning down a project without a second thought. He once had the nerve to turn down a lucrative screenwriting job at Columbia because, as he told the studio, he was working on a long poem and didn’t have the time. Maddow preferred to think of himself as a would-be writer of short stories and poetry. Not that he was alone in this pursuit, but, as he would later say, “I noticed that most of the guys who were in the same position I was, writers with ambition, never got around to doing their own work. They would accept one assignment after another. Or they would spend three or four months between assignments doing nothing or getting drunk.”
Hollywood Ten scriptwriter Albert Maltz had once told Maddow there were three secrets to a successful Hollywood career: talent, luck and social contacts. Maddow doubtlessly had the talent and the luck, but he did not go out of his way to cultivate contacts. He and his wife rarely socialised with Hollywood people, and knew few fellow-scriptwriters. Fortunately, Maddow, when he wanted to, was usually able to find work, writing films like the noir melodrama Framed (1947). Directed by Richard Wallace, and starring Glen Ford and Barry Sullivan, it concerns an unemployed drunk who is used as a fall-guy by a couple of thieves. It was Maddow who thought up the opening scene in which a truck goes out of control. Though the film, like other examples of film noir, have been expurgated ad infinitum, Maddow would say that he “never thought these films were a vehicle for any kind of ideas.” They were simply meant to entertain audiences. Any serious ideas that came forth from the films were, according to Maddow, purely accidental, or came from the novels on which they were based.
Though this was not the case regarding Maddow’s script for the extraordinary The Asphalt Jungle, a film which differs considerably from Burnett’s novel. Not only does Huston’s movie do away with the police superintendant-as-narrator, but, unlike the novel, it focuses on the criminals, treating their activities as an everyday human endeavour. This is why, according to Maddow, audiences sympathise with the film’s criminals. As far as Maddow was concerned, Burnett’s crooks were always fascinating, and he was only highlighting what the author had inferred in the novel. Of course, one can also attribute the success of Huston’s film to the cast, predominantly unknown East Coast actors assembled by the director. The one established Hollywood star that Huston had managed to bring on board was Sterling Hayden. Like the director, Hayden was a former communist who had been a member of the Hollywood Committee for the First Amendment and would later reluctantly supply names to the HUAC. He also spent time on the couch of Tinseltown psychotherapist Ernest Philip Cohen, who, at the time, was urging patients to comply with the HUAC. Hayden would say to Cohen, “I don’t think you have the foggiest notion of the contempt I have had for myself since the day I did that thing.” Cohen, a former party member himself, was, according to writer and director Abraham Polonsky, not only turning patients into stool pigeons, but handing over names and information gathered from his sessions to the Feds.
The studio had let Huston have his way with the cast and general direction because, in Maddow’s opinion, it never considered the film to be important enough to merit the usual amount of meddling and interference. However, the film would come under heavy criticism for its liberal attitude towards the underworld. While MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, who had supplied the names of various screenwriters to the HUAC, hated the movie- calling it “full of nasty, ugly people. I won’t walk across the room to see something like that”- and wished Huston had stuck with hackneyed stereotypes.
A study of, as one character puts it, “this left-handed form of human endeavour,” the film, to everyone’s surprise, was given the go-ahead by the Production Code office. This despite the fact that it trod on dangerous ground, showing a robbery in detail, depicting a crook who escapes punishment by committing suicide, and portraying the police as corruptible. It’s possible that the Production Code office, who concluded that the movie showed that “justice triumphs through efforts of law,” might have seen an early version of Maddow’s script, which went some way to portray the police sympathetically, rather than the final script or film. In his earlier script, Maddow had included an epilogue and prologue- similar to what would turn up a few years later in Invasion of the Body Snatchers- in which the Police Commissioner is shown talking to a group of reporters. “The worst police force in the world,” he says, “is better than no police force...Take the police off the streets for forty-eight hours and nobody would be safe...We’d be back in the jungle.” Though Huston junked Maddow’s framing device, he did include that bizarre penultimate scene which takes place at the police station: the Commissioner switches on the police radios and says to waiting reporters, “Suppose we had no police force, no matter how bad?...[The] jungle wins, the predatory beasts take over.” Yet, with hindsight, the message is clear: this is a film that not only shows crime as an everyday occurrence, but mirrors the demoralisation of the left and the nation’s unease during the onset of the atomic era, McCarthyism and the souring of the American dream.
It was Clarence Brown who recommended Maddow to Huston. Maddow never felt totally comfortable when faced with Huston’s princely lifestyle, but the two got on reasonably well, working together on the script for some six months. Of course, it was Maddow who did most of the writing, while Huston talked. Maddow also found it difficult to adjust to Huston’s work habits, which consisted of getting up late, attending to various domestic matters, having lunch, working for a couple hours, followed by a cocktail, by which time he would be about ready to sit down for dinner. Finally, Maddow was urged by the film’s producers to make Huston do more work, lest the film fall hopelessly behind schedule.
Working with Huston gave Maddow some insights into the source of cinematic ideas. He told Richard Corliss in the early 1970s, that films come from three sources. They can come from an idea originating with the director or producer, though such a person is “generally quite devoid of any but the most primitive notion of actual human life. Frequently he is quite unable to write, though there are certain gifted individuals who are able to dictate.” So a screenwriter is hired, but “it is difficult to make these people come alive, because the idea, however charming, does not grow from the marvelous confusion of American Life, but springs...from the crevices of a clever, skillful and egotistical brain.” The second source is through an adaptation of a play or novel. “If the novel is bad, the film has a decent chance to be good. If the novel is fairly good, the film is generally not bad at all. But if the novel is great, the film, paralyzed with admiration, is quite hopeless.” The third, and, according to Maddow, the source of truly great films is “when the real maker of the film, the director, is also the author. This imposes the interesting burden upon him or her of being a person of enormous talent. We have, so far in this country, only a few who can do it.” However, Maddow would also say, in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, that the situation is not without hope: “I have a purely personal superstition that good films are made mostly in the decade after a country has suffered defeat. Let us hope, then that the golden age of film in America is yet to be.”
Part 3 to follow.
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