Ben Maddow: Affairs of the Skin
Not listed amongst the over 20,000 films in Halliwell’s Film Guide, An Affair of the Skin, was, at the time of its release in 1964, a worthy, if not altogether successful, attempt at being an American art movie, a hodgepodge of influences, from Italian Realists, Antoniani and Bergman to US social conscience films and documentarists like Robert Flaherty. Written, produced and directed by former documentarist and Hollywood scriptwriter Ben Maddow, the film was, for the most part, shot on the streets of New York, and memorable for its sensuousness, its street-level camera-work and use of natural light. Strangely, the film has since disappeared from film catalogues.
Still, Maddow’s career remains an interesting one. Under the name David Wolf, he published poems and short stories, and provided commentary and narration for documentaries like Native Land (1942). Under his own name, he also wrote Forty-Four Gravel Street, which, set in Brooklyn, part-urban hardboiler, part-proletariat tract and part-literary novel. Blacklisted during the McCarthy era, Maddow was able to make a living writing screenplays under another scriptwriter’s name (a number of blacklisted writers worked under pseudomyns, or worked for other writers). Later, after he’d retired from making films, Maddow would write books on photographers such as Edward Weston. Despite his numerous film credits, Maddow never considered himself merely a screenwriter. As he would say in an interview with Film Comment critic Richard Corliss, “In my experience...there is no such animal as a screenwriter. There are persons...who write screenplays, but they are admittedly monsters, because it is the grotesque fact that they have responsibility, but no power.” As far as Maddow was concerned, screenwriting was just a job, one that allowed him to finance other projects.
An Affair of the Skin featured actors Kevin McCarthy and Lee Grant. McCarthy had recently appeared in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Misfits. His co-star, Lee Grant, had, like Maddow, also been blacklisted, though less for her politics than for refusing to testify against her husband, playwright Arnold Manoff (No Minor Vices, The Big Break and, along with Walter Bernstein and Abraham Polonsky, the author of most of the episodes of the historical TV program You Are There). Prior to that her portrayal of a shoplifter in William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951) had earned her the best actress award at Cannes and an Academy Award nomination. Though, once blacklisted, her Hollywood appearances would quickly grind to a halt, Grant, before appearing in Affair of the Skin, was in such marginal productions as Cornel Wilde’s Storm Fear (1956), Delbert Mann’s Middle of the Night (1959) and Genet’s The Balcony, the latter also produced, directed and adapted for the screen by Maddow. But Grant would not relaunch her Tinseltown career until 1975 when she appeared in Hal Ashby’s astute critique of the early 1970s, Shampoo.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Maddow had been a major influence on a number of film-makers and writers. Malvin Wald, who, along with Albert Maltz, wrote the cutting-edge and streetwise The Naked City, recounts meeting Maddow while both were serving in the Air Force motion pictures unit. At the time, Maddow was championing the documentary techniques of Robert Flaherty, John Grierson and Joris Ivens. The latter film-makers would influence Maddow when it came to writing the commentary for the one of the era’s more heralded documentaries, Native Land (1942). In turn, Maddow would influence the look and cinematic ethos of The Naked City. But Maddow would be less known for his influence, his films, poetry, and novel, than for his screenplays, particularly his adaption, written alongside John Huston, of W.R. Burnett’s novel The Asphalt Jungle (1950), closely followed by his once praised but now underrated adaptation of William Faulkner’s novel Intruder in the Dust (MGM, 1949).
Once considered a person of political principle, Maddow chose to make an eleventh hour mea culpa to the HUAC, for which he would be roundly criticised. In his book Naming Names, Victor Navasky claims a special dispensation was created purely for Maddow’s benefit. Despite his recantation, Maddow was never able to regain a foothold in Hollywood. Not that this seemed to bother him, for Maddow’s rejection allowed him to pursue his independent avant-garde film productions like An Affair of the Skin (1964), The Balcony (1963), The Savage Eye (1960 and Storm of Strangers (1970). While his final screenplay was the more mainstream The Mephisto Waltz (1971), a cult effort written for Paul Wendkos which some have interpreted as a defence of his testimony- its theme being if you can’t beat them, join them, or the devil makes use of idle hands- before the HUAC.
Born in 1909, Maddow grew up in a small town outside New York city. At Columbia University, he studied under poet Mark Van Doren, read the likes of Shelley, Keats, Whitman, Shakespere’s Sonnets, and Emily Dickinson, and began to write poetry that was, according to Maddow, “pretty dreadful, so exaggerated.” While Hollywood attracted journalists, novelists and dramatists, Maddow was one of the few active poets to work in the studios.
Out of college and unemployed for two years, Maddow was finally able to find work as an orderly in Bellevue Hospital. At this point, he did not consider himself a writer, and, in fact, did not start writing seriously until after the war. So bleak was the future during the Depression, and so unsuited was he for the job market, that Maddow saw himself as a permanent hospital employee. But when Roosevelt was elected in 1932, he was able, with his college degree, to become an “investigator” in the social services department, a job that entailed visiting prospective relief recipients. Assigned to a middle-class district, Maddow found the shame of middle-class people asking for assistance reminiscent of his own family, and so asked to be transferred to a poorer district. He was sent to Sand Street in Brooklyn where he felt more comfortable: “When you came down the street, kids would take your hand and start shouting, ‘Investigator!’ You were a famous man.” His experiences there would go into his novel Forty-four Gravel Street. It was while working as an investigator that he became politically aware. This would be reflected in his poetry, which he was beginning to publish, more often than not under the pseudonym, David Wolf, so, according to Maddow, his colleagues would not think he was getting “uppity.”
When he was unemployed, Maddow would often take refuge in the movie theatres of New York, where, for fifteen cents, he would sit through as many as three features. He saw films, not only from Hollywood, but from Russia and France, and was particularly impressed by the films of Alexander Dovzhenko, which were, he realised, constructed like poems.
It was while working on Sand Street that Maddow came across an advertisement in a New York newspaper for a poet who could write the commentary for a twenty minute film about baggage in the harbour. The quirkiness of the idea appealed to Maddow, as did the prospect of working in film. The project turned out to be Ralph Steiner’s Harbor Scenes (1935). While working on that film, Maddow met other still-photographers who were trying to make films and were searching for someone to write for them. Soon Maddow had singlehandedly invented a style of narration, one which would be used in countless other documentary films, as well as in various examples of street-level film noir, not least of which was Jules Dassin’s The Naked City. Constructing the narration as though it were a poem, Maddow sought to have each word modify an image. With the film running before him, Maddow would record his commentary, “carpentering phrases so they fit into the rhythm of the film.” Though these days the style has become a cliche, at the time it was nothing short of revolutionary.
The documentary film group to which Maddow attached himself happened to be an adjunct to the Film and Photo League, which, in turn, was the cultural branch of the Workers Relief League, a leftwing insurance company set-up to encourage photographers- a forerunner of modern day film-maker co-operatives- in which each person paid minimal dues for the use of a dark room and, if necessary, lessons in how to make and process film. Not surprisingly, considering the era, it was Marxist in orientation, and affiliated to the Popular Front. Because the smallest detail had to be discussed, each film was an even longer and more involved process than usual. Moreover, all decisions were to be taken collectively. In an interview with Patrick McGilligan, Maddow recalls standing on a street corner with his fellow members vehemently arguing about something that appeared, at the time, very important, when the issue had simply been where they should go for lunch.
Influenced by the CPUSA slogan, “Communism is twentieth-century Americanism,” the patriotic Native Land was the culmination of Maddow’s documentary career at Frontier Films. So huge was the project- at least in their terms- that the company, in the making of the film, eventually went broke.
Despite working in New York, which, at the time, was a cultural hotbed, Maddow, when it came to writers, knew only fellow-poets Muriel Rukeyser, Maxwell Bodenheim and Kenneth Fearing. Rukeyser was a stalwart lesbian whose radical spirit continued through the Vietnam war era, while Bodenheim was the bete noire of the New York poetry world. Leftwing parents would tell their wayward sons to be careful or they’d end up like the Bohemian Max Bodenheim. After writing two or three interesting novels, Bodenheim flirted with a possible Hollywood career, only to become a Greenwich Village poet-clown bartering his poems for drinks. Along with his girlfriend, Bodenheim was found murdered in a Greenwich Village flophouse. On the other hand, Fearing would continue to write his hardboiled poetry- he won the Yale Prize for Younger Poets- and would pen semi-hardboilers- often deploying alternating narrative voices- such as The Big Clock and Clark Gifford’s Body.
After working on a documentary in South America with future eminence-gris of the New York avant-garde film set, Willard Van Dyke, Maddow was drafted into the armed forces and assigned to the Army’s Signal Corps. With his background in film and writing, it was decided that Maddow should be trained as a radio technician, and so was transferred to Los Angeles where he could attend radio school. Once on the West Coast, he came into contact with various movie people, including a member of the Air Force motion picture unit who mentioned that they were on the look-out for anyone with a background in documentary film-making. Maddow asked to join, and was taken on. Other members of the unit included William Wyler, John Sturges and, as previously mentioned, Malvin Wald. Maddow made a series of films about a variety of specialised subjects. The voice-overs were invariably read by Hollywood actors, such as Ronald Reagan, Clark Gable, Alan Ladd, Arthur Kennedy and George Montgomery. According to Maddow, Reagan could read scripts perfectly and with absolute conviction, though he had no ideas what they were about. During the war, Maddow, as writer and producer, estimated he had made somewhere between 200-500 documentaries, all based in the Los Angeles area.
The only movie writer to influence Maddow during this period was Lester Koenig who, at that time, worked as William Wyler’s assistant. Koenig would go on to write the narration for Wyler’s Memphis Belle (1943) and the script for The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), The Heiress (1949) and Carrie (1952). Maddow and Koenig had planned to make a film on the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, and forerunner of the CIA). But the film was never to be realised.
When Maddow’s wife, Frieda, an ex-Martha Graham dancer, was hired for a Broadway production of Finian’s Rainbow, the couple moved to New York. It was there that Maddow began writing Forty-Four Gravel Street (1952), about a man who returns from a business trip to his apartment to find his wife has disappeared, his apartment has been sublet, and the money from their bank account has been withdrawn. All he finds is an address written in lipstick on the mirror: 44 Gravel Street.
Having received a call from Harold Hecht, Maddow’s sabbatical in New York proved short-lived. Hecht- “a general phony,” according to Maddow- was a former Martha Graham dancer, and had directed dance routines in films like Horse Feathers and She Done Him Wrong. After working with the Federal Theater Project, he went to Hollywood where he discovered Burt Lancaster, and produced The Sweet Smell of Success, Birdman of Alcatraz and Cat Ballou. Hecht asked Maddow if he would be interested in collaborating on a film with him. He was also offering what, to Maddow, seemed like an enormous amount of money. By this time, Frieda had been dancing in Finian’s Rainbow for some seven months, and had grown bored with the work. So the couple decided to return to Hollywood, where Maddow worked on Hecht’s film, which turned out to be Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948), about a nurse- Joan Fontaine- who helps a seaman- Burt Lancaster- on the run after being accused of a murder he did not commit. Maddow, who thought it a ludicrous title- others have considered it one of the more evocative of film noir titles- worked on the script with Walter Bernstein. It would be Bernstein’s only film credit before being blacklisted, though, in future, he would contribute to such screenplays as Paris Blues, Fail Safe, The Train, The Molly Maquires, The Front, Semi-Tough, Yanks and The House on Carroll Street.
When it came to scriptwriting for film, Maddow maintained that his background in poetry was of little help, though he admitted it did teach him “to struggle with formal structure because structure in a documentary is quite different...How much time you give to certain things, how much importance...it’s very complex.” Certainly, poetry writing must also have given Maddow an appreciation of music, particularly rhythm. Maddow would go on to develop an interest in jazz, and, along with a friend whom he had met after publishing a poem in a small magazine, would go out hunting for secondhand 78’s. Coincidentally, this same friend’s wife happened to work in the script department at Metro. Aware that Maddow was a scriptwriter as well as a poet, she recommended him to Clarence Brown, known at that time for his Garbo movies and National Velvet. Brown had just bought Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust but had no idea what to do with it. Maddow, who loved Faulkner’s writing, considered Intruder in the Dust the author’s worst novel, indicative of Faulkner’s belief that he could make money from a series of books about a lawyer and a detective.
After telling Brown he was willing to do the screenplay, Maddow realised he would have to simplify the plot- four disinterments were three too many. Equally problematical were his attempts to explain the plot to the director who, confused by Faulkner’s writing, could not understand why any writer would want to tell a story backwards. The two men would meet in Brown’s huge Hollywood office, empty except for a desk and a caged parakeet. At the beginning of each story conference Brown would let the parakeet fly around the room. While Maddow explained the story and script, Brown would close his eyes and doze off. Whenever he did, the parakeet would land on the director’s head, flying away as soon as Brown awoke. Consequently, Brown had little idea what Maddow was up to, enabling the writer to work without any undue intervention.
Maddow’s script became a talking point at Metro, and marked the relaunching of Maddow’s Hollywood career. Suddenly people were talking about this writer who had been able to translate Faulkner to the screen. Despite the film’s obvious faults- such as using a Puerto Rican rather than an African-American, and stereotyping him in the process- Maddow would later say that he was pleased with the film, that it was a rare occasion in which he had seen on the screen what he had imagined in his mind. Though Maddow was to admit that his task was helped by the material, including Faulkner’s preciseness and ability to describe locations and characters. However, studio honcho Louis B. Mayer disliked the film. Of the black hero, he said, “He ought to take off his hat when he talks to a white man.”
Part 2 to follow.
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