October 27, 2015
After a career of making B-pictures for Columbia and Poverty Row, Joseph H. Lewis signed a contract with MGM in 1950. His calling card was Gun Crazy (1950), a daring crime film whose location photography and long-take heist sequence created a buzz in Hollywood, if not at the box office. MGM executive Dore Schary screened the film at his home, and brought Lewis into the fold. They sold him on the idea of making a documentary portrait of Cuban immigrants, “no actors, done with all portable equipment”, but this bold experiment never materialized. The idea was recycled into the Hedy Lamarr vehicle A Lady Without Passport (1950), which was Lewis’ directorial debut for MGM. Their artsy hire became just another contract director. But Lewis was used to working miracles off of threadbare scripts – he earned the nickname “Wagon Wheel Joe” on B Westerns by continually bisecting his compositions with wheel spokes. One of the most delirious examples from this period is Cry of the Hunted (1953), about the manhunt of an escaped prisoner through the Louisiana bayou, that Warner Archive has just issued on DVD. Lewis takes every opportunity to ratchet up the intensity: he pushes into extreme close-ups to emphasize flop sweat, lenses a fog-choked hallucination brought on by swallowing swamp water, and captures intense on-location footraces up the Angels Flight funicular in Los Angeles and long take brawls through the Louisiana Bayou. The characters don’t have time to take breaths, and in its svelte 80 minutes, neither does the viewer.
Cry of the Hunted was shot in September of 1952 in Los Angeles and the Louisiana bayou, an ambitious schedule for a B picture. But even MGM’s B films were done at budgets higher than Lewis was used to. He recalled to Peter Bogdanovich in Who the Devil Made It: “At Metro, I found when I had a sequence to shoot with fog in it, they wanted to give me two huge stages and build a whole swamp set, put a boat in there and everything. I knew what that meant: you’d fog up the scene and after you made a shot, you’d have to wait for a half hour of forty-five minutes until the huge fans blew out all the old smoke. Right? Well, that was the Metro way. I wasn’t about to do that – I wanted to do it on the outside, which we did eventually.” Lewis was always trying to get outside and onto the streets and the dirt – thinking it was cheaper to find something ready-made than have it constructed. This was not quite the MGM way, and this made him an odd fit at the company, and he often regretted signing the deal.
The screenplay by Jack Leonard is fairly elemental. Jory (Vittorio Gassman), a petty Cajun criminal, has been imprisoned for driving the getaway car at a robbery. Lt. Tunner (Barry Sullivan) had been tasked with getting Jory to talk and incriminate his heist-mates. When Jory busts out of jail, he lams it for Louisiana. It is up to Tunner and his rotund partner Goodwin (a sardonic William Conrad) to wade through the swamps and the quicksand to find Jory and bring him back to justice.
The energy lags anytime there is a scene indoors, whether it’s at the prison Warden’s office handing Tunner his detail or it’s the Lieutenant at home, making nice with his improbably perky wife (she mixes him martinis for his manhunt picnic basket). These are script pages to plow through, an assignment to complete. But the film comes alive outside. The first galvanic scene is Jory’s escape, which happens during a car accident when they are transferring him back to jail. After being harangued in the backseat by Goodwin’s threatening banter (William Conrad plays his cop as a smiling sociopath), he springs loose on a Los Angeles street following a head on collision. Lewis seems to feel as suddenly free as Jory, capturing Gassman hoofing it towards the Angels Flight funicular with the piston-like form of Tom Cruise. The funicular was a transport from Downtown to the working class neighborhood of Bunker Hill. The history and various incarnations of Angels Flight were dissected in Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, a history of the city on-screen. This instance is particularly notable, for Lewis jams a camera into one of the cars as it travels up, and shots Conrad (or his stand-in) as they race up a staircase across the way.
The scenes shot on the Louisiana Bayou are less urgent and more atmospheric – sweaty, sticky sequences where everything seems to be sinking into a bog. Lewis’s use of extreme close-ups becomes even more prominent, pushing his camera straight into the sweat ridges on male foreheads. Forward motion becomes impossible through the thick swamp, dotted as it is by quicksand, crocs, and disfigured Cajun soothsayers who scream for their lost loved ones (“Raul! Raul!”, she yells, to no response). Tunner even hallucinates being choked by the fog (and by Jory), a fever dream of elongated giant shadows towering over him and his hospital bed – it’s an impossibly strange bit of surrealist cinema for a MGM programmer. With all of this insanity, the easy thing for Tunner and Jory to do would be to sink and disappear, but they keep fighting until the swamps threaten to consume them. They are ready to be devoured until a miraculous last act of heroism by the previously self-serving Goodwin. It’s an improbable end to a story that seemed destined to dissolve in the muck, but that’s Hollywood for you. And that’s Joseph H. Lewis for you as well, finding visual intensities from script inanities.