This article started out as a post on Facebook. I was going to discuss my take on one particular photograph by the photographer Weegee. As I continued to write, the “post” began to grow, in this case, to almost 500 words, which I felt was too much for FB. So the question became what to do with it? I first though about putting it on my photography blog, John Greco Photography – Watching Shadows on the Wall, but decided it would take the blog in a direction I did not want it to go toward. For better or worse, I wanted to keep that blog exclusively for just my work. The solution, I came up with was to add it here. I justified this by the fact that Weegee was not just a photographer but a filmmaker too and that he worked in one capacity or another in the movies for a period of time. Therefore, here is my take on how I read Weegee’s photograph (below) known as “Lovers at the Palace” (1) along with some background on the photographer. Continue reading
Film director Jan Troell is not a well known name in America, though he should be. Only a few of his films have been released in theaters in the U.S. or on home video. His best and best know works, “The Emigrants” and “The New Land,” have not been available on home video since the long ago days of the laser disc (his 1982 film “The Flight of the Eagle” is suppose to be very good but I have not seen it). It’s the kind of situation that drives devoted film lovers up a wall. After the success of those two films, Troell, like many European directors in the early 70’s, was lured to America where he had the misfortune to make a couple of artistic and financial flops (“Zandy’s Bride” and “Hurricane”). Troell fled back home where he settled into a career making feature films and documentaries. Fortunately, thanks to Criterion, we now have access to his excellent and passionate 2008 work, “Everlasting Moments.” Continue reading
Photography and filmmaking are brothers, or sisters, under the skin. Cinema would not exist without the birth of still photography. As a photographer, and someone whose has been drawn to celluloid dreams all his life, I thought I’d list a few of my favorite films that have characters who are photographers in significant roles. All six films are available on DVD.
Rear Window (1954)
Where else to start than with one of my top five favorite films. REAR WINDOW, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, stars James Stewart as a Life magazine photojournalist confined to a wheelchair after an accident during a photo shoot. With one of his legs in a cast, he spends most of his time looking out his window observing his neighbors until one day he comes to suspect one of them (Raymond Burr) has murdered his wife. Hitchcock not only gives us one of the greatest suspense/thrillers of all time, but exposes the essence of photography and a dark side of human nature…voyeurism. Continue reading
L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), a photojournalist for a big time magazine is confined to his Greenwich Village apartment in a leg cast due to an accident during a photo shoot when he got a little too close to the action on a race track. His long period of convalescence is stifling. Use to being on the move, traveling to exotic places around the world, Jeffries is bored and frustrated by his inability to get around. A brutal heat wave with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees only adds to his aggravation. Bored out of his mind, Jeffries spends his days and nights, voyeuristically spying on his neighbors whose apartments are visible from his window facing the courtyard of his housing complex. The tenants are a diverse group of New Yorkers whose lives he becomes fleetingly acquainted with. They include a newlywed couple, a struggling songwriter, a lonely woman, he dubbed Miss Lonely Heart, a young beautiful dancer he nicknamed Miss Torso, and some married couples, one with a dog, another who sleep out on the fire escape, and especially one unhappy couple, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) and his ailing wife.
Jeffries girlfriend, Lisa Freemont (Grace Kelly), a high fashion model, is pushing him to settle down and get married, a concept Jeffries reacts to as if it were allergenic. Jeffries begins to focus on the Thorwald’s when he notices Mrs. Thorwald, who was always in her bedroom, has seemed to have disappeared and Mr. Thorwald, a salesman by trade, began to be going out at odd hours of the night with his sample case in hand.
Within four years Cagney made 19 films establishing his brash New York City persona as an alternative to the typical Hollywood male stars of the era. Cagney and the advent of sound movies were a perfect fit. His fast talking self-confident, cocky style was a perfect antidote to the stiffness of many actors transforming themselves from silent films to sound. Besides the cockier Cagney was, the more we loved him.
“Picture Snatcher” is a breezy, fast paced entertaining pre-code film that does it all right without ever managing to achieve greatness. The film stars an electric James Cagney as Danny Kean a streetwise recently released ex-con who decides to go straight.
After telling his former cohorts, and collecting his share of the last job before his incarceration, that he is quitting the rackets Danny gets a job at a New York tabloid called “The Graphic” through a connection he made with the City Editor Al McLean (Ralph Bellamy) while in the clink. Not suited for reporting but brash enough to take a job as a photographer when all others are reluctant to go the scene where a crazed firemen is hold up with a rifle after discovering his wife’s remains in bed with another man after a fire. Posing as an insurance adjustor, Danny worms his way into the distraught man’s confidence while his real true goal is to steal a photo of the man’s family to publish in the paper.
Along the way, Danny meets Allison (Alice White) a two-timing dame who is supposed to be McLean’s girl but has desires for Danny who continually fights her off. Danny does have his principles, he does not fool around with a friend’s dame. He is more attracted to a young journalism student named Patricia Nolan (Patricia Ellis) who happens to be the daughter of tough but lovable cop Lt. Casey Nolan (Robert O’Connor).
Danny’s ethics as a press photographer are no better than they were as a hoodlum; he steals a pass from another reporter to gain entry into Sing Sing to witness an electrocution of a female prisoner. Inside the prison, Danny with a miniature camera strapped to his ankle gets his money shot which makes the paper’s front page, but in the process get s his girlfriend’s father/cop busted in rank as was in charge of security and received the blame for Danny slipping into the facility.
The execution sequence is based on the true story of one Ruth Snyder who in 1928 became the first woman to be electrocuted since the late 1800’s. Snyder and her lover, also electrocuted, killed her husband for insurance money (should sound familiar, the case inspired James Cain to use as the basis for Double Indemnity). The New York Daily News hired an out of town photographer from the Chicago Tribune, someone unknown to the prison guards at Sing Sing, to sneak in to witness the execution and snap the photo which appeared the next day on the front page of the Daily News with the headline DEAD!
Danny does redeem himself somewhat by the end of the film when he is caught in an apartment with one of his former hoodlum buddies, Jerry the Mug. He protects Jerry’s frightened wife and kids trapped in the apartment as Jerry recklessly shoots it out with the police. As the battle with the police is about to reach it dramatic end, Danny gets an incredible photo of Jerry as he shot to death by the police.
Written by Allan Rivkin and P.J. Wolfson based on a story by Danny Adhern, The Picture Snatcher is overall a light-hearted fast moving film filled with gangsters and newspaperman directed by Lloyd Bacon and played to the hilt by Cagney. The films generally low opinion of the news media, whether intentional or not, remains relevant to today with the onslaught of all the in your face vulture paparazzi we see brought to the extremes today in gossip magazines and TV. The Picture Snatcher is Cagney’s film all the way, his exhilarating performance drives the film and must have been a revelation to audiences of the day who were used to more suave refined leading men than the in your face anti-authoritarian character Cagney is here and would perfect in so many films yet to come.
“Our New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn’t been for the young American Morris Engel, who showed us the way to independent production with his fine movie The Little Fugitive,” – Francois Truffaut (The New Yorker.)
One of the earliest works in the American Independent film movement was, The Little Fugitive, a film made by Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin and Ray Abrashkin (aka Ray Asbury). Actually, at the time this film was made there was no movement, this was the beginning. This deceivingly simple and lyrical film about a young Brooklyn boy who runs away to Coney Island after being tricked into believing he killed his older brother has influenced future filmmakers such as John Cassavetes and Martin Scorsese. The movie was filmed in Brooklyn and much of it at a Coney Island that does not exist anymore (Steeplechase Park, Parachute Jump), nor does the Brooklyn of the 1950’s. The film works on various levels, as a romanticized and nostalgic look back, but more importantly on a human level, especially the relationship between the two young siblings. It’s a look at a simpler and innocent time that unfortunately has disappeared.
After viewing the film, you realize that nothing much really happens except for a day in the life of young Joey who has run away, yet he finds joy and delight in the engaging world of the Coney Island amusement park. He eats cotton candy, rides the merry-go-round, plays in the ocean, and watches a young couple neck under the boardwalk. The film is done so beautifully and unobtrusively with a feeling of authenticity that it draws you into this young boy’s world. The directors never let you forget you are looking at this all from the perspective of a seven year old’s point of view. The candid scenes at the beach were filmed with a camera designed by Engel, made mobile enough to be inconspicuously carried unseen among the thousands of people on the beach, the boardwalk and in the amusement park as it follows Joey on his journey.
To anyone who has ever had an older or younger brother, the story will hold a ring of truth. It’s summertime, schools out and young Joey is hanging around with his older brother, Lennie, and his friends. The older boys do not want the kid tagging along so one of Lennie’s friends comes up with a scheme that convinces Joey he shot and killed Lennie. Frighten of the consequences, they encourage Joey to run away. He first goes home and grabs some money his mother left by the telephone (Their mother had to leave the boys alone overnight due to an emergency with her own mother. Dad is deceased.) Joey then hops on the elevated train and rides to the last stop, Coney Island, a safe haven and a wonderland for little boys. With the few dollars in his pocket, Joey spends his time lost in the rides and sights of the well-known Brooklyn attraction.
You can certainly see the influences this film must have had on a young Francois Truffaut. The lyrical quality, the affinity for young children, the long takes, the use of real locations. Engel relishes the scenes at Coney Island as he, and we the audience, observe Joey as he moves about from the boardwalk to the beach and to the rides. Truffaut, in The 400 Blows, reflects this same sense of delight with his alter ego, Antoine Doinel.
Morris Engel, like his wife and co-director, Ruth Orkin (Ray Abrashkin, aka Ray Ashbury, is also credited as a co-director), was a still photographer and the film’s visual beauty validates the multi talent behind the camera (he was also the cinematographer). Engel was born in Brooklyn and was certainly familiar with the local landmark where much of the film takes place. Engel was trained at The Photo League, a cooperative of photographers who focused on social concerns and issues. Paul Strand, Bernice Abbott and Ralph Steiner were a few of his colleagues. He later worked for PM magazine where he met Ray Abrashkin. Other magazines he worked for include Fortune, Ladies Home Journal and Collier’s. Engel also spent four years in the Navy as a combat photographer and was part of the Normandy invasion. He also assisted Paul Strand on his film “NativeLand” receiving one of his first tastes for filmmaking.
Ruth Orkin grew up in Hollywood and was undoubtedly familiar with the Hollywood filmmaking scene; her mother was silent screen actress Mary Ruby. Orkin was given her first camera at an early age and soon after began photographing her family and friends. At the age of 17, she traveled across the country by bicycle, her destination the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. On the journey, she photographed the entire trip. A few years later, Ruth moved to New York permanently and began a career as a photographer working first as a photographer at nightclubs and then for magazines, including Life. In 1951, Life sent Orkin to Europe on assignment. One of her stops was in Italy where she met an American woman traveling alone and took a series of photographs one of which became her most famous work. Upon her return to America, she married Morris Engel.
When Engel made known his intent to make a movie, Orkin, thought he was crazy. At this time, the early 1950’s, independent filmmaking was in its infancy. The technology was exceptionally expensive for the individual to pursue. The three filmmakers all ended up doing triple duty or more on the film as director, writer, editor, cinematographer and producer. Orkin also had a small part in the film.
Young Richie Andrusco (Joey) was an amazing find. He was a non-professional actor, moving among the crowds with an assurance and naturalness that is rare for such a young child. According to IMDB, Andrusco did only one other acting job, in 1955, on a TV show called I Spy (not the 1960’s Robert Culp/Bill Cosby series).
The Little Fugitive would go on to win the Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1953 and was nominated as well for Best Screenplay Award from the Writer’s Guild and an Academy Award nomination for Best Story. Engel and Orin made one other film, Lollipops and Lovers. Two years later Engel made his final feature film, Weddings and Babies.
On April 8th, at 7:30PM, TCM will be premiering a documentary on Morris Engel called “The Independent”, directed by Mary Engel, daughter of Morris and Ruth. This will be followed by showings of “The Little Fugitive” at 8PM, “Lollipops and Lovers” at 9:30PM and “Weddings and Babies” at 11PM. Following these features will be a short 1997 documentary on Ruth Orkin called “Ruth Orkin: Frames of Life” which includes interviews with Cornell Capa, Mark Ellen Mark among others. The film is also directed Mary Engel and narrated by Julie Harris.
The photographs of Morris Engel.
The photographs of Ruth Orkin.
Here’s a 2002 article on Morris Engel.