Thursday, 6 August 2015

GIL BREWER, HUBERT CORNFIELD, AND THE IRRESISTIBLE LURE OF THE SWAMP



"No, nobody knew, but I told him. As I watched while he sank into the quicksand, I told him, and was it sweet"  



Gil Brewer wrote pulp fiction and a lot of it – hundreds of short stories and more than fifty novels, most of them braced with sensational titles like The Vengeful Virgin, Nude on Thin Ice, The Bitch, Backwoods Teaser, Appointment in Hell, and So Rich, So Dead.

Brewer’s often violent, always sexually fraught tales of male lust and feminine wiles, the seductive power of nothing left to lose and the fatal pursuit of delusions of success are the stuff of pure noir. However, in Brewer’s twisted world, the fated and romanticized Everyman (or just Average Joe) gives way to a lineup of losers and lowlifes, suckers and stooges, the ever resentful and the easily angered, suffocating under the heat of the Florida sun and the weight of their fevered yearnings and sweaty desperation. 


Like many of his hard-writing peers, Brewer hoped for a career as a serious novelist. But by the 1950’s, he’d found himself with little choice as a fiction writer but to follow the money – which meant the meaner world of paperback originals and second-tier men’s magazines from which he was never able to find a way out. Brewer continued to write his hard, heated prose on through the ‘60’s and 70’s – though progressively less of it and for a fading audience. He’d fallen victim to changing times and tastes, as well as his own disillusionment and eventual descent into mental illness and addiction. He died of alcohol poisoning in 1983. But at least Brewer has since found critical appreciation as the writer he believed himself to be with publishers such as Hard Case Crime and Stark House Press re-printing many of his best novels and stories. 

On the other hand, Brewer's books, unlike those of many of his pulp contemporaries, eluded adaptation. The violence, sexual mayhem, unrelenting despair, and breathless, headlong pace of his writing would leave him out in the cold as far as radio, television or film versions of his stories were concerned. Brewer also was younger and hipper than most of his better-known peers and was as basically uninterested in Hollywoodland as it was in him.



That said, Brewer’s lurid, disquieting stories haven't gone entirely without notice from film-makers, among them renegade French director Jean-Pierre Mocky, long enthralled with American pulp culture, particularly noir’s darkest corner of it.  Over a career spanning more than five decades, Mocky adapted Horace McCoy’s, No Pockets in a Shroud (1974), Fredric Brown’s, Knock Three Two One (1975), and then Brewer’s A Killer is Loose (1986) and 13 French Street (2007), based on the most popular of the author’s cherished Fawcett Gold Medal titles.Sadly, none of Mocky’s films did real justice to the books upon which they were based. 

Even less successful in bringing Brewer to the screen was American indie director, Scott Ziehl who took Brewer’s 1954 novel Wild to Possess as a starting point for 2004’s Three Way, a slick but dreary ‘erotic thriller’ starring Dominic Purcell, Joy Bryant, Dwight Yokam and Gina Gershon. Three Way fails Brewer’s story by over-complicating not only what was straightforward about it but also what was already complicated enough, turning Brewer’s Gold Medal trash into so much bad rubbish.


Bu even as untouchable by Hollywood as both Brewer and his novels were generally considered to be during the writer’s most productive and creative period, two of his best-selling paperbacks actually did manage to get optioned – The Brat, which was never filmed, and Hell’s Our Destination, which found its way onto the screen in 1957 under the title The Lure of the Swamp.



The producing company was Regal Films, a smaller independent studio whose launch production was a title now well-known to film noir lovers, Andre de Toth’s Pitfallreleased in 1948 and distributed by United Artists. However in 1956, independent producer Robert Lippert bought a controlling interest in Regal Studios and immediately made production/ distribution deals with 20th Century Fox.  The bigger studio had been looking to make packages of low-budget films to compete with the success of recently-formed American International Pictures and its lucrative output of rock ‘n’ roll, hot rod, and horror movies. Lippert structured his association with both Regal and Fox so that he was able to do what he did best, lining up producers, directors, screenwriters, composers, and most of all, actors, willing to work on tight schedules for minimal pay.

Among the films produced by the studio during the first two years of its association with Fox were two that had been handed to a promising young director, Hubert Cornfield. Born in Istanbul, raised in France, Cornfield was the son of Albert Cornfield, a Twentieth Century Fox Studios executive. As a student abroad, the younger Cornfield had developed friendships with the modernist mavericks of the French New Wave including Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jean-Pierre Melville, sharing their affection for American popular culture but especially the hard-boiled tradition in fiction and film.

Returning from France, Cornfield continued his education in the Eastern U.S. and on the strength of the family connections and evident talent got himself to Hollywood where Billy Wilder, William Wyler, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz would sponsor his Directors Guild of America application. With card in hand, Cornfield got his first assignment, Sudden Danger (1955), the second of five police procedurals starring Bill Elliot as a Los Angeles police detective. Though the film was intended only as a run-of-the-mill programmer, Cornfield demonstrated a genuine feel for the material and equal facility as a director. The year following, Cornfield was tagged to direct The Lure of the Swamp, in which both his affinity for dark, aberrant crime stories and his skills as a filmmaker would be affirmed.

The Lure of the Swamp, an atmospheric, meditative rural film noir, is set in the eerie swamplands of South Florida. Simon Lewt (Marshall Thompson), a local guide is hired by businessman James Lister (Willard Park) to take him into the swamp so far and then stay behind while Lister continues on alone. Hearing gunshots, Simon follows Lister in and sees him tossing a suitcase overboard. When they return to town, Lister tells Simon he’ll be back and gives Simon a fifty dollar advance. However, Simon later sees a newspaper story about a $290, 000 Miami bank hold-up and a photo of Lister who’s been identified as the slain robber.

Days after, Simon is approached by an attractive female, Cora Payne (Joan Vohs) who introduces herself to him as a magazine photographer. Payne says she wants a tour of the swamps. Following, a man called Steggins (Leo Gordon) shows up and offers to hire Simon as a guide and asks if he’s seen a man with a suitcase. Then Simon returns to his cabin and finds another stranger, Henry Bliss (Jack Elam) waiting for him. Bliss claims outright that Lister sent him and unlike the other two, tries to talk Simon into becoming his partner and helping him retrieve the stolen cash. Simon at first resists any involvement but later succumbs to a now urgent lust, much loosened greed, and the ‘lure of the swamp’ into which he inevitably stands to be drawn.

The Lure of the Swamp is tawdry and eerily elegant at the same time. The film has a sinister languor, a function of its steamy setting and a script in which not very much is spoken and even less said. Though never intended by its producers as anything more than a cheapie B feature, The Lure of the Swamp captures the rudimentary, spectral poetry of Gil Brewer’s storytelling, both narratively and visually. Much of the credit goes to Cornfield whose best films, including the suffocatingly anxious Plunder Road (1957) and the darkly anguished The Third Voice (1960) all share The Lure of the Swamp’s dramatic irony and brutal determinism, as criminals fall to betraying each other and destroy themselves in the doing.

All three films also enjoy the presence of their actors. Cornfield was a sympathetic actors’ director who would meet at length with his casts, looking for certainty both in his performers and the script, adjusting as required and even arranging set-ups around an actor’s personally indicative movements. In The Lure of the Swamp, his first real test as a director, Cornfield gets mostly first-rate performances from his actors, especially from Marshall Thompson who earlier in his career had only ever been utilized as a boyishly charming and genial player. As Thompson matured, the boy-next-door persona gave way as he began to be cast in other roles,  including those as a conflicted and sometimes lethal young man in a series of noir-stained B productions such as Mystery Street (1950), Dial 1119 (1950), The Basketball Fix (1951), The Tall Target (1951), and Crashout (1955).



IThe Lure of the Swamp, Marshall Thompson gives one of his most convincing performances as a complacent-at-best, fatalistic-at-worst backwoods loner whom everyone calls “Simon”, in such a way as to infer that “Simple” is part-and-parcel.  Though Simon has a girlfriend (Joan Lora), the spunky daughter of the local shopkeeper, it’s clear he views domestic life as just another dead end inside his already closed existence. It’s also clear that it won’t take much for Simon to fall prey to the breath-takingly treacherous femme fatale, Cora Payne.

Joan Vohs, a Radio City Rockette at age 16 and then a high-fashion model had a sporadic and abbreviated career in Hollywood and looks in the early going to be giving the least effective performance in the movie. From the outset, we’re skeptical that Payne is who she says she is. However, the question is, is that because Vohs is just an unconvincing actress or rather, is she subtly conveying that Cora isn’t all she says she is? By the end, it’s become clearer and in the meantime, Cora continues to stalk and move in on the woeful Simon Lewt.



Persuasive beyond doubt are tough-guy actors Jack Elam and Leo Gordon, each as threatening as the other in his own way – though Gordon is surprising as a character who for much of the movie never reveals who he is and where he fits in to the film’s deeply-layered scheme of things. In fact, The Lure of the Swamp never really stops surprising. The B-list film noir continually catches us off guard and works us over like a clever counterpuncher, ultimately ending the bout with a jarring knockout blow. 




Hubert Cornfield’s handful of low-budget but vividly noirish genre pieces still stands up today, recalling Noel Coward’s remark about the terminal potency of cheap music. We’re still struck by everything from the murderous treachery of The Lure of the Swamp to the heart-stopping ending of Plunder Road (1957); from Edmond O’Brien’s feverish impersonation of a dead man by ‘phone in The Third Voice (1960) to Mercedes McCambridge’s lusty performance as a jealous obsessive in Angel Baby; from the resistant intelligence of Pressure Point to the unsettling, dream-like narrative of Night of the Following Day All of Cornfield’s movies are thrillingly detailed, with the action and dialog edited with the skill of a diamond cutter and needing little or no music accompaniment to force the pace.

Along with Stanley Kubrick, Cornfield was one of the most innovative and enigmatic filmmakers of post-war Hollywood. Andrew Sarris, in framing his taxonomy of American auteurism, pigeonholed him in the category of ‘Miscellany’, declaring that Cornfield had a “European sensibility”.  Too intelligent for exploitation formulas, Cornfield’s films raise the concept of fate in film noir to true existential and cosmic proportions.

However, as singular and inspired as his films could be, Hubert Cornfield struggled to keep a career going in Hollywood. Too often and in too many ways, Cornfield was his own worst enemy. As his friend, Los Angles film journalist F. X. Feeney said of him, “Hubert could go from charming to belligerent in a heartbeat. He demanded one’s attention, always, with a child’s sense of entitlement. He fought with all his friends, sooner or later, always loudly and often over trifles…Such regal self-importance hurt his career when he was young and his Casanova recklessness when it came to sleeping with the wives and mistresses of backer and allies never helped”. But Feeney also confesses, “These were traits easy to forgive in a friend: he was so open, so honest, I couldn’t help but love the man”.

Unfortunately, Cornfield was seldom as agreeable or forgiving.  Few, if any of his films went smoothly during or following production. In what was to become a familiar refrain, he accused the studio of sabotaging The Lure of the Swamp by cutting the print without telling him. He repeatedly referred to Plunder Road as Blunder Road and was perpetually at odds with principals during production, be they producers, crew or cast members. On the French location shoot of Night of the Following Day (1968), the director’s biggest assignment, conflicts between Cornfield and Marlon Brando got so out of control that Cornfield had to leave the picture, with actor Richard Boone stepping in to complete it.

By this time, Cornfield was already living in France having retreated there in the mid-‘sixties after his career in Hollywood had come to a halt. While in France, his success was limited to a single film, Les grands moyens aka Short and Sweet (1976), a dark, noirish crime comedy.

However, following the breakup of his marriage, Cornfield returned to Los Angeles in the late ‘seventies. Still unable to find work in the film industry, Cornfield supported himself by house painting. He lived and slept for a time in his van among the paints and solvents which it’s believed may have caused the throat cancer that nearly killed him. However, after surgery and a period of recovery, he bounced back as strong-minded and irrepressible as ever. Cornfield led a solitary but active life in Hollywood, walking, skiing, working on scripts and other projects, and going to the movies, including special screenings of Plunder Road and The Third Voice at the American Cinematheque at which he was a guest.

 Cornfield passed away in June of 2006 and in the following August, a memorial and tribute to him was held at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. A year later, the Cinematheque Francais in Paris held a special Hommage à Hubert Cornfield at which several of the director’s films were screened. Included was The Lure of the  Swampthe favorite of French audiences among the handful of violent and stylized films noirs for which Cornfield, the auteur was revered. 

In that way, time finally had rewarded Cornfield, as it had Gil Brewer. Though Cornfield and Brewer came from polar opposite backgrounds (Brewer being a high school dropout raised in relative poverty in Upstate New York) and were of different temperaments (Brewer was a gentle, sensitive man who felt too deeply and cared too much), both men shared similar creative ambitions and sensibilities. Whether it was to be writing or filmmaking, each hungered to create something of depth, beauty, and meaning and each produced works rich with raw emotion, genuinely portrayed and felt. Their stories are hauntingly surreal, filled with pervading menace and terror, functioning on mood from which the plot and sex issue like steam from boiling water.

The creative lives of Gil Brewer and Hubert Cornfield intersected just once, via The Lure of the Swamp. But perhaps they’d meet up later, in whatever noirvana awaited them, and together take on all those who'd slighted their respective gifts and aspirations. That would make for some dark and stormy nights indeed.



Written by Gary Deane



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