American Cinematographer Magazine

Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges
by Glenn Lovell
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

 

Ever since critic Andrew Sarris consigned John Sturges to the “Strained Seriousness” category in his landmark 1968 study The American Cinema, the director of Bad Day at Black Rock, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and The Magnificent Seven (among many other noteworthy films) has been more or less ignored by the American critical community.  While the reputations of many of his peers, like John Ford and Anthony Mann, have (rightfully) increased in stature over the years, Sturges has been pushed further and further to the margins, to the point he is rarely written about, discussed or even mentioned in the pages of film journals or histories.  Upon his death in 1992, he was so obscure the news of his demise took days to reach newspapers.

Yet Sturges is clearly due for a reappraisal, if only to consider what it is that makes him appealing to so many contemporary filmmakers — John Carpenter, P.T. Anderson and Lawrence Kasdan, to name three, have all professed admiration of his work and acknowledged its influence on their own styles. Clearly, anyone held in high regard by such an eclectic group must be worthy of more thoughtful consideration than Sarris’ casual dismissal would indicate, right?

The answer to that question is an unequivocal “yes” based on the convincing evidence on display in Glenn Lovell’s Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges, a combination of biography and critical analysis both reasoned and passionate in its advocacy for an overlooked director. Lovell follows Sturges from his work as a novice cutter at RKO (where he worked alongside fellow, soon-to-be directors Robert Wise and Mark Robson) to his wartime documentaries and subsequent career as a versatile helmer of action movies, melodramas and science-fiction pictures. The author illuminates Sturges’ accomplishments without sugarcoating his weaknesses (both personal and artistic) and examines the complicated reasons behind his eventual public neglect. Best of all, Lovell describes the making of each individual film, with particular attention paid to Sturges’ often ingenious ways of solving logistical problems and his relationships with volatile actors, particularly on difficult films such as Black Rock and the underappreciated The Old Man and the Sea.

All of this information is presented in an accessible, unpretentious style that strikes just the right balance among technical information, film history and first-hand anecdotes.  Lovell draws upon a wide variety of sources, from interviews with Sturges and his collaborators to production documentation and other biographical and critical writings, and his book is a superb distillation of only the most interesting and useful information available on his subject. In his remarkable combination of efficiency and complexity, Lovell resembles one of Sturges’ contemporaries, director Budd Boetticher — like Boetticher, Lovell tells his story quickly but never seems to rush or gloss over important details. Each film is discussed at an appropriate length corresponding to its significance in Sturges’s oeuvre: classics like The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape justify lengthy production histories, and minor works (particularly from Sturges’ early apprentice period) are commented upon in less detail. Yet even the most misguided of Sturges’ efforts (like By Love Possessed and A Girl Named Tamiko, a pair of weak melodramas directed just before The Great Escape) are addressed with scholarly rigor, and the chapters on these lesser films paint a vivid portrait of what it was like to be a director-for-hire in the last days of the studio system.

In fact, what makes Escape Artist worth reading even for those who share Sarris’ low opinion of Sturges’ output is this broader perspective on Hollywood in the 1950s and ’60s; more than the many books on the market about Ford, Hitchcock and other icons that treat their subjects like supernatural deities, Lovell’s tome provides a richly textured sense of what it really means to be a working director in an economically determined medium like film. Although the details are specific to their time, the larger lessons — about juggling art and commerce, about staging drama visually within practical limitations and about avoiding unnecessary distractions that will not contribute to what is on screen — are as relevant today as they were in Sturges’ time.

Lovell makes no grand claim for Sturges as an underrated genius who deserves comparison with Welles or Kurosawa; rather, he sees him as an overlooked craftsman at the top of the second tier — a guy who earned his spot alongside Boetticher, Anthony Mann and other more fashionable auteurs, but who somehow lost it in the eyes of the critical community. Lovell’s persuasive arguments for not only Sturges’ acknowledged classics but also for less well known stunners like Jeopardy and Escape From Fort Bravo should help to rectify this inequity, and his precise descriptions of the director’s working methods are invaluable for aspiring filmmakers.

A comprehensive critical biography of Sturges has been a long time coming, but Lovell’s achievement is well worth the wait.

The University of Wisconsin Press
$60 hardcover, $26.95 paperback

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