Andrew Stone and his fantastically helpful wife-editor have evolved an entirely different ethos of film-making.… If they want to blow up a train, they blow up a real train. If they want to sink an ocean liner, they sink a real ocean liner.… If the Stones had made On the Beach (1959), none of us would be around to review it.” – Andrew Sarris
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Andrew L. Stone rarely took no for an answer. The maverick director had his own ideas about things, especially when it came to making movies. After self-financing several projects, Stone was offered a contract with MGM, one most filmmakers would have jumped at. Stone turned it down flat. He later said, “I’d have had to pacify the stars and keep them happy – just like a priest who doesn’t believe a word of what he says. Then there was a Paramount contract – no big stars, but freedom. That’s the one I went for.” However, creative and other differences with Paramount made themselves felt soon after he arrived at the studio. The relationship finally broke down during a shoot in a department store. The studio had taken over the outlet on a Sunday, bringing in props and lighting, and hundreds of extras as shoppers. No, Stone, said, the best way to film shoppers in a big store was to film shoppers in a big store. When the studio refused, Stone walked away from both the movie and the studio.
In doing so, Stone declared himself independent from the Hollywood system, joining the likes of Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, and Walt Disney as members of the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers (SIMPP). In 1943, he formed Andrew L. Stone Productions, signing a releasing deal with United Artists. He also partnered with Virginia Lively, who’d started with UA as a music cutter when she was only 19 years old. In Lively, Stone had found a kindred spirit, and the two would marry in 1946. Credited as Virginia L. Stone, the multi-talented Lively would serve as editor on company productions, as well as co-producing, collaborating on scripts, and composing. It was a partnership not unlike that of Alfred Hitchcock and wife Alma Reville, and when the Stones left United Artists in1947, they were lauded by the press as “Hollywood’s only independent man-and-wife moviemakers.”1
Virginia was simpatico with her husband’s low-budget, high-impact filmmaking style, which eschewed sound stages in favor of location shooting for both interior and exterior setups. Cheaper and faster was the order of the day. Whereas studio pictures might average 8 setups a day, the Stones routinely were able to do 20. As a director, Stone favored live sound (no post-synching) and natural lighting. “Cameramen have the biggest racket next to producers.” he declared.2 “I insist on naturalistic lighting, not the sort where a room is lit by enormous lights in gantries. If a guy moves, the whole lot needs realigning. It takes hours and the result is lousy. We could shoot by matchlight if we wanted to.” Stone also had little patience with rear projection, process photography, stock footage, miniatures, or any other trick that tried to fool the audience into believing something that wasn’t real.
Andrew Stone’s earliest directing efforts had tilted toward extravagant musical productions such as With Words and Music (aka The Girl Said No) (1937), The Great Victor Herbert (1939), and the ground-breaking all-black-cast Stormy Weather (1943) or exuberant, offbeat comedies including Hi Diddle Diddle (1943), The Bachelor’s Daughters (1946), and Fun on a Weekend (1947). But as independents, economics dictated the Stones’ approach as much as aesthetics. Working with smaller budgets, every dollar had to be stretched if they were to make their films stand out. Because of this, the Stones were drawn to crime stories, edge-of-the seat cliff-hangers, and adrenalin-fueled suspense dramas anchored by pure storytelling and cinematic realism. From 1950 to 1962, they completed eight hard-edged thrillers derived from a wealth of source material: an enormous archive of true crime magazines dating back to the ’30s, a private collection of more than 15,000 criminal case histories, and relationships with police commands across the country. These signature productions with their unabashed B-movie mind-set would provide the Stones with their biggest successes – and be their lasting legacy.
The first of these, Highway 301 (1950), starred Steve Cochran as head of a gang of fugitive bank robbers on the lam following an armored car heist. The film featured an all-star supporting cast, including Robert Webber, Richard Egan, Wally Cassell, and Edward Norris as the gang members and Virginia Grey, Aline Towne, and Gaby Andre as “the dames.” But it’s Cochran who dominates as the sadistic gang leader, brutalizing or killing anyone he sees as a threat, including his girlfriend (Towne) and the unsuspecting Andre who thinks that her boyfriend – Webber – is a traveling salesman. Based on a true story, the film was fashioned in the semi-documentary style of the era. Like others of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by a weighty “crime does not pay” intro and voice-over. But it’s small price to pay. Highway 301 is a chilling take on both the gangster film and police procedural, unromanticized and without redemption. Stone’s terse direction strips characters and incidents to their essence. It’s free of narrative and visual cliché, with no filler shots or cutaways. And while Stone was dismissive of “lighting cinematographers,” he let Carl Guthrie (Flaxy Martin, 1949; Backfire, 1950; Caged, 1950) have his way with dark, wet streets and ominously shadowed stairways. Though lacking the mythic heft of a White Heat (1949), Highway 301 was still a bravura entrée for Andrew and Virginia Stone into the world of film noir.
Its follow-up, Confidence Girl (1952), written, produced and directed by Stone, offered another torn-from-the-headlines story, this one about a pair of high-rolling scam LA artists. But as the county sheriff intones in his intro, “Sooner or later they all end up in a mugbook, imprisoned and penniless.” The film opens promisingly, but a lifeless Tom Conway fails to measure up while glamorous and reliable Hillary Brooke isn’t given nearly enough to do. Things get interesting as the cops – played by Jack Kruschen, John Gallaudet, and Edmund Cobb – start putting the pieces together. Then halfway in, the plot begins to fray and the movie falls back on Stone’s active location setups and William H. Clothier’s (For You I Die, 1947; Once a Thief, 1950; Track of the Cat, 1954) poised camera – which in the end is almost enough.
Stone returned only months later with what’s now regarded as his most complete film, The Steel Trap (1952). Starring Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright (once uncle and niece in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 Shadow of a Doubt, now playing man and wife), the movie is an extended nail-biter about a bank employee’s plan to steal nearly a million dollars and escape to Brazil, which has no extradition treaty with the United States. Among the film’s champions is author Foster Hirsch, who argues that The Steel Trap is one of noir’s purest evocations. In his book Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen, Hirsch writes, “Uncovering the criminal potential of an ultra-bourgeois, The Steel Trap is designed to strike a sympathetic chord in the average spectator. The audience actively wants the man to get away with it. The film exploits the universal fantasies of being bad, of defying the law, of getting rich no matter how; and its subversive undercurrent is not entirely eradicated by the return-to-normal ending.”3 Steeped in ambiguity, The Steel Trap leaves one wondering where hell really lies for Cotten – in Brazil, separated from his family and his past, or in Los Angeles, condemned to a life of drudgery and ennui.
The Steel Trap was followed by A Blueprint for Murder (1953), a gripping, old-fashioned murder mystery starring Cotten and Jean Peters. Cotten comes to New York to visit his deceased brother’s second wife (Peters) and family. Shortly after he arrives, a daughter by his bother’s first marriage is hospitalized and dies of unknown causes. An autopsy establishes that her death was due to strychnine poisoning. The family attorney (Gary Merrill) informs Cotten that Peters stands to inherit his brother’s estate should his children die before her. From that point on, she becomes the prime suspect, though Cotten himself is not entirely in the clear. A Blueprint for Murder, released through 20th Century-Fox, has more of the studio-style panache, but it lacks the greater brio that a director like Hitchcock could have brought to it. However, it’s redeemed by Leo Tover’s beautifully modulated cinematography and its above-average cast. Cotten is urbane and reassuring, and Jean Peters gets to play a more arch and guileful character than usual.
With The Night Holds Terror (1955), the Stones returned to their semi-documentary roots and reliance on real locations. The film opens with an aerospace engineer (Jack Kelly) picking up a hitch-hiker (Vince Edwards), who forces him at gunpoint to rendezvous with the rest of his gang (John Cassavetes and David Cross). Later, after invading Kelly’s home and taking his family hostage, the gang learns that Kelly’s father is well-heeled, and they demand $200,000 ransom. The police, with the help of the telephone company, manage to trace the calls, but by then the movie has veered down roads never expected. Inspired by a true crime, The Night Holds Terror is often compared to The Desperate Hours, made the same year by William Wyler but with a bigger budget and glossier, stagier production. With its low-rent authenticity (there’s not a studio set to be seen), Terror is the more fatalistic (and noir) of the two movies. It takes for granted that the family is in peril and that a single wrong decision can destroy lives. As the voice-over asks, “Who hasn’t picked up a hitch-hiker before?”
Terror’s trio of kidnappers also are more imposing than the melodramatic heavies of The Desperate Hours. The casting brought together a group of fast-rising actors who would go on to have major careers. Hildy Parks, a lesser-known stage, then-television actress, is heroic as the wife who won’t stand for what her family is being put through. Shot in a flat ’50’s style, the film is in constant motion. The pace is heightened by Virginia Stone’s deft, intuitive cross-cutting between the hostage drama and the frantic pursuit of the authorities. The constant dialog also gives the movie, only 85 minutes long, an unusual density. A gritty, underrated thriller, The Night Holds Terror counts among its biggest fans Quentin Tarantino, who presented it as the opener of his now semi-annual Austin Film Festival (he also attended a screening of this then-little-known gem at the Noir City: Hollywood festival several years earlier).
Julie (1956), a damsel-in-distress melodrama starring Doris Day, Louis Jourdan, and Barry Sullivan, was a bridgehead of sorts for the Stones. Produced by Day and her husband, Martin Melcher, the film was to be the first of a multi-picture distribution deal with MGM. It also was exactly the type of picture Andrew Stone was itching to make. Day’s title character is a moneyed Carmel, California country-club matron married to Lyle (Louis Jourdan), a concert pianist whose pathological jealousy alternates between violent rage and teary remorse. He also may have been responsible for the death of her first husband. After he terrorizes her one time too many, Julie flees to San Francisco with the help of her old friend Cliff (Barry Sullivan). She resumes her career as a stewardess, first laying low at a hotel, then bunking in with another flight attendant. Lyle, after finding and killing Cliff, tracks Julie down and manages to board a flight on which she’s scheduled. Once in the air, he makes his move, and what started out as a story of obsession turns into an action thriller and near-disaster movie. Stone’s reach exceeds his grasp at times as the melodrama pushes past the point of ridiculousness. But that’s part of the fatal risk the Stones take in their headlong determination to entertain and excite, no matter how improbable things get. Julie moves at breakneck speed, thanks to the crisp direction and the rapid-fire editing. The cutting back-and-forth as Julie sits nervously in her apartment as Lyle closes in on her is genuinely terrifying.
Day, known better for the coy sex comedies to come later, was a smart choice, playing a woman who makes endless emotional sacrifices for her man but has enough sense of her own worth to know when it’s time to flee. Day revealed in her autobiography that she’d been married to a couple of “Lyles” earlier in her life, which lent authenticity to the women-in-peril parts she played in Storm Warning (1951), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Love Me or Leave Me (1955), and Midnight Lace (1960). Julie may seem comical to modern audiences, but it offered a prescient story of a woman trying to escape an abusive spouse at a time when law enforcement rarely provided them protection and support. Stone ranked Julie among his best films, one in which he felt he’d achieved what he set out to do. He was validated to a degree by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which nominated Stone for Best Screenplay. It also got a nod for Best Song, the title song, written by Leith Stevens and Tom Adair, and sung, of course, by the film’s star. Ironically, it lost out to “Que Sera Sera,” from Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much – also performed by Doris Day.
There were some actors who found Andrew Stone’s no-nonsense, utilitarian moviemaking style a challenge. He was not inclined to coddle his stars, and his insistence on realism often resulted in demanding shoots. Among the undeterred was James Mason, whose polite Anglo arrogance on screen made him an unlikely choice to work with in such an environment. However, the charismatic Mason also was a self-critical craftsman who once told an interviewer: “I work better if a director will needle me, discipline me, help sharpen up my performance.”4 Mason would make two films with the Stones, the first the urgent hostage drama Cry Terror (1958), co-starring Rod Steiger, Angie Dickinson, Inger Stevens, Neville Brand, and Jack Klugman. Mason plays a radio technician, Jim Molner, who’s contacted out of the blue by former Army buddy Paul Hoplin (Steiger) and who asks him to design a demolition device. He tells him that if it’s small enough, there may be a government contract in it for him. Molnar’s device ends up being planted on a passenger jet by Hoplin’s girlfriend, Eileen Kelly (Dickinson), as part of a plan to extort half a million dollars from the airline. Hoplin and his goons take Molnar and his family hostage, forcing his wife Joan (Stevens) to pick up the money while they use Molnar and his daughter as insurance. To make matters worse, the FBI, having determined that it was Molnar who’d made the bomb, suspect him of being the mastermind behind the extortion plot.
As with most Stone productions, Cry Terror covers a lot of ground at breakneck speed and can be seen as a template for hundreds of crime dramas to come with its rapid shifts in focus and tempo across any number of locations and plot twists Though it can put a strain on logic and believability, it makes for a hugely thrilling film, one that boasts not one but three separate climaxes over its 96-minute length. It also shows the FBI, for all its professionalism, as incapable of answering the call. In the end, things get sorted out not by the authorities but through the initiative of the hostages and the clumsiness of the criminal mastermind.
Among all of the Stones’ films, Cry Terror benefits the most from its performances. Mason’s Molnar, passive by nature, becomes more dominant as the film proceeds, finding his mettle with some thrilling derring-do in an elevator shaft. Rod Steiger is more restrained than usual and is all the scarier for it, his subdued commands belying deadly intent. A 26-year-old Angie Dickinson is impressive as his cold-as-ice companion who’s ready to stick a ‘shiv’ into Molnar’s daughter and is the first to grab a gun and start shooting when the cops arrive. Most memorable, though, are Inger Stevens and Neville Brand. Brand by then was a master of portraying deranged characters but without going over the edge. He plays a Benzedrine-addicted sexual predator whom the other members call “Creep.” He starts circling Stevens soon after the family is taken hostage and, left alone with her, tries to rape her. Stevens’s portrayal is high-pitched, but the resolve and resourcefulness she shows in dealing with the terror are the most believable things in the movie. This was the actress’s best performance in a life and career cut short by suicide at age 35.
The Stones followed up on Cry Terror’s success with The Decks Ran Red (1958), again starring Mason. In each of these films, his character deals with a psychopath’s grandiose ambitions, this time around those of a fat and ferocious Broderick Crawford. Mason plays Ed Rummill, first officer on a luxury cruise liner. He’s offered command of a merchant vessel after the previous commander dies. It’s not much of a ship, with both a restless crew and troubled history, but he signs on anyway. Meanwhile, crewman Henry Scott (Crawford), abetted by his henchman, Leroy (Stuart Whitman), is planning to take over the ship as soon as they’re out to sea. Their scheme is to kill Rummill, then the officers and the rest of the crew. Once that’s done, the two will partially scuttle the ship and bring it in as derelict, collecting a $1 million reward for the recovery.
That’s the plan, anyway, which relies on the assumption that the audience is indifferent to its plausibility. But that’s not something that ever deterred the Stones. Andrew Stone’s direction is so brutally efficient and Mason and Crawford are so good as the antagonists that any quibbles over logic and continuity are swept out the door. Filmed in deep-focus black-and-white, The Decks Ran Red keeps the tension ratcheted up stem to stern, some of it sexual. Rummill hires on a local cook, Pete, and his erotically charged wife, Mahia, played by Dorothy Dandridge. Mahia is sultry and flirty, and the captain soon realizes that bringing her on board may have been a mistake. Rummill later says, “It never entered my mind that the woman would be so sensuous and exotically beautiful.” Crawford sees only a “well-stacked doll,” and Whitman later forces himself on her. Stone said of Dandridge, “She was extremely professional. I never worked with any star that I liked better or was more competent.”5 His admiration is obvious in the way he showcases her scene to scene, starting with an entrance aboard the freighter that leaves the crew transfixed. Dandridge was a magnetic, if sadly under-used, performer.
Stone sticks with his preference for live locations and a quick-gun shooting style, with the action swirling from the ship’s bridge to its engine room. He also opts for the raw, natural sounds of the ocean and clamorous shipboard activity over a musical score. The Decks Ran Red is the cinematic equivalent of 1950s men’s magazines like For Men Only and Stag that sold lurid tales of modern-day piracy, danger, and exotic sex as “true stories.” Or, at least, ones that felt real. And if anyone was determined to make things feel real, it was Andrew Stone.
After flirting with on-screen disasters in their last several films, the Stone’s next production, The Last Voyage (1960) would go all the way, recounting the destruction and near-sinking of a cruise liner after a fire spreads to the ship’s engine room and decks. Featuring an all-star cast (Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone, George Sanders, Edmond O’Brien, Woody Strode), The Last Voyage was inspired by the sinking of the Andrea Doria off the coast of Nantucket Island in 1956. True to form, Andrew Stone wanted – and found – an actual ship to destroy, the famed Ile de France, a luxury liner that was headed for its final reckoning in a Japanese scrapyard. And nearly destroy it he does, with a combination of massive pyrotechnics and high-pressure firehoses and to the peril of both cast and crew. O’Brien later called Stone “a psychopath with a death wish”6 while Robert Stack maintained, angrily that he was lucky to have survived the production.7 That said, the film is agonizingly suspenseful and predated by a decade the glut of similarly-themed disaster movies of the ’70s. The Last Voyage is arguably not noir, but it displays, more than any other Stone production, the kind of obsessive quest for verisimilitude that animated the Stones’ best movies.
However, it was the Stones’ next production that personified Andrew Stone’s affinity for high drama and headlong thrills. Ring of Fire (1961) stars David Janssen as Steve Walsh, a small-town police officer in rural Washington state. He and his partner, Joe Pringle (Joel Marston), pick up a trio of juvenile delinquents on suspicion of robbing a filling station. On the way to the police station, juvies Frank (Frank Gorshin), Roy (James Johnson), and Bobbie (Joyce Taylor) overpower the cops. They force the officers to drive into the Olympic Mountains, where they ditch the car, handcuff Pringle to a tree, and head into the forest with Walsh as their hostage and guide.
From there, things start to heat up as Bobbie, who’s aware of Walsh’s interest, attempts to seduce him. There is chemistry there, and as morning comes, it’s not clear whether Walsh has taken advantage. Later, when apprehended in a police trap, Frank accuses Walsh of having had sex with Bobbie, who turns out to be a minor. Bobbie does nothing to deny it, leaving Walsh facing possible statutory rape charges. In the meantime, a massive forest fire breaks out, the result of a lit cigarette tossed aside by Frank. Ring of Fire suddenly morphs into a whole other movie, a fiery disaster flick that circles back to the plot only at the conclusion when the bad guy gets his due and Walsh, who’s under suspension, shares a curiously intimate moment with Bobbie just before she’s ushered off to jail. Something occurred out in the woods, and we’re left to ponder what it might have been.
David Janssen strikes all the right chords as a lawman in over his head, more used to dealing with bar-room drunks and domestic spats than gun-toting psychos with guns and teenage devil-dolls. Frank Gorshin, a stand-up comedian and character actor who’d played deranged adolescents before – in Hot Rod Girl (1956), Runaway Daughters (1957), and Dragstrip Girl (1957) – tops his turns in all those films. However, the real attraction is Joyce Taylor, giving a performance as sexualized as any seen in mainstream American films to that time. Andrew Stone had never been afraid to push Hollywood movies’ moral boundaries – and the notion of underage sex with a cop was just another of his swipes at the beleaguered Production code.
Ring of Fire, a low-budget, thrill-a-minute B title, even drew the attention of Bosley Crowther, the high-toned movie critic of the New York Times who made a point of pride of shunning such vulgar entertainments. He wrote, “As is their well-established custom, the Stones keep conspicuously away from intellectual complication. They set up the plot and work it fast, getting right to the meat of the matter and make it as hot as they can. It’s plenty hot in this picture and the excitement runs fast and high. Call it well-popped corn.”8 Along with everything else, including William Clothier’s spectacular Kodachrome filming and the film’s shivery natural soundtrack (Duane Eddy’s haunting title song apart), Ring of Fire was an authentic auteurist achievement for Andrew and Virginia Stone, one that deserves an overdue wide-screen Blu-ray release
A year after making Ring of Fire, with interest waning in noir-bound movie fare, the Stones headed to England to begin shooting The Password Is Courage (1962), the first of three productions they’d film there. As well as producing and directing, Andrew Stone wrote the screenplay based on a book of the same title about an actual British Sergeant Major, Charlie Coward, played by Dirk Bogarde. After being captured in WWll by the Germans, Coward plots an elaborate tunnel escape to get himself and fellow inmates safely into the nearby woods. Stone’s on-location lensing gave the film a gritty and realistic look but also a noirish affect. He then overlaid the drama with lighter moments, a mix that worked largely due to Bogarde’s brash charm.
The Stones returned to the UK in 1964 to do a comedy, Never Put It in Writing, about a young insurance executive’s frantic attempt to retrieve a letter he never should have sent. The film, written by Stone, starred likeable leads Pat Boone and Milo O’Shea and was a complete turnabout for the director, who the next year followed up with another light-hearted affair, The Secret of My Success (1965). Filmed in England and Portugal, the movie featured James Booth as a girl-happy British bobby who falls for the charms of a trio of fetching femmes fatales played by Stella Stevens, Shirley Jones, and Honor Blackman. More bleak than black, the largely unfunny melange of mordant satire and melodrama didn’t add up to much except problems for the filmmakers.
The Stones would not make another film until 1970, one they would live to regret. The Song of Norway, a nearly two-and-a-half hour biopic about the devastatingly dull life of composer Evard Grieg, was a costly production and a critical disaster. Life magazine’s Richard Schickel did not hold back: “The musical numbers…when not downright ugly, are ludicrous.” New Yorker critic Pauline Kael went further: “The movie is of an unbelievable badness; it brings back clichés you didn’t even know you knew. You can’t get angry at something this stupefying; it seems to have been made by trolls.”
Undaunted, Andrew Stone, being Andrew Stone, doubled down – with a glitzy remake of the 1938 musical The Great Waltz, the story of Johann Strauss, starring Horst Buchholz. It met with no better reception than had Song of Norway. Many blamed The Great Waltz for putting a stake through the heart of classic movie musicals, which promptly disappeared from the screen. In fairness, the days of big studio musicals were already dead and done. What’s sad is that Stone, the one-time renegade visionary, was beyond seeing it.
The Great Waltz was Andrew and Virginia Stone’s last picture show, though Universal called him back in 1977 to help out on the action and disaster sequences for Rollercoaster. Mentally sharp into his eighties and still tough as old shoe leather, Stone spent the last two decades of his life trying, unsuccessfully to put movie deals together. He passed away in 1999 at age 96; Virginia, who was 19 years younger, had died two years earlier. By that time, Stone has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in recognition of his contributions to the art and craft of filmmaking and the one-of-a-kind movies he’d written, produced, and directed. Unfortunately, Virginia was never similarly recognized.
Together, Andrew and Virginia Stone made movies that define what we talk about when we talk about film noir (with apologies to Raymond Carver). In The Steel Trap, Joseph Cotten offers this clear-eyed comprehension: “The difference between the honest and dishonest is a debatable line. We’re suckers if we don’t try and cram as much happiness in as possible in our brief time, no matter how. Everyone is going to break the law.” That is noir to the bone.
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This article originally appeared in slightly different form in the Film Noir Foundation’s quarterly NOIR CITY e-magazine, to which Gary Deane is a regular contributor.
- https://www.cobbles.com/simpp_archive/andrew_stone.htm [↩]
- https://variety.com/2000/scene/people-news/andrew-l-stone-1117796389/ [↩]
- Hirsch, Foster. The Dark Side of the Screen. New York: Da Capo Press, 1981. 184. [↩]
- https://www.nytimes.com/1984/07/28/obituaries/james-mason-75-dead-suave-star-of-100-films.html [↩]
- http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/78386%7C0/The-Decks-Ran-Red.htm [↩]
- Alexander Campbell, “The Farcical Finish of a Famous Old Ship.” Life magazine, Sept. 7, 1959. [↩]
- Robert Stack, Mark Evans. Straight Shooting. New York: MacMillan/ McGraw-Hill, 1980. [↩]
- https://www.nytimes.com/1961/08/17/archives/thief-of-baghdad-and-ring-of-fire-open.html [↩]