Bright Lights Film Journal

Norman, Is That You? The Long Wait of Norman Foster

“Sadly, this oversight neglects Foster’s contributions to both film noir and world cinema, and it dismisses a life nearly as fascinating as that of Welles.”

Consider now the strange case of Norman Foster. A footnote in cinematic history, he’s best remembered as the hack director of a bad movie. Tapped by Orson Welles in 1941to direct the producer/star’s new thriller Journey into Fear, Foster became a trusted member of the inner circle during Welles’s stormy tenure at RKO. After Welles was fired from the studio, however, the film was edited into incomprehensibility and abandoned on the public’s doorstep. Today, very nearly the only place Norman Foster is mentioned is in the footnotes of Welles biographies. (When asked by writer C. Jerry Kutner if Welles directed parts of La Décade Prodigieuse, Claude Charbol responded, “Who do they think I am, Norman Foster?”) Sadly, this oversight neglects Foster’s contributions to both film noir and world cinema, and it dismisses a life nearly as fascinating as that of Welles.

Born Norman Foster Hoeffer on December 13, 1903, he first wanted to be an actor. His good looks and charm gained him entry to the New York stage, where he dropped his last name and made his Broadway debut in 1926 in John Bowie’s Just Life. The following year he acted opposite Edward G. Robinson and future noir director John Cromwell in the successful The Racket. More important to Foster’s life, however, was another play he did that same year, The Barker, costarring a lovely young French actress named Claudette Colbert.

Foster and Colbert married in March 1928, the beginning of an odd seven-year arrangement in which the two never lived together in the same residence. The ostensible reason was that Colbert’s domineering mother, Jeanne, didn’t like Foster. Mother and daughter lived together on Central Park West while Foster kept an apartment on West Forty-fourth street. When the couple moved to Hollywood in the late 1920s to make a run at the movie business, Jeanne came along and Foster again set up a separate residence. Both husband and wife found steady work throughout the early 1930s, but while Colbert shot to superstardom, Foster stayed a second-string player, the handsome lightweight wooing ingénues like Carole Lombard, Claire Trevor, and Loretta Young. As Colbert’s fame grew, the public’s interest in her unusual marriage grew along with it. Explaining that she and Foster had a “modern marriage,” she laughed it off. “The most important requirements for a successful marriage” she said “are living apart and a lack of jealousy.” Whether this signaled an open relationship, or whether it gave the ring of truth to the persistent rumors that Colbert was a lesbian, the modern marriage didn’t last. On August 6, 1935, while still married to Colbert, Foster publically announced his plans to marry actress Sally Blane, Loretta Young’s older sister. Colbert granted him a divorce sixteen days later. His far happier marriage to Sally would last the rest of his life.

While ending one marriage and beginning another, Foster attempted a similar switch professionally. In 1936, he made his directorial debut (and starred) in a low-budget mystery for the Standard Photoplay Company, I Cover Chinatown. The next year he started cranking out the Mr. Moto mystery series starring Peter Lorre, writing and directing for producer Sol M. Wurtzel. He made six Moto films in all. These films were hardly the stuff of legend, but Foster established himself as a director who could work fast, cheap, and competently.

This quality attracted the young Orson Welles, newly arrived at RKO, when he assigned Foster to direct a segment of his anthology film, It’s All True. Foster and novelist John Fante adapted Robert Flaherty’s short story “Bonito the Bull” about the friendship between a young boy and a fighting bull, and he and Welles scouted locations together in Mexico. Foster and his crew started shooting the short film (retitled My Friend Bonito) in September 1941, and by October Welles was so ecstatic about the footage Foster was sending back that he promised Foster co-directing credit on the film. By this time, however, Welles was in trouble at RKO, and in December he recalled Foster to Hollywood and put him in charge of directing an adaptation of the thriller Journey into Fear. Since Welles designed the film, some critics and historians give him de facto co-directing credit. In truth, though he did direct the final scene (in postproduction), for most of the shoot he functioned more like a producer in the Selznick mode. He oversaw all aspects of production, but since he was in South America making It’s All True during much of the shoot, Foster was the man standing next to the camera while the film was rolling.

Shooting on both projects was hampered by a variety of issues, none more pressing than the rapid disintegration of Welles’s position at the studio. By the middle of 1942, shooting on Journey into Fear was complete, but the studio, unhappy with the results (unhappy, in fact, with everything Welles had touched), hacked down the final cut without consulting Foster or Welles.

Foster might have had some reason to be mad at Welles — in 1942, a great many people were — but the two had become fast friends on the project and maintained warm relations the rest of their lives. Moreover, Foster had fallen in love with Mexico. Furthermore, he had impressed enough people in the film business there (particularly at Producciones Mèxico), that he could return and make some films on his own.

He began with an adaptation of Federico Gamboa’s gritty 1903 naturalist novel Santa. The story of a young woman’s descent into prostitution, it was a project Welles had considered making at one time, but film historian Harry Waldman later noted that Foster’s film “went beyond Welles” in depicting a “blind, indifferent, cruel world.” For his leading man, Foster had cast an unknown young actor named Ricardo Montalban, who proved to be a sensation in the film. The following year Foster and Montalban reteamed with Santa‘s leading lady Ester Fernández for the tragic romance La Fuga. The script, written by Foster and Betty Cromwell, is an amalgamation of two stories by Guy de Maupassant, “Boule de Suif” and “Mademoiselle Fifi.” As such it’s something of a rewrite of Ford’s Stagecoach — which was also based on “Boule de Suif” — but Foster’s film is pointedly tragic rather than uplifting, more in keeping with the source material. Shot at Azteca studios, La Fuga allowed Foster to work with the legendary Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, who gave the film an epic look to rival Ford’s film. Foster and Montalban followed that hit with the bullfighting drama La hora de verdad in 1945. Their third tragic, star-crossed romance in a row, the film proved to be their biggest popular and artistic success — winning Montalban a Heraldo, the Mexican equivalent of the Oscar, for best actor, as well as offers to work in Hollywood. Foster liked Montalban so much he arranged a blind date between the handsome young actor and Sally Blane’s younger sister, Georgina Young — a good bit of matchmaking that resulted in a lifelong marriage.

Foster’s most impressive Mexican film is the fascinating El ahijado de la muerte (1946) starring Jorge Negrete. The story of a man who makes the fatal mistake of accepting Death’s offer to be his son’s godparent, El ahijado de la muerte remains a potent cinematic example of the “magic realism” emergent in Mexican and South American literature in the 1940s. Foster co-wrote the screenplay with the husband and wife team of Luis and Janet Alcoriza. (An actor and ballerina respectively, the Alcorizas were just embarking on a screenwriting career that would eventually lead them to a close collaboration with Luis Buñuel and, later, to work on their own films.) Working with veteran expat cinematographer Jack Draper, Foster gave the film a rich atmosphere: low-key lighting, chiaroscuro contrasts, subjective camera shots, and one magnificent pan that slowly tilts into a bizarre angle. By 1946, the Indiana-born Draper had spent most of a long career working in Mexico, but the visuals that he and Foster employed here were as exciting as anything being done in American noir at the time. El ahijado de la muerte had the big musical numbers that were a requirement of Mexican films of the era, but the overall feeling was one of deep foreboding.

When Foster came back to the states, it was to shoot a western starring his sister-in-law Loretta Young, Rachel and the Stranger (1948). That same year, however, he made an impressive swing into noir territory with Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. This was the first release from Norma Productions, a new company founded by star Burt Lancaster and his agent Harold Hecht (they would go on to make Sweet Smell of Success). Lancaster stars as an ex-serviceman who kills the bartender of a London pub one night and escapes into the foggy, bombed-out remains of the city. With the cops in pursuit, he climbs into the window of the apartment of a young nurse played by Joan Fontaine.

The mechanics of the plot grind a little as they maneuver Lancaster and Fontaine into a romance, but once the story is set up, things run smoothly. At heart, the film is a tale of doomed love, the kind of thing Foster had been doing down in Mexico with his Montalban films. It was a different role for Lancaster, however. Usually cast as a chump who gets mixed up with a vixen, here he’s l’homme fatale, the dangerous man who brings ruin on an unsuspecting woman. Since Lancaster was the rare performer who was equally convincing punching a guy in the face and telling a woman she was the only thing that ever mattered, this film gives him plenty of opportunity to do both.

Foster and his team brought a rich visual style to Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. Shot by veteran cinematographer Russell Metty, the look of the film recalls Joseph August’s work on John Ford’s The Informer without simply repeating it. Metty blends sharp blacks and whites with mysterious foggy backgrounds, and he’s helped mightily by the fine set design of Bernard Herzbrun and Nathan Juran. This is a shattered London just beginning to get to its feet after the war, a physical metaphor for what’s going on with the characters. Foster combines these elements with precision and skill. The film’s beginning combines long crane shots of Lancaster scurrying through the ruins of London trying to avoid capture. When he’s caught after getting into another brawl, he’s sentenced to a caning. This torture sequence is as intense a scene of violence as one will see in classic noir, but it’s only by going back later and looking at it again that one realizes that Foster and his editor Milton Carruth accomplish this feat by alternating shots of Lancaster’s face (each from a slightly closer, more askew angle) with shots of the flogger and onlookers. A later sequence in which a blackmailer tries to sexually assault Fontaine and gets a pair of scissors in his liver for his trouble is a gripping piece of suspense. Even better are the scenes that follow it. A later shot of a dead man sprawled out on a shattered aquarium, fish flapping on the soaked carpet, is as gruesomely funny as anything Hitchcock had put onscreen by 1948. And another scene of a disoriented Fontaine is captured with a terrific little tracking shot that tilts and stumbles like an unsettled guardian angel (and is reminiscent of the tilted pan in El ahijado de la muerte).

In 1950, Foster delivered one of the odder noirs on record, Woman on the Run. It stars Ann Sheridan as a woman trying to track down her husband when he disappears after witnessing a murder. The exact details of the murder plot are sketched on the fly — always a good indication that the plot is of trifling importance. Instead, the main thing that Woman on the Run has going for it is that it’s weird. The combination of slanted angles and Arthur Lange’s pounding score produces some of this effect, but most of the strangeness here derives from a contrast between realism and artifice. While the film was shot on location in San Francisco, much of it was also clearly shot in the confines of a studio. This creates a disjointed effect for the viewer, but in a sense disjointed effects are what film noir is all about. Consider the final sequence, set in Whitney’s Playland amusement park. For reasons too complicated (and, in the proud noir tradition, too convoluted) to explain here, Sheridan winds up trapped on a roller coaster ride while her husband and the killer wrestle near the tracks below. This sequence is rapidly edited with a mixture of location footage and studio effects, slanted angles and chiaroscuro lighting, all of it scored with thumping music, the roar of the roller coaster, and the cackling of a mechanical witch. In a word: weird. It’s a fantastic sequence, though, and a perfect way to tie up the picture.

After his stint in noir, Foster made the quasi-documentary Navajo (1952) and the following year went back to Mexico to make the romance Sombrero with Montalban, Yvonne De Carlo, and Thomas Gomez. After that, he settled into a long, comfortable career in television, directing Fess Parker in the hugely successful Davy Crockett episodes of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (later edited and released theatrically as Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier), as well as episodes of The Loretta Young Show and Zorro. He worked up until 1974, and then two years later on July 7, 1976, died in Santa Monica.

In the years since his death, Norman Foster has mostly been confined to the shadow of Orson Welles. Portions of My Friend Benito, Foster’s segment of It’s All True, were included in a 1993 documentary about the ill-fated project. Back in the ’70s, Foster had played a supporting role in Welles’s long-gestating The Other Side of the Wind opposite John Huston. The project, never finished and never released, still makes headlines as new rumors of its impending release come and go. And, of course, the mangled corpse of Journey into Fear continues to limp on like a zombie reminder of Welles’s last turbulent days at RKO.

Cinema is resilient, though, and Foster’s best films are treasures awaiting rediscovery. In fact, this long overdue process may be finally underway. When Film Noir Foundation president Eddie Muller showed a copy of Woman on the Run during the “Art of Noir” series at the 2009 Grand Lyon film festival in France, the response was ecstatic. Following the showing, publications like Le Monde and Telèrama wrote rave appreciations of the film. Who knows? Norman Foster may yet find his way out of Welles’s shadow.

Works Cited

Buford, Kate. Burt Lancaster: An American Life. New York: Da Capo Press, 2000.

Callow, Simon. Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu. New York: Viking, 1995.

–––. Orson Welles: Hello Americans. New York: Viking, 2006.

De la Mora, Sergio. Cinemachismo: Masculinities and Sexuality in Mexican film. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

Dick, Bernard F. Claudette Colbert: She Walked in Beauty. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009.

Graver, Gary with Andrew J. Rausch. Making Movies with Orson Welles. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008.

Kutner, C Jerry. “La Décade Prodigieuse-Ten Days’ Wonder.” (Weblog entry.) Bright Lights Film Journal. June 26, 2009. ( January 20, 2010.

Muller, Eddie. “Dateline: Lyon.” Noir City Sentinel. Film Noir Foundation. 4(5):2.

“Ricardo Montalban Dies.” The Mexican Film Bulletin. Jan/Feb 2009. 15(1). Terpconnect. University of Maryland. ( January 20, 2010.

Rich, Nathaniel. San Francisco Noir: The City in Film Noir from 1940 to the Present. NY: The Little Bookroom, 2005.

Robinson, Cedric J. and Luz Maria Cabral. “The Mulatta on Film: From Hollywood to the Mexican Revoultion.”Race & Class 2003. Institute of Race Relations 45(2): 1-20.

Waldman, Harry. Beyond Hollywood’s Grasp: American Filmmakers Abroad, 1914-1945. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1994. 182-185

Welles, Orson and Peter Bogdanovich. This Is Orson Welles. Edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992.