Guns for Hire: Frank Tuttle vs. Stuart Heisler

Programma curated by Ehsan Khoshbakht

This ‘comparative’ retrospective – considering the works of two directors in tandem – is all about celebrating brilliance outside the pantheon. Frank Tuttle and Stuart Heisler, the two figures this programme aims to reclaim as masters in their own right, made films with detectable distinction. Their films were splendidly paced and unpredictable in the ways they altered the cinematic vocabulary of popular genres. Neither had, at any point in their respective careers, enough clout to choose their desired course. They were marginal, yet in a pleasantly secure way. “The director is, first of all, the catalyst”, George Cukor wrote to Tuttle, “he gets things going”. Tuttle and Heisler also got things going, to say the least, both as sources of inspiration and forces who shaped film history. Tuttle’s This Gun For Hire became one of the four defining titles of film noir when it reached France after the war. In the same country, Heisler was later declared a master and Jean-Luc Godard saw him as an inspiration. This special pairing is inspired by the philosophical and political visions they shared, the similar terrain they walked, which led to them tackling almost the same subjects, albeit in two vividly contrasting styles – each often mirroring the work of his fellow director. Of course, working for the same studio, Paramount, meant that they could work with almost the same cast and crew, further adding to the resemblances between their works. My own first point of engagement with Tuttle and Heisler was a fascination with their treatment of crime (melo)drama, later to be labelled ‘noir’. It soon went beyond that. For this programme, the first criterion was showing the most artistically accomplished films by each director from the best available prints. I have deliberately skipped a big cluster of works in each filmmaker’s filmography, such as westerns or war films by Heisler, or the silent period and the Bing Crosby musicals by Tuttle, in favour of more interesting one-off exercises. Then I tried to judge which titles across the two filmographies would correspond best with one another, which informed the final selection (see my text at the end of this section). My aim was never to offer a ‘greatest hits’ retrospective, or give the illusion of perfectly unique or consistent careers. Far from it, I remain more interested in inconsistencies, interruptions and contradictions.

“Tuttle’s importance as a communist comes from the fact, first, that he is recognised as a very capable motion picture director and, moreover, he is considered to be an excellent teacher of motion picture methods”. The first serious appraisal of Frank Tuttle (1892-1963) in writing was not penned by a critic but an admiring FBI agent, who had the ‘red’ director under surveillance, adding these notes to his secret dossier. Probably the only famous silent film director to get into trouble during the McCarthy era, Tuttle was once one of Paramount’s stars, with a knack for comedies and extracting memorable performances from female stars. A few years later he was a “double-threat talking picture hep cat” who knew how to navigate the troubled waters of early sound. Tuttle flourished again during the Second World War, when his work had mutated, becoming darker and more personal. It is during this time that he made his most memorable films. It’s hard to think of a figure more American in his aspirations, sense of irony and effortless creativity – or one so quick to fade into oblivion. Raised in a well-off family, Tuttle worked as a script doctor from the early 1920s. By the end of 1921 he had started his own company, Film Guild, whose productions included historical movie made for Yale University (of which he was an alumnus). In 1922 he made his first film, The Cradle Buster, but when the company started to struggle an offer from Allan Dwan lured him to Hollywood. By the mid-1920s he was fully established as a director of light comedies, preferring to work with starlets such as Bebe Daniels, Clara Bow and Esther Ralston. The success of his early sound films and a subtle change of direction from comedies to dramas in the 30s revealed other facets of Tuttle’s artistry. The 1930s and early 40s were the peak of Tuttle’s career until the purge of red elements in Hollywood forced him to work as a freelancer, with some odd yet impressively directed projects in Europe. Even if Tuttle’s political line was that of cocktail-party Marxism and boy-scout materialism, that didn’t stop him from throwing into his films some progressive ideas that defied Hollywood genres, took stylistic liberties, and offered surprises in both dramatic and visual senses. The relative consistency of his long career, with a good number of highlights, makes it a perfect entry into the world of inspiring imperfections, of masters on the margins.

In The Remarkable Andrew (1942), written by the communist Dalton Trumbo, the ghost of President Andrew Jackson comes down to earth to assist a small-town bookkeeper in exposing the corruption of the city authorities – an instance of director Stuart Heisler’s successful merging of a world of fantastical idealism and the politics of his time. Of the two major narrative approaches that characterise Heisler’s work, this might be considered the first model. In the second, there is a journey into darkness (so the title of his shattering Journey into Light should be seen as ironic): men and women arrive, or drift into, a new house (Smash-Up), a town (Storm Warning), a territory (the south in Among the Living) or a hidden, or even hideous, aspects of their identity through encounters with blood relatives, or the townsfolk. The tension Heisler establishes between the traveller/ drifter and the rest is both melodramatic and psychological. Thus, travel is the means of dramatic self-discovery, but also leads to destruction – the drifter might become a hobo, or face death. There is yet more that makes Stuart Heisler (1896-1979) a figure compelling enough to demand reconsideration. An unsung hero of American cinema, he was very often ahead of his time, almost always having something to offer even when the material looked unredeemable. So when Bertrand Tavernier, an admirer of Heisler’s work, speaks of him as “talented and mysterious”, perhaps he is referring to the mystery of a man who made films that were great, but which nobody bothered to care for. While Heisler had admirers in post-“Cahiers” France, and his name popped up in early issues of the magazine, very little critical work was done to reclaim him as a great director. A prop man at Famous Players, Heisler was promoted to the role of film editor in the early 1920s. He made his first feature for Paramount in 1936 and in the following year became John Ford’s associate director on The Hurricane. He directed a series of B films before joining in the war effort as a captain (during which time he also made a war documentary), while back in Hollywood his career was slowly rising. After the war and up until the end of the 50s, aside from a relatively long stint at Warner, Heisler became a freelancer, making films for independents and small companies. Whether you are aiming to measure his oeuvre with an auteurist yardstick, or just looking for great filmmaking with a clear vision, Stuart Heisler makes for an astonishing discovery, a reminder of the excellence to be found outside the pantheon, where filmmakers not confined to the temple drift away to meet their fate, just like in a Heisler film.

Though their age difference was no more than four years, Frank Tuttle got into the motion picture business earlier and became a director some 15 years before Stuart Heisler was given his first directorial assignment. They both worked for Paramount, which owing to the absence of interfering, controlling bosses – as was the case at MGM and Warner – offered them some room for experimentation. These circumstances kickstarted Heisler’s career in the B department in the late 30s and rekindled Tuttle’s. But even before that they had crossed paths when Heisler, as a film editor, and Tuttle, as a renowned director, worked together on the rapturous pre-Code comedy/ musical Roman Scandals. Though they both seemed deeply rooted in the studio system, they broke loose from it after the war and embarked on a more erratic yet cinematically intricate journey as freelancers, including making films for independent companies in the US and abroad as well as working for television. This period was to some extent a result of the persecution of Red Hollywood, which directly affected one of them. As he was an official member of the communist party, Tuttle’s political views are more important as a means of understanding his career interruptions than any reading of his films could provide. Heisler, on the other hand, though never a party member nor affected by the blacklist, is a curious case. His career displayed many of the symptoms of being blacklisted, without his being persecuted in that way. There are threads, thematic and visual, running through the films of Tuttle and Heisler, sometimes corresponding meaningfully to the work of the fellow director. Most of these themes concern the relationship between an individual and their environment; so there is always a great deal of interaction between character and place. The two directors also made some of the most unusual films about people and history. When broken down into more specific ideas, they include: science viewed as a means to save the world, but which fails because the scientist can’t save his own soul, as in The Monster and the Girl (H for Heisler) vs Island of Lost Women (T for Tuttle); the concept of a ‘master race’, scientific selection and ‘race improvement’, discussed and challenged, as in The Biscuit Eater (H) and College Holiday (T); early signs of environmental concerns, or environmental awareness, in Tulsa (H) and Island of Lost Women (T); the impossibility of utopia in more than one film, including Saturday Island/Island of Desire (H) and Island of Lost Woman (T). Both directors are fascinated by blood relations and the interchangeability of identity, as seen in Tuttle’s best silent film, Love ’Em and Leave ’Em and Heisler’s Among the Living. Ghosts of the past, or historical figures, reappear to correct the wrongs of modern society, as in Roman Scandals (T) and The Remarkable Andrew (H). History is a theatrical performance by actors, as in both Along Came Jones and The Lone Ranger (H) and Hostages and The Magic Face (T); in the latter Hitler is killed midway through the war and it’s an actor who actually carries on Hitler’s duties! (Also note that both Tuttle and Heisler made films about Hitler). When it comes to the style of each filmmaker, especially when handling similar subject matter, the contrasts are telling: Tuttle is essentially an ironic director whereas Heisler is straight. Tuttle enjoys perversion and treats subjects such as chained women, bigamy and wife-swapping so lightly they look like natural social activities. On the other hand, Heisler is a moralist with more rounded ideas about society. Heisler goes for the fantastical, the impossible and even the mystical whereas Tuttle adheres to the realm of logic, even if he never fully trusts it. But Tuttle can also show a cartoonish sense of weight and movement, which makes his narratives bouncy and light. Tuttle’s style is more informed by the comedy-musical whereas Heisler is closer to melodrama. Tuttle enjoys urban landscapes and an urban dandiness, while Heisler searches rural and natural landscapes, favouring rustic characters. The landscape also dictates the language and speech: the high-flown language in Tuttle’s world versus the colloquial one in Heisler’s films; or Tuttle’s verbosity vs the plainness of speech among Heisler’s characters. Tuttle’s cinema, for the most part, showed fetishist obsessions in which sets and props are more prominently featured than the space, but for Heisler constructing a sense of space through mise-enscene was essential, which might explain his popularity among certain French critics. When Tuttle and Heisler made two crime dramas in colour and Cinema-Scope towards the end of their film careers (Hell on Frisco Bay and I Died a Thousand Times), it felt as if their paths had never been so close. Having achieved a dazzling mastery, a sense of purity now reigned. The classical style was pushed to its limit, ready to be transformed into something else. Embellishments were abandoned and a sense of restlessness and weariness hung in the air. It is hard not to read these films as personal letters to themselves; two hired guns reaching the end of the road, as if now making a film was like one last big heist, where things might go wrong but regardless of the outcome, the meditative concentration on one’s art makes it all worthwhile.

Ehsan Khoshbakht