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Joseph H. Lewis; Acclaimed Director of B Movies in Hollywood's Golden Era

Obituaries

September 11, 2000|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joseph H. Lewis, a director of B movies during Hollywood's Golden Era whose work received great critical acclaim after his retirement, has died.

Lewis died Aug. 30 at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, said his friend, Dr. Gail Reingold. Lewis was believed to be 93, although some reference books list his birthday as April 6, 1900.

In movies like "The Big Combo," "Terror in a Texas Town," "My Name Is Julia Ross" and "Gun Crazy," Lewis transcended the limits of the B movie franchise, making fast-paced, visually stimulating films.

"Lewis made no-nonsense movies that drove right to the end," film historian and critic Richard Schickel said on learning of Lewis' death.

Lewis received the L.A. Film Critics Assn. Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997, honoring his 38 pictures made between 1937 and 1958.

The rarely lauded director earned renewed attention in the 1960s from critics in the United States and France who had begun to look at directors as auteurs. "Gun Crazy," critic Jay Cocks and his friend and collaborator, director Martin Scorsese, wrote in the New York Times some years ago, "is a great movie that never set out to be one. . . . Within the restrictions of a tough budget and an oppressively short shooting schedule, [Lewis] helped expand our visual vocabulary."

That film, arguably Lewis' finest work and the one he later told director Peter Bogdanovich was his favorite, was shot in 30 days in 1949 and cost $400,000 to make.

The screenplay, by MacKinley Kantor and Millard Kaufman (then "fronting" for blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo) from a Kantor magazine story, describes a couple who decide to rob a bank after pulling a series of small-time robberies.

The fast-paced film contains a dynamic sequence, shot in a realistic manner from the back seat of a stretch Cadillac, following the couple, played by Peggy Cummins and John Dall as they drive into town to pull the bank heist. Scorsese and Cocks called it "unrelenting," adding that improvised scenes of this type "literally pull the audience along with the actors and the action. They obliterate the separation between screen and spectator. There's no more audience. There are only accomplices."

Born in New York City, the son of an optometrist, Lewis came to Hollywood in the 1920s hoping to become an actor. His brother Ben, then a film editor at Metro Goldwyn Mayer, helped him get work at the studio as a camera loader. At a time when the industry was turning away from silent films, Lewis joined his brother in the editing room learning how to put sound with moving pictures.

In the '30s, he joined Mascot Films, which later became Republic Pictures, and became head of its editing department. He would later tell Bogdanovich, however, that he did little editing, hiring instead the best editors in town at salaries that often eclipsed his.

By the mid-1930s, Lewis was directing B films for Republic on tight schedules with low budgets. It was not uncommon to make a film in seven days and start another one the next day. He made westerns like "Courage of the West," "Blazing Six Shooters" and "Two-Fisted Rangers," working with such stars as Fuzzy Knight, Johnny Mack Brown and Bob Baker.

In the '40s, he proved himself capable of working in other B genres, directing such forgettable science fiction films as "The Mad Doctor of Market Street," and musicals like "The Minstrel Man."

Lewis served in the Army Signal Corps during World War II, making instructional films including one on how to shoot the M-1 rifle, which was shown well into the '60s.

Lewis worked steadily in Hollywood through the years. One of his most noted film credits was "The Jolson Story," in which he directed all the musical numbers.

When the advent of television brought a decline in B film production, Lewis switched to the small screen, directing episodes for "The Rifleman," "Gunsmoke," "The Big Valley," "The Dick Powell Show" and "The Defenders."

"I signed my name to every foot of film," Lewis told Bogdanovich, who included a lengthy interview with the director in his book of conversations with great filmmakers called "Who the Devil Made It."

When asked by Bogdanovich what interested him most about making films, Lewis replied:

"Oh, a chance to express myself. . . . I'm innately an artist. But an artist without a diploma: I can't play violin, I have no voice for singing, I'm not a poet, I can't sketch, I can't paint. What is there left for me to do . . . this wonderful means of expression."

He is survived his wife, Buena, and a daughter, Candy.

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