La Furia Umana
  • I’m not like evereybody else
    The Kinks
  • E che, sono forse al mondo per realizzare delle idee?
    Max Stirner
  • (No ideas but in things)
    W.C. Williams
WILL STRAW / The dyssynchronies of Richard Quine

WILL STRAW / The dyssynchronies of Richard Quine

WILL STRAW / The dyssynchronies of Richard Quine

    In her fine study of the career of actress Natalie Wood, Rebecca Sullivan writes that, «while some stars encapsulate a distinct moment in Hollywood history,  Wood appears in the gaps, margins and fissures of that same history[i].» We might begin by asking whether the peculiar career of Richard Quine (which ran parallel to Natalie Wood’s in time and intersected with it in  Sex and the Single Girl in 1964) might not be seen in similar terms.   For a long time, Richard Quine has been two things.  He has been the auteur no one ever got around to celebrating –except, as Kevin John Bozelka notes in this contribution to this dossier, in those fleeting moments when French critics invoked his name.  Like Robert Wise  or Henry Hathaway, Quine’s name has not acquired a stature appropriate to the acclaim and affection which have attached themselves to so many of his films.  He has been relegated to the list of journeyman directors of uneven accomplishment, of whom even the most dogmatic auteurists have had little to say. 

    The other, more intriguing understanding of Quine casts him as a morbid historical symptom,.  From this perspective, he is of interest primarily as a casuality of what Bozelka calls the « awkward interzone between the classical Hollywood cinema and the New Hollywood. » Emerging just a little too late, at the end of the 1940s, Quine missed the launching pads that sent other directors of that decade onto higher levels of opportunity and accomplishment.  He arrived when it was no longer possible to serve the extensive apprenticeship in studio B-film units that sharpened the tools of a Joseph H. Lewis or Jacques Tourneur.   His first feature film, Leather Gloves (1948) is unavailable for present-day viewing, but no one has suggested it belongs in that corpus of masterful, low-budget films noirs that brought Anthony Mann and Nicholas Ray to early critical recognition and later canonization.   As a director whose early career unfolded at Columbia Pictures, Quine seems to have had little to do with that studio’s post-Paramount-decree rise as one of the studios most able to nurture new talent and elaborate new varieties of social realism.  On the contrary, one has the sense that Quine, in the first half of the 1950s, was given the task of wringing whatever value remained in the left-over genres of the previous decade. 

    There are moments of charm in Cruisin’ Down The River (1953) and an invigorating locational rawness in Drive a Crooked Road (1954).  Nevertheless, each epitomizes the dyssynchrony that marks so much of Quine’s career, the sense of being too late or too early.  Cruisin’ Down The River is a riverboat musical that does little to reinvent the form, and its final shot, with the ghosts of ancestors hovering over the present, would have seemed quaintly old-fashioned a decade earlier.  Drive a Crooked Road is one of three Quine films of the period laboring to reinvent Mickey Rooney as grown-up hero and romantic lead.  While the other two (Sound Off and All Ashore) belong to that most minor (if ubiquitous) of 1950s genres, the military service comedy, Drive a Crooked Road reaches backwards (to Quicksand, 1950) for the conceit of Mickey Rooney as a proletarian auto-mechanic turned gangster, and forward, to a minor wave of speed and car-chase films of the mid-to-late ate 1950s (Plunder Road, Thunder Road, The Fast and the Furious).  All of these Quine films, whatever their virtues, lack the momentum of genres taking off or the fullness that may mark them in their maturity.

    Elsewhere, among Quine’s early films, we find works which sit in the shadow of more well-known exemplifications of their genre or form.  Full of Life (1956) begins as an unusually astonishingly frank portrait of a marriage confronting the challenges of pregnancy, but is eventually over-run by the histrionics of domestic Italian-American 1950s dramas like Marty and The Rose Tattoo, with their inter-generational squabbling and broadly-accented, vaguely comic secondary characters.  So This is Paris (1954) gathers most of its pleasures from its over-laying of On the Town and An American In Paris but the obviousness of these sources underscores the extent to which, like so many of Quine’s films, it seems just a few years too late.  Pushover is probably the most highly regarded of his films from this period, but its critical legacy has been tempered by recognition of its debts to Double Indemnity and a sense of claustrophobia and limited resources which seem out of synch with the presence of its A-level male star. 

    At the centre of Richard Quine’s career is the six-film run that began in 1958, with Bell Book and Candle, and then, over the next six years, It Happened to Jane, Strangers When We Meet, The World of Suzie Wong, The Notorious Landlady and Paris When It Sizzles.   All of these sit comfortably within their historical moment, fulfilling the promise of that moment in fully-rounded ways.  These films shine, in part because one sees, clustered within them, stars and screenwriters in their periods of greatest accomplishment.  Some of these personnel, like Kirk Douglas or Doris Day, reached back to the mid-1940s but were here in their prime; others, like Blake Edwards, Jack Lemmon, and Kim  Novak were emblematic of distinctly youthful, post-war sensibilities.  Beyond this dimension, there is a broader historical rationale to the accomplishment of these works.   Together, these six films exemplify that moment, just before and after 1960, when the lives of middle-class adults offered the terrain in which sexuality might be explored with levels of explicitness not seen in Hollywood in at least a quarter-century.  Somewhat unexpectedly, Quine emerged during this period as one of the most effective stewards of this sensibility.

    Other articles in this dossier speak of these films in detail, so we will pass them by here.  In any event, by 1962, the moral opening described here was obliged to follow either of two pathways, both laden with risk.  One route followed the winding down of the late 1950s sex comedy, from its high water mark in the Doris Day and Rock Hudson films to the late, leaden embarrassments of films like How to Commit Marriage (1969) starring Bob Hope.  By this point, the vulgar modernism that Angela Prysthon accurately diagnoses as a key dimension  of the late 1950s sex comedy had lost its modernism, and the vulgarity that remained seemed all the more archaic for being enacted by aged performers whose distance from counter-cultural  sensibilities rendered them caricatural.   The other pathway, for Hollywood, involved desperate engagements with the first signs of the 1960s counter-culture, and a grabbing onto gimmicky sorts of  formal innovation (like celebrity cameos, direct address and slapstick comedy) whose violations of propriety and formal discipline were embraced as evidence of renewal. 

    Quine’s career after 1962 would venture down both of these doomed pathways.  Sex and the Single Girl has many defenders, perhaps because, made in 1964, it had not succumbed completely to the self-indulgence of later counter-cultural circuses like Casino Royale or The Happening (both 1967).  Nevertheless, over the film’s two hours, we see it move from the controlled geometric construction of the late 1950s sex comedy (with its sustained episodes of mistaken identity and criss-crossing romantic liaisons) to the zany abandon of  the mid-1960s comedy of pursuit, of films like It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1964) or Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) .  The chase scene that occupies the final act of Sex and the Single Girl is bloated by many of the formal devices of these other comedies — brief appearances by recognizable celebrities, improbable strings of vehicular disasters, and a revival of the tropes of silent era farcical comedy.   This last tendency, in particular, runs through the final 20 minutes of Sex and the Single Girl.  If, in the mid-1960s, the classic Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s was still too close in time to be regarded with anything but embarrassment, the silent films of Mack Sennett or Buster Keaton now offered an image of unconstrained freedom which seemed, somehow, convergent with a counter-cultural sensibility seeking new inspiration.  Sex and the Single Girl enacts, within its own temporal limits, a transition between the restrained classicism of the post-war Hollywood sex comedy, now entering its decline, and the unravelling of form that would follow. 

    How to Murder Your Wife (1965) has born the burden of a title evoking the worst excesses of 1960s misogyny, and while the film is more tightly crafted than others of its year, it entered a cultural context whose fractures ensured that it seemed old-fashioned.  Though Quine’s career did not end in 1967, his two features from that year, Hotel and Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad show him torn between the retreat into a fusty conventionality and a leap into the far reaches of late 1960s excess. Before his career spun downwards, into television assignments and a sporadic involvement with features, Quine made A Talent for Loving (1969) and The Moonshine War (1970), the first a Western sex comedy and the second a southern US rural farce.  In these degraded genres, ubiquitous at the end of the 1960s, Quine found synchrony with his time, but this could hardly be considered a victory. 

    Will Straw

    [i] Rebecca Sullivan, Natalie Wood, Palgrave, 2016, p. 120.

    LA FURIA UMANA is an online multilingual quarterly of theory and history of cinema fire, daydreams, and drifts.