Fifty years from now, when they update the film history textbooks, which current directors will merit a section? Some of the older vets are obvious. Scorsese and Spielberg. Almodovar and Von Trier. Zhang Yimou. Household names to film connoisseurs. What about Francis Lawrence, Shane Black, Chris Buck, Pierre Coffin, and Zack Snyder? They directed (or co-directed) the top five box office successes in the USA in 2013. Their ledgers are still open, but it’s hard to imagine any of them getting a paragraph. Is that how it should be?
I’m not suggesting that a filmmaker is deserving of serious attention simply because he directed a handful of popular movies. But I do think it is useful to occasionally move off the canonical names and at least consider, or reconsider, those directors who have what appear to be more artistically modest careers, because in many ways, those modest careers made Hollywood what is was, and play at least a small part in what it has become. Haute couture may have outsized influence on fashion, but prêt-a-porter directly affects our lives to a greater degree.
No, Virginia, this is not about Robert Altman, a director who might warrant a paragraph or two in our future textbook. It is about Richard Quine.
Quine was not a great director. But he was a good one, and for a period of about ten years, from the early 50s to the early 60s, he created some fine entertainment. He helped launch the careers of several important actors. And his crash & burn in the mid-1960s says something about a culture in upheaval and an artist not nimble enough to maintain balance on shifting terrain.
Richard Quine began as an actor. You can see him playing Janet Blair’s shy suitor in the first filmed version of My Sister Eileen (1942). But he would move into writing and directing by the end of the decade and that is where he found his greatest success. A professional partnership with sharp comic writer Blake Edwards bore a lot of fruit early in the decade. They collaborated on several comedies with Mickey Rooney, and helped produce Rooney’s television show mid-decade. The three men also created a good noir, Drive a Crooked Road, in 1954.
That movie was something of a turning point for Quine, but the next one could be counted as a breakthrough. Another noir, Pushover (1954), revealed a much darker side (which should have prompted contemporary critics to allude to “Quine-nine,” though I’ve never seen such a reference). The highly underrated Fred MacMurray plays a morally ambiguous cop, not unlike his insurance salesman in Double Indemnity (1944), and the premise is similar to Rear Window, also out in 1954. Most importantly, he introduced a rather stunning young actress to the world. Part erotic, part tentative, Kim Novak would go on to star in three more Quine movies.
Quine seemed to hit his stride in the late 50s. Following Pushover, he returned to familiar territory, remaking My Sister Eileen as a musical, with a script by Edwards, and songs by Jule Styne and Leo Robin. This is medium octane stuff, but it is very pleasant, and a big improvement on the original comedy, which made the rather serious mistake of casting an arguably more alluring actress (Rosalind Russell) as the “plain” sister and letting the supposedly fabulous Eileen (Blair) founder. Quine cast the tragically under-utilised Betty Garrett in the “plain” role opposite Janet Leigh, and it works very well. He could not overcome the source material’s silly climax, and the movie isn’t brilliant. But it is very satisfying.
He also cast a young actor in a supporting role whose star was on the rise, and who would come to be most associated with Quine during the six movies they made together. The role Jack Lemmon plays in My Sister Eileen (1955) is not particularly special, but it hints at what is to come.
What “was to come” was Operation Mad Ball (1957), a highly entertaining service comedy which built on Lemmon’s early persona as a manipulative operator, somewhat of a better looking Ernie Bilko (Phil Silver’s sitcom was popular at the time). Rooney dropped in for a cameo, and Quine also debuted another meteoric screen talent. Playing the buffoon opposite Lemmon, in his first movie, was Ernie Kovacs.
Kovacs would be used to much greater effect in the following year’s witchcraft comedy, Bell, Book, and Candle, while Novak would star and Lemmon would provide quirky support. But the adaptation of John Van Druten’s play fails on several counts. Novak is miscast, as is her romantic partner, James Stewart, and when they embrace on the roof of a tall building early on, it’s hard not to be reminded of how much more effectively Alfred Hitchcock would use the same actors in Vertigo that very same year. Still, the movie has charm, and Lemmon, Kovacs, and Elsa Lanchester will all bring a smile to your face.
Lemmon would appear in the following year’s It Happened to Jane, in a role that fit much more closely with the persona he would eventually perfect – the harried milquetoast driven to action. Kovacs would be there too, in a bald wig. The director appeared to have learned a lesson about Novak’s limited comic range, and cast Doris Day opposite Lemmon. The results were nothing special. Again, merely pleasant.
But then he was back with Novak for a drama, and this is Quine’s most interesting movie. Strangers When We Meet (1960) was adapted by Evan Hunter from his own novel, and it is melodrama worthy of Douglas Sirk. Though occasionally hysterical, it traces a suburban affair between architect Kirk Douglas and the mysterious housewife played by Novak. Quine’s visuals were never better. Kovacs gives his best performance. There should always be a seaside bar with the Pacific crashing against the shore when you are ready to have your midlife crisis affair. And there is that magnificent moment in the middle when Novak’s tightly wound Stepford wife reveals a perverse previous affair. There are brushes with greatness in this movie, and if it doesn’t get there, it remains worth a look.
Over the next few years, Quine would maintain himself with several more pleasant comedies and romances before the wheels came off. The mid-60s were a turbulent time, as established artists tried to deal with a new youth-centric culture that had its own language and its own attitudes toward sex. In 1964, Billy Wilder made the salacious and mostly dreadful Kiss Me, Stupid, featuring Novak, which tried to capitalise on this new morality. Wilder was more talented than Quine, and if he couldn’t pull it off, it was unlikely Quine could either. So we got Sex and the Single Girl in 1964, which at least boasts an interesting cast (including Natalie Wood, Tony Curtis, Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall) and then the catastrophic How to Murder Your Wife in 1965. Lemmon was back, but he was no longer young and cute. The men are bores. The women are shrews. It tries hard to be provocative and funny, and it fails.
And that was basically it. Quine would direct several more movies of little note before finishing his career in television. The fact that other directors (Hitchcock and Wilder) did more with Novak and Lemmon is a pretty clear indication of Quine’s limitations. There are repeated, overplayed references to Tony Curtis looking like the famous actor Jack Lemmon in Sex and the Single Girl, which only points out how superior Some Like it Hot (1959) is to Quine’s more modest films. And yet, I still have a very warm spot in my heart for Richard Quine. I have a warm spot for Ernie Kovacs and the budding careers of Novak and Lemmon. Pushover, My Sister Eileen, and Strangers When We Meet are three films from three distinct genres that any director would be proud to have on his resume. And if you love Hollywood, even if he falls well short of the Pantheon, there has to be a small corner for a director like Richard Quine.