- On Capua's Anatole Litvak: The Life and Films
The film director Anatole Litvak is not a readily familiar name because, despite a solid career, mainly in Hollywood, he has descended into an undeserved neglect. That career is at once highly particular and also typical of the circuitous, nomadic professional lives of so many European directors working during this period (1920s–1970s), including Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, and Billy Wilder. Litvak was not as talented or influential as those celebrated figures, but his Oscar nomination for Best Director for The Snake Pit (USA, 1948) and the award of Best Picture for Decision Before Dawn (USA, 1951) are testament to his status in the profession. Indeed, Michelangelo Capua partly assembles his study, Anatole Litvak: The Life and Films, through a careful trawl of the autobiographies, memoirs, interviews, and occasional comments of those who worked with Litvak. He divided opinion among actors. Bette Davis, the female lead of All This and Heaven Too (USA, 1940), found him a "slave to his preconceptions," lacking flexibility, imagination, and the courage to improvise (49). By contrast Tyrone Power, who starred in another melodrama, This Above All (USA, 1942), admired his disciplined approach: "I like his severity—it keeps you on your toes" (62). The most fulsome praise came from a fellow Jew, Edward G. Robinson, the star of the courageous anti-Nazi film Confessions of a Nazi Spy (USA, 1939): "surely [End Page 102] one of the most urbane, sophisticated, gourmet, haut monde, anti-Nazis ever known—an d one of the most talented" (40).
Litvak was not a refugee from Nazism but an ambitious filmmaker who took what opportunities he could to enhance his career. A Ukrainian Jew, born in Kiev in 1902, Litvak moved with his family to the much more cosmopolitan St. Petersburg when he was five years old. Capua does not speculate much about the effects of this background, content to document his subject's progress from university philosophy student and avant-garde theater manager to silent film director. He left for Germany in 1924, keen to work in Europe's most prestigious film studio, UFA. Like many others during the 1930s, Litvak made films in France, Germany, and England (including Sleeping Car [UK, 1933], with Ivor Novello and Madeleine Carroll). It was the success of the love story Mayerling (France, 1936), which displayed considerable technical accomplishment in its use of camerawork and sound, that attracted Hollywood's attention. Capua notes that "the most interesting offer came from Jack Warner" (27), without further comment, therefore missing the point that Warner Bros. was the only major studio whose politics were explicitly anti-Nazi; hence the particular attraction for Litvak and the film with Robinson.
Litvak was given a three-year, six-picture contract and became a naturalized American citizen in 1940. However, like all émigré talent (even Lang), Litvak had little control over his choice of projects and worked across several genres, showing proficiency in each. Litvak's films noirs have attracted the most attention. He made three "precursors": Castle on the Hudson (USA, 1940), Out of the Fog (USA, 1941), starring the Jewish actor John Garfield, and Blues in the Night (USA, 1941); and two representative of the postwar production cycle: The Long Night (USA, 1947)—a rather ill-judged remake of the celebrated prewar French noir Le Jour se lève (Daybreak, France, 1939)—and the celebrated Sorry, Wrong Number (USA, 1948), with Barbara Stanwyck. All display the foreboding, paranoia, and dislocation that are central to film noir and suggest Litvak's empathetic émigré understanding of these issues. However, he also displayed a keen interest in explicit social and political themes, and was always looking for challenging subject matter instead of building a film around bankable stars (111), though Litvak's professionalism ensured that he made each film to the best of his ability.
He had an opportunity to engage in more political filmmaking during his army service, directing The Battle of Russia (USA, 1943), the fifth film in the prestigious and hugely...