The Way of a Gaucho: The Career of Hugo Fregonese
By Santiago & Andrés Rubín de Celis.
Very little has been written by critics and film reviewers in the English language about the films of the Argentinean director Hugo Fregonese. His Hollywood years, from 1950 to 1956, including a whole of eleven films, were only a short period within his uneven and rather erratic career, which led him to work not only in America but also in Italy, England, Germany and Spain, besides his own homeland. He mostly directed ‘quickies’ and ‘programmers’ and at the very best a few more ambitious ‘B’ features with none of them achieving even a minor cult status. They were, more or less, ‘Hollywood factory’ productions. Because of this, it is almost as easy to underrate his work in Hollywood as it is to overrate his early, promising Argentinean features: Pampa bárbara (1945), Where Words Fail (Donde mueren las palabras, 1946), Live in Fear, a.k.a. Hardly a Criminal (Apenas un Delincuente, 1948) and De hombre a hombre (1949).
Yet in his American films especially, we can see, as Gerard Legrand has pointed out, that he was far from the a second-rate craftsman. His work shows an obvious artistic personality and in his best films ‘a taste for unusual details and a feeling for calculated violence’ reveal a strong cinematic talent (Legrand 1986: 238). Fregonese was a ‘professional’, proud of his ability to efficiently bring forth – often from unpromising material – solid samples of commercial entertainment. And he did it not just on schedule and on budget but often with more nerve than one would have expected from the banalities he was given to work with.
Hugo Fregonese was born in Mendoza, Argentina, on April 8, 1908. Mendoza, the capital of the province of the same name, is a modern, densely populated city located on the eastern side of the Andes. It is internationally famous for its wine making industry. The Fregonese family emigrated to Argentina at the turn of the 20th century, from Treviso in Veneto, a region in North-East Italy. Hugo, the youngest of three children, was the second to be born in the country after his brother Armando. He was educated at Buenos Aires College and later at Buenos Aires University, where he never completed his studies in economics. Prior to entering the motion picture industry he colonized, built and developed, along with his brother, a resort in the sunny El Tigre Island. Then he worked as a newspaperman (he was the editor of All Sports magazine) and as a publicist. According to Legrand, a non-English speaking Fregonese arrived in New York in 1935 in order to study at Columbia University. Just a brief glimpse of the man undoubtedly revealed his origin: he was a tall, deeply tanned and handsome latino, with thick black hair and a fashionable pencil moustache in the vein of Clark Gable or Errol Flynn. For the next two years, Fregonese attended classes at Columbia (although he finally dropped out) ‘and absorbed as much of New York City as he could’ (Dixon 1985: 192).
In 1937 he moved to Hollywood after getting an offer to work for Columbia Pictures as technical adviser for a planned Hollywood production with the working title ‘Way of a Gaucho’, located in Argentina, which was becoming the perfect exotic setting for Hollywood films. Subsequently every film production company developed their own ‘Argentinean features’ during the next two decades. 20th Century Fox produced the musical Down Argentine Way (1940) and later the epic Way of a Gaucho (1952), RKO made Hi, Gaucho! (1935) and They Met in Argentina (1941), Universal had a try with Argentine Nights (or The Ritz Brothers meet The Andrews Sisters, 1940), while Columbia teamed up Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth once more in the superb musical You Were Never Lovelier (1942), and even Walt Disney sent a clumsy Goofy to the solitary pampas in El gaucho Goofy (1943).
Columbia’s ‘Way of a Gaucho’ seems to have nothing in common with the 1952 motion picture of the same name by Jacques Tourneur shot on location in the Argentinean pampas. Producer Sacha Genen thought that Argentinean Fregonese would be the right man for making the film look absolutely authentic, but finally the picture was never realized. Since he felt attracted by the movie industry, Fregonese decided to remain in Hollywood for a while. There, he took English lessons in order to improve his use of the language. Like many other Hollywood émigrés, he made a strenuous effort to master English, especially to pick up colloquialisms. He also attended some courses on film. Despite his slight income, Fregonese became a regular moviegoer, and going to the movies was for him also a kind of film education: ‘If there was a film in which I was interested’, Fregonese recalled later in an interview, ‘I went to see it every day, fifteen or twenty times (…) I watched it so many times that I became tired of it and then I would just focus on how it had been made’ (Martialay et al. 1966).[i] However, as he had neither movie industry connections nor film credentials, his dream of working in Hollywood seemed very unlikely. Instead, he returned to his own country to make his way in films.
Back in Argentina, from 1939 to 1945, Fregonese worked in various capacities within the movie industry. He first shot two short documentary features for the National Tourism Agency and began working at Pámpa Studios, one of the biggest production companies in the country. Fregonese’s first job at the studio was as assistant editor, but then he became personal assistant to the prestigious actor/director Enrique de Rosas. Later, and this was a crucial moment in his film career, he started working as assistant to filmmaker Lucas Demare, a top director in Argentina, on The Gaucho Priest (El cura gaucho, 1941). In 1942, Demare, alongside producer Enrique Faustín, actors Enrique Muiño, Ángel Magaña and Francisco Petrone, and writers Homero Manzi and Ulyses Petit de Murat, founded Artistas Argentinos Asociados (Argentinean Associated Artists), an independent production company aiming to develop high-quality films focusing on Argentinian themes and History.
At A.A.A. Fregonese worked as assistant to Demare on The Old Skinflint (El viejo Hucha, 1942), La guerra gaucha (‘The gaucho war’, 1942) and Su mejor alumno (‘His best pupil’, 1944). But, at the same time, he also worked for other production companies. He was assistant director on a number of films by Argentineans Eduardo Morera and Arturo Gracía Buhr, and the Spanish Republican exile Antonio Momplet. In 1944, came his great opportunity to direct (in fact co-direct) a full-length feature. While shooting Pámpa bárbara, director Demare needed to attend to some commercial obligations in nearby Chile. As interrupting the shooting would just increase the budget of the film, Demare trusted Fregonese to direct the action sequences of the film. In the end Fregonese came to do so much work on the film that he was offered credit as co-director.
Fregonese shot his solo film debut, in Where Words Fail, in 1946. The film tells the story of an old puppeteer demoted to night watchman of the theatre in which he has been working for a number of years. There, one night he discovers a young talented pianist who secretly plays his music in the deserted theatre after hours and decides to take him under his wing. Where Words Fail features a ten-minute-long ballet sequence by Margarita Wallmann. This is one of the most outstanding pieces of work in Fregonese’s film career and confirms his formidable technical skills. Aesthetically, the film is a mixture of different styles and techniques, from an expressionistic use of light and shadows to a dream-like quality close to avant-garde filmmaking. When seeing the picture, one can’t help but think about later films by the famous British film-making partners Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, such as The Red Shoes (1948) or The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). They’ve got many things in common. Aside from the most evident, the presence of puppets, we must also point to the similarly poetic/romantic description of theatrical backstage life, the similar ‘fantastic realism’ of their narratives and ballet episodes, and above all an aim to develop a creative collaboration between many artistic fields, like ballet, music, poetry, drama and film. As in the case of the previous Pámpa bárbara, the script was written by Manzi and Petit de Murat.
After the success of the film in his own country, Fregonese personally subtitled a copy and decided to try his luck in the States. In Hollywood, he screened the film to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer boss Louis B. Mayer. When Mayer was told about the small budget the film was made for ($30,000), he decided to sign a one-year contract with the director. Fregonese joined a production unit supervised by musical films expert-producer Joe Pasternak, but he refused to work on any of the projects that he was offered (including an early script version of the musical The Kissing Bandit). Subsequently, he was fired from the studio and went back again to Buenos Aires. Where Words Fail was released in 1951 in America by M-G-M.
During his stay in Hollywood, Fregonese met the actress Faith Domergue, whom he married in 1947. By then, she was one of Howard Hughes’ protégées, and so RKO tried to make a star out of her in a couple of films noir: the ill-fated Vendetta (1948; released in 1950) and His Kind of Woman (1951), both big-scale flops at the box-office. Novelist Barry Gifford has decribed Domergue, a brunette ball-buster in the tradition of Ava Gardner or Jane Russell (in fact, Hughes wrongly figured she could be his next Russell-like star), as ‘snakily seductive’, with her reptilian eyebrows slithering and squirming all the time. Born and raised in New Orleans, she was a real Southern beauty although (as it was proved later) she was a little too short of the screen presence needed to become a star.
After they married, the couple went on honeymoon to Buenos Aires, where the filmmaker was about to begin the shooting of a new film: Live in Fear. The picture is an urban thriller in the semi-documentary style imposed in Hollywood by Henry Hathaway’s The House on 92nd Street (1945) and Call Northside 777 (1948), and Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948). The film, shot entirely on location in Buenos Aires’ streets, emphasizing naturalistic detail, is the story of José Morau, superbly played by Jorge Salcedo. Morau is a dishonest bank clerk who decides to get rich by stealing a few million from the company he works for.
Although Fregonese usually had nothing to do with the process of writing the scripts of his films, in this case he is credited as co-author of the screenplay[ii] – other films in which he personally did some writing were Savage Pampas (Pámpa salvaje), the 1966 Spanish remake of his film debut, and Giuliano Carmineo’s spaghetti western Find a Place to Die (Joe… cercati un posto per morire!, 1968), a film he also produced.
Domergue appeared in a bit part (not credited) in the film, causing fan disturbances in Buenos Aires streets during the shooting. Although Live in Fear was a big success in Argentina, the couple decided to go back to Hollywood. She needed to keep pushing her way to stardom, while Fregonese wanted to screen his last film to some Hollywood executives. But before he began working again in Hollywood, the director was offered to make another film in his own country. De hombre a hombre, Fregonese’s last Argentinean film production until La mala vida in 1973, is more a character study (devoted to Enrique Muiño’s acting) than a proper gangster film. When the best friend of his dead son turns up on his doorstep one night, on the run from prison and looking for a hiding place, a well-respected doctor (played by Muiño), wracked by guilt over the suicide of his son, tries to help him. Like many other Argentinean crime films of the period, De hombre a hombre mixes substantial elements of film noir with family melodrama and a powerful social commentary on youth delinquency. Despite its strong acting and direction, the film is the least remarkable of all the director’s early Argentinean works, mainly because of its over-dramatized script.
Fregonese finally settled in Hollywood in 1949. Leonard Goldstein, one of Universal’s most prolific producers, who was in charge of a ‘B’ pictures unit that specialized in low-budget genre films, offered him a seven-year contract with the studio. In fact, Goldstein, who was the man behind the ‘Ma and Pa Kettle’ comedy series, which became box-office bonanzas for Universal Pictures between 1947 and 1957, would be an important figure in the American career of Fregonese. The Argentinean learned all about how films were made in Hollywood by working with him. And, as he was soon to discover, it was pretty different to filmmaking in Argentina. While shooting his first Hollywood feature, One Way Street (1950), Fregonese was asked by some technicians about the water quantity required for a rain sequence. ‘I came from Argentina, where rain is made by using a fireman’s hose. So I didn’t have the slightest idea’, recalled the director later. He was firmly impressed by the way things were done in Hollywood, where ‘attention was paid even to the smallest details’, something he was not used to. So the shooting of the film was a kind of apprenticeship for him. Later in their careers, and far from Universal-International, Fregonese and Goldstein would collaborate on three more films: Man in the Attic (1953), The Raid (1954) and Black Tuesday (1954).[iii]
One Way Street, his Hollywood debut, is a crime story about a doctor (played by James Mason) involved with a gang that has just knocked off a bank for $200,000. He absconds to a tiny Mexican village with the loot and the girlfriend (Märta Torén) of the gang boss (Dan Duryea). In Mexico they try to make a new life for themselves running a charity hospital, but as in many other Fregonese films, the past can’t be that easily escaped. It always returns like a wrongly addressed letter.
One Way Street is a fine (and little-known) example of noir drama. One of the most remarkable things about the film is its triptych structure. Leonard Kimble’s original script is divided into three sections: the sunny central part of the story is bracketed by two nocturnal nightmare-like urban chases. For the two lovers, Mexico means not only a getaway, but a symbol of their common wish for regeneration. Compared to the peaceful Mexican scenery, the rainy city streets (shot only at night) look bleak and dark. The way in which Fregonese contrasts aesthetically the most vivid noir-styled sequences (the stealing of the money, the car accident, the final shooting) with the gentleness of the rest of the film is highly effective. A strong sense of fate, common to many other films noir, derives precisely from that confrontation. As the noted French critic Jacques Lourcelles points out, Fregonese’s first Hollywood film ‘already contains all the key elements of his future works’ (2003). One Way Street meant not only the director’s Hollywood debut, but also James Mason’s, who gives one of his usual strong performances. According to the filmmaker, the executives of the studio trusted so little in his previous directorial experience that another director, George Sherman, was hanging around the set just in case he was needed.
Between 1950 and 1952 the filmmaker directed five films for Universal. But as ‘an individualist and impulsive contract-breaker’, in the words of one film critic who knew him, Fregonese didn’t feel at home in the studio’s factory-line system. In Hollywood he didn’t find the artistic freedom of his early Argentinean features. Working within the Hollywood system meant subjugation, and that made him suffer badly. In fact, in a 1960 interview, while working with the Spain-based producer Samuel Bronston on a film adaptation of Don Quixote, Fregonese admitted that he himself bought himself out of his Universal contract in order to take on more personal and ambitious projects. For the next few years he bounced around between other studios, working for Columbia (My Six Convicts, 1952), Warner Bros. (Blowing Wild, 1953), RKO (Decameron Nights, 1953), 20th Century Fox (Man in the Attic and The Raid; both 1954) and United Artists (Black Tuesday, 1954).
The Spanish-speaking community during the classical Hollywood era was somewhat marginal and hardly influential – it didn’t have the intellectual prestige of the German and Russian émigrés, or the ubiquity of the Hungarians. It was a rather picturesque group mainly formed by actors. It was also a fractious group from top to bottom, including several nationalities: a large number of Mexicans, Argentineans, Cubans and even a couple of Brazilians (sic) and Spaniards. Since the early days of the silent film to Antonio Banderas’ Zorro impersonation, the ‘Latin Lover’ stereotype has been highly fashionable in Hollywood and, of course, very profitable. Latino characters were often presented as seductive, innately passionate and sexual, from iconic superstars of the silent era, like Rudolph Valentino, Ramón Novarro, Gilbert Roland, Dolores del Río and Lupe Vélez, to hot-blooded machos (Anthony Quinn, Fernando Lamas), exotic seductive beauties (María Montez, Katy Jurado, Carmen Miranda, Sarita Montiel) and charming suave leading-guys (Ricardo Montalbán, César Romero). Fregonese worked with some of them during his Hollywood years: Anthony Quinn and Katy Jurado in Blowing Wild, Ricardo Montalbán in Mark of the Renegade (1951), and twice with Gilbert Roland in the latter mentioned film and in My Six Convicts (1952). Although he got along well with all of them, they were just acquaintances, not close friends. Fregonese was a life-long rugged individualist. He didn’t fit in with the studio system and he didn’t mingle too well with the Latino community of Hollywood either.
From the mid-1920’s to the 1930’s some Spanish-speaking directors had worked in Hollywood. San Franciscan actor and director Julian Rivero was one of them. He began his more than fifty years in Hollywood during the silent era. His career included almost everything from bit parts to supporting roles in major films (most of them uncredited), like Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927), William Wyler’s The Westerner (1940) and John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948). He also directed a number of silent comedies and westerns. Argentinean-born Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast came to Hollywood in the mid-20’s invited by film director George Fitzmaurice. There, he worked as a researcher, technical adviser and assistant director on several films, including Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925) and William Wellman’s epic war film Wings (1927). Later, he wrote and directed seven films before leaving Hollywood in 1933 – many of them, like A Gentleman of Paris (1927), starring Adolphe Menjou, were acclaimed for their wit and sophistication. Spanish playwright Edgar Neville directed a Spanish-language version of the prison drama The Big House (1930), as well as co-writing with screenwriter Charles MacArthur En cada puerto un amor (the 1931 alternate language version of Way for a Sailor ) for M-G-M. Fregonese’s work in Hollywood was but another pioneering example to follow for subsequent Latin American filmmakers working in America, the likes of Luis Puenzo, Hector Babenco and Luis Llosa.
In Hollywood Fregonese handled thrillers (One Way Street), a late film noir in the tradition of the 30’s gangster films (Black Tuesday), exotic adventures (Decameron Nights) and even a quite dark and gloomy horror film (Man in the Attic). But the genre in which he specialized was the western. Perhaps this was just a question of simple chance, but from his debut Argentinean film Pámpa bárbara his compatibility with the western is self-evident. This film, an epic depiction of the life of the gauchos, uses the huge open spaces of the Pámpa in a very effective and highly dramatic way. Later, Fregonese made half a dozen westerns in America, including Apache Drums (1951), ‘a Hawksian Western laced with darkness, doom, and the threat of the unseen’ (Bansak 1995: 411), and The Raid, two of his most successful and striking films. These films share a feeling for locale and a search for action and spectacle at any cost (whatever the budget limitations may have been). With an uncommon delicacy of touch and detail he turned conventional scripts (and casts) into well-directed examples of Hollywood’s favourite genre. Although Fregonese had only half a career in America, relegated to low-budget genre pictures, he managed to show glimpses of his abilities no matter how feeble was the material that he had to work with.
Take the climax of Apache Drums, with its typical plot involving menacing Indians. The film, Val Lewton’s last production, was based on the novel Stand on Spanish Boot by Harry Brown, and written for the screen by David Chandler. Thematically, the film is nothing but a routine story of a brave stand against Indians, but Fregonese’s inventive direction is as admirable as it is exciting. Made for the lowest possible cost for a Technicolor film ($395,000), Apache Drums is subtle, elegant, and reliant on suggestion rather than on any other element. Of course this was one of Lewton’s specialities – he preferred low-budgets and small units – we need only mention his early horror masterpieces for RKO like Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and Mark Robson’s The Seventh Victim (1943). As Phil Hardy put it, ‘Fregonese’s direction makes interesting nods towards the play of light and dark that characterizes Lewton’s earlier films, especially in the lengthy sequence where the townspeople take refuge in a church in an attempt to wait out an Indian attack’ (Hardy 1995: 203).
This was Lewton’s one and only experience with colour, yet here, under Fregonese’s direction, it helps to create a hostile atmosphere (almost expressionistic) during the Mescalero Apaches’ siege. In fact, the last part of the film, comprising the long siege, is an ambitious baroque exercise in mise en scène, beautifully designed and executed in terms of suspense. Joel E. Siegel, author of The Reality of Terror, the canonical study on Val Lewton, considers the film the best of Lewton’s post-RKO productions. And so did Universal. In a letter to his mother and sister at the time, Lewton wrote: ‘The studio is well satisfied with it and it was a lot of fun to make. I enjoyed working with the director, Hugo Fregonese, who is an extremely nice and able young man’ (qtd. in Siegel 1972: 170-1). However, Lewton didn’t see the film released as he died due to heart failure less than a month before the film’s opening in April 1951. A brilliant stylistic exercise, Apache Drums stands as Fregonese’s first major achievement as a Hollywood director.
Saddle Tramp (1950), made one year earlier, is livelier yet more conventional. The film concerns a roaming cowboy (played by Joel McCrea) who takes care of four young orphans. Light-hearted and sentimental, one of its main virtues is precisely McCrea’s sympathetic, appealing acting. B-pictures champion Don Miller has praised its simplicity and warm relaxed tone. The film is a little more than what one might expect from a creditable ‘B’ Universal western of the period.
Strictly on a script level, Mark of the Renegade (1951) doesn’t make much sense – rather it is absolutely nuts – but at the same time the film contains some highly amusing moments. The plot is so full of twists that it becomes confusing and incredible. And if the whole story sounds overly familiar, it’s probably because the film is just a Zorro-like cloak-and-sword swashbuckler, but lacking both the charm and elegance of Rouben Mamoulian’s The Mark of Zorro (1940). Ricardo Montalbán plays the dynamic Mexican secret agent spying on Gilbert Roland, the villain, who dreams of an independent Californian Empire, with a beautiful Cyd Charisse adding the predictable romantic angle. One of the highlights of the movie is a bizarre (and rather kitschy) dance sequence, acting as a sexual innuendo, between Montalbán and Charisse. In short, the film is just a piece of candy-floss that gives the director an excuse to freely flaunt his penchant for intrepid action and romance.
Despite its promising cast – Joseph Cotten, Shelley Winters, Scott Brady and Lee Van Cleef – Untamed Frontier (1952) is also a minor work by Fregonese. Aside from competent direction and some rich camerawork by cinematographer Charles P. Boyle, the film does not transcend an ordinary love-triangle story set in a milieu of cattle barons. The shooting was not an easy task, as Fregonese experienced behind-the-scenes tensions with a capricious Winters. This time Fregonese switches from the usual fare of suspense and action of his previous westerns to a psychological study of the members of the Denbow clan: the old Matt Denbow (Minor Watson), head of the family and bitter enemy of homesteaders; his son Glenn (Scott Brady), and his cousin Kirk (Joseph Cotten), who represent evil and greed on one hand, and a strong sense of ethics on the other; and also the newcomer Jane (Shelley Winters). The result, despite that the film is sometimes strong in terms of characters and atmosphere, is strictly routine. A bland realization of the script, competently filmed with no surprises.
In Fregonese’s own words, he made Mark of the Renegade and Untamed Frontier just to bring his contract with Universal to an end. He wanted to take on more ambitious films. And that was certainly the case of some of his later works. Blowing Wild is arguably Fregonese’s closest effort to an ‘A’ picture. Produced by Milton Sperling for United States Pictures and released thru Warner Bros., the film boasts four big Hollywood stars – Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Anthony Quinn and Ruth Roman – and was filmed on location in Mexico, with all interiors done at Churubusco Studios in Mexico City.
A kind of a contemporary western, Blowing Wild tells the story of wildcatter Jeff Dawson (Gary Cooper). As he finds his life tough going in Mexico because of bandits, he turns to his former boss, Ward Conway (Anthony Quinn), an important oil industrialist, for a job. Conway hesitates to help him because Dawson and Conway’s wife, Marina (Barbara Stanwyck), had a love affair in the past. The situation gets more complicated when a bunch of Mexican bandits threaten their lives. By 1953 ‘Coop’ was still the man of action of films like For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), The Unconquered (1947) or High Noon (1952) – and indeed Blowing Wild is full of action. But apart from being ideal for action fans, the film has other virtues: the Mexican scenery is well captured in the Sid Hickox photography, the editing by Alan Crosland Jr. gives the film an uncommon, intensive rhythm, and Dimitri Tiomkin’s musical score is lively and evocative (including the minor hit ‘Black Gold’ sung by the ubiquitous western singer Frankie Laine).
The film’s biggest challenge was to get a definitive shooting script. Over half a dozen writers were working on it at different stages, but they all quit because of the tiresome daily rewritings suggested by Sperling. The final draft was written by Philip Yordan, who later became a frequent collaborator with the producer. Although the film contains many elements characteristic of Yordan, such as an exotic setting, an action-packed plot, erotic tensions between several characters, and an atmosphere of fatalism, the drama never really gets going. Some of the characters are sketchy – especially Barbara Stanwyck’s peculiar nymphomaniac – while others seem strictly decorative – Ruth Roman (in a part intended originally for Faith Domergue) is around just for the final fade out. This time the Argentinean director could not transcend the weaknesses of a turgid script.
Earlier in his career Fregonese had benefited from an association with creative producer Val Lewton. My Six Convicts brought him into collaboration with independent producer Stanley Kramer who, by 1952, had achieved a reputation for being a high-quality socially-concerned producer whose films often explored the inequities and injustices of American society. Like Lewton, Kramer took risks on material, choosing touchy subjects for his films, and also on young talent he took under his wing.
Kramer himself chose a book by Dr. Donald Powell Wilson, a prison psychologist, as the subject for a film. It was ‘a hot idea for that time’ he recalled later (qtd. in Higham 1970: 99). My Six Convicts recounted the experiences of a psychologist treating the inmates of a state prison. A fine cast of actors including Millard Mitchell, Gilbert Roland, Harry Morgan and Alf Kjellin offered psychological case studies of disparate characters. The cast and crew of the film spent nine days at San Quentin for the shooting. The prison guards and inmates were extras for the film. The convicts had to be photographed in the distant background so there would be no possibility of recognizing their actual identity. This is the fact behind the use of the conspicuous lack of deep focus. Compared to a great number of concerned, unpleasant prison dramas, My Six Convicts seems now a little outdated, mild-mannered, and full of stereotypes. One of Kramer’s usual collaborators (The Juggler, The Caine Mutiny), writer Michael Blankfort, failed to develop any of the dramatic tensions inherent in the set-up. The portraits of convicts, although well-meaning, is romanticized nonsense. Regardless, Fregonese directs with a bravura visual style a film that he listed among his own personal favourites. In fact, the Director’s Guild of America nominated him in the ‘Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures’ category for his work in the film.
My Six Convicts failed at the box-office, but as both Fregonese and Kramer were really keen about the film, they immediately planned to make another picture together. In a letter dated November 16, 1951 the director wrote to his brother Armando: ‘I’m going to work with Kramer on another film in March ’. Unfortunately, Fregonese gives no further details of the project, not even a working title or a description of the subject, so it’s been impossible for us to trace any further information about it. No matter if the film never took off or if it was simply cancelled in an early pre-production stage, the fact is the Argentinean would never work for Kramer again.
Fregonese’s next two films, The Raid and Man in the Attic, were produced by 20th Century Fox. The first marked the beginning of an association between the director and the underrated screenwriter Sydney Boehm. They would work together on three films between 1954 and 1958. On this occasion, Boehm’s screenplay was based on a little-known incident of the American Civil War (Francis Cockrell developed the story-line from Herbert Ravenal Sass’ short-story ‘Affair at St. Albans’). On April 26, 1864, a group of Confederate Army soldiers, escapees from a Union prison camp, took over the city of St. Albans, Vermont, very near to the Canadian border. Van Heflin plays the Confederate Army officer who plans the raid, Richard Boone the one-armed Union veteran looking to prove himself a hero. Anne Bancroft is the war widow caught between Van Heflin and Boone, and Lee Marvin is the revenge-obsessed psycho who nearly spoils the whole game. Boehm’s plot has some elements in common with his later noirish screenplay for Richard Fleischer’s caper film Violent Saturday (1955) – both of them offer meticulous depictions of small-town life, and deal with hold-ups and impossible love stories.
What gives The Raid distinction beyond being an original, superbly realized genre piece is that beneath its common western paraphernalia, the film suggests deep thought on such serious matters as duty and war. For example, it examines seriously the casualties of war. While studying the layout of the town, Heflin befriends Bancroft’s son and falls for her, but there’s not enough time for love during war. Fregonese’s direction, in spite of his obvious preference for suspense and action, is also very sensitive. The character played by Bancroft is one of the most sympathetic female characters to be found in any of his films. Brilliant work by cinematographer Lucien Ballard, with flamboyant use of colour and light, makes for a visually striking film that ranks among the most beautiful westerns of the 50’s.
Man in the Attic was a new version of the Marie Belloc Lowndes novel The Lodger, inspired by the Jack the Ripper murder case. Previously it had been adapted for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock, Maurice Elvey and John Brahm (The Lodger, a.k.a. A Story of the London Fog, 1926; The Lodger, 1932; The Lodger, 1944). In 1954 20th Century Fox decided to try it once more (this time in Scope) and so Robert Presnell Jr. rewrote the Barré Lyndon screenplay of the John Brahm version. Indeed Man in the Attic recycles most of the dialogue from the earlier film and introduces few changes in the story line. Despite the menacing presence of Jack Palance as the Ripper (however inferior to Laird Cregar), the film falls far short of its predecessor. Undoubtedly it is livelier and a bit more dynamic since some action scenes (i.e. the final chase sequence) were added to the original script. There’s no doubt that Fregonese’s work is both stylish and suspenseful but also predictable, and it matches neither the splendidly atmospheric direction nor the virtuosity of Brahm (and Lucien Ballard, Brahm’s cinematographer).
The last of the three films shot by Fregonese in 1954 was Black Tuesday, a Leonard Goldstein Production released thru United Artists. In it the filmmaker recovered the cool, semi-documentary style of his earlier Argentinean film Live in Fear, the story of the rise and fall of a common delinquent. Sydney Boehm’s screenplay is a throwback to the classic gangster movies of the thirties. In general, the early fifties saw a revival of the old-style gangsters (the likes of Rico, Tony Camonte or ‘Mad Dog’ Earle) in films, some of them outright remakes, like The Enforcer (1951), The Big Heat (1953), I Died a Thousand Times (1955) and The Big Combo (1955). In Black Tuesday Vincent Canelli (Edward G. Robinson – echoing his own cinematic past), is a racketeer and dangerous killer awaiting execution in a state penitentiary. He plans the kidnapping of a prison guard’s daughter in order to break out. The escape is successful and he joins his gang on the outside before being tracked and gunned down by police.
The opening scenes boast superb editing by Robert Golden – with whom Fregonese also worked in The Raid – showing, in parallel scenes, both the planning for his execution in death row and the escape of the murderous gangster. Although hampered by an unlikely romantic subplot, Fregonese’s direction does justice to Boehm’s taut screenplay and Robinson is as good as ever in a role that seems to have been written especially for him. Once more the filmmaker’s expertise turns a simple crime drama into a distinctive thriller. Fregonese’s visual treatment of close spaces is, as often was the case, masterful – the claustrophobic prison scenes in Black Tuesday recall the church besieged by Indians in Apache Drums or Marseille’s labyrinth of streets and alleys in his later film Seven Thunders (1959).
Fregonese’s reputation for being a visually talented director (not just because of his eye for a skilled inside-action approach to composition but especially for his dramatic use of colour and light) is well documented. For him, nobody on the set was more important than his cameraman. Subsequently he did some of his best work while shooting with brilliant cameramen such as Lucien Ballard or Stanley Cortez. According to the latter, color was more a question of ‘a dramatic concept, not a realistic one’ for the director (qtd. in Higham 1970: 115). One of his closest collaborators during his Universal period was cinematographer Charles P. Boyle. They worked together in four of Fregonese’s five films for the studio: Saddle Tramp, Mark of the Renegade, Apache Drums, and Untamed Frontier.
In the case of Black Tuesday, cinematographer Stanley Cortez used for the first time in the history of the screen Tri-X film, ‘as an experiment to give a harsh, grainy look’ to the picture (qtd. in Spoto 1978: 85). Cortez, the brother of actor Ricardo Cortez, was considered a master of experimental long takes, and of the exploration of space and depth. In fact, he was a tireless innovator admired in Hollywood because of his dazzling variety of work. And the whole movie was a kind of visual experiment. For example, in some sequences of the picture, he used candles as the only source of light, an experience that Fregonese and cinematographer Charles P. Boyle had already tried out in the church sequence in the previous Apache Drums.
By 1955 Fregonese had his last connection with Hollywood. He signed a one-picture contract with M-G-M for a film to be shot in England. The King’s Thief (1955) tells the story of Lady Mary (Ann Blyth), the daughter of an English nobleman executed for treason during the reign of Charles II (George Sanders), who teams up with a seductive thief (Edmund Purdom) trying to prove her father’s innocence. The villain of the story is the perfidious Duke of Brompton (David Niven), the King’s evil chancellor, who not only kills each of His Majesty’s noblemen one by one, weakening the Crown’s power, but also gets richer by expropriating their fortunes.
After eleven working days, the shooting of The King’s Thief was stopped because the director was stricken with a virus. Fregonese was not pleased with Christopher Knopf’s script, so during his convalescence he tried to get to an arrangement with producer Edwin H. Knopf (who was no relation to the previous) in order to rewrite some dialogue. As they didn’t come to any agreement, the director decided to break his contract and subsequently left the film. On January 12, 1955, Daily Variety announced that the shooting was ready to restart, but this time under the command of director Robert Z. Leonard. The veteran director, who had recently gone into retirement, was one of Metro’s champions as he had been under contract with the studio for a record of thirty-one consecutive years. In fact, The King’s Thief was not only his last film for M-G-M but one of his ultimate film efforts.
Reports of Fregonese’s social life in Hollywood are consistent: he has been described as a recluse, withdrawn and solitary. The truth is that Fregonese, unlike his wife, wasn’t much of a social gadfly. Furthermore, reviewers and colleagues talk of him as a man with no roots. He was not at ease in Argentina, Hollywood or Europe. His whole life was spent rambling around. So maybe that lack of settling-down is behind a common thread of many of his films: the uprooting of one or more characters’ lives. Thematically, Fregonese’s films share some of the usual restlessness and instability shown by those of Nicholas Ray. As has been noted by Jacques Lourcelles, curator of the 2003 Fregonese season of films co-hosted by the French Cinémathèque and the Festival International du Film d’Amiens, his films often involve characters on the run. That was true of his early Pámpa Bárbara, Live in Fear and De hombre a hombre, but also of One Way Street, Saddle Tramp, Man in the Attic, The Raid, Black Tuesday, I girovaghi (‘The Wanderers’, 1959), Seven Thunders (1959), Savage Pampas and Beyond the Sun (Más allá del sol, 1975). Sometimes the wish to escape physically, common enough in many western plots, is connected to a desire to escape the past, as in Blowing Wild, Where Words Fail or Harry Black and the Tiger (1958).
Somehow Fregonese’s career in the United States never took off. As with many other Hollywood directors, he had to go to Europe to find a new perspective. But rather than finding his place at the top of big-budget spectacles, ‘he vanished in the mists of obscure European co-productions’, as scholar Wheeler W. Dixon has noted, ‘thinly financed and hastily executed’ (Dixon 1985: 192). After Hollywood, Fregonese worked in England (Harry Black and the Tiger, Seven Thunders), Italy (I girovaghi, La spada imbattibile , Marco Polo , Last Plane to Baalbek [FBI operazione Baalbeck, 1964]), Germany (Old Shatterhand , Die Todesstrahlen des Dr. Mabuse ) and Spain (Savage Pampas, Dracula Versus Frankenstein [Los monstruos del terror, as uncredited co-director, 1970], before returning to his homeland.
Most of these films were lacklustre co-productions made in the Hollywood style: pedestrian examples of sub-genres in vogue (European westerns, spy films, swashbucklers, horror films) featuring minor international stars (Stephen Boyd, Rory Calhoun, Lex Barker, Guy Maddison, Ty Hardin, Michael Rennie) or declining Hollywood actors (Robert Taylor and Stewart Granger). Despite some distinctive direction work, picturesque touches along the way and some violent moments, being the filmmaker’s trademark, the majority of them are just ephemeral film stuff: a late entry in the Mabuse series created by Fritz Lang in 1922, the umpteenth western adventure by German author Karl May, beautifully photographed but conventional and rather unconvincing, a ludicrously plotted horror farrago in Universal’s ‘monster cocktail’ of the mid-40’s style or an Italian James Bond spin-off (Baalbeck).[iv]
But, among these late films, there are some rising above mediocrity: Harry Black and the Tiger is an amiable actioner (if rather off-beat as romance steals from action some of the finest moments of the film). It was written by Sydney Boehm and filmed on location in India. And Seven Thunders, inspired by actual events, is a claustrophobic WWII thriller, about a couple of British Army officers escaping from the Nazis in occupied France.
But if any one of these films deserve closer attention it’s I girovaghi, one of the most appreciated films not only by his cognoscenti but also by the filmmaker himself. The film, an intimate melodrama, tells the story of a travelling puppeteer (an old master of the Sicilian Opera dei pupi, brilliantly played by Peter Ustinov). He is losing his audience as his shows cannot cope with the movies. His is an art about to die. In one of the villages where the troupe stop to play, he and his wife (Carla del Poggio, in her last film appearance) adopt an orphan boy who wishes to escape the terrible fate of going to the seminar and becoming a priest. This melancholic evocation of a world about to be lost was shot entirely on location in Sicily. The beauty of the Mediterranean landscapes is superbly caught by Alvaro Mancori’s photography in Ferraniacolor (thanks to the 2009 restoration of the film by the Italian Cinematheque, that beauty is again visible). Fregonese’s input to the film is once more a sensible mise-en-scène, as the script, cast and budget were all decided before his arrival.
These were also the years of his ill-fated film production of Cervantes’ Don Quixote for producer Samuel Bronston: El caballero de la triste figura. After one or two films in Hollywood, Bronston went to Europe, where he produced a number of documentary films for the Vatican before settling himself in Spain. Fregonese had worked with him and Jaime Prades, a high-ranked member of the Bronston organization, on a short film titled El camino real, directed by the latter. The film, a documentary of the life of the Spanish Blessed Friar Junípero Serra (including his years in Las Californias Province in New Spain – present day California), was made to please the Spanish Catholic Church and Franco’s regime, and it was actually shot by Luis María Delgado and Fregonese himself, although none of them were credited. In fact, the Argentinean was Bronston’s first option to replace director John Farrow for the Christ epic King of Kings (1962), long before Nicholas Ray entered into the project in November 1959.[v]
From the early 1960’s to 1964, the date when Bronston announced the company’s suspension of payments, Fregonese worked tirelessly on El caballero de la triste figura. The whole thing was an old Gary Cooper idea. The actor had been dreaming of playing Don Quixote for more than a decade. So, when he and Fregonese worked together in Blowing Wild, ‘Coop’ offered the Argentinean the possibility of making the film as associates. By the mid-1960’s a complete script was turned out by screenwriter Carlos Blanco, one of the director’s closest friends during his years in Europe, and Gary Cooper and Mario Moreno (‘Cantinflas’) were cast for the leading roles. The Spanish film magazine Film Ideal announced a couple of times that the shooting was ready to begin, but the fact is the film never took off. Bronston did not trust in the commercial possibilities of it, but the most important reason behind the film being cancelled was Gary Cooper’s death in 1961. For a couple of years, Fregonese kept trying to interest Bronston in El caballero. Actors Rex Harrison (as the title character) and Alberto Sordi and Vittorio Gasman (two consecutive options for Sancho Panza) were considered for a new cast. However, Bronston’s bankruptcy made the whole thing impossible. Another aborted project during these years was La donna, il vagabondo e il mare, an original script also by Carlos Blanco, but nothing ever came of the plan for Darryl F. Zanuck to produce the film. In 1971, the screenwriter got his script shot in Spain by Francoist filmmaker José Luis Sáenz de Heredia under the new title of Los gallos de la madrugada (English title: The Roosters of Dawn).
During a number of years, Fregonese stayed close to the orbit of Prades, who tried to build his own film production empire from under Bronston’s ashes. Prades produced Savage Pampas. Many of Bronston’s regulars worked in the film: writer John Melson, from Philip Yordan’s stable; cameraman Manuel Berenguer; and film editor Juan Serra, among others, but it got lost in the flood of Italian spaghetti westerns. Both Fregonese and Prades planned to work together on a new film, El gran criminal, a big-budget crime drama to be shot in Techniscope. By 1966 the preproduction was completed and the shooting ready to begin, but, as it happened often with that kind of international co-production, the film was cancelled because of financial insolvency. Prades’ production company collapsed some years later, in 1970, and Fregonese left the shooting of Dracula Versus Frankenstein as the producer was unable to make payments. Tullio Demicheli, one of his writing collaborators in Live in Fear, finished the film, while Fregonese’s work on it was not even credited.
After a long-term separation, the filmmaker divorced Domergue on December 3, 1960 – the couple had two children together: Diana María (b. 1949) and John Anthony (b. 1951). Fregonese was so disappointed with his European fiasco (‘I came to Europe to make some pictures that I actually didn’t do’, he recalled in an interview) that he decided to go back to Argentina. Back in his own country from 1971, Fregonese made his last two films there: La mala vida (1973) and Más allá del sol (1975), both very personal. The first is a taut, harsh crime story with a strong performance by actor/director Hugo del Carril. The film was inspired by actual events from the 1920’s. It deals with a controversial social matter: mafia prostitution connected with political corruption. Más allá del sol is a biopic of Jorge Newbery, pioneer of Argentinean aviation. Although it may sound odd, even after the critical success of these two films, Fregonese failed to attract the attention of any Argentinean producer. There had been all sorts of stories concerned with his late years. The most widespread was talk about economic difficulties and serious illness. That’s now part of the Fregonese legend. Actually he retired happily with his family to El Tigre Island, where they still had some property. He passed away from a heart attack on January 11, 1987 in the city of Buenos Aires.
It is not an easy job to sum up what Fregonese did achieve with his American film career – if we can even talk, strictly speaking, of a career. Like most of the rest of the Spanish-speaking directors working in Hollywood, Fregonese was only passing through, and he never fitted in with the studio system’s strictness. What sets these directors apart as a breed is somewhat of a mystery. Each one was so different in personality. For sure, they were all enthusiastic about their work, shared big personal ambitions, and managed to transmit their energy to their often dynamic films. Fregonese was a hard, efficient and fast worker. Lacking any pretensions, his films showed a consummate skill and knowledge uncommon to many of his Hollywood fellow colleagues. But above all, his position is that of a pioneer, as he was one of the first Latin American filmmakers able to find, even if only temporarily, a place for himself in Hollywood films. Because of that, he should be remembered in the years to come.
Santiago Rubín de Celis is a Spanish freelance film critic with a PhD in film studies. His brother, Andrés Rubín de Celis is a journalist and film critic with a BA in political science.
1945: Pámpa bárbara (Argentina). 1946: Donde mueren las palabras (Argentina, US title: Where Words Fail). 1948: Apenas un delincuente (Argentina, Live in Fear/a.k.a. Hardly a Criminal). 1949: De hombre a hombre (Argentina). 1950: One-Way Street, Saddle Tramp. 1951: Apache Drums, Mark of the Renegade. 1952: My Six Convicts, Untamed Frontier. 1953: Blowing Wild, Decameron Nights. 1954: Man in the Attic, The Raid, Black Tuesday. 1956: I Girovaghi (Italy). 1957: La spada imbattibile (Italy). 1958 : Harry Black and the Tiger (England). 1959: Seven Thunders (England, The Beast of Marseilles). 1962: Marco Polo (Italy). 1964: Old Shatterhand (Germany, Shatterhand!/a.k.a. Apaches Last Battle), Die Todesstrahlen des Dr. Mabuse (Germany). 1965: FBI operazione Baalbeck (Italy, Last Plane to Baalbeck). 1966: Pámpa salvaje (Spain, Savage Pampas). 1970: Los monstruos del terror (Spain, Assingment: Terror). 1973: La mala vida (Argentina). 1975: Más allá del sol (Argentina).
Bansak, Edmund G. (1995), Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton CareerJefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland & Company.
Dixon, Wheeler W. (1985), The ‘B’ Directors: A Biographical DirectoryMetuchen, N.J. and London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Hardy, Phil (1995), The WesternLondon: Aurum Press Ltd.
Higham, Charles (1970), Hollywood CameramenLondon: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
Legrand, Gérard (1986), ‘Hugo Fregonese’ in Dictionnaire du Cinéma Americain, Paris: Larousse.
Lourcelles, Jacques (ed.) (2003), Hommage à Hugo Fregonese, Amiens: Festival International du Film d’Amiens.
Martialay, F.; Pala, J. M.; and Torres, A. M., interview with Fregonese in Film Ideal (Spain), no. 188, June 1, 1966: 210-215.
Siegel, Joel E. (1972), The Reality of TerrorLondon: Secker & Warburg/British Film Institute.
Spoto, Donald (1978), Stanley Kramer: FilmmakerNew York: G.P. Puttnam’s Sons.
[i] This is not only the longest interview with the director ever published but also the most extensive in terms of summing up his film career. A must for Fregonese connoisseurs.
[ii] The plot of the film is based on actual events: the case of José Morau, a very popular criminal case in Argentina during the 1930’s. One of Fregonese’s college companions at Buenos Aires University was the son of Morau, so he was quite close to the facts of the story. Presumably, this first-hand knowledge was the reason behind him co-writing the script.
[iii] Although Goldstein died on July 23th 1954, before shooting began on Black Tuesday, his twin brother Robert produced it for ‘Leonard Goldstein Productions’.
[iv] Wheeler W. Dixon has suggested that Fregonese ‘was doing pick-ups for A.I.P.’ by the early 1960’s. What’s more, he mentions him working on two different films for the company, but in fact Un aero per Baalbeck was the Italian working title of FBI operazione (i.e. Last Plane to Baalbek). It’s been impossible for us to make sure what were Fregonese’s tasks on the film. Its credits are rather ambiguous: ‘A film by Hugo Fregonese. Directed by Marcello Giannini’. Some sources say Fregonese co-directed it (not only with Giannini but also with producer Enrico Bomba), and others talk about him just as a supervisor of the directorial work. In any case, his work was preceded the A.I.P. distribution of the film.
[v] According to screenwriter Carlos Blanco, who worked on the first script draft of the film, Fregonese was the man chosen by Bronston to direct King of Kings. Blanco himself gave us this information during an unpublished interview with him made in Madrid (Spain) on September 2010.