An Unsung Professional – The Magnificent Heel: The Life and Films of Ricardo Cortez by Dan Van Neste
A Book Review by Tony Williams.
Although countless books have appeared in past and present featuring stars, many who never achieved enduring fame are often unjustly neglected despite the fact that they survived and delivered professional performances throughout their careers. One example is Ricardo Cortez (1900-1977). Born in New York City as Jacob Krantz, the child of Austrian-Jewish immigrants, Cortez was active in films from 1919 until 1958, though living nearly twenty years after his last appearance when he had a second career as a stockbroker. For those still devoted to classical Hollywood cinema whether via DVD, TCM, and YouTube, Cortez remains a familiar presence. Despite never gaining a high-profile stardom while often playing shady types in B movies, Cortez nevertheless deserves recognition for his enduring presence in this volatile industry. It is thanks to BearManor Media, publisher of several books on undeservedly neglected aspects of Hollywood, many by independent researchers and writers, that such a study now appears.
Following his acclaimed 2011 study The Whistler: Stepping Into the Shadows (also from BearManor), in The Magnificent Heel: The Life and Films of Ricardo Cortez (2017) author Dan Van Neste supplies a thoroughly researched book on this actor who spoke little about his private life and career but whose track record reveals a consistency second-to-none among the unexplored legions of those who never made it to the higher levels of stardom. A frequent contributor to Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age, Van Neste explains that, though often associated with villainous second leads and supporting parts, Cortez was a very versatile actor who worked in several genres in both prestigious and minor studios such as Tiffany-Stahl, Monogram, and PRC. Cortez also directed seven low-budget films during a consistent and more durable career than many of his contemporaries. Although initially promoted as a rival to Rudolph Valentino, he proved himself to be as reliable a character actor in the latter part of his career as Sheree North would later prove herself after Twentieth Century Fox initially promoted her as a rival to Marilyn Monroe. Although suffering several personal (two disastrous marriages) and professional setbacks, Cortez consistently proved himself to be resilient even if typecast as a villain. He brought a “multi-dimensional quality to these rougish impersonations that made them both appealing and dangerous” proving “so good in his treacheries, he eventually became closely associated with these characterizations, which proved limiting” (286).
This is a book based on many years of dedicated research in which Van Neste contacted not only the last surviving relative of the actor but also diligently explored newspaper and entertainment archives to provide as comprehensive a picture of this neglected actor. Cortez had flaws as well as virtues and never made “what is considered a great classic movie” (292). Although Bogart later proved to be the definitive screen Sam Spade, the earlier 1931 version elicited Dashiell Hammett’s praise for Cortez’s performance (140).
Covering some 584 pages, Part One of this book investigates the actor’s life following an introduction, with the second part examining his feature films, short films, radio, and television appearances followed by selected bibliography, footnotes, and index. It is copiously illustrated with personal and studio photos, stills, and even the actor’s last passport. Cortez’s tragic first marriage to the doomed Alma Rubens receives balanced coverage, and the author is fully aware of the fact that there are often two stories in certain turbulent relationships where blame may not be easily assigned to one partner. However, it is undeniable that this may have affected Cortez’s career but he followed this personal tragedy with three professional performances opposite Bebe Daniels in The Maltese Falcon (more on this later), Barbara Stanwyck in Ten Cents a Dance (1931), and Helen Twelvetrees in Her Man (1930). The amount of material in this book is amazing and a tribute to the type of diligent research that often occurs outside the portals of academia, which makes studies such as this all the more welcome.
I’ve noted only two errors in my reading. One is a typo that Bear Manor will easily correct in their print-to-order custom. The Chapter Nine End Notes title on p.551 is misspelled as “One a Heel, Always a Heel (1941-49)” rather than the correctly spelled “Once a Heel…” on p. 236. The other involves Force of Evil (1948), the film adaptation of Ira Wolfert’s novel, Tucker’s People (1943), starring John Garfield. This was produced by the ill-fated Enterprise Studios, as Allen Eyles notes in his 1980 Enterprise Filmography (Focus on Film 35.27), not Warner Bros., as stated on p. 247. But I did not know that Cortez could have appeared in an abandoned Broadway production in 1944 in the part later taken by Roy Roberts. Since everything else in the text is meticulous, the author may be excused due to the challenges of proof-reading one’s own work – something all of us know too well where anything beyond a close third reading may escape notice. However, I wish to point out to the author and readers that this fine work has been scrupulously read in the manner it fully deserves. The value of any study is to stimulate the reader to search out material, and Van Neste’s persuasive arguments have influenced my approach as a reviewer. It is a mark of any good writer to do this.
Of the Twentieth Century Fox Films that Cortez directed during 1939-1940, I have only been able to see Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence (1940). The anger expressed by Glenn Ford against Cortez’s treatment of him during his first film performance initially prejudiced my opinion of its director. But finally seeing the film with a fourth-billed Ford taking the lead performance reveals not the Ford of later films but a callow, inexperienced young actor needing the support of contract players Jean Rogers, Raymond Walburn, Marjorie Rambeau, and Nicholas (later Richard) Conte. This changed my initial opinion. Cortez was correct in believing a more experienced actor was needed for this key role. Cortez’s behavior towards an inexperienced actor on set was inexcusable, but other personal problems may have influenced him at the time, as Van Neste suggests. Like Cortez’s acting roles, the direction reveals a professional competence as he expertly employed the collaborative talents of the Hollywood studio system. Had he continued as director with higher budgets, Cortez could probably have become a permanently competent studio director and maybe developed further. But, as with many of his film roles, the promise remained unfilled for complex reasons. Several interesting features within the film certainly derive from the initial Dalton Trumbo screenplay whose reworking by other screenwriters did not eliminate references to the heroine as a Spanish Civil War veteran seeking asylum in America pursued by immigration authorities, the still lingering effects of the Depression revealing the presence of hobos, hobo camps, as well as hinting that the Professor (Raymond Walburn) may have been a victim of loss of secure employment following 1929. It is a modest film, competently directed, depicting a cozy ideological veil of the American Dream that cannot deny the dark realities of its historical period.
From the fourteen or so films viewed since finishing the book, as well as those seen before, such as The Sorrows of Satan (1926), The Maltese Falcon, The Walking Dead (1936), and The Last Hurrah (1958), I can affirm that Van Neste’s claims for Cortez’s position in silent and sound cinema are justifiable. Surviving films reveal a competent professional talent whose performances matched the demands of screenplay and director. He does not seem to have been a primadonna on set but supplied what directors and scripts required. Although overshadowed by Bogart in the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon, Cortez delivered an adequate performance in a film directed by a nondescript talent where all actors appeared trapped within the limbo of a previous silent film tradition and the transient theatricality of early sound cinema. This affected the performances of all the actors, not just Cortez, and it is notable that the sexual preferences of Otto Matieson’s Joel Cairo have to be stated rather than being visually obvious in the later, more accomplished performance by Peter Lorre. When Cortez had the benefit of a good director, promising script, and accomplished colleagues, he often revealed that he could shine in certain roles. He makes the thankless role of sensitive good guy opposite Barbara Stanwyck in Ten Cents a Dance, directed by Lionel Barrymore, wholly convincing while his “magnificent heel” roles as the homicidal, sinister pimp Johnny to Helen Twelvetrees’ Frankie in Tay Garnett’s Her Man (1930), his Axis agent third-rate vaudeville ventriloquist cover in Mr. Moto’s Last Warning (1939, a role he clearly enjoyed), and his deranged and dying gangster in Edgar G. Ulmer’s Tomorrow We Live (1942) reveal the presence of a significant potential to transcend stereotype – a feature rarely given to him in most of his films. He could also plausibly portray a hero, as his title performance in Postal Inspector (1936), opposite a low-key Bela Lugosi, reveals – a role that would earn any viewer’s B-movie seal of approval. Otherwise, Cortez would usually deliver a basic, professional, craftstmanlike performance as in his final 1960 television guest appearance in an undistinguished episode of Bonanza, directed by Christian Nyby. This book is a significant achievement and one that should stimulate further studies of neglected talents.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in Southern Illinois University at Carbondale as well as Contributing Editor for Film International. He has recently written James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and co-edited, with Esther Yau, Hong Kong Neo-Noir (Edinburgh, 2017).