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Danton Revisited – Ray Danton: The Epitome of Cool (a Career Retrospective) by Joseph Fusco

The Night Runner (1957)

The Night Runner (1957)

By Tony Williams.

I previously reviewed an earlier version of this book from BearManor Media where I commented that another edition was necessary in view of the lack of listing of the actor’s television achievements. Fusco has not only supplied this in his expanded 516 page new edition but also expands the original text and provides further information about the actor’s work in television and stage as actor and director. For this reason, the new version by the same publisher is welcome on many levels. It gives researchers the opportunity to explore forgotten or marginalized figures in media history whose career is worth examining even if it does not attract the corporate interest of academia and mainstream publishing companies. Thus, I welcome the new expanded version with reservations and a certain degree of hesitancy. The text needs better extensive sub-editing and corrections so it would flow much better in a readable manner. There are too many unnecessary plot synopses where space needed sufficient emphasis on the actor’s performance and direction in his contributions to film and television. My feelings conflict since I do not want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

In his very insightful blog section of 23 April 2019 posted in his valuable Web Site, David Bordwell comments on how a recent documentary Making Montgomery Clift (2018)

shows us how performances shape movies: the actor as auteur. But it’s exactly this analysis of craft that is missing from most film biographies. Those doorstep biographies revel in scandals and exposes because publishers think that a straightforward account of hard-won artistry – the sort of thing we routinely get in biographies of composers or painters – doesn’t suit movies. The result is glamor, excitement, sad stories and banal interpretations rolled into one big fat book. (1)

None of the biographies I have previously reviewed falls into this category and certainly not this current work on Danton. In many ways, they are necessary steps towards a fuller appreciation of the actor’s craft stimulating readers to search out listed films and television citations to make their own interpretations. Yet for this goal to be successful, appropriate changes are necessary. If a book undergoes successful abbreviation and sub-editing so it captivates the reader’s mind and stimulates further exploration, then it has fulfilled its task. My objections to the format used here are stylistic and not intended to challenge the author’s diligent work and expertise representing the real reason why it is worth consulting. Yet, this second edition needed further revision in terms of sub-editing.

Errors frequently occur and need correction. On p.261, he mentions “Lilli Alberghetti” playing the role of the heroine in the stage musical Carnival (1964) based on the Leslie Caron 1954 film Lilli, when it was actually Anna-Maria Alberghetti. One wonders whether the name of the Caroll Brown character in Jamaica Calling Mr. Ward (1967) was actually “Pinkie Pinkham” (261) since the surname does not appear in the book’s first edition and seems a mistake for the name of Dorothy Provine’s character in The Roaring 20s Warner Bros. TV series. Also, should not “Chuck Robertson” be corrected to Chuck Roberson (p. 390) since this is the listing on ImDB? Robert Forster’s character Miles Banyon in the TV movie Banyon (1971) is mistakenly identified as “Robert Banyon” on p. 297. Fusco now manages to identify correctly Arletty’s character in The Longest Day (1962). She is not the “nun” on p. 131 of the earlier edition. He gets the English translation correct in his second edition listing of Man Only Dies Twice (1967), as we see from comparing the new entry on p. 253 with its earlier listing in p.165 of the earlier edition. Surely better copy-editing work should characterize this new edition.

The book suffers from too many cumbersome plot synopses that needs re-editing since they tend to distract the reader from really assessing the intricacies of Danton’s acting style. They need more emphasis, yet some do appear in the book if one burrows through unnecessary verbal baggage to find them. Could Danton have benefitted from a more frequent association with Robert Altman? The new section on his 1960 “White Carnation” role in a Roaring 20s episode (that also contains a striking performance by Adam Williams), suggests this. Although Fusco states Robert Altman directed the “television pilot” (166) Operation Secret of The Gallant Men TV series in 1963 (167), he actually shot the original 1962 pilot in which Danton did not appear. Television director Robert Sparr (1915-1969) shot this later episode.

Among the new additions to the book such as the fact that Danton slept with a “J. Arthur Rank starlet” (p.2) while in London during the late 40s, and the names of his children with Julia Adams, is its division into various sections rather than the listings of films in the original version. These include “The Golden Age of Television” (containing new material); “From Live Drama to Videotape”; and the various roles he played in that medium during that time. The next section Supporting Roles covers the various genres and characters he played including those in soap operas. American Pulp contains those significant films he made during the 50s such as The Chapman Report, Tarawa Beachhead, Albert Zugsmith productions such as The Beat Generation and The Big Operator, and the better known 1960s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond and The George Raft Story with extra material added. We now have an entry on The Night Runner (1957), one of those early pre-Psycho forerunners that reveal Norman Bates was not entirely an original creation as Danton’s performance reveals here.

In answer to my earlier appeal for television production coverage, Fusco responds with an added section on Warner Brothers Television listing Danton’s appearances and confirming my memory of his appearance as a dangerous stand-up comic in the 1960 Surfside Six episode The Frightened Canary (pp.163-164) which the studio promoted him for an Emmy nomination (162).  Thanks to the addition of new television material such as Empire: The Four Thumbs Story (1963), we can now assess whether Fusco is correct in stating that the title role “is possibly the most emotional and expansive performance Ray Danton has ever given.” (p.229) This new material covers 67 pages followed by a 42-page segment on the various transitional roles in film, television, and theater prior to his departure to Europe to extend his talents as an actor-producer-director. Danton’s European and late 60s American films receive more detailed coverage with a valuable section, “Network Relevance: The New American TV Demographic,” dealing with changing tastes among audience and perhaps supplying one reason why Danton combed his hair Beatle style in many of these productions! Other sections – “The Disco Era,” “70s Nostalgia Bust,” “Law,” and “Order Revue” — cover Danton’s various roles as actor, director, and story writer in many TV and cable productions towards the latter part of his career when he tended to concentrate on directing for television. Obviously changing audience tastes and aging played a role as a 1985 still showing him directing on the set of Cagney and Lacey (p.422) significantly reveals.

As a reference book, this extended edition contains much new material of value. We learn of Danton’s stage performance as Henry II in the 1962 Pasadena Playhouse production of Becket (234-235) and replacing Robert Horton in the musical road show production 110 in the Shade (p. 235)revealing a versatility unimaginable to those only knowing his film and TV performances. Danton had an undeveloped talent for comedy as his role in A Majority of One (1965) and his Euro screwball comedies Lucky the Inscrutable (1967), directed by Jess Franco, and  How to Win a Billion…and Get Away with It! (1967) reveal. However, more acting analysis becomes necessary rather than the throwaway asides often encountered in this book (see p. 276, 285). If Danton delivers his “possibly the most emotional and expansive performance” (p. 229) as Four Thumbs in Empire, we need to know actually why in terms of a deeper analysis of technique than appears here.

Analyzing Danton’s directing style is difficult but Fusco does attempt the task as in his television work that access to certain episodes may confirm or deny.

He uses slow pans to express extremes: emptiness and dejection or excess and grandiosity. Fading lights often suggests absence and loss. Double exposures create moving montages that hide ironic conclusions. Slow motion creates tension; and triple cuts heighten drama by viewing an action from three different angles edited together to create a quick tempo and sudden shift in locale. (p.384)

Yet, how much of this was distinctive to Danton and how did it differ from the common televisual vocabulary of the time caused by shooting on limited budgets and schedules? One needs access to the broader context and perhaps a work in the manner of Barry Salt’s cinematic research may supply an answer in the future. (2) Yet, Fusco’s description of the visual technique employed in the 1986 “Golden Lady” episode of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer appears more promising. This occurs towards the end of Danton’s career as a television director when ill health and eventual death in 1990 forced him to withdraw from active involvement after building up a respectable record of accomplishment in this area.

A striking visual touch is the use of dissolves and double exposure to illustrate Mrs. Hofsteder’s infatuation with her coin collection. She studies a coin thorough a spyglass in a dreamy sequence that resembles the movements of a Bavarian clock due to the way the twin images blend because of the slow dissolves and camera pans.

Another poetic use of dissolves is illustrated in a scene when Mike Hammer breaks a window to let fresh air into a room filled with gas fumes. The window shatters in slow motion and the shards of glass dissolve into ripples of water in the bay where a yacht is anchored in dry dock. Ray Danton also uses the slow motion effect in two scenes where characters are tossed off boats by Hammer. (431)

Similar claims for Danton’s visual style appear in the 1986 Harlem Nocturne remake of Farewell My Lovely he directed, as well as his last TV film The Return of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer made in the same year (432-437).

These sections represent intriguing possibilities both for the researcher who uses this text to explore Danton’s work further as well as for a future edition that could develop analytic and critical approaches and apply them to as many examples possible. According to the credits Danton’s last movie role occurred in 1975, his television acting ending two years later before he devoted himself to television directing from 1977 to 1978.  He also worked in radio and theater directing a stage musical (1978) based on the life of Martin Luther King (pp.380-381) as well as Come Back Little Sheba with Tyne Daley towards the end of his career in 1987 at the Los Angeles Theater Center.

This is a valuable, if often frustrating, career retrospective, frustrating in terms of the necessity for better sub-editing to make the author’s case for Danton’s significance more conclusive. This second edition improves on the first. It should lead to a third version more critically attuned to its subject matter.

A final note: the index needs more material since it is only two pages and misses the letter C. I know this is tedious work but every author needs to do it!

References

  1. http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/page/4/.
  2. See Barry Salt, Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis. Third Edition. London: Starword, 2009.

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is also a Contributing editor to Film International.

Read also:

The Epitome of Cool: The Films of Ray Danton by Joseph Fusco

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