In 1955, Jacques Rivette, a pioneer of French new wave cinema, wrote in the magazine Cahiers du Cinema that Richard Brooks was one of the 4 auteurs of modern American cinema. Brooks’ film “The Blackboard Jungle” (1955) introduced rock & roll to Hollywood & it proved to be an eruptive combination. The story of an idealistic new teacher (Glenn Ford) & his delinquent students (a breakout by Sidney Poitier) attracted a large & exuberant teen audience. In the UK there was a “moral panic” when it became quite the thing for the local Teddy Boys to riot during the film. “Jungle” became MGM’s biggest box office of the year &, naturellement, the dollar shouts louder than some garrulous French critic in “The Big Orange” (What !). Richard Brooks got to make bigger films now.
He spent a decade at MGM. He learned that the short rein of studio control meant that his original screenplays got chewed up by the movie-making machinery. Brooks became known as a talented adaptor of dramatic & literary works. Any writer who attempts to wrestle “The Brothers Karamazov” on to celluloid is going to be a long shot to pin “the most significant novel ever written” (Sigmund Freud). There were more successful undertakings, with MGM & independently, before a lavish & long-planned project missed it’s target audience & lost a lot of money.
Richard Brooks followed “The Brothers K” with “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, a Tennessee Williams adaptation which made Paul Newman a star. His first stab at independent production was the outstanding “Elmer Gantry” (1960) from a Sinclair Lewis novel. Burt Lancaster’s charismatic huckster won the Oscar as did the director’s screenplay. After another Williams drama Brooks followed his dream & threw a lot of money at his take on “Lord Jim” (1965). Cinematic versions of books by Joseph Conrad are not always easy…ask Francis Ford Coppola. The film was made in the UK & on Far East locations, Peter O’Toole headed a talented cast. Brooks pinched David Lean’s star cinematographer Freddie Young, he was definitely going after that “Lawrence Of Arabia”/”Doctor Zhivago” market. The broad sweep of history in these 2 hit films was not matched by the Malay tribal wars of “Lord Jim” however beautifully shot. Conrad will give you an adventure but you also get a dark heart. Even Omar Sharif would sweat to make “the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of to-morrow” into mass entertainment. Richard Brooks learned that you can lose a pile of your money with an independently produced epic flop. He needed to work fast.
“The Professionals” (1966) is a Western where a Gang of Four, an A-Team, ride into Mexico a whooping and a whopping every living thing that moves. There are great hats, great guns, baroque explosions, whip-crack-away dialogue, so much good stuff. Oh & there is Claudia Cardinale…oh my. Lee Marvin was 40 years old & silver-haired before he got to play title roles. In “Cat Ballou” he displayed a range not shown in 15 years as Hollywood’s best tough guy in western (“…Liberty Valance”) or gangster flicks (“The Big Heat”). It was his time, Rico Farden was the first of 3 roles that made him the kind of actor that guys like me love. We all knew how good Burt Lancaster was in Mexico, we had seen him steal “Vera Cruz” in 1954. Robert Ryan looked after the horses while watching & learning for his part in “The Wild Bunch”. Woody Strode,as the scout/archer, was quietly tougher than tough. The Dozen were dirtier, the Seven magnificent but this is a great cinematic outfit in pursuit of Raza, Jack Palance’s mad, bad guy.
In 1966 “El Dorado” was a re-make of “Rio Bravo” by the same director, Howard Hawks. This time around Robert Mitchum played the drunk, James Caan is Ricky Nelson & John Wayne, with the help of a wig & a corset, he played John Wayne. It is a good film but it is rooted in the tradition of the great 1950s westerns. Richard Brooks had a brand new bag. Something was happening & Howard Hawks did not know what it was.”The Professionals” is a harbinger of not only the new westerns of Peckinpah & Leone but of a new style of cinema. I loved it when I was 13 years old & I still love it. Did I say that Claudia Cardinale is in it ? Oh my, oh my.
Brooks was back on it, his next film was the hottest literary property of the day. “In Cold Blood” is the magnum opus of Truman Capote. The author’s propensity for self-promotion & doubts about the veracity of his reportage have clouded both Capote’s & the book’s reputation. The pellucid prose, matched by few novelists or journalists, meant that the “true account of a multiple murder & its consequences” became an international best seller & a pioneer of both the style & faction of New Journalism.
Brooks was chosen by Capote to adopt his novel for the screen. By electing to film a story of small town USA (Holcomb, Kansas, 1959) in black & white, then to cast two unknown actors in the lead roles, the director went against the prevailing Hollywood snazz. There’s a noirish element to “In Cold Blood” as well as a touch of documentary. The story of the two young murderers is told in flashback, though we know the outcome Brooks is a more thancapable navigator of a disturbing story. Quincy Jones’ Oscar nominated soundtrack does its thing too. This is the benchmark of true-crime movies.
Richard Brooks never got this good again. He directed only 3 films in the 1970s. One of these, “$” (1971)stars Warren Beatty & Goldie Hawn…anyone ? There was a return to the western, with Gene Hackman & “Bite The Bullet”, that definitely merits another look. For 10 years he made intelligent, challenging, adult cinema including one of my favourite westerns of all time, a tough list to get on to. He’s a Face.