THE MANY LIVES OF CY ENDFIELD: FILM NOIR, THE BLACKLIST, AND ZULU
By Brian Neve
The University of Wisconsin Press. 277 pages. £31.50. ISBN 978-0-299-30374-7
Reviewed by Jim Burns
The experiences of the screenwriters, directors, and others who were blacklisted in Hollywood during the late-1940s and early-1950s were varied. Some moved to Mexico, many stayed in the United States and either worked under assumed names or found friends to “front” their scripts, and others came to France and England. Cy Endfield was one of those who chose to make London his new base of operations, and his story is an intriguing one. It tells us a lot, not just about his personal activities, but also about the film industry in general.
Endfield was born in 1914 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. His father, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, had established a successful fur business, so his son grew up in reasonably affluent surroundings. The onset of the Depression in 1929 did affect the family quite badly, but Endfield still managed to take up the offer of a scholarship at Yale in 1932. He had always been adept at what Brian Neve refers to as “the dexterity element of card magic,” something that was to have an important role in his life, and managed to make money playing cards with more-affluent but less skilful students. He also became friendly with other Jewish students, including Gershon Legman and Israel Shapiro. Legman was later to achieve some fame as the author of books like The Rationale of the Dirty Joke and The Horn Book. I still have his The Fake Revolt, a savage attack on the hippies, flower-power, the “underground,” and the whole 60s ethos, that he sent to me when I had a brief correspondence with him. Israel Shapiro later became Paul Jarrico, a Hollywood screenwriter who was a confirmed communist and, like Endfield, was blacklisted. Larry Ceplair’s The Marxist and the Movies: A Biography of Paul Jarrico (University Press of Kentucky, 2007) is informative about his career.
By 1935 Endfield was involved with theatre and radical politics. He joined the John Reed Club (a Communist Party organisation) in New Haven and met the left-wing playwright, George Sklar. He also became a member of the Young Communist League. When he left Yale he went to New York, where he did odd jobs and took part in activities with the New Theatre League, another left-wing group, and was sent to Montreal to manage its operations there. After several other unsatisfactory involvements, Endfield decided to move to Hollywood, where various radical writers, including Clifford Odets, had established a foothold in films. He and his wife arrived in Los Angeles in 1940. But Endfield hadn’t any definite employment prospects. He established contact with the Hollywood Theatre Alliance and met Jules Dassin, Ben Barzman, Herbert Biberman, and Bernard Vorhaus, all of whom were to be blacklisted when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) started its investigations in Hollywood. Endfield was eventually offered a job as a director with the MGM shorts department. This brought him into contact with Dalton Trumbo, Hugo Butler, and John Wexley, again names that would appear on the list of HUAC’s subversives.
There is a fascinating discussion of an MGM short called Inflation, a documentary directed by Endfield and produced at the request of the Office of War Information (OWI) as part of a programme of public awareness of problems arising from the need to put the nation on a war footing. It was eventually taken out of circulation when, according to later recollections by Endfield, the US Chamber of Commerce objected to it. He then spent some time in the army but was discharged on the grounds of ill-health, and returned to Hollywood. He was still having problems breaking into films, though he had, by law, to be re-employed by MGM. He worked on a few shorts, wrote some scripts for radio, and attended occasional Communist Party meetings.
Endfield’s communist associations would turn up to haunt him a few years later, but he always maintained that, by 1948 or so, he had become suspicious, if not totally disillusioned, about the Party’s motives. In 1946 he was employed by Monogram, a studio that specialised in B-films, the kind of cheaply-made supports that went out as part of programmes that included a main feature, perhaps a newsreel, and whatever filler the B-film provided. Sometimes the B-film was the main feature. If, like me, you spent a lot of time in the late-1940s and early-1950s in local cinemas you would have seen a quite a few B-films. Monogram put Endfield to work writing screenplays and directing a series about the Dead End Kids and another based on the Joe Palooka newspaper cartoon strip. I can’t recall anything about Joe Palooka but images of the Dead End Kids stay clearly in my mind. American they may have been, but they nonetheless rang a bell with their escapades for someone from the backstreets of a rough industrial town in England.
I don’t think Endfield ever thought of what he was doing as anything more than hack work, but Neve does suggest that at least one of the Joe Palooka films featured a “progressive populism” with Palooka being an “ordinary Joe” who would take on and defeat “criminals, the Park Avenue rich, and reactionary politicians.” HUAC probably never got around to looking at films like these for evidence of left-wing infiltration of Hollywood, though if they had they may have had their suspicions aroused. But HUAC usually wanted to focus on films, and those involved with them, which had some publicity value and would invite large headlines in the press.
Trying to stay alive in the film world meant that Endfield took on all kinds of tasks. He made uncredited “script contributions” to various films, wrote and directed a “very stupid comedy” called Stork Bites Man, and drafted a proposal for an intended biography of Hoagy Carmichael that was never filmed. In 1948 he was given the opportunity to write and direct The Argyle Secrets, a feature film, though one that was never going to aim higher than B-film status. It can be seen on You-Tube, and was clearly a routine thriller with a touch of the political in that one of the villains had been involved in nefarious deals with Nazis during the Second World War. But it would be difficult to claim any sort of finesse for it, though one or two minor scenes do allow character actors of the period to add some colour to the story. There is a voice-over narration and Neve quotes a line from it which will amuse those, like myself, with a taste for the pulp writers of the 1940s and 1950s: “I got so mixed up I didn’t know what I was doing, and I stopped once and kissed her pretty hard.”
Endfield had continued to develop his skills with cards and did some public performances which mixed “magic and comedy,” according to Neve. There was talk of a show which would involve Joe Kirkwood Jnr., who had played Joe Palooka in the films, and a young would-be actress named Marilyn Monroe, but the project fell through. Endfield’s career began to pick up in 1949 and 1950, however, when he was involved in two films, The Underworld Story and The Sound of Fury, which had bigger budgets than anything he’d previously worked on, and employed actors who, if not quite in the first-rank of their profession, were established and known. Dan Duryea, Howard da Silva, and Herbert Marshall in The Underworld Story and Frank Lovejoy and Lloyd Bridges in The Sound of Fury would have some box-office appeal. The Underworld Story has been described as a “Dark, effective little film of a hardened reporter’s involvement with a corrupt newspaper publisher.” But it is The Sound of Fury (sometimes shown as Try and Get Me!) that really stays in the mind, or at least has done so since I first saw it many years ago. Based on a real incident in the 1930s it concerns two men who kidnap a rich man’s son and then murder him when the demanded ransom isn’t paid. They’re easily identified and arrested, but a mob forms and breaks into the gaol, drags the two men out, and lynches them. There is towards the end a powerful, almost frightening scene of the mob in action, and The Sound of Fury has rightly been called “A film of gut-wrenching harshness, high style and total intensity that is easily one of the most cynical and impressive entries of the (film-noir) cycle.”
The Sound of Fury didn’t fare well at the box office in America, though it seems to have done better in London, and it attracted some negative critical comments because of its subject-matter. It was even suggested that it could be used by communists to show how uncivilised Americans were. Endfield may have gained some status in Hollywood, though his next job was directing Tarzan’s Savage Fury. But events intervened. HUAC had returned to its Hollywood investigations in 1951 and what followed was almost a bloodbath as witnesses were called and named names to save their own careers or refused to testify and found themselves blacklisted. Endfield was named by Martin Berkeley in September, 1951. He was not alone in being identified by Berkeley, a serial testifier, and 159 others also found themselves similarly under suspicion. It was obvious that Endfield himself would soon be called to appear before HUAC, and rather than wait for the subpoena, and then have to face the dilemma of how to act, he decided to leave the USA. Luckily, he had a passport or would otherwise have been denied one, and he sailed for London in December, 1951.
He was known in Britain, primarily for The Sound of Fury, but he didn’t have a work-permit so was, strictly speaking, unable to find jobs in films or elsewhere. He was in his late-thirties and his marriage had broken up. And Britain in the early-1950s could be a bleak place, with rationing still in existence and evidence of war damage all around. He did eventually obtain work thanks to Hannah Weinstein who arranged for quite a few blacklisted American writers to be employed in television, the most memorable examples being Ian McClellan Hunter, Ring Lardner Jnr., and Howard Koch, who all contributed scripts for the popular The Adventures of Robin Hood on British TV. None of their names could appear on the screen, of course, as the series was also aimed at the United States. The same applied when Endfield was involved with Colonel March Investigates which starred Boris Karloff and was made for American television. And when Endfield was asked to direct The Limping Man, a feature film, it was on the understanding that a British director would be present in the studio, though not actually doing anything, and would be paid out of Endfield’s fee. The British director’s name would also appear as sole credit for direction. The Limping Man featured Lloyd Bridges as an American visiting London to revive an old romance and running into some mysterious happenings. Endfield knew Bridges, of course, from The Sound of Fury, and presumably also knew that he had named names for HUAC. It didn’t seem to cause any problems during filming. Before leaving The Limping Man it’s worth referring to scene in it where the American is visited by two detectives and quietly but firmly reminded that he is a visitor and should not involve himself in any activities that might cause difficulties for him. There is a polite but underlying implication that he could be asked to leave the country if a problem does arise. It makes one wonder whether Endfield had received some similar advice, the British police no doubt being well aware of his political record.
I don’t think that they needed to have worried because Endfield certainly had no intention of pursuing any interest he might once have had in communism. He made it quite clear in later interviews that by the early-1950s he was no longer interested in the subject, and there is no evidence that he had contacts with many radicals other than a few exiled American left-wing writers. And the record appears to show that they were usually careful not to appear to be too concerned to associate with local political activists. Clancy Sigal might be an exception, his links to Doris Lessing bringing him to the attention of the police in London. One group that Endfield did meet with was that around card magic, and he regularly attended their meetings and informal sessions. Neve says that he also contributed articles to The Gen, a magazine devoted to card magic, and that a book of his card tricks was published in 1955.
He did continue to pursue a career in films in the 1950s and Neve provides a list of his work as both director and screenwriter. I don’t think anyone would claim that most of the films represented anything more than competent routine work, and Endfield himself once said: “I hate all my films except The Sound of Fury and now Zulu.” An exception might be made for Hell Drivers which starred Stanley Baker with whom Endfield was to have a productive business relationship. It wasn’t perfect, but at least tried to get away from polite British cinema and show a hard and corrupt world of work. Neve asserts that Hell Drivers and another film, Sea Fury, with Stanley Baker again in a leading role, “did gain Endfield some critical recognition,” but neither proved to be a commercial success. It’s perhaps of interest to note that Endfield did make an uncredited script contribution to Night of the Demon, a superior little horror film directed in Britain by the Hollywood veteran, Jacques Tourneur.
In the late-1950s, conscious of the fact of his absence from Hollywood and his situation as a blacklisted writer living in Britain, Endfield decided to contact HUAC to sound out his position with regard to coming to an agreement with them. He knew that Carl Foreman, another writer/director in a similar position, had somehow managed to clear himself without naming names. Endfield was also aware that possible job opportunities were denied him unless he could obtain some sort of clearance. The sticking point was the naming of names, as was made obvious in the reply he received in answer to a letter he wrote to HUAC in 1958. So, in 1960, he decided to go to Washington to appear before HUAC. Neve refers to a conversation that Endfield had with Norma Barzman, wife of Ben Barzman, another blacklisted writer, when he told her that he was going to Washington to do the “unmentionable” because he couldn’t get work otherwise.
Endfield’s testimony is analysed by Neve and in it he outlined his own youthful activities and his links to the Communist Party. He mentioned some names as he did so, particularly Dalton Trumbo, John Wexley, Paul Jarrico, and Hugo Butler. The Committee members would have been fully aware of them all, but obtaining any new information was never the point of forcing people to testify. It was a kind of penance and meant to make the testifier feel guilty for his earlier indiscretions and now for informing on his one-time friends. Endfield was then asked about a long list of Hollywood writers and directors and invited to say which of them he knew to be members of the Communist Party in the 1940s. Again, it’s highly unlikely that the questioners expected anything new from Endfield and the fact that they raised the names pointed to them already being well-known to HUAC. Did Endfield betray his former friends and colleagues by testifying? Paul Jarrico, a long-time friend, certainly broke off communicating with him for many years, but some others, such as Joseph Losey, adapted a more-practical view and thought that if people like Endfield and Jules Dassin, the latter seemingly without having to name names, were ready to clear themselves then it was time for others to do the same. Neve notes that Losey gave “Columbia a statement repudiating his communist past,” and that it enabled him to proceed with work on The Damned, a film he directed.
Did things get better for Endfield after he’d testified? He worked on making commercials for TV, and it was thanks to an advertising executive that his attention was drawn to an article in Lilliput by John Prebble about the defence of Rorke’s Drift during the Zulu War of 1879. Endfield and Stanley Baker then started the long process of obtaining financial backing for what was to be an epic of sorts. John Prebble always claimed that he wrote the screenplay and allowed Endfield to add his name because “he had been going through a bad time in the film world in America for having been a Communist,” and he felt that he needed support. Endfield did have sole director credit.
Zulu, with Stanley Baker and Michael Caine taking leading roles, finally appeared in 1964 and was immediately a success, though questions were raised in some quarters about the way in which British imperialism was represented, or rather not represented, in the film. It makes no comment on why the British were at Rorke’s Drift or why the Zulus were attacking them. It’s simply a story of a small band of soldiers making a stand against a numerically superior enemy. Neve points to parts of the film which were cut before it was released and they often seemed to relate to criticisms of the role of the British in Africa. On the other hand, it had been necessary to reduce the running time for commercial reasons. A lengthy film could only be shown a few times each day. It could be, too, that it was thought that audiences wouldn’t be interested in comments about the politics of imperialism. It was the colourful and adventurous aspects of the film that appealed to them – the Zulus chanting and charging, the stoicism of the soldiers, the final victory. It was suggested that the comments of the officers regarding their reactions to the slaughter they’d inflicted – both seem shocked and disgusted by it – probably wasn’t true to life. The British Army wasn’t averse to mowing down hordes of natives in Africa, India, and elsewhere. And I recall reading that once the Zulus had abandoned their attack and retreated, leaving behind their dead and wounded, the soldiers finished off the latter by bayoneting them. But that was hardly likely to get into a film.
It might have been expected that Endfield’s career in films would develop following his success with Zulu, and he was offered the large-budget Sands of the Kalahari, with the Hollywood actor George Peppard as the male lead. There were problems once filming started in Africa when Peppard took an instant dislike to Endfield and walked off the set. He refused to return unless the director was replaced, so Stuart Whitman was brought in to take on the role that Peppard should have had. The film was eventually completed, though others connected with it tended to share Peppard’s opinion of Endfield. The cinematographer Erwin Hillier thought he was arrogant and “a most unpleasant type,” and an associate producer named Bob Porter fell out with Endfield. But other members of the cast and crew were more positive in their views of the director. The film was not a success when it was released to cinemas, and that was what counted at the end of the day.
Endfield did direct two other films after Sands of the Kalahari, though neither achieved any critical or commercial standing. And in 1979 he wrote the screenplay with Anthony Storey for Zulu Dawn, a late attempt to repeat the success of Zulu. It dealt with the events prior to Rorke’s Drift when the Zulus attacked and overran a British camp at Isandhlwana, killing hundreds of soldiers in the process. It did show more of the political aspects of the British invasion of Zululand. And it was spectacular in terms of the battle scenes. But it failed to capture the public’s attention in the way that Zulu had done. As well as co-writing the screenplay of Zulu Dawn, Endfield wrote a novel with the same title. It is not a particularly noteworthy piece of work, and seems unable to make up its mind whether it is a documentary or a fictional version of what happened. Endfield’s imagination perhaps worked better visually (scripts for films are, after all, designed to provide a basis for visual realisation) rather than through the text of a novel. There is little real character development and the action moves sluggishly on the page.
If Endfield’s involvement with films was at an end, he did have other interests. His card magic continued to fascinate him. He designed and patented a portable chess-set, and worked on developing an electronic game when the video game industry was in its infancy. And he invented the Microwriter, described by one commentator as “a potential replacement for typewriters, dictating machines, and practically every known method of putting thoughts into paper.” At the same time the rise of film studies in colleges and universities in Britain and America led to a re-assessment of Endfield’s work and he was invited to film festivals and interviewed on BBC television. But his health was failing and he died in 1995.
Cy Endfield was not one of the giants of cinema and his own assessment of his reputation probably resting on two films, The Sound of Fury and Zulu, may be an accurate one. But Brian Neve has provided an in-depth survey of his career in films and his other activities. It should appeal to those with an interest in Endfield, the blacklist, and the film world generally. There are ample notes a useful filmography, and an extensive bibliography. A few minor misprints have crept into the text, but they’re not sufficient to hold up the general flow of the narrative.