FILM / Making movies the Toth way: Even by the standards of Hollywood, the director Andre de Toth has led an extraordinary life. Kevin Jackson on the man, the movies, the wives, the children, the accidents and, last but by no means least, the solitary eye

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The Independent Culture
A statistical breakdown of the life and works of Andre de Toth (born Hungary 1910, now describes his nationality as 'Texan') runs something like this: seven Hungarian films, 35 Hollywood films, seven wives (including, from 1944 to 1952, Veronica Lake), 19 children, three broken necks and one eye. The last detail might seem somewhat irrelevant, not to say tasteless, were it not for the consideration that De Toth's monocular status has left its mark on his career in a number of unlikely ways.

For one thing, despite the adulation his films have received from the likes of Martin Scorsese and Bertrand Tavernier, this immensely prolific screenwriter, producer and director is now known to most movie fans - if, indeed, they recognise the name at all - as the one-eyed man who somehow managed to direct the most famous of all 3-D movies, House of Wax (1953) starring Vincent Price. (His other credits include the Dirty Dozen-like war movie Play Dirty, starring Michael Caine, the westerns Ramrod and Springfield Rifle and the thrillers Pitfall and Dark Waters.)

For another, the piratical black patch De Toth sports over his left eye almost cost him his life. Scouting for locations in Egypt shortly after the Yom Kippur war of 1973, De Toth was kidnapped, pistol- whipped and interrogated by a group of vengeful young men who had mistaken him for Moyshe Dayan. He only escaped with his life after a quick examination of his groin bore out De Toth's claim that far from being an Israeli commander, he was not even Jewish.

The full text of this story can be found in the latest addition to De Toth's prodigious CV, a book of memoirs entitled Fragments: Portraits from the Inside. It seems wholly characteristic of the fiercely independent-minded character who rides and flies and argues and shoots his way through its 466 pages that De Toth claims to despise the genre to which Fragments belongs: 'I hate autobiography] The fellows who write autobiography are all in love with themselves. Well, I'm not in love with myself, I haven't got one single damn clipping, I haven't got one single photo of my life. What for? You've got to go-go-go-go-go, not live in the past, and don't believe that you're God-sent to humanity, because you're not. I read some autobiographies and I think, 'But I know these guys] They lead Walter Mitty lives] Every word is a fucking lie]'

De Toth may not be in the business of eulogising himself, but Fragments has enough crazy real-life adventures to fuel the day-dreams of a squadron of Walter Mittys. A swift browse through its pages shows that the Moyshe Dayan episode was all in a day's movie-making for De Toth, who seems to have been on nodding terms with the Reaper ever since his teenage years in Budapest, when he blundered into a student demonstration, was shot, and subsequently woke up in the morgue.

Since then, he has been trapped in a cage with his fellow Hungarian emigre Alexander Korda and an irate 550lb tiger called Rajah; flown his own plane to an emergency landing in a snowstorm with its radio on fire; been tricked into filming second-unit work in Poland, realising part-way through that he was in fact shooting the Nazi invasion; fallen in love with a woman smuggling jewels across Europe to fund anti-Nazi activities - an affair which came to an end when her counterfeit passport in the name of 'Mrs De Toth' was returned to him covered in blood . . .

All this, plus lively minor careers as a cowboy, racing driver, painter and sculptor, establish De Toth as very much a movie director of the old school - or, to be exact, of the days before the establishment of film schools made it possible for young men and women with knowledge of nothing except movies to take the helm of major productions. Yet De Toth - who still retains a strong Hungarian accent - proves reluctant to dwell on the differences between the films made by hard-living men such as John Huston or John Ford and those by callow graduates of UCLA and NYU.

'If they haven't lived much, it's their loss. Film schools teach you absolutely nothing: the psychology of being a director, it's not mechanics - either you've got it or you ain't. The number one requirement is understanding. A film director works with the most sensitive instrument: human beings. Being exposed to life makes you more understanding of the problems of people. But 50 years from now, two characters - or you and I - may be sitting here, and we may say 'Those (the 1990s) were the good old days.' It was the good old days then; it's the good old days now.'

Such sentiments are more expressive of De Toth's utter lack of nostalgia than of the mellowness traditionally associated with veteran artists: he still flashes with the intransigence which made him lock antlers with Harry Cohn and other movie moguls. Asked more directly what he makes of younger film-makers, he snaps 'I wouldn't let them direct the god-damned traffic]', and can be just as harsh on his own creative oeuvre: 'I hate my own films . . . they're terrible]' By which De Toth turns out to mean that he now thinks of them largely in terms of the mistakes he made: 'That's the only thing I'm proud of - how little I know. Because then I can learn. If I didn't make one mistake a day, if I didn't learn something every day, didn't make one terrible faux pas, I'd have died. I'd rather make an original piece of shit than a good imitation.'

'Fragments' is published by Faber at pounds 20. Kevin Jackson will interview Andre de Toth on stage in NFT 2 on Thursday at 8.10pm, after a 3-D screening of 'House of Wax' (6.15pm), the first film of a De Toth season (Box- office: 071-928 3232)

(Photograph omitted)

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