Obituary: John Berry

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ONE OF the Hollywood directors whose career was drastically altered by the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early Fifties - he was named by the director Edward Dmytryk as a Communist - John Berry later became a cult figure in France, where he settled for several years, but it is debatable whether Hollywood lost a potentially great talent.

Berry's early films were variable, but they include an excellent thriller, He Ran All the Way, which contains what is generally considered the finest screen performance of John Garfield, plus a respectable musical drama, Casbah, and a romantic melodrama about the struggles of working-class newly weds, From This Day Forward. After being blacklisted by the industry, he made a documentary film, The Hollywood Ten, produced to raise funds for the hearings' victims, after which he settled in France. In 1972 his son Dennis became the third husband of Jean Seberg, and was in the news in 1979 when Seberg, shortly before her death, married a restaurateur bigamously while still married to Dennis.

Born in New York City in 1917, John Berry became a successful vaudeville and stage actor as a child, and he worked as both a director and actor for Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre. He gained his first experience of film work by acting as assistant director on the sequences (now considered lost) that Welles shot in 1938 to replace exposition in a stage production of William Gillette's 19th-century farce Too Much Johnson. After directing the play Cry Havoc on Broadway, he was signed by Paramount and worked as an assistant to Billy Wilder on the classic thriller Double Indemnity (1943).

The producer John Houseman, with whom Berry worked during his days with Mercury, gave him his first chance to direct a film with Miss Susie Slagle's (filmed in 1944 but not released until late 1945), the story of medical students who, in 1910, find the tenacity and inspiration to become doctors by the encouragement of their landlady Susie Slagle, played by the veteran actress Lillian Gish.

The film's star Joan Caulfield said,

Mr Berry is young and full of plans. For all I know, he may be using a new technique in picture-making. He is out of the theatre, used to be with Orson Welles, and he rehearsed us before the shooting, just as if we were doing a play. It made the old Hollywood axiom - you're only as good as the script and your direction - seem so true.

The film was not successful, Variety commenting that Berry "manages interest in tying together the varied characters and incidents, but because of the many sub-plots wasn't able to generate a fast pace".

Berry's next film, From This Day Forward (1946), was more prestigious, starring Joan Fontaine, then at the peak of her career, but its story of the difficulties of a young couple in the years from the end of the Depression to their struggles with rehabilitation after the Second World War was softened by the demands of the star. The actress Rosemary DeCamp, who gave a particularly fine performance as Fontaine's sister, commented later,

As first shot, it was warm, funny and real. However, Joan Fontaine starred, and she and the head of RKO, William Dozier, would spend their lunch hour editing director John Berry's beautiful work into a series of close-ups of Joan and leading man Mark Stevens. Joan and Dozier later married for a short spell. In the final cut there wasn't much left of me or Harry Morgan, who played my husband, and that probably accounts for my malice.

This time Variety was unqualified in its praise of Berry, reporting, "Direction by John Berry evidences plenty of understanding of human qualities in presenting problems of young married love."

The director's next film, Cross My Heart (1947), was probably his worst, a comedy with music based on a 1937 film, True Confession. The tiresome story of a girl who confesses to a murder she did not commit, its star this time was the raucous Betty Hutton, and, despite Hutton's enormous popularity at the time, the film was considered so weak that in Britain it played as second- feature to a revival of The Wicked Lady.

Berry's next three films, his last before his blacklisting, were more impressive. Casbah (1948) was a remake of the classic Duvivier film Pepe Le Moko. This time Pepe, the charismatic gangster who is hiding from the police in the Casbah, was the singer Tony Martin, and the film was an enjoyable musical drama, with four good songs by Harold Arlen and Leo Robin and a beautifully underplayed performance as the police inspector by Peter Lorre.

Berry followed this with a modest, but gripping thriller, Tension (1948), praised for its smooth pace and taut direction, then, while he was being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, made his best film, He Ran All the Way (1951). Co-scripted by Hugo Butler, also a victim of McCarthyism, and starring John Garfield (whose death from a heart attack the following year is generally attributed to his own blacklisting), the film was liberally peppered with references to a paranoid society in its story of a thief who takes a family captive in their own home.

One of the first films to use such a premiss, which was to become familiar in the later Fifties, it was also unusual in its setting, the shabby tenement apartment of a working-class family rather than a middle-class family in suburbia. Since the killer and his captives share a similar background, the ambivalence of their relationship and his romantic attachment to the daughter (Shelley Winters) becomes more believably potent and complex. The rain-splashed streets add to the film's noir atmosphere, and The New York Times noted that "John Berry's driving direction is designed to further punctuation of shock".

After his blacklisting, Berry made several commercially successful films in France, starting with C'est arrive a Paris (1953, made without credit because of his then recent notoriety). Other films included Ca va barder (1955) starring Eddie Constantine, Je suis un sentimental (1955) and Tamango (1958), the story of a slave mutiny aboard a ship.

Berry also worked in London, where he staged avant-garde plays, and in India, where he made a beautifully photographed jungle adventure, Maya (1966). Berry returned to the United States in 1974 to make Claudine, an uncompromising look at black life in America, with Diahann Carroll playing a mother of six children trying to hold her family together in a dispiriting environment and falling in love with a garbageman (James Earl Jones). It was a reminder that Berry was at his best when dealing with characters battling hostile circumstances, though critics responded to the film more favourably than audiences.

The director also resumed his acting career in France, appearing in several films including Bertrand Tavernier's moodily languid portrait of an expatriate jazz musician in Paris, 'Round Midnight (1986). Berry had himself made his home in Paris, where he was still working, and at the time of his death was in the process of editing a film adaptation of Athol Fugard's acclaimed play Bosman and Lena.

Jak Szold (John Berry), film director: born New York 1917; twice married (two sons, one daughter); died Paris 29 November 1999.

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