Hal E Chester: Producer of cult hit 'Night of the Demon'

 

Hal E Chester had two careers in film, first as an actor and then as a producer. As a teenager he featured in several films in the series dealing with the escapades of an unruly group of juveniles known as "The Little Tough Guys", having made his acting debut on Broadway as one of the "Dead End Kids" in Sidney Kingsley's play Dead End (1935). He was known as Hally Chester in those days, but in 1945 he persuaded the poverty row studio Monogram to let him produce a film, changing his name to the more distinguished Hal E Chester.

After six years of "B" movies he moved into weightier fare and produced several outstanding films, including an engrossing thriller that dealt with journalistic ethics, The Underworld Story (1950), and the superior monster movie The Beast from Twenty Thousand Fathoms (1953). He later moved to the UK where his films included the very English comedy School for Scoundrels (1960) and Jacques Tourneur's classic horror tale The Night of the Demon (1957), acknowledged as one of the finest screen depictions of the supernatural, and described by Martin Scorsese as "one of the scariest films ever made".

The son of a property developer, Chester was born Harold Ribotsky in Brooklyn. When his father suffered in the 1929 crash, he helped by working as a magician's assistant at Coney Island and as a Wall Street runner. He was 14 when he was cast in Dead End, the socially conscious drama about New York slums. The youths, known as the Dead End Kids, were particularly effective, and several of them, including Chester, were signed by Warner Bros to appear with Humphrey Bogart in Crime School (1938), an exposé of brutal reform schools.

Chester then moved to Universal to appear in Little Tough Guy (1938), as a newsboy who becomes part of a gang. Chester appeared in four more Little Tough Guy features, two of the studio's popular serials, Junior G-Men (1940) and Sea Raiders (1941), and over a dozen other films, including Juvenile Court (1938), which featured a young Rita Hayworth. His last appearance on screen was in one of the two films he made with the East Side Kids, Mob Town (1941).

After a series of personal appearance tours he returned to Hollywood, producing musical shorts. He then acquired the rights to Ham Fisher's Joe Palooka comic strip about a boxer, initiating a series. The first feature, Joe Palooka, Champ (1946), spawned 10 more movies, concluding with Triple Cross (1951).

Chester had demonstrated that he could handle more prestigious fare with The Underworld Story, which starred his friend Dan Duryea as a reporter with questionable ethics who buys a stake in a provincial journal which flourishes when he sensationalises a murder case. It was followed by The Highwayman (1950), about a Robin Hood type gang. Chester's finest American movie is one of the best of the 1950s films about monsters unleashed by atomic testing. Eugene Lourie's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was based on a Ray Bradbury story, and for its special effects Chester hired a master, Ray Harryhausen, who excelled in the two most spectacular sequences, in which the monster strides through Manhattan and reappears at Coney Island, where it becomes entangled with a roller-coaster.

In 1955 Chester moved to the UK, where international co-productions were being set up to take advantage of tax breaks. A man of some dynamism and a natty dresser who enjoyed parties, he could be seen at the best restaurants, became a member of Highgate Golf Club and owned a yacht in the south of France. Chester's first British film, The Weapon (1956), directed by Val Guest, was a well-paced suspense tale in which a small boy accidentally shoots his friend with a gun he has found.

Dana Andrews and Peggy Cummins were the splendid stars of Chester's masterpiece, Night of the Demon, an adaptation of MR James' classic tale of a satanic cult, Casting the Runes. Directed by Jacques Tourneur, whose contribution evokes his earlier work with Val Lewton, and scripted by Chester with Charles Bennett, who wrote several early Hitchcock scripts, the exceptionally eerie film has acquired cult status, though Chester is sometimes criticised for over-riding Tourneur and Bennett, who felt the monster should be left to the imagination. But the film remains both unsettling and unnerving as it unfolds its tale involving a parchment on which a deadly curse is inscribed in runic symbols.

School for Scoundrels, based on Stephen Potter's books on "gamesmanship", was another triumph, with Ian Carmichael as the ingenuous Palfrey, consistently out-smarted by the bounder Delauney, perfectly realised by Terry-Thomas. Because of director Robert Hamer's alcoholism, Chester directed part of the film, as did Cyril Frankel.

It was the producer's last big hit, though The Double Man (1967) starring Yul Brynner, was an acceptable Cold War thriller. His and Hers (1961) was a limp comedy, while The Comedy Man (1964) was a melancholic study of an ageing actor (Kenneth More). Take a Girl Like You (1970), starring Hayley Mills and Oliver Reed, misfired despite the talents of Kingsley Amis, George Melly (writers) and Jonathan Miller (director). It was Chester's last film, and he returned to the US. In 2003 he was partially paralysed by a stroke.

Harold Ribotsky (Hal E Chester), actor and film producer: born Brooklyn 6 March 1921; married 1948 Virginia Wetherly (died 1980; two sons, and one son deceased); died 25 March 2012.

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